It is a land that, in its divisiveness (as we will discuss), may be a harbinger for America; it is a territory that seems destined for war (perhaps indeed Armageddon); it is a sliver of basically desiccate terrain: desert.
It is also the most mysterious place on earth for all that has occurred and the sensation of grace and holiness at a number of its sites that in the feeling of the Holy Spirit — of Jesus — rivals any shrine in the world, if there is a rival.
Only while praying in the grotto of Lourdes, or at the Miraculous Medal, or in front of the vault holding the Shroud of Turin, or the tomb of Thérèse the Little Flower, or Mount Kricevac, and inside St. James Church, Medjugorje, or at Assisi, and Guadalupe and the Blessed Sacrament chapel at the Vatican, at Zarvanystya, have I felt comparable power.
But nowhere quite attains the crescendo as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
From what I have personally experienced, this is the holiest and most power-filled spot on earth.
I’ll back up to say that over the course of ten days I recently visited Mount Carmel, Cana, Mount Tabor, the Mount of Olives, the gnarled olive trees at Gethsemane, the Church of the Dormition, the holy steps Jesus walked up to His judgment, the site of the Upper Room, the hillside where He wept over Jerusalem, the shepherds’ field, the desert where He fasted, the Mount of Temptation, the nativity site in Bethlehem, the site of the Sermon on the Mount, St. Peter’s house, St. Joseph’s work site, Jericho, the Jordan baptismal spot (one of two claimed ones), the church of the visitation to Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s home, Bethany with pilgrims. You get the point. By boat (a replica of what fishermen in His time used), we crossed the Sea of Galilee.
Everyone has different experiences. What touches one person may not quite touch another at the same level. Grace often flows in unique fashion.
For me, one was the overpowering sensation — and deep prayer — at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
I have been to many places around the world. This presented a uniquely potent feeling. After leaving, I spotted a small cloud that drifted overhead and seemed to have three images in it — two men and a woman. I was not looking for this. The images both resembled Jesus — one Crucified, one like the Shroud. Call it my imagination. (I then watched this cloud evaporate above that same place, turning into a fading black wisp).
The second spot was the aforementioned Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While there is debate about the authenticity of many places, even secular archeologists concede that there is no reason to doubt the validity of this spot as the site of Crucifixion.
Masses were held there as early as 66 A.D., and while Jerusalem exploded with new buildings, no one ever built on this site (save for one Roman ruler who tried to take it over with a pagan temple).
The first Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates back to the fourth century.
Aside from the compelling anthropological, geographical, and archeological aspects — including the existence there of a huge boulder shaped like a skull — you can veritably feel the power; prayers pour forth. There is an overwhelming hush and rush of high — highest — holiness. The church also houses Jesus’ reputed tomb and a marble slab on which it is said His body was laid (the Stone of Unction).
I believe this indeed is the holiest place on earth. I also felt this when I first visited two decades ago (during a visit to Israel on other business).
At that time, also, an archeologist explained why it was so very probably the Crucifixion site (as opposed to the one that Protestants in the 19th century began to claim as His tomb north of town, despite scant evidence, as also there is good reason to dispute the spot they claim on the Jordan as the place of baptism).
The biggest surprise of the trip was a place, betraying my ignorance, I didn’t even know existed: the pit or dungeon where Jesus was lowered the night before He was crucified.
Here, as in many places of power, words fail.
Archeologists believe it’s right on — and excavation indicates it’s indeed 2,000 years old, located on Mount Zion, in proximity to Caiaphas palace, where according to tradition Jesus was brought to jail after His arrest. Its name — Gallicantu — means the cock’s crow, for the arrest came after the betrayal of Judas, which is commemorated nearby.
While such caverns were common in that time — and also used as cellars, water cisterns, and baths — the existence of Byzantine crosses on the shaft indicate to many that it was linked to Jesus.
When one of our pilgrims read the scriptural reading in this cave-prison, the words resonated against those intimidating walls in a way I have never experienced before — filled with a unique force.
Many stared in wonder at a dark spot on the wall that seemed to have the Face of Jesus and a cross with a man on its, formed naturally.
Here too you could feel something very different, as you stared up at the hole [left and right] through which Christ was lowered and imagined the incredible suffering of spending a night in the dark cold with thieves and no doubt the filth left by those who had been imprisoned here.
It added an entirely new dimension to the suffering of the Lord. Imagine being in a dark underground cave that is so tall no one could escape and is pervaded with the odors of sweat and death and excrement. They lowered Him with a rope and no doubt many of those they dragged back up were corpses.
This is how He spent His time after sweating Blood and before His scourging and Crucifixion. Read Psalm 88 to see if it was foreseen. Is it an untold agony? (“Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps…)
And so the Bible comes alive. Can you imagine what else we don’t know?
But here’s the truly pertinent question:
Who could doubt what happened — that is, that Jesus existed and suffered and was supernatural: the Son of God, the Redeemer?
The answer: not even a skeptic, if that skeptic took the time to travel to Israel and openly experience all that the Holy Land has to offer and meditate honestly — for just a short time — on Jesus’ endless and timeless effects.
–Michael H. Brown