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The Sepulchre

( Originally Published 1908 )


" WE ought to go again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," said the Lady in a voice of dutiful reminder, "we have not half seen it." So we went down to the heart of Jerusalem and entered the labyrinthine shrine.

The motley crowd in the paved quadrangle in front of the double-arched doorway were buying and selling, bickering and chaffering and chattering as usual. Within the portal, on a slightly raised platform to the left, the Turkish guardians of the holy places and keepers of the peace between Christians were seated among their rugs and cushions, impassive, indolent, dignified, drinking their coffee or smoking their tobacco, conversing gravely or counting the amber beads of their comboloios. The Sultan owns the Holy Sepulchre; but he is a liberal host and permits all factions of Christendom to visit it and celebrate their rites in turn, provided only they do not beat or kill one another in their devotions. We saw his silent sentinels of tolerance scattered in every part of the vast, confused edifice.

The interior was dim and shadowy. Opposite the entrance was the Stone of Unction, a marble slab on which it is said the body of Christ was anointed when it was taken down from the cross. Pilgrim after pilgrim came kneeling to this stone, and bending to kiss it, beneath the Latin, Greek, Armenian and Coptic lamps which hang above it by silver chains.

The Chapel of the Crucifixion was on our right, above us, in the second story of the church. We climbed the steep flight of stairs and stood in a little room, close, obscure, crowded with lamps and icons and candelabra, incrusted with ornaments of gold and silver, full of strange odours and glimmerings of mystic light. There, they told us, in front of that rich altar was the silver star which marked the place in the rock where the Holy Cross stood. And on either side of it were the sockets which received the crosses of the two thieves. And a few feet away, covered by a brass slide, was the cleft in the rock which was made by the earthquake. It was lined with slabs of reddish marble and looked nearly a foot deep.

Priests in black robes and tall, cylindrical hats, and others with brown robes, rope girdles and tonsured heads, were coming and going around us. Pilgrims were climbing and descending the stairs, kneeling and murmuring unintelligible devotions, kissing the star and the cleft in the rock and the icons. Underneath us, though we were supposed to stand on the hill called Golgotha, were the offices of the Greek clergy and the Chapel of Adam.

We went around from chapel to chapel; into the opulent Greek cathedral where they show the "Centre of the World"; into the bare little Chapel of the Syrians where they show the tombs of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea; into the Chapel of the Apparition where the Franciscans say that Christ appeared to His mother after the resurrection. There was sweet singing in this chapel and a fragrant smell of incense. We went into the Chapel of Saint Helena, underground, which belongs to the Greeks; into the Chapel of the Parting of the Rai-ment which belongs to the Armenians. We were impartial in our visitation, but we did not have time to see the Abyssinian Chapel, the Coptic Chapel of Saint Michael, nor the Church of Abraham where the Anglicans are allowed to celebrate the eucharist twice a month.

The centre of all this maze of creeds, ceremonies and devotions is the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, a little edifice of precious marbles, carved and gilded, standing beneath the great dome of the church, in the middle of a rotunda surrounded by marble pillars. We bought and lighted our waxen tapers and waited for a lull in the stream of pilgrims to enter the shrine. First we stood in the vestibule with its tall candelabra; then in the Angels' Chapel, with its fifteen swinging lamps, making darkness visible; then, stooping through a low doorway, we came into the tiny chamber, six feet square, which is said to contain the rock-hewn tomb in which the Saviour of the World was buried.

Mass is celebrated here daily by different Christian sects. Pilgrims, rich and poor, come hither from all parts of the habitable globe. They kneel beneath the three-and-forty pendent lamps of gold and silver. They kiss the worn slab of marble which covers the tombstone, some of them smiling with joy, some of them weeping bitterly, some of them with quiet, business-like devotion as if they were per-forming a duty. The priest of their faith blesses them, sprinkles the relics which they lay on the altar with holy water, and one by one the pilgrims retire backward through the low portal.

I saw a Russian peasant, sad-eyed, wrinkled, bent with many sorrows, lay his cheek silently on the tombstone with a look on his face as if he were a child leaning against his mother's breast. I saw a little barefoot boy of Jerusalem, with big, serious eyes, come quickly in, and try to kiss the stone; but it was too high for him, so he kissed his hand and laid it upon the altar. I saw a young nun, hardly more than a girl, slender, pale, dark-eyed, with a noble Italian face, shaken with sobs, the tears running down her cheeks, as she bent to touch her lips to the resting-place of the Friend of Sinners.

This, then, is the way in which the craving for penitence, for reverence, for devotion, for some utterance of the nameless thirst and passion of the soul leads these pilgrims. This is the form in which the divine mystery of sacrificial sorrow and death appeals to them, speaks to their hearts and comforts them.

Could any Christian of whatever creed, could any son of woman with a heart to feel the trouble and longing of humanity, turn his back upon that altar ? Must I not go away from that mysterious little room as the others had gone, with my face toward the stone of remembrance, stooping through the lowly door?

And yet—and yet in my deepest heart I was thirsty for the open air, the blue sky, the pure sun-light, the tranquillity of large and silent spaces.

The Lady went with me across the crowded quadrangle into the cool, clean, quiet German Church of the Redeemer. We climbed to the top of the lofty bell tower.

Jerusalem lay at our feet, with its network of streets and lanes, archways and convent walls, domes small and great—the black Dome of the Rock in the centre of its wide inclosure, the red dome and the green dome of the Jewish synagogues on Mount Zion, the seven gilded domes of the Russian Church of Saint Mary Magdalen, a hundred tiny domes of dwelling-houses, and right in front of us the yellow dome of the Greek "Centre of the World" and the black dome of the Holy Sepulchre.

The quadrangle was still full of people buying and selling, but the murmur of their voices was faint and far away, less loud than the twittering of the thou-sands of swallows that soared and circled, with glistening of innumerable blue-black wings and soft sheen of white breasts, in the tender light of sunset above the façade of the gray old church.

Westward the long ridge of Olivet was bathed in the rays of the declining sun.

Northward, beyond the city-gate, the light fell softly on a little rocky hill, shaped like a skull, the ancient place of stoning for those whom the cruel city had despised and rejected and cast out. At the foot of that eminence there is a quiet garden and a tomb hewn in the rock. Rosemary and rue grow there, roses and lilies; birds sing among the trees. Is not that little rounded hill, still touched with the free light of heaven, still commanding a clear outlook over the city to the Mount of Olives—is not that the true Golgotha, where Christ was lifted up?

As we were thinking of this we saw a man come out on the roof of the Greek " Centre of the World," and climb by a ladder up the side of the huge dome. He went slowly and carefully, yet with confidence, as if the task were familiar. He carried a lantern in one hand. He was going to the top of the dome to light up the great cross for the night. We spoke no word, but each knew the thought that was in the other's heart.

Wherever the crucifixion took place, it was surely in the open air, beneath the wide sky, and the cross that stood on Golgotha has become the light at the centre of the world's night.

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