Our first day in Jerusalem has been a long one, but our guide, Aviel, has one more stop for us. “Hurry,” he says as we step outside the gates of the old city and feel ourselves swept along on the crowded sidewalk. “They’ll be closing soon.”
A few blocks later, I see the sign and realize we are going to the garden tomb. As tired as I am, I pick up my pace. The tomb of Christ—how many times have I read about this, sung about this? And now I’m here!
We enter through a modest wooden gate. Almost as once, I am aware of a hush, a sacred aura. Trees and flowers give way to small paths. “Welcome, guests!” Andrew, who works as a volunteer here, gently directs us to a set of stone seats at the end of a sunlit walkway. As we settle in, I hear the muffled drone of traffic coming from the street below. I am slightly annoyed that he has brought us so close to the edge of the garden, where the outside world seems to intrude on what I want to be a holy experience.
“What do you see there?” Andrew asks, pointing with his arm to a hill across the street. I see a rock, I think. Everywhere I look in this country, I see rocks! But then I look more closely. Twin indentations look almost like…eyes. And the one below them resembles a battered nose. Andrew smiles as he sees recognition dawning for us. “Yes,” he says. “This is Golgotha, the place of the skull.” He shrugs. “It is a bit hard to see now, especially since they built a bus station over the mouth.”
He then shows us a picture taken 100 years ago, before progress and exhaust fumes and time had weakened the resemblance. I stare at the picture, imagining how eerie this hill must have looked 2000 years ago, a gaunt rocky face staring with perpetually empty eyes.
I picture the cross roughly planted there by careless hands…but even as I do so, Andrew begins speaking again. “I know every hymn you’ve ever sung places the cross squarely on top of Golgotha, but we believe it was really down here on the side of the road where Christ died.” I peer over the wall. Buses and cars jostle for position on the crowded thoroughfare. No, no, I think. On a HILL far away stood an old rugged cross….
Andrew points out that Romans most often crucified men beside roads, so travelers could see the crime posted above them and beware lest their own behaviors lead them to a similar fate. I think about Christ’s “crime”: KING OF THE JEWS.
We wind back into the garden, while Andrew tells us that they believe this is the place where Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Christ for several reasons: it is near Golgotha; it has a tomb built into a rock; it was a “working” garden at the time of Christ. Excavations uncovered a wine press onsite.
And then, there we are…the tomb. A small door in the stone wall opens into a dim interior. We wait until other tourists have exited, then the five of us pilgrims enter. I can scarcely breathe it is so wonderful. Not one stone table, as I’d always imagined, but two graves on each side. Of course, a family plot. The stone has been carved, creating sunken beds for the bodies. They believe Christ’s was the one on the far right. I stare, imaging bloody grave cloths. The smell of sweat and sorrow. Then I am overcome by the obvious: The gave is empty. Together, we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I have never found better acoustics for my “alleluias.”
We exit the tomb and notice that all other visitors are making their way through the gate. Closing time. I am reluctant to leave this place of birdsong and miracle. I turn back for one last look at the tomb. The door is closed now, and on it is a sign clearly proclaiming: HE IS NOT HERE. HE IS RISEN.
I smile, knowing that I have just been reminded of my reason to go back into the world. He is risen…and everyone needs to know.