Having recently returned from my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I can say with certitude that nothing compares to exploring the land where God entered into history. These are the areas where Jesus gathered and taught His apostles, affirmed His power through miracles, and then, following His death and resurrection instituted the Catholic Church.
Each day and in a myriad of ways the feeling of His presence was palpable. It increased my longing for the worthwhileness of my existence. It helped me better understand my sufferings and my moments of joy. It was overwhelming and yet all so wondrous and wonderful.
To witness this land where events took place from around the 20th century BC until the end of the 1st century AD simply can’t compare with anything outside its borders. Just as these places witnessed His presence thousands of years ago, they continue proclaiming that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn1:14). Beyond beliefs and disbeliefs, its mysterious and holy sites challenge one’s heart.
And so, with that as a backdrop, I share my unique and most remarkable experience; being locked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher overnight. A series of circumstances and introductions led me and my pilgrimage partner, Father Darrin Merlino, to this opportunity of a lifetime. To appreciate the value of this, let me explain. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an enormous basilica reconstructed multiple times over the remains of Calvary and Christ’s tomb. Through its massive doors you enter the most holy and historic sites on our planet. This is where Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose from the dead.
From the cross on Calvary Jesus pronounced His last teachings while being mocked; forgave the thief on an adjacent cross, asked his beloved disciple to take care of His mother as she, in turn, became the mother of all; and finally turned His spirit over to His Father, consummating human redemption.
Next to Calvary was a garden where a tomb had been carved out of the rock. That tomb and the night of the third day were the only witnesses to the Resurrection. All of this agrees with the Gospel readings and is confirmed by archaeological excavations. The identification of this as the place of where the death and resurrection of Jesus took place date back to the 1st century.
And so, on Thursday evening, June 6, as the sun was setting on Jerusalem and pilgrims were being led out of this enormous church with a capacity of over 8,000, only 14 pilgrims remained inside. Of them, three were nuns from Uganda, one of whom it turned out is of the same order and a friend of Fr. Achilles who, as a missionary, frequents St. Edward the Confessor Parish in Dana Point. Such a small world!
On the steps leading to Calvary and in front of the monumental doors through which thousands of people pass each day, we watched in amazement at the closing ceremony as a Greek Orthodox priest closed the doors, an Armenian priest then opened a small door within a door to pass out a ladder received by a Muslim who climbed the ladder, locked the door and then returned the ladder through the door within a door. Finally a Catholic priest closed that and we were officially locked in for the night. A similar process would take place to open the doors at 5 a.m. the next morning.
There was no time or desire to sleep that night. With our hearts on fire and in a state of awe, we walked the empty hall directly to the tomb. There we stayed and knelt inside the inner chamber. With hands and face on the stone, I prayed and prayed like never before. It was difficult to understand what was happening. I was praying to Jesus in the very room in which His body laid for 3 days and then brilliantly arose from the dead. Words will never suffice to explain this feeling. Nor would they be enough to explain the experience of kneeling on Calvary in the area where His mother Mary and His disciple John knelt, watching Him die for us. No. There are no words. And although we did this for 8 hours, I still find it hard to grasp. Suffice it to say, I will never forget this most holy night in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.