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Kiss and get out

The idea came to me like a dare. I was in Jerusalem, with a couple of hours to spare on Orthodox Good Friday. I had arrived in Israel a week earlier but had not yet seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be on the site of both Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. It makes the news every Easter. Thousands of people come here. Christian monks and pilgrims jostle inside. Sometimes fist fights break out. For Christians, it is the holiest place in the holiest city in the Holy Land. Faith, legend, history and an urgent need to touch the transcendent collide here. People lose themselves here.

And, I was here.

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You can smell the incense pouring from the church long before you enter. Just inside people kneel at a slab slick with scented olive oil. Some are crying. Some are kissing the stone. Some are bathing towels, scarves, napkins, even their faces in the oil that constantly covers it. This is the Stone of Unction on which, tradition says, Jesus' body was laid for anointing after being taken down from the cross. However, the stone dates from 1810, and the anointing tradition from the time of the crusaders. This deters no one.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or Church of the Resurrection to Orthodox Christians, is not a church as you might think of church. This is no grand cathedral. It is a jumble of zealously guarded chapels and churches mashed together, connected by pathways that make you feel like you've walked into a huge, dark, multi-floored maze designed by M. C. Escher.

One level below ground is St. Helena's Chapel, named for the Emperor Constantine's mother. Further below is the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross, where, as legend has it, Helena found the True Cross on which Jesus died. Even down here people are praying, and the only English I hear is in my head.

Outside the Holy Sepulchre itself, I join the crowd of 200 to 300 people who stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a roped off corridor. Three stern monks in black cassocks guard the entrance and try to keep their patience. Two are rather young. The third, their leader, is older and all business. They let us in four or five at a time. They try to assure us that everyone will get in. It is true. But the crowd is not reassured. What if someone suddenly decides enough is enough? That's it for today, the Holy Sepulchre is closed until the Easter Vigil, come back tomorrow. What if?

I've been waiting in line five minutes, and have been in the church going on an hour, when God throws a switch. I remember who I am. I am not a tourist. I am a priest, and I am standing in line outside the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb from which Jesus rose. For the first time since arriving here, I start praying. First the Lord's Prayer, then the Apostle's Creed, the Gloria in Excelsis, bits and pieces of Eucharistic prayers. I am losing myself. I borrow a cell phone and pull up the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23. I hold the phone at eye level, my arms and shoulders squeezed in tight because there is no elbow room. I start reading aloud. A church bell booms. My English joins the Greek, the Syrian, the Ethiopian, the Russian, the Armenian, the Coptic, the Arabic. I tell of Pilate, of Jesus bearing his cross. The line carries us forward. I can see the Holy Sepulchre. Closer now. Closer. Almost there. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." "Surely, today you will be with me in paradise." The passage ends.

But I can't stop praying. One monk counts off our group. The leader directs us in.

"Hurry. Hurry," he says. "Kiss and get out. Kiss and get out. Quickly."

It happens so fast. Twenty minutes of pushing and shoving, of waiting and sweating and being herded along, ends with 30 seconds in a tiny, cramped chapel, where half a dozen other pilgrims scan the walls and icons. I kiss the marble slab there that millions have kissed. Then I get out.

Later, days later, I think back to where I was. Thoughts rush over me. Shake me. Can it be true? If indeed the Holy Sepulchre lies within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, lies within Golgotha — the site of the crucifixion — itself, then I stood where Jesus the Christ died. I entered the tomb where he was laid. And, if that is true, I kissed the spot from which he rose.

And, suddenly, I am beyond words.

M. Dion Thompson, a former journalist at newspapers including at The Baltimore Sun, is now an Episcopal priest in Baltimore. His email is reverendt@holycovenant.org.

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