When I first visited The Church of The Holy Sepulcher in 2012, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was the place best known as the location of Christ’s Crucifixion as well as the location of his tomb. When I went inside I was surprised to find, immediately inside the cramped entrance, a large stone on the ground. Despite the readings I had done, I somehow overlooked this important artifact. What was it? From observing the reactions to other visitors when they saw it, it was something important indeed.
As I stood there watching I observed dozens of visitors pray at the stone (known as The Stone of Anointing, the place where the body of Jesus rested while he was prepared for burial). They crammed around it, their patience after a long journey finally at its end. They hurriedly kneeled down, finally seeing the thing they’d traveled so far to see. One woman unloaded several packages of candles, placing them quickly across the stone, kissing each package as she put it back into her bag. An older man to her left touched his scarf to the stone and then buried his face inside, crying. It was powerful just to watch them, not even knowing the story of what they were doing or why.
Unfamiliar with both the stone and these rituals, I wondered: how they knew what to do in front of it? There were no signs or instructions. In most churches and temples the relics are hidden behind glass or even fences, reflecting that the items are so precious no one is allowed to touch them. If no one was around I would have been afraid to get too close to it, as clearly it was an object of significance. But somehow here at the stone in was made accessible and everyone knew what to do. Many arrived with bags of objects, trinkets, crosses, candles and even pens, to place on the stone to bring back with them for friends and family.
Independent of my faith, or lack thereof, the first question on my mind was: how does anyone know this is the actual stone? I wasn’t asking this question as a way to question faith in Christianity itself. I was simply interested in the stone in front of me and where it came from, much as I’d be curious about any interesting object I found in a museum. I looked, but there was no label anywhere like you’d find in a history or science exhibit, listing who found it or even what it was (A mural on the wall behind the stone does show the story). There were no official guides or pamphlets nearby. It seemed everyone arrived at the stone, and the church, with their own guidebooks, their own stories and their own beliefs about what they saw.
Later than night I went to the official Church of the Holy Sephucler but it barely offered a paragraph about the object. I looked and looked for sources and details but found them hard to find. I discovered the first mention of the stone dates from the 13th century, 1200 years after the death of Christ. Twelve lifetimes of time. For the purposes of history that’s just a long time for an object to disappear and reappear. I couldn’t find another mention of the stone for another 600 years, when the stone was replaced as part of church’s reconstruction, yet there’s no mention of what was done with the old stone. Is it locked away? Was it lost? More frustrating is I’ve yet to find anyone who wrote a paper, book or research study specifically about the stone and its history. This mostly makes me think I haven’t done enough research. Someone must have studied this carefully in the 800 years that it’s been in perhaps the most important Christian church?
It made me wonder about the different kinds of faith we all have. No one questions everything, and no one questions nothing. In our daily lives we’re always sliding on different ends of the spectrum of what we assume and what we challenge, in each situation we find ourselves in and each relationship we have. Some people have faith they want to earn, through questions and raising doubts. Other people like their faiths to exist in another level of consciousness, where they accept things without any questions, and that perhaps is by itself part of the appeal of having trust in anything at all.
- Have you found more precise records of the history of the stone? Please share a link or a reference
- How does truth matter in faith? How do you decide what to question or what not to question?
- We are all driven by stories and the stone fits the story visitors are interested in. Does it really matter that it’s not the actual stone? It’s representative of something very important to them and perhaps that’s enough.
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