A Light in the Darkness of Lent

As I make my way through the season of Lent again this year, my thoughts return to a visit I made to Jerusalem in January. If I close my eyes I can summon in an instant the twisting labyrinth of streets in the Old City, its narrow thoroughfares crowded with orthodox Jews, robed Muslims, Israeli soldiers, and Christian pilgrims from around the world.

In the midst of the crowds, the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrow,” marks the path followed by Jesus from the Roman judgment court to Golgotha. Was this the exact route taken by Jesus? Probably not, say historians. But as with so much in the Holy Land, exactitude is not the point. Jesus did walk through the city of Jerusalem on his way to be killed, and then, as now, the Old City was a bustling place, full of the heady aroma of spices, the playful antics of children, and the banter of shoppers. The everyday activities of the world did not stop for that tortured journey, and neither does the Old City keep quiet for the pilgrims who follow the Via Dolorosa today.

On my own walk along the Via Dolorosa, I struggled to maintain a sense of reverence while dodging street carts and brushing off the enticements of eager merchants. Even after I reached the route’s end at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I found myself distracted, for this church built on the site where Jesus is said to have been killed, entombed, and resurrected is one of the most curious holy sites I’ve ever visited. It’s not a church in the conventional sense, but rather a series of shrines. Inside its massive front door, visitors climb the stairs to Golgotha, a spot marked with a gilded and highly ornamented Greek Orthodox altar. Descending the stairs, they pass by the Stone of Unction, which commemorates the spot where Jesus’ dead body was anointed and wrapped for the grave, and then enter the sepulchre itself.

On the days I visited, the church was filled with people speaking languages from around the world. Amid the crowds, clergy members from various denominations bustled back and forth, immersed in a complicated set of rituals that didn’t seem to involve anyone but themselves. The lighting was subdued, making the flickering candles of the various shines even more evocative and mysterious. And at the center of the building was a long line of people standing in front of the sepulchre, patiently waiting to enter the tomb itself.

The time-worn icons and shrines were impressive, but another part of the church appealed to me even more: a spare and unadorned room that held a somewhat-woebegone altar. To one side was the entrance to a small cave hewn out of rock. “According to tradition, this cave is the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea,” a guide had told me on my first visit to the church. “All the crowds go to the sepulchre, but I think this spot may well have been the place where Jesus’ body was laid.”

A lamp burning in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo by Lori Erickson)

I returned several times to that spot at the back of the church, not caring overmuch whether the guide’s surmise was true. It was quiet there, for one thing, the noise of the crowds in the main sanctuary nearly inaudible. And I was mesmerized by the small oil lamp that burned inside the cave, its light creating a halo of radiance in the darkness.

As I journey through this year’s Lent, I am beginning to understand why the darkness of that cave spoke so urgently to my heart. Resurrection is far more likely to occur in a place like this than amid the noisy hubbub of crowds. Rebirth needs darkness and quiet. We need darkness and quiet, in this season of Lent most of all.

Through this somber season, the memory of that small lamp has become my talisman. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it,” wrote the author of the Gospel of John. We still struggle to comprehend that mystery, do we not?

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