The good news is that it’s still empty. Not only on resurrection morning but all year long. Huddled outside the Old City walls near the Damascus Gate at the site of a bus station, by a rocky structure faintly once resembling a skull, sits a garden tomb which some protestants have pegged as the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The garden tomb is said to have been discovered in 1867 by Charles Gordon and has been also called the Gordon Tomb.
John 19:41 says “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.”
Today, we recognize that whether this is the exact place of the burial and resurrection of Jesus or not, it is our personal encounter with the living Christ which makes all the difference, wherever we are.
All year long, worship songs arise along with prayers and communion services as groups assemble to celebrate the foundational reality of our faith. Jesus is alive. Overlapping our own service, were songs and prayers in Spanish, Korean, Amheric and Swahili. This otherwise, peaceful and contemplative sanctuary was purchased in 1894 by the Garden Tomb Association through a charitable trust in the UK. For over 120 years pilgrims have knelt here with a purpose.
Upon entrance your group will be met by a guide who will provide an overview of the site and let you know where you can celebrate communion. Our guide, Mark Aldridge, became a regular volunteer after his first visit here in 2015. We had him on one of his last tours as he moves into retirement. The passion in his voice for this place is clear. The message about the death and resurrection of Jesus oozes out of him as he opens the truth about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He is a director of the society that oversees the upkeep and management of the gardens.
A wall of rectangular limestone blocks rises above the small hillock where an old tomb has been excavated for its owners. It walls in the garden. There are no signs declaring this belonged to Joseph of Arimathea but on the inside of the space near the entrance there is a small angelic declaration. “He is not here, he has risen.”
Volunteers from around the world come to join local Jews and Palestinians in guiding pilgrims through the site where an ancient olive press and a winepress can be seen. The wonder for most is that there are no gaudy icons or trinkets to distract from the pure reality that the place is empty.
Adding to the conviction of many is that crucifixions happened at the intersections of major thoroughfares and there is one nearby. Local traditions claimed that executions happened in that location. A lightening strike altered the clear visual of a skull on the rocky escarpment but with some guided imagination one can still see “Golgotha” the skull. Old photographs also demonstrate the image clearly.
Archaeological evidence for the cistern in the area points to both the eighth century BC and the Crusader period for some of the alterations. While the masses still trudge the Via Dela Rosa finishing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre it is harder to imagine the original layout in all the calamity there. Jesus was crucified outside the city walls and there is question about the original walls. However, since the fourth century, as marked by Constantine’s mother Helen, this has been the recognized place of burial and resurrection.
As early as the eve of the reformation, a German pilgrim named Jonas Korte (1741) argued that the traditional site could not be Mount Calvary because of its location within the city walls. In 1812, Edward Clarke rejected the traditional site as a delusion. Unsurprisingly, it was the increasing stream of protestant pilgrims to Jerusalem in the 1830’s and after which raised skepticism and questions regarding the unnatural setting of the church as a place for contemplation. In 1841, Edward Robinson added his scholarly weight to questioning whether the traditional place could satisfy the demands implied by Scripture.
German theologian, Otto Thenius, was the first to note the resemblance of the hill to a skull and to label it Golgotha. Although he identified the manmade grotto on the hill (Jeremiah’s Grotto) as the likely tomb of Jesus, this didn’t catch on. In 1850, the American Fisher Howe, (director of Union Theological Seminary in New York), endorsed the view that the skull-like hill must be accepted as the biblical Calvary. An English clergyman named Henry Baker Tristram noted the hill’s proximity to the Antonia Fortress where Jesus was tried by Pilate, and supported the idea. Finally, in 1872, Lieutenant Claude Conder of the Palestine Exploration Fund rejected the traditional site and accepted the ‘new Calvary’ based mainly on the idea that it had been a recognized place for executions. In 1883, the view advanced significantly. Major-General Charles Gordon accepted the arguments of Lieutenant Condor.
Despite all this, contemporary Israeli archaeologists (like professor Dan Bahat) consider that the traditional site did lie outside the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Historians point out that a significant Roman shrine was built at this place to signify something of importance happening here. Archaeologists also date the Garden Tomb to the Fifth Century BC meaning it wasn’t new during Jesus’ time. Chapels and rituals by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, Egyptian Copts, Syrian Jacobites and Ethiopians all identify different tombs for Jesus near the site of the Holy Sepulchre. A Muslim family has guarded the key for generations to keep the Christians from scuffling over control.
Not unlike Mary Magdalene, we can look so hard for where the body was laid that we miss out on the risen one standing before us. The angels may have spoken but our tears dull our heart. We share communion and reflect on the sober reality of death but we also sing of resurrection and finish our time in this land recognizing that we have walked today where Jesus walked.
The point of the empty tomb is to draw all believers into unity. It is the event and not the location which ultimately matters. This is not a time for judgmental, arrogant, self-righteous criticism or arguments. The God of love and hope has walked among us and is our salvation. Wherever we bow in worship we do so before an empty tomb.
“He is not here, he has risen.”