East Jerusalem • Hundreds of Christians line up in the darkened dawn here, excitedly awaiting the start of the first Easter service in three years at the Garden Tomb.
As they file into the garden and find seats along the walkway or on the elevated patio, where the service is centered, a greeter — echoing what the angel said to Mary in the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection — tells them enthusiastically, “He is not here, Amen.”
If you were thinking more literally, however, it might not be the right physical place where scripture says Christ emerged from the tomb on Easter morning.
The sites of his crucifixion and burial have traditionally been located under the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old Jerusalem, says Eric D. Huntsman, academic director of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
After his Christian conversion, Constantine had the temple to Venus dismantled and found beneath it a tomb that was identified as “the supposed resting place of Jesus,” Huntsman writes in his forthcoming volume with Trevan Hatch, “Greater Love Hath No Man: A Latter-day Saint Guide to Celebrating the Easter Season.” “The emperor then had an impressive church complex built on the site that featured a commemorative rotunda…and a large basilica.”
Between the two, the Latter-day Saint scholar writes, was a place called “the Holy Garden,” that resembled the one described in the New Testament, with a now exposed “rock of Golgotha in its southeast corner.”
At the time, the site was outside the city walls, but now it is very much in the center of the ancient city.
The Garden Tomb, a much more familiar site to Latter-day Saints and evangelical Protestants, was unearthed in the mid-19th century and within two decades was embraced by many as the place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.
The rock-cut tomb still lies beyond the city, with its own Golgotha, or Skull Hill, rising above the tour buses (though its brochure notes that the “crucifixion would not have been on top of the hill but rather on the roadside. He was crucified alongside two brigands in front of a jeering crowd”). The tomb is not encased in a church, but the site is run by an independent nonprofit organization of British Christians.
The Holy Sepulchre has “tradition and archaeology behind it,” Huntsman says, while the Garden Tomb provides a setting more “conducive to feeling the spirit and recalling that first Easter morning.”
In the end, “it does not matter which one is correct. We commemorate the event, not the place,” he says. “The faith of people who have worshipped here makes both sites sacred.”
It certainly doesn’t seem to matter to those Christians watching the sun rise over the Garden Tomb on Sunday.
They sing their joy at the resurrection, accompanied by guitars. They call out, “He is risen indeed” and “Hallelujah!” to statements from the New Testament. They sway and pray with the Rev. Stephen Bridge, a British Baptist who runs the site and gives the sermon. They snap selfies with the rock doorway in the background, suggesting an empty tomb.
“Transformation comes by walking with Christ,” Bridge intones. “I believe he’s here, standing in our midst, with the power to heal now and the grace to forgive.”
After 10 days in the Holy Land, I am coming to understand better what draws pilgrims of three global faiths to Jerusalem. For them, it is where the infinite and finite meet — whether in Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham; in sacred practices like Easter, Ramadan, or Passover; or in an ancient tomb, mosque or holy of holies. It is both ordinary and rare. It happened long ago and yet continues to move them. History is past but also very much alive here.
Who wouldn’t want to glimpse or touch such a hallowed place, even for a moment?