Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.
After breakfast, packing and check-out, we headed for an early morning visit to the Garden Tomb. We don’t get there as early as Mary Magdalene did (while it was still dark), but it’s still a wonderful way to start the last day of our pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Walking from the bus on the narrow street outside, it’s hard to imagine the beauty and meaning that awaits within. Again, it’s another small re-enactment of that first Easter morning when the women who were expecting the worst were so wondrously surprised.
The Garden Tomb is one of the alternative sites proposed for the location of Jesus’ tomb in the garden of Joseph of Arimethea. (Click here for a brief history of its “discovery” and development in the late 1800s.) Though I believe the Holy Sepulcher Church has more of an authentic claim, we always bring our pilgrims here, too, because of its visual and devotional appeal.
The site is owned and operated by the Garden Tomb Association, a non-denominational charitable trust based in the United Kingdom. Volunteer guides conduct the tours, and this is a pic of our guide. (I think his name was Reggie, but not sure about that.) I loved his hat and his personable way of teaching us.
After a brief explanation, we were escorted to the far side of the garden to a portico that overlooks a busy bus station in East Jerusalem. There is a hillside adjacent to the bus station that bears a striking resemblance to a human skull. It was even more eerily similar 150 years ago (there’s an old picture posted nearby) when Christians began to identify it as Golgotha, which the Gospels translate as “place of the skull.” It would also have been outside the walls of the city and on a main thoroughfare, a place the Romans typically liked to use for public executions.
Next we headed back down a pathway to the tomb itself. A marker along the way tells the biblical story of Jesus’ burial in English, Hebrew and Greek.
The tomb is a good example of first Temple period burials. It would have had a rolling stone in the trough in front to allow (or prevent) access to the inside.
As the diagram shows, the tomb is two chambered with an entry area on the left side and platforms for bodies on the right. (During Jesus’ time the bodies were left until they decomposed and then the bones were put in an ossuary or bone box.) One of the shelves has been used and one has not, which means the tomb was used only for a singular burial. Reggie explained that the tomb met five of the criteria of the gospel accounts; but even so, he also emphasized that the actual place may not be that important for “He is risen! He is not here!”
After each of us had oppotunity to explore the tomb, our group gathered in a quiet, peaceful spot for devotions, singing and sharing in communion. We also talked about our favorite memories of the trip and how our faith had been afftected by what we saw, heard and learned. I probably love this time more than any on our trip. Each group is so different; and each pilgrim is so precious in his or her own special way.
We ended the morning back up on the Mount of Olives at the Greek Orthodox Church of Viri Galilaei, which commemorates Jesus’ ascension into heaven forty days after his resurrection. The name is derived from the first two words of the ascension account in Acts 1:11 — “Men of Galilee (“viri Galilaei” in Latin), why do you stand here looking in the sky?”
The church is seldom visited by Protestant pilgrim groups, and it was undergoing extensive renovation — both outside and in.
This was the first time one of our pilgrim groups visited this site and we were not disappointed. From the plain exterior I expected a simple chapel. But all three areas of the church — the narthex, nave and sanctuary — were full of the most lovely decorations, paintings and icons that I have ever seen. (Make sure to check out the page with extra photos to see more of them.)
I love religious art, so I wish we’d had more time to visit. Still, it’s wonderful to know that I’ll get to visit again in 2016.
Click here for more pictures of the Garden Tomb and the Church of Viri Galilaei.