October 5, 2019
He was oppressed and afflicted,Isaiah 53:7
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
Our walk through the cobbled Via Dolorosa concluded at the massive and spectacularly ornate Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old Jerusalem. For Jesus 2,000 years before, His agonizing walk ended up on a roadside hill used for public executions. Christian tradition held that Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected outside the city walls. In the early centuries of Christianity, Roman emperor Constantine the Great built a church on the site upon the behest of his mother who believed to have found there a piece of Jesus’ cross. The church’s history from 336 CE spanned several rounds of destruction and restoration until its latest incarnation was erected in 1810.
Intricate mosaics overlaid the Calvary chapel’s ceiling, walls, and floor like skin. Each tile was a puzzle piece completing colorful biblical vignettes from both Old and New Testaments. I looked up at a mural of the dead body of Jesus and exclaimed, “Amazing fresco!” Without missing a beat, the man pushing behind me fact-checked my ignorant remark, “That’s mosaic.” I stood corrected and froze in embarrassment in the middle of the crowd.
For a two-hundred-year-old church, its mosaic art of hand-cut glass was a more recent creation by Antonio Barluzzi, known as “the Architect of the Holy Land.” The gilded depiction of biblical figures, gleaming in dramatic lighting, formed a dizzying vortex around the extant mosaic of Jesus from a thousand years ago. The binding of Isaac was a prominent counterpoint to the death of Jesus, the former foreshadowing the latter.
It had been only three years since the mosaics were painstakingly cleaned and restored by a team of Palestinian restoration experts from the Jericho Mosaic Center established by a Franciscan priest. In a land fraught with centuries-old skirmishes, this collaboration between Christians and Muslims was a ray of hope for interfaith peace and an embrace of shared heritage. The church itself had been shared by the Greek, Roman, Armenian, and Coptic branches of Christianity for centuries, each still conducting their respective Masses. The mosaics signified this inclusive tapestry of diverse ethnic and religious elements that Jesus would have embraced.
The 12th-century mosaic of the Ascension of Jesus, illuminated in the ceiling, looked down to the glass-encased Rock of Calvary, the alleged site of the Crucifixion. Pilgrims and tourists formed snaking lines and took turns to kneel under the candlelit altar for a quick prayer and touch a piece of the limestone rock of Golgotha through a hole. As the most-visited part of the church, the relic required considerable queuing time.
The flow of the crowd led us to a vast dome, under which a marble shrine, the Aedicule, dominated the massive Greek Orthodox worship hall called the Catholicon, which I had mistakenly thought to be Catholic. This monument enclosed the namesake of the church – the holy sepulchre or the tomb where Jesus was believed to have lain buried for three days and from thence He rose on the first Easter morning. As with the Rock of Calvary, throngs of pilgrims queued into the shrine. Rays of natural light streamed down from the dome’s oculus opening directly to the Aedicule. It was a compelling symbol of the resurrection, which was what the massive dome was named in Greek, the Anastasis.
Having entered through the annexed Greek Orthodox Church, our group exited through the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marked by the Stone of Unction or Stone of Anointing put up by both Orthodox and Catholic churches. The reddish stone slab represented the one where Jesus’ body was laid to be prepared for burial. Pilgrims were kneeling over it in prayer, some planting a reverent kiss, as eight vases hanging overhead were dripping fragrant rose water onto the stone. None of the supposed relics in the church were verified as authentic, not that it mattered in faith.
Behind the stone, a mosaic mural, the one I mistook for a fresco, illustrated the final Stations of the Cross. The artistic form was, most likely, a historical choice for Barluzzi. Mosaic art, after all, reached its peak during the Byzantine era and served one of Christianity’s holiest sites perfectly. Belatedly, I learned from an artist-friend, Lisa, how the process of creating mosaic tied in with Jesus’ message of redemption.
The thing I love most about mosaic art is how you take a whole piece of glass or mirror that is useful and beautiful as it is, and then you cut, break, and some people would say destroy that beautiful thing to make it useful and a part of a bigger picture. I love how everything about that matters. I love how breaking a thing can make it more than it was. To me, the whole concept of mosaic is what God does here on earth with each of us. We think we are fine, but then God allows us to be broken to become something more, and place us in such a way that the picture is incomplete without our beauty. It makes me rethink what “ruined” really is every time I find a piece that fits perfectly and brings the whole picture together. By itself it was scrap, but with others it becomes a masterpiece!!Lisa Brandel
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.Matthew 28:6