Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mark Twain and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

We've just returned from a week long pilgrimage in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. After our return to the States on Thursday, I'll begin posting here a series of essays based on those experiences, some of which were written in situ

But while I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I remembered the humorous and moving words of a master of the English language, Mark Twain, on his own visit there. He recounts his experience in his book The Innocents Abroad (Chapter 53):

When one enters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sepulchre itself is the first thing he desires to see, and really is almost the first thing he does see. The next thing he has a strong yearning to see is the spot where the Saviour was crucified. But this they exhibit last. It is the crowning glory of the place. 
One is grave and thoughtful when he stands in the little Tomb of the Saviour--he could not well be otherwise in such a place--but he has not the slightest possible belief that ever the Lord lay there, and so the interest he feels in the spot is very, very greatly marred by that reflection. 

Twain has a very different view of the spot of the Crucifixion:
But the place of the Crucifixion affects him differently. He fully believes that he is looking upon the very spot where the Savior gave up his life. He remembers that Christ was very celebrated, long before he came to Jerusalem; he knows that his fame was so great that crowds followed him all the time; he is aware that his entry into the city produced a stirring sensation, and that his reception was a kind of ovation; he can not overlook the fact that when he was crucified there were very many in Jerusalem who believed that he was the true Son of God. To publicly execute such a personage was sufficient in itself to make the locality of the execution a memorable place for ages; added to this, the storm, the darkness, the earthquake, the rending of the veil of the Temple, and the untimely waking of the dead, were events calculated to fix the execution and the scene of it in the memory of even the most thoughtless witness. Fathers would tell their sons about the strange affair, and point out the spot; the sons would transmit the story to their children, and thus a period of three hundred years would easily be spanned...

Twain explains why he accepts the one and not the other:

It is not possible that there can be any mistake about the locality of the Crucifixion. Not half a dozen persons knew where they buried the Saviour, perhaps, and a burial is not a startling event, any how; therefore, we can be pardoned for unbelief in the Sepulchre, but not in the place of the Crucifixion. Five hundred years hence there will be no vestige of Bunker Hill Monument left, but America will still know where the battle was fought and where Warren fell. The crucifixion of Christ was too notable an event in Jerusalem, and the Hill of Calvary made too celebrated by it, to be forgotten in the short space of three hundred years.

He concludes his account with a description of his visit to the exact spot of the Crucifixion:

I climbed the stairway in the church which brings one to the top of the small inclosed pinnacle of rock, and looked upon the place where the true cross once stood, with a far more absorbing interest than I had ever felt in any thing earthly before. I could not believe that the three holes in the top of the rock were the actual ones the crosses stood in, but I felt satisfied that those crosses had stood so near the place now occupied by them, that the few feet of possible difference were a matter of no consequence.

He makes a compelling point about the probability that three hundred years time is nothing in terms of preserving a sense of where, with some accuracy, various things happened. And in fact I think he doesn't critically extend that argument to consider that his dismissal of the spot of the burial, as well as the other places he visited, was tainted with his Protestant sensibilities. Indeed, he admits that the trappings of the Roman and Greek Churches make it hard for him to truly reflect on the spot:

When one stands where the Saviour was crucified, he finds it all he can do to keep it strictly before his mind that Christ was not crucified in a Catholic Church. He must remind himself every now and then that the great event transpired in the open air, and not in a gloomy, candle-lighted cell in a little corner of a vast church, up-stairs--a small cell all bejeweled and bespangled with flashy ornamentation, in execrable taste...All about the apartment the gaudy trappings of the Greek Church offend the eye and keep the mind on the rack to remember that this is the Place of the Crucifixion--Golgotha--the Mount of Calvary.

Now, Mark Twain published The Innocents Abroad before Protestants began actively promoting the alternate site of the Garden Tomb. I suspect that Twain would have stuck to his guns and rejected their claim on the basis of the argument he makes here.

May God grant rest to the soul of his servant Samuel in a place of brightness and a place of repose. Requiescat in pace.

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