Midnight in the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher
Location – Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Map Coordinates - 31.778460, 35.229556
The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches all celebrate the resurrection of Christ here every day. The tomb of Jesus is is what many people call the 14th station of the cross.
When you go inside the tomb, you are only a few inches away from the place where Jesus was laid to rest, and where He rose from the dead three days later. The rotunda is not only the main focus of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is the center of all Christianity.
The Temple Guards watching over the sealed tomb of Jesus.
During the time of Jesus in 33 AD there used to be a solid rock wall rising up from the middle of this room. A wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea wanted his family to be buried here, so he carved a tomb in this wall. No one had ever been buried in this tomb before. Joseph was a secret follower of Jesus, and when He learned that Jesus had been crucified, he wanted to give Him an honorable burial. Therefore, he decided to allow Jesus to be the first one buried in this tomb.
This was not just an ordinary common-man’s tomb. Most tombs around Jerusalem were what we call Kokh tombs. The word Kokh is Hebrew for oven, because they were shaped like an ancient oven, being deep arched niches carved into solid rock. These types of tombs allowed many of them to be constructed in a small space.
But Joseph’s tomb was different. It was a bench-type tomb, where Jesus laid parallel to the wall. This type of tomb was more expensive to build because of the labor involved in carving out an entire room around the burial bench.
We are told by at least three ancient historians that Christians in Jerusalem started worshiping here almost immediately after Jesus rose from the dead. You can find these quotes in Addenda 18B in this book. This worshiping at the tomb didn’t change much over time, at least not until 135 AD.
The Roman emperor Hadrian was an enemy of both the Jews and the Christians. Knowing that this was a holy site for all followers of Jesus, Hadrian decided to cover up this tomb by building a large temple right on this spot, and he dedicated it to the Greek goddess Venus, who was also known in the Roman world as Aphrodite. Just to the east of this church is the Russian Church of Alexander Nevsky, and in this church is what many people consider to be an archway that was part of Hadrian's temple to Venus.
Let’s fast-forward about 200 years later. Christianity had grown so fast in the Roman empire that now about half of all Roman citizens were believers in Jesus. Then comes a Roman emperor named Constantine, and he also became a Christian. In honor of Jesus, Constantine sent his mother, Empress Helena, to tear down the pagan temple that Hadrian built in Jerusalem, and to build a very large church here.
The original Constantinian Church of the Holy Sepulcher, commissioned in 335 AD.
The current church of the Holy Sepulcher is not original church built on this site, but the rotunda looks a lot like the one in the original church. When this room was first built it wasn’t called The Rotunda. It was called the Anastasis, a Greek word that literally means “to stand again”; or in other words, resurrection.
The original rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Today we call this church the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The word Sepulcher means tomb, and a tomb is where you put someone who has died. But when Constantine built the first church here, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus. They focused on His resurrection, so during the Byzantine age this entire room was called the Church of the Anastasis, not the church of the Holy Sepulcher. In other words, it wasn’t the church of the tomb. It was the church of the resurrection.
The dome in the rotunda was completed in the 1960s, and there is a lot of symbolism built into it.
The dome above the rotunda.
It has a hole in the center, and when the daytime sun is shining through, it symbolizes Jesus – the Light of the World. The 12 rays coming out of the skylight are symbolic of the multi-directional ministry of the 12 Apostles as they took the light of the Gospel throughout the world. They went in all directions, into Europe, the British Islands, the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and the area of the Caspian Sea.
There are 120 stars around the bottom of this dome. These stars symbolize the 120 people who were baptized in the Holy Spirit on the birthday of the church – the day of Pentecost.
So, starting at the top of the dome you have Jesus, and as you come down there are the Apostles, then the early church, and now, standing on the floor of this church is you. Everyone today looking upward is the result of the far-reaching ministry of the Apostles and the 120 people who were part of the original church. These are our spiritual ancestors. They are all in heaven now looking down on all of us. The light of the Gospel still reaches every place on the earth, and we are part of what God is doing in the world.
There are three chapels that make up the Edicule. When you enter it, the first room is called the Chapel of the Angel, containing a piece of the traditional rolling stone that once covered the tomb of Jesus. The innermost chapel is the actual tomb or sepulcher of Jesus. Around the back on the west side of the Edicule, is the Coptic Orthodox chapel.
The Tomb Under the Rotunda
Recently another tomb, other than those found in the Syrian chapel, has been discovered under the floor of the rotunda. The discoverers had to chip through some concrete and stone obstacles to locate what is obviously another bench-type tomb. This does not surprise me, since there were many tombs in this abandoned first-century quarry. This was just one of them.
Notice also, like Jesus’ tomb, this tomb only had one burial bench. Perhaps it was another tomb built by Joseph of Arimathea. Because of its closeness and similarity to the tomb of Jesus, I can understand why the original architects wanted to mask it from public view. Visually, I think, it would have competed with Jesus’ tomb, and would distract from the majestic presentation of Christ’s Edicule in the rotunda of the church.