The Holy Sepulchre
by Dom Gueranger, 1908
This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein.
The seventh day of the gladdest of weeks has risen upon us, bringing with it the memory of the Creator’s rest, after the six days of creation. It also reminds us of that other rest, which this same God took in the tomb; like a warrior, who, when sure of the victory, calmly reposes before the final combat with the enemy. Our Jesus slept His rest in the sepulchre, after permitting death to vanquish Him: but, when He awoke by His Resurrection, what a victory over the tyrant! Let us, to-day, visit this holy sepulchre, and venerate it: it will speak to us of Him we love, and make our love the warmer. Here, we shall say to ourselves, here rested our dear Master, after He had died for us! Here was the scene of the glorious victory, when He arose again, and this, too, for us!
The prophet Isaias had said: ‘In that day, the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of people, Him shall the Gentiles beseech; and His sepulchre shall be glorious (Is. xi. 10).’ The prophecy has been fulfilled. There is not a nation under the sun where Jesus has not His adorers. The tombs of other men are either destroyed, or they are monuments of death; the tomb of Jesus is everlasting, and speaks but of life.
“What a sepulchre this, the sight of which fills us with thoughts of glory, and whose praises had been celebrated so many ages beforehand! When the fulness of time came, God raised up in Jerusalem a holy man, named Joseph of Arimathea, who secretly, but sincerely, became one of Jesus’ disciples. He was a rich counsellor, or senator. He had prepared his own tomb, and the place he chose was on the side of the hill of Calvary. It was hewn out of the live rock, and consisted of two cells, one serving as a sort of entry into the other. Joseph thought he was labouring for himself, whereas he was preparing the sepulchre of God. He only thought of the debt which every man has to pay, in consequence of Adam’s sin; but heaven had decreed, that Joseph should never lie in that tomb, and that here should originate man’s immortality.
Jesus had expired on the cross, amidst the insults of His people; the entire city had risen up against the Son of David, whom, but a few days before, it had hailed as its King. Then did Joseph brave the fury of the deicides, and ask permission from the Roman governor to be allowed the honour of burying the Body of the Crucified. He at once repaired to Calvary, accompanied by Nicodemus, and, having taken down the sacred Corpse from the cross, he devoutly laid It upon the stone which he had intended as his own resting-place. He felt that it was a happiness and an honour to give up his own tomb to the dear Master, for whom he had not been ashamed to profess, and that in the very court of Pilate, his devoted attachment. Right worthy art thou, O Joseph! of the thanks of mankind! Thou wast our representative at the burial of our Jesus! And Mary, too, the afflicted Mother, who was present, recompensed thee, in her own way, for the sacrifice thou didst so willingly make for her Son!
The Evangelists draw our attention to one special circumstance of the sepulchre, St. Matthew, St. Luke, and St. John, tell us that it was new, and that no man had ever been laid in it. The holy Fathers teach us, that we must see here a mysterious dispensation, and one of the grand glories of the holy tomb. It marks, as they observe, the resemblance that exists between the sepulchre, which restored the Man-God to the life of immortality, and the virginal womb which gave Him birth that He might be a Victim for the world’s redemption: and they bid us learn from this, how God, when He deigns to dwell in any of His creatures, would have the dwelling to be pure and worthy of His infinite holiness. Here, then, is one of the glories of the holy sepulchre,–that it was an image of the incomparable purity of the Mother of Jesus.
During the few hours that it possessed the precious trust, where was there glory on earth like unto what it enjoyed? Within that silent cave, there lay, wrapt in shrouds that were bedewed with Mary’s tears, the Body which had ransomed the world. Hosts of holy Angels stood in that little rocky cell, keeping watch over the corpse of Him who was their Creator; they adored It, in Its sleep of death; they longed for the hour to come, when this Lamb, that was slain, would arise a Lion in power and majesty. And when the moment fixed by the eternal decree came, that humble spot was made the scene of the grand prodigy; Jesus rose to life, and, swifter than lightning, passed through the rock to the outer world. An Angel then rolled back the stone from the entrance to the sepulchre, thus proclaiming the departure of the divine Captive. Other Angels showed themselves to Magdalene and her companions, when they came to visit it. Peter, too, and John were soon there. O truly, most holy is this place! The Son of God deigned to dwell within it; His Mother honoured it with her presence and her tears; Angels adored in it; the holiest souls on earth visited, venerated, and loved it. O sepulchre of the Son of Jesse, thou art indeed glorious!
Hell witnesses this glory, and would fain destroy it. The sight of this sepulchre is insufferable to satan’s pride, for it is the trophy of the defeat of death, the offspring of sin. He flatters himself on having succeeded, when Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman legions, and on her ruins there rises up a new and pagan city, called Aelia. But no! neither the name of Jerusalem, nor the glory of the holy sepulchre, shall perish. The pagans cover it with a mound of earth, on which they build a temple to Jupiter; it is the same spirit that dictated their raising an altar to Venus on Calvary, and another to Adonis over the cave of Bethlehem. But all these sacrilegious efforts only serve to tell the Christians the exact site of these several sacred places. The pagans think by this artifice to turn the respect and homage of the Christians from Jesus to their false gods: here again, they fail. The Christians abstain from visiting the holy places, as long as they are desecrated by the presence of these idols; but they keep their eye fixed on what their Redeemer has endeared to them, and wait in patience for the time, when it shall please the eternal Father to again glorify His Son.
The time comes. God sends to Jerusalem a Christian empress, mother of a Christian emperor: she is to restore the holy places, the scenes of our Redeemer’s love. Like Magdalene and her companions, Helen hastens to the sepulchre. God would have it so,–woman’s privilege in all that happened on the great morning of the Resurrection, is to be continued now. Magdalene and her companions sought Jesus; Helen, who adores Him as her risen Lord, only seeks His sepulchre: but their love is one and the same. The pious empress orders the temple of Jupiter to be pulled down, and the mound of earth to be removed; which done, the trophy of Jesus’ victory once more gleams in the light of day. The defeat of death is again proclaimed by this resurrection of the glorious sepulchre. A magnificent temple is built at the expanse of the imperial treasury, and is called the basilica of the Resurrection. The whole world is excited by the news of such a triumph; the already tottering structure of paganism receives a shook which hastens its destruction; and pilgrimages to the holy sepulchre are begun by Christian people throughout the world, forming a procession of universal homage which is to continue to the end of time.
During the three centuries following, Jerusalem was the holy and free city, and the sepulchre of Jesus reflected its glory upon her; but the East became a very hot-bed of heresies, and God, in His justice, sent her the chastisement of slavery. The Saracen hordes inundated the land of prodigy. If the torrent of invasion was checked, it was for a brief period, and the waters returned with redoubled power. Meanwhile, what becomes of the holy sepulchre? Let us not fear: it is safe. The Saracens themselves look upon it with awe, for it is, they say, the tomb of a great Prophet. True, a tax is imposed on the Christians who visit it; but the sepulchre is safe. One of the caliphs presented the keys of the venerable sanctuary to the emperor Charlemagne, hereby evincing, not only the respect he had for this greatest of Christian monarchs, but, moreover, the veneration wherein he held the sacred grotto. Thus did our Lord’s sepulchre continue to be glorified, even in the midst of dangers which, humanly, would have wrought its utter destruction.
Its glory shone out still more brightly, when, at the call of the Father of Christendom, the western nations rose up in arms, and marched, under the banner of the cross, to the deliverance of Jerusalem. The love of the holy sepulchre was in every heart, its name on every tongue. The first engagement drove back the Saracen, and left the city in possession of the crusaders. A sublime spectacle was then witnessed in the church of the holy sepulchre; the pious Godfrey of Bouillon was consecrated king of Jerusalem, and the holy mysteries were celebrated, for the first time in the language and ritual of Rome, under the oriental dome of St. Helen’s basilica. But the reign of Japheth in the tents of Sem was of short duration, owing, partly to the short-sighted policy of the western sovereigns, which kept them from appreciating the importance of such a conquest; and partly to the treachery of the Greek Empire, which betrayed the defenceless Jerusalem once more into the hands of the Saracens. Still, the period of the Latin kingdom in the holy city was one of the glories of Jesus’ sepulchre, foretold by Isaias.
What are to be its future glories? At present, it is profaned by the sacrifices which are offered, in its basilica, by schismatical and heretical priests; it is entrusted, for a few hours each year, to the Catholics of Jerusalem, and during that brief interval, it receives the fervent homage of the true spouse of Jesus. When will the holy sepulchre be reinstated in its honour? Will the nations of the West return to the fervour of faith, and emulate the holy chivalry of the crusaders of old? Or will the East renounce the schism, which has cost her her liberty; stretch out her hand to the mother and mistress of all churches; and, on the rook of the Resurrection, sign the covenant of a union, which would be the death-warrant of Islamism? Only God knows: but this much He has revealed to us in sacred Scripture, that, before the end of tho world, Israel will return to the Messias he despised and crucified, and that the glory of Jerusalem is to be restored by the Jews who shall be converted (Rom. xi. 12).
Then will the sepulchre of the Son of Jesse be at the height of its glory, and soon will this Son of Jesse Himself appear. Our bodies will then be on the eve of the general resurrection; and thus the final result of the Pasch will be simultaneous with the last and greatest glory of the holy sepulchre. As we rise from our graves, we shall fix our eyes upon our Jesus’ tomb, and love it as the origin and source of the immortality we shall then have. Until the time of our death comes, when our bodies must be laid in the temporary prison of the grave, let us love the sepulchre of our dear Saviour; let us be zealous for its honour; and, imitating our forefathers in that earnest faith which made them its defenders and soldiers, let us get well into us that portion of the Easter spirit, which consists in understanding and loving the glories of Jesus’ sepulchre.
The name given in the liturgy to this day, is Saturday in albis, or, more correctly, in albis deponendis; because it was to-day that the neophytes were to lay aside the white robes they had been wearing during the whole Octave. This Octave had, indeed, begun earlier for them than for the rest of the faithful, inasmuch as it was on the night of Holy Saturday that they were regenerated, and vested with these white garments, the emblem of the purity of their souls.
Prayer: Grant we beseech Thee, O almighty God, that we, who have kept the Easter festivities with veneration, may by them be found worthy to come unto eternal joys. Through Our Lord ect.