Reflection: Bringing My Family With Me

By Carolyn Phenicie

Pilgrims lit candles to memorialize loved ones.  (Carolyn Phenicie/Journey to Jerusalem)

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a chaotic place.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians mark it as the site of Calvary Hill, where Jesus was crucified. As a site so central to the founding premise of Christianity – that Jesus was the son of God who was crucified and resurrected to pay for humanity’s sins – I had thought it would be a place of reverence and order, one where Christians worked together to welcome pilgrims from all corners of the globe to come and pray and celebrate in the holiness of the place. I was wrong.

On the roof of the church, Coptic (Egyptian) and Ethiopian Orthodox groups have staked out tiny enclaves. The fight for control of the church is so intense, in fact, that in the 19th century a status quo was declared and nothing has moved since, including a ladder that is still propped above a door on the exterior of the building.

The Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches control the interior of the building. The site of Jesus’ crucifixion, preparation for burial and resurrection are three distinct stations in three different decorative styles controlled by different combinations of the religious groups.

I was raised in a mainline protestant church and never felt my faith particularly deeply, but visiting this crazy, chaotic place held special sway for me.

My paternal grandfather had, for his entire life, wanted to come to Israel, or as he always called it, the Holy Lands. Since I was a little girl, I always remember my grandfather ending prayers with “In Jesus’ name we pray,” so a site that marks Jesus’ importance in Christianity seemed a fitting place to remember my grandfather.

“He always said that was his life’s ambition, to go to the Holy Lands,” my dad said. “That, and fix up an old car and retire in Florida.” The trip in particular held special meaning. “He believed that’s what good Christians should do,” he said.

Whenever he would watch Christian television shows that would take trips to the area, he would comment about wanting to visit, my grandmother said. “He never expressed a desire to go anywhere else, ever.”

My grandfather, Fred, is now 87 and for the past decade or so has slowly but surely started fading as Alzheimer’s takes away his memory. For the last year, he has lived full-time in a nursing home near his home in central Pennsylvania. It is rare that he remembers anyone besides my grandmother and his sons, but he still knows all the words to “Jesus Loves Me” and the Lord’s Prayer. Once one of the happiest and most vibrant people I knew, always cracking a joke and flirting with waitresses, he now sits quietly at family gatherings, hanging his head and remaining largely silent.

He was the youngest of eight children, born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, where his family had moved after my great-grandfather’s lumber company went bust in the Great Depression. Though his family didn’t have much money, my great-grandmother always made sure they attended church. My grandfather – the veritable Cal Ripken of church goers –held a record for consecutive Sundays of attendance that spanned five or six years. Once, my dad said, my grandfather was heading to a Phillies baseball game and made the group he was with leave early and stop at church so that he wouldn’t break his record.

After high school, he joined the Navy and served at the tail end of World War II, mostly in New York as a radio operator. He went to college on the GI Bill where he met my grandmother. They will have been married 60 years in September.

So when I entered the first stop in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an elaborate shrine marking the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, I knew I was there for more than just me. By coming to this holy Christian site – never mind that Protestants believe that the crucifixion took place at a different site in another part of Jerusalem – I was coming for my grandfather, who never had the opportunity to fulfill his life’s dream to visit. And I was there for my grandmother, my father and all the other Phenicies. If my visit earned any kind of cosmic benefit, I wanted to share it with all of them.

Kneeling beneath the elaborate altar, I touched the rock that marks the site of the crucifixion and said a quick prayer – there was a line of a few dozen other pilgrims waiting their turn – for my grandfather, asking God’s blessings on him in these final difficult years. After exiting the shrine area, I gave a donation and lit a candle, saying a second prayer for others in my family who have passed away.

I’ve seen my grandfather since returning to the U.S. and told him that I went. Even though I’m certain he doesn’t remember or even really understand, it gave the trip extra meaning for me and is the portion of the journey that I will always remember.

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