Around the year 325, Emperor Constantine sent his mother Helena to the Holy Land to erect churches on the sites associated with the birth, life, and death of Jesus.
The Jerusalem Helena came to bore no resemblance to the city Jesus knew. Even the name “Jerusalem” no longer existed. The Romans had been so angered by the Jewish revolts in the decades following the crucifixion that in the early second century they had levelled the old city, and on its rubble had built a new, pagan city, which they called Aelia Capitolina.
The old city may have gone, but it lived on in the memories of the Christians who still lived there. When Helena asked them about the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, they had no doubts. They took her to a particular spot, and, pointing down, said, “Here.” “Here” was a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. What Helena was seeking, the people said, was buried here. A few metres in any direction, and the work would have been much easier, but it had to be “Here.” And so they set to work. They dismantled the temple, they broke up the great stone platform on which it stood, and they cleared away tonnes of rubble, the remains of the old city.
When the rubble had been cleared away they were standing on the floor of an old quarry that, in the time of Jesus, had already been abandoned – a wild, overgrown place off the main road just outside the city walls. On the floor of the old quarry they found an outcropping of stone a few metres high, that the masons had passed over because it was cracked. This, the Christians of Jerusalem said, was Calvary, the “stone which the builders rejected.”
A little to the west, the quarry ended in a high vertical wall which, as was customary in the first century, had been honeycombed with horizontal grave shafts. Was there any question about which was the grave? Absolutely not. It had to be this one, they told Helena. So they set to work again, quarrying away the entire rock face to leave that one tomb standing free.
Then, to the east, there was an area where the floor of the quarry sloped steeply down, forming a cistern. At the bottom they found some pieces of wood, which Helena declared to be the wood of the cross on which Jesus had died.
Helena had a great church built over Calvary, the tomb, and the cistern – now become the chapel of the Holy Cross. Relics of the cross were embedded in the altar that faced the empty tomb. The church was called Anastasia – the Resurrection. It was dedicated on September 14, in the year 335; and ever since the Church has kept this day as Holy Cross Day.
The Anastasia was destroyed by the Calif Hakim and then rebuilt on a much smaller scale by the Crusaders, and renamed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
My favourite part is the steps leading down to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, because the walls along the steps are covered with little crosses that the Crusaders, those “soldiers of the cross” had carved into the stone. It’s as if they wanted to say: I was here; and I claim this place for Christ and Christ’s cross, as Christ and his cross have claimed me.
I told that story, at somewhat greater length, at the ordination of a friend a few years ago. Hers had been a long journey to ordination as a deacon, and went on for several years before she agreed to be ordained priest.
I called the Anastasia a parable of how God works with us. A parable of vocation. God comes to us and says, “I want to dig right here.” We say, “Here? There’s nothing here worth the effort of clearing away the rubble. Why don’t you try just over there a bit? Try that person instead. I’m sure the digging will be much easier there, the soil much less stony.”
But, like those people in Jerusalem, God points, “right here.” God digs away the rubble to find the place in us where death gives way to life, to find what we think of as dry wood but he knows is the tree of life.
God is always doing that, pointing and saying “right here,” in moments of conversion, in baptism, in the call to ordination or to the religious life, or to other vocation in the church and in society, always saying, “here my life meets your death and transforms the world. Here have I carved my cross, here I proclaim, ‘I am here,’ and I will not be shut out.”
And the rubble gets pushed aside, our objections, our reasons why it won’t work, why we aren’t worthy, drowned out by God’s declaration, “I chose you; in your weakness is my strength.”
The Rev. Canon Bill Morrison is a retired priest of the Diocese of British Columbia and a good friend and supporter of the Sisters’ ministry in Victoria.