Holy Sepulchre


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Holy Sepulchre

The phrase "holy sepulchre" refers to the tomb in which Jesus' body was laid after it was taken down from the cross. This journey, from the cross to the tomb, represents the last scene in the Passion story, that is, the story of the last days of Jesus'life (Matthew 27:59-61, Mark 15:46-47, Luke 23:53-56, John 19:38-42). During the Middle Ages Christians across western Europe began to incorporate commemorations of this event into their Holy Week devotions. These observances revolved around special tombs or altars constructed inside churches. Called "holy sepulchres" or "Easter sepulchres," these monuments still appear in Roman Catholic churches on Good Friday. Their presence inspires parishioners to pray and meditate on the death of Christ (see also Sin; Redemption; Salvation). Individual members of the congregation may spend time sitting quietly before these tombs, participating in a vigil that lasts from Good Friday through Holy Saturday (for a similar Good Friday custom practiced by Orthodox Christians, see Epitaphios).

History

Holy sepulchres and the ceremonies associated with them can be traced back to the tenth century, when they appeared in Germany and England. By the close of the Middle Ages they had spread throughout northern and central Europe. The ceremony whereby Jesus'body was laid in the sepulchre was usually called the depositio, a Latin word meaning "deposition" or "laying down." In this case the word refers to the removal of Jesus'body from the cross and to his subsequent burial. In most medieval rituals a cross or crucifix served to represent Jesus' body. Priests often sealed the remainder of the consecrated Eucharist in the tomb along with the crucifix. On Easter Sunday a clergy member removed the Eucharist and held it aloft before the congregation in a gesture representing the Resurrection. The holy sepulchres themselves were garnished with gold, purple or crimson cloth, and surrounded by a multitude of lit candles. Some churches placed statues of angels or soldiers around the Easter sepulchre. During the Middle Ages parishioners and clergy kept constant vigil at these tombs. This practice may have been fueled by the belief that the Second Coming of Jesus, an event which Christian scripture links with the end of the world, would occur on the night before Easter Sunday.

In the fifteenth century a new kind of deposition ceremony developed in Italy. Italian clerics replaced the cross or crucifix with a lifesized figurine of Jesus' body. Moreover, the procession from the cross to the tomb expanded, leaving the church and wending its way through town and village streets as would a real funeral procession. These innovations soon spread to France and Spain, and from there to Spanish colonies in the Americas.

In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement called the Reformation rolled across Europe. The controversies stirred by this movement, which gave birth to Protestant Christianity, touched on many aspects of Christian worship, including established Roman Catholic beliefs concerning the Eucharist. As a result of these debates Roman Catholic churches began to emphasize the role of the Eucharist in the Good Friday deposition and vigil. For example, instead of placing the Eucharist inside the tomb, they began to set it on top of the tomb so it could be seen and venerated by worshipers. Resting inside a veiled monstrance - a glass-faced display case set atop a metal stand - and carried to the Easter sepulchre in a formal funeral procession, the Eucharist became a focal point of the deposition and vigil (see also Veiling).

Contemporary Customs

Today Good Friday observances at Roman Catholic churches still feature deposition ceremonies and vigils similar to those held hundreds of years ago. Some refer to the vigil as "the vigil of the holy sepulchre." Others know it as the "forty-hour vigil," since just about forty hours elapse from the moment of Jesus' death on Good Friday to his resurrection early on Easter Sunday morning. Extremely devout people will sometimes fast from all food for these forty hours.

In Latin America many Roman Catholic congregations disassemble their monumentos - shrines in which the Eucharist is placed on Maundy Thursday - on the morning of Good Friday. Parishioners then construct a life-sized reproduction of Jesus' crucifixion in the same spot. The people represented in this scene include Jesus, Jesus'mother the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John, one of Jesus' disciples (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). At three in the afternoon, at the close of the day's religious services, altar boys armed with flashing powder and noisemaking devices create a disturbance meant to suggest the mysterious upheavals that occurred at the moment of Jesus' death (Matthew 27:50-53, Luke 23:44-45). (See also Three Hours.) Then the priest ascends a ladder and reverently removes the figurine of Jesus' body from the cross. With great ceremony the corpse is carried to the shrine of the holy sepulchre. Devout parishioners visit and pray before the shrine throughout the afternoon, evening, and following day.

Similar ceremonies are observed in Europe. In many instances, however, the priest carries a crucifix or the Eucharist to the Easter sepulchre rather than a figurine representing Jesus' body. In Austria tradition dictates that soldiers in parade uniform maintain an honor guard around the holy sepulchre. Austrians interpret this gesture as an act of atonement for the disrespectful behavior of the Roman guards who waited at the foot of Jesus'cross.

Further Reading

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
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