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A free floating commentary on culture, politics, economics, and religion based on a passionate commitment to the truth and a desire graciously to refute that which is contrary to it….
"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
--Titus 1:9, Revised Standard Version
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Last month, Pope Benedict XVI addressed what he called "the delicate situation" in the Middle East. He told a Vatican meeting of the Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches that "peace, much awaited and implored, is unfortunately greatly offended." Although the pope's words were meant to refer to strife in Iraq and Israel, they also may be taken to describe the delicate, oft-broken peace in Christianity's own holiest site in the region.
Ever since it was built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in 335 on the hill of Golgotha, where his mother, Helena, claimed to have found the remains of the True Cross, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City has enjoyed little peace. The historian Eusebius records that the original structure, "an extraordinary work," was crowned by a roof "overlaid throughout with radiant gold." But Constantine's marvel was razed by the Persians in 614, reconstructed, and then destroyed again by Caliph Hakim of Egypt in 1009. Rebuilt by Crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, the building evolved into the motley collection of shrines, chapels and grottos that greet--and sometimes disappoint--the visitor today. The critic Edmund Wilson said it "probably contains more bad taste, certainly more kinds of bad taste, than any other church in the world."
The architectural mishmash reflects the overlapping theological resonances of the spots contained under one roof. As Amos Elon notes in his book "Jerusalem: City of Mirrors," the church marks the site of "Christ's alleged prison, Adam's tomb, the Pillar of Flagellation [to which Jesus was bound], 'Mount' Calvary [the Latin name for the hill where Jesus was crucified], the Stone of Unction [where his body was washed in preparation for burial], Christ's sepulcher and the Center of the Earth, as well as the site of the resurrected Christ's meeting with Mary Magdalene." No wonder Pope John Paul II called it "the mother of all churches."
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