How many different occasions has someone shouted, “stay awake” or “don’t fall asleep?” If you find yourself blessed with the opportunity to spend the night inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and accidentally fall asleep, you may hear plenty of voices in several different languages ordering you to either sit up straight or wake up.
Without a doubt, there is no other holy site more significant to Christian pilgrims than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It would be amazing to wander throughout this church during the quietness of night and pray in the shrines that encompass the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. I can embrace this kind of lockdown with curiosity and wonder and believe there is no better place on earth to attempt connecting with the humanness of Jesus during His passion.
“Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane,
and he said to them,
“Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him,
and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
Then he said to them,“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26: 36-38
If you are contemplating the thought of this incredibly privileged experience, in which only 15 pilgrims each day are permitted to participate, there are a few things to contemplate. First, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre shares custody with several different religious groups: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Latin), Armenian Apostolic, and slightly less with the Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox.
Second, you must pay careful attention right before 11:00pm and not be out of place, as the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics (Franciscan Friars), and the Armenians enter the church and begin setting up their nighttime liturgies that begin at 11:30pm and often lasts until 3:30am.
Third, you have to be able to withstand hearing all three religious celebrations simultaneously throughout the church for the next 9-10 hours. Others have written that it often appears to be a competition between the different ministers as they sing their liturgies from their distinct locations; however, they do show their deep, mutual respect as they incense one another while entering and exiting their designated areas.
Many of our past pilgrims have had the chance to experience this unique and blessed opportunity. Here’s what a few of them have shared:
“I couldn’t sleep, and with the grace of God, I managed to stay awake and pray, pray, pray at all times. To have the opportunity to be in the place where Jesus Christ gave his life for us and to visit his tomb, it was the best time of my life.”
“The most wonderful experience in my life. I have been doing some traveling, but this impacted my life in an incredible way!”
“To stay warm, I often got up and wandered throughout the church. The earlier part of the evening was more conducive to prayer…It was a real education for me, which, even though it took most of the next day to thaw out, I would not trade.”
“The opportunity to touch and stay to pray for as long as we wished while at Golgotha, Jesus’ tomb and the preparation table was simply breathtaking! I will never forget it.”
“I remember finding a wooden bench in St. Helena’s Chapel, it was very cold so I sat with my legs crossed. I must have dozed off because I was startled by a well-deserved whack across my legs. Truly amazing experience and highly recommended!”
Below are a few tips to help secure your stay and a general breakdown of your evening:
- You must show up in person in the Latin sacristy of the Basilica to book your spot a few days before your stay, and only the Franciscan Friars are authorized to accept reservations. Double-check any requirements prior to your pilgrimage, as they are subject to change.
- Make sure you have eaten dinner. There is no eating, drinking, sleeping, or talking allowed inside the church – your time here is for prayer only. It is wise to dress warmly, as it gets quite chilly inside at night.
- Pilgrims need to arrive at least 15 minutes before closing time (6:45pm), but many choose to arrive an hour before to secure their opportunity.
- Pilgrims are totally committed for the evening at 7:00pm once the door locking ceremony begins (a responsibility belonging to the Muslims since the 1100’s). The doors will not reopen until 4:00am or 5:00am, depending on the season.
Even though this seems to be an extraordinary opportunity for obvious reasons, this unique experience isn’t for everyone and should be discerned cautiously. But if you are interested, you can begin practicing your awake prayer time in Jesus’ company in adoration. Many churches around the world have perpetual adoration chapels where all are invited to spend part or all of the night in prayer. While you won't be locked in or shaken awake by the Orthodox priests if you happen to doze off, spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament is a great grace and gift to us here on Earth.