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If you ever visit the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, you might notice a stray stepladder sitting under a second-story window, just above the main entrance. Or, you might not notice it, because that would be kind of a weird thing to notice (you weirdo)—unless, maybe, you know the bizarre truth behind it: that it’s been sitting there, unused, for something in the neighborhood of 300 years.
This seems especially notable for a stepladder. Most of us have one in our garages that we get out once a year to clean out our gutters, or get a Frisbee off the roof, or bring tribute to the merciless elves that live in our chimney, or whatever, and then we put it away—that’s how ladders are supposed to work. But not the one at Holy Sepulchre. And you might assume that it’s some sort of holy, blessed relic ladder, or something, but you’d be wrong—just a regular maintenance guy’s stepladder that got left out. It’s portable, it’s not supposed to be there, and everybody knows it’s there—and yet no one’s come to pick it up. What’s up with that?
Welp. To answer that question, we have to go back 1,700 years or so. Fire up the WABAC, Sherman.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the places that Jesus was most likely crucified and buried, dates all the way back to the early AD 300s, when Constantine, the first Christian(ish) emperor of Rome, sent his mother, St. Helena, to Jerusalem to find all the sites where the events described in the Gospels took place. She found quite a few of them—and if that sounds kind of far-fetched, keep in mind that this was only a handful of generations removed from the days of Jesus, and there had been Christians living in Jerusalem ever since his death and resurrection. Literally all she had to do was track down some Jerusalemite Christians and ask, “Hey, where’d this thing happen?”
In any case, Constantine took all the places she found and built churches at them. This wasn’t strictly a vanity move, either—a lot of previous emperors had built pagan temples at their locations, presumably to get Christians to stop venerating them so much. So really, at that point, he couldn’t not build churches there.Christianity was unusually unified at the time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, but things have been falling apart (literally and figuratively) ever since then.
Constantine, of course, was a busy guy—particularly in the “make Christianity a big thing” department. Around the same time he sent his mom to the Holy Land, he also called the seminal First Council of Nicaea, which formally affirmed the deity of Christ and—briefly—united more or less all of Christianity in the known world. That was nice while it lasted, but of course it didn’t last long, because Christians are the worst and we love to spend our time squabbling with each other. A little over a century later, a handful of churches rejected the Council of Chalcedon (long story) and split off to form the Oriental Orthodox Church; then, half a millennium after that, there was a big kerfuffle called the “Great Schism” where the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches parted ways, partly over some beard-related controversy (no, really).
Anyway. The point is that Christianity was unusually unified at the time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, but things have been falling apart (literally and figuratively) ever since then. Everyone still wanted to have a presence in the holiest church in all of Christendom, but they were having trouble getting through a mass there without wanting to punch each other in the face over whether the hypostatic union was a thing. I’m not exaggerating—literal wars were fought over this church.
This sort of chaos continued, on and off, until the 1750s, when Sultan Osman III of the Ottoman Empire (which controlled the Holy Land at the time) decided he would be the adult in the room. He sat down with the various Christian, Jewish, and Muslim factions fighting over all the various holy sites of Jerusalem and hammered out how they were going to share the space without murdering each other. The set of agreements, which still stand today, are collectively called the “status quo,” because apparently no one was feeling particularly creative that day.
Under the agreement, most of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s interior is divided among the Roman Catholic, Greek (Eastern) Orthodox, and Armenian (Oriental) Orthodox communions, with smaller spaces for the (Oriental Orthodox) Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches as well. This compromise has kept a bit of peace, but it hasn’t prevented the occasional frat-style prank—or all-out brawl.
For instance: In 1970, some Coptic monks made the mistake of leaving their monastery on the roof to attend Easter vigil; while they were out, some Ethiopian monks got in, changed the locks, and claimed the monastery as theirs. As a form of protest, the Copts have posted a monk outside their door ever since, which the Ethiopians put up with until 2002, when the monk on duty had the audacity to move his chair just a little closer to their door in order to get out of the sun. The resulting rooftop brawl put 11 monks in the hospital, and if you’re thinking this story would make a great movie, possibly a wacky comedy starring Chris Tucker and Steve Buscemi, I 100% agree.
As you can imagine, this sort of social climate makes it hard to get anything done, including basic repairs and maintenance—especially since, under the status quo, any changes made to common areas, including the church’s exterior, have to be unanimously approved by all six communions. And since it’s difficult to get the groups to even talk to each other, let alone agree on anything, stuff pretty much stays where it is—even if it’s a useless ladder that’s been sitting around rotting for literal centuries.
And actually, even if someone really wanted to move the ladder, you can’t anymore. In 1964, Pope Paul VI decided that the ladder was a valuable reminder of church disunity and declared that it would stay in place until the world’s Christians got over their differences and got back together. So, in other words, forever.
I don’t want to start another fistfight, but maybe the Catholics and various shades of Orthodox could take a lesson from the Protestants here. Faced with being shut out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we just found a tomb that looked like it could have kinda, maybe been Jesus’ tomb (aside from the complete lack of evidence that it was), bought it, planted some flowers, named it the “Garden Tomb,” and then pretty much called it a day. If that’s not the picture of cold, efficient Protestantism, I don’t know what is.
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