Surprises are in store for the first-time pilgrim to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which sits deep in Jerusalem's Old City.

For starters, its modest courtyard is hemmed in by a jumble of buildings and towered over by a Muslim minaret.

Many first-time visitors to the church are also startled to find that both Calvary and the tomb of Jesus are inside. Perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising — their proximity to one another is consistent with John's Gospel: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (John 19:41). And it wasn't at all unusual for early Christians to build churches over holy places.

In Jesus’ day, this site was an abandoned quarry just outside the city's west wall. Stonecutters had left a skull-shaped hump of poor-quality rock (“skull” is calvarium in Latin, golgotha in Aramaic) which the Romans used as a place of execution. Tombs were dug into the quarry walls and floor, and a few olive or fruit trees had taken root as topsoil accumulated.

But it is difficult indeed to anticipate anything like this scene in the church that was built over the spot. Look right as you enter its only door, and you'll see Calvary. The Crusaders encased it in marble in the 11th century; now it looks like a balcony, with 19 steep steps leading up to two chapels. Bear left as you enter, and you'll arrive at a two-room structure that marks the place where Jesus rose from the dead. The original tomb is long gone, sledge-hammered to the ground in 1009 by order of an insane Muslim ruler. The little chapel you see dates from 1809.

Pilgrims’ Perseverance

Another surprise: At first glance, this is not the place of peace and beauty which might be expected of Christianity's holiest shrine.

On a normal day, hundreds of clergy, pilgrims and unabashed tourists weave in and out, creating a chaotic mixture of devotion, noise and confusion. There is commotion, too, in the church's decor. Traditional icons, modernist brass sculptures, assorted mosaics and other adornments seem to contend for attention in a curious mishmash of clashing styles. It is a visual sign of the jostling that has gone on among the six religious communities that occupy the building: Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts and Ethiopians.

Only in recent years have the religious groups that have custodial rights been able to reach agreement and move ahead on urgently needed repairs. In 1997, a new dome over Christ's tomb was completed, and scaffolding that had been set up decades before was finally removed. But other parts of the church are still waiting. The Syrian chapel — badly damaged in an 1808 fire, but still in use — looks like it was torched only yesterday. Pieces of its charred wooden altar are held together by wire; a framed picture is indistinguishable behind blackened and broken glass.

Definitely not what I expected, I thought after my first visit to what St. John of Damascus called “the mother of all churches.” Where is the splendor that should honor the place where Jesus suffered, died and rose?

Splendor was here once, in the fourth-century basilica built by Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, but it was destroyed by the Persians in 614. Eyewitnesses described the immense structure as a marvel of artistic achievement, decorated with gold and filled with jewels and silken hangings. The Anastasis, they called it, after the Greek word for resurrection.

Today's Church of the Holy Sepulcher — much abridged and scarred by fire, earthquake, multiple destructions, neglect and inept repairs — is more suggestive of Christ's dying than his rising. Paraphrasing a verse from a reading in the Good Friday liturgy, one might say about it what Isaiah prophesied of the messiah whowould come as a suffering servant: “There was in it no stately bearing to make us look at it, nor appearance that would attract us to it” (see Isaiah 53:2).

Telltale Tomb

But perhaps the greatest surprise of all comes as you “visit and revisit this sanctuary many a time” during your Jerusalem stay, as Franciscan Father Eugene Hoade advises in his Guide to the Holy Land. As your initial shock wears off, you become more aware of God's presence here — in the faith of its pilgrims and in the ravaged church itself. “For those who love it, the Holy Sepulcher is like a book,” wrote Father Charles Coüasnon, a French Dominican archeologist. It “most movingly” reveals “the fervor of all Christian peoples for the tomb of their Savior. This fervor shines before our eyes.”

To this pilgrim, at least, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher also speaks most movingly of God's mercy. Praying at the tomb once, I realized that, with all its mismatched furnishings, dark chambers, and need of cleaning and repair, this church could stand as a symbol of my own life. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” became a fervent cry of the heart that day.

God is merciful — and present, despite sorry appearances — says this church. Here Jesus turned loving eyes on a crucified thief and saw a candidate for paradise. Here the workings of hidden grace drew a cry of faith from an unlikely source: “Clearly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Here Mary Magdalene mis-took the risen Jesus for a gardener. Here what appeared to be death's greatest triumph was revealed as God's greatest act of love for us, as the Lord of life rose victorious from the tomb.

As Pope John Paul II said last March in this very place, “The mystery is clearly reflected in this ancient Church of the Anastasis, which contains both the empty tomb — the sign of the Resurrection, and Golgotha — the place of the Crucifixion. The good news of the Resurrection can never be separated from the mystery of the Cross.”

The world's magnificent churches tell of God's glory and turn a pilgrim's eyes heavenward. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher tells of God's loving presence and power amid weakness and need. Prayer does not come easily here, but, when it does, it leaves the pilgrim with renewed hope that God is at work in mysterious ways to transform even that least tidy of all places — the human heart.

Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.