An evening with Jesus in the tomb

by Eric Seitz


When I was younger, I used to judge the apostles on their inability to stay awake during Jesus’ agony in the garden. But after my experience of an all-night prayer vigil in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I now understand what they went through.

From January 1-25, my class at the St. Paul Seminary was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. We took this incredible opportunity to visit many holy sites and to practice preaching. Before our last day in Israel, seven of us decided to do the prayer vigil in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We had heard about the vigil from previous classes. I knew that I would regret it if I did not take the chance.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is found in the old city district of Jerusalem. The crusader-era church contains the tomb of Jesus, Calvary, the site where St. Helen found the true cross, and more. Six different groups of Christians control this unique site, an interesting history in itself. During the winter, the door is locked at 7 p.m. and opened again at 4 a.m. Pilgrims can add their name to a list to be locked in all night.

My seven classmates and I arrived at 6:45 p.m. The porter was already clearing the church when we arrived. We had a chance to chat with some of the other pilgrims there, and then one of the Franciscan fathers gave us the ground rules: No sleeping, no singing or loud praying, and the tomb of Jesus will be closed by 11 p.m. Armed with my bible, rosary, breviary, and three energy drinks, I was ready to face the night.

The first half of the night flew by quickly and joyfully. I prayed with Genesis chapters 2-3 at the tomb of Adam, the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary at an altar dedicated to Mary, the Passion of Jesus at Calvary, and the Resurrection in the tomb. I am firmly convinced that the veil between heaven and earth is less firm at these holy places, where Jesus, in his great wisdom, chose to accomplish his mission. My prayer during this time was serene and fruitful. But this was not to last.

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Even with the aid of caffeine, the flesh can only accomplish so much. By midnight, my focus had shifted from contemplating God to forcing myself to stay awake. This was the hardest all-nighter of my life. There was no movie to watch, no videogame to play, no fun diversion to engage in—even brief conversations with my brothers were whispered quietly. The only noise was the sound of the Orthodox monks chanting the Divine Liturgy, and my Greek is not nearly good enough to understand it all. I was reduced to pacing around the Church to keep awake, and I did that only because I heard the monks whack sleepers with sticks.

Even this painful experience was not without fruit. Facing my weak humanity was a good exercise in humility. Young men often imagine themselves as invincible. Struggling to stay awake helps to cure that thought. The fruit of humility is sympathy for the apostles, and an even greater awe of Christ. Jesus frequently prayed throughout the night. His soul was strong, strong enough to push the body far past anything I am capable of right now. His love for the Father was stronger than his bodily weakness. He even shares this power with his saints—I think especially of St. John Vianney, who worked like a strong man on maybe two hours of sleep a night. God’s power is truly incredible.

Eventually, it was 4 a.m. I fell into bed at our hotel and slept most of the day (our bus left for the airport at 12:30 a.m. the next day). Nevertheless, I will never forget my evening in the tomb.

Seitz is a Theology III seminarian at St. Paul Seminary in St.Paul, Minn.

Editor’s Note: Seminarian Life is a monthly column written by current Diocese of Fargo seminarians. It gives New Earth readers a glimpse of what these discerning young men are experiencing. Please continue to pray for them.