Every now and then, it's good to see all kinds of people -- religion-beat professionals included -- using social media to celebrate a major news report.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that other journalists celebrated the contents of the story -- "Crypt Believed to Be Jesus’ Tomb Opened for First Time in Centuries" -- as in celebrating its theological implications.
No, I'm saying that lots of people simply celebrated the fact that the New York Times ran a nice, solid news feature on efforts by priests, monks, scientists and construction workers to study and repair the shrine surrounding the tomb of Jesus. To be honest, however, some would say that they celebrated the fact that the story mentioned that millions of Christians do, in fact, believe in that whole "Up From the Grave He Arose" thing.
In other words, we do not have a new entry in our occasional GetReligion series on the Gray Lady offering the opposite point of view, as in our recent post: "Believe it or not: The New York Times has quietly returned to its 'Jesus is dead' theme."
Still, there is one rather strange thing, in terms of journalism, about this news story (emphasis on the word "news"). Let's see if you can spot it. Here is the overture:
JERUSALEM -- The only mystical power visible was the burning light from seven tapered candles. And yet for ages, the tomb that sits at the center of history has captured the imaginations of millions around the world.
For centuries, no one looked inside -- until last week, when a crew of specialists opened the simple tomb in Jerusalem’s Old City and found the limestone burial bed where tradition says the body of Jesus Christ lay after his crucifixion and before his resurrection.
“We saw where Jesus Christ was laid down,” Father Isidoros Fakitsas, the superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, told me. “Before, nobody has.” Or at least nobody alive today. “We have the history, the tradition. Now we saw with our own eyes the actual burial place of Jesus Christ.”
For 60 hours, they collected samples, took photographs and reinforced the tomb before resealing it, perhaps for centuries to come.
Need another hint? The next sentence adds:
By the time I visited one dark night, ... the tomb had already been closed again.
Yes, for some reason, veteran correspondent Peter Baker wrote this news story in first-person voice. Yes, I find this curious.
Was the goal to make this a semi-opinion piece? In other words, the earlier pieces that edited out the Resurrection -- one a travel piece, the other an arts essay -- were semi-opinion pieces. So is the point that any mention, pro or con, of centuries of belief in the central doctrine of Christianity must take place in a semi-opinion context? I mean, it is a statement of fact that millions of people believe Jesus was raised from the dead. That isn't an editorial statement.
But back to the story itself, which includes quite a bit of history about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher itself. I thought this was well done:
Pilgrims have been flocking to the church for generations, sometimes as many as 5,000 a day. To get to the tomb, many walk along the Via Dolorosa, the winding path through Jerusalem’s Old City where Jesus is said to have been forced to bear his cross. ...
The church was first built where the tomb was discovered in the fourth century during the reign of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to officially convert to Christianity. It was sacked after Jerusalem fell to the Persians in the seventh century, then rebuilt and later destroyed by Muslim caliphs in the 11th century. After the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, the church was restored in the 12th century but burned to the ground in the 19th century and then rebuilt yet again.
Baker did duck a bit of controversy here.
A site known as the Garden Tomb is said by some to be the site of the crucifixion, while the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is more commonly deemed by Christians to be the place where Jesus was buried and rose again. At the time, it was outside the Old City, but the wall was later moved to include the church and its famous tomb.
The Garden Tomb site is preferred, for the most part, by evangelical Protestants -- who are not fond of visiting and offering prayers in a site that is so clearly linked to ancient Orthodox and Catholic worship. Both sides would offer other arguments while making their cases for the validity of each site, but, as Baker notes, the early church pointed to the tomb surrounded by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
By all means, read it all. As an Orthodox churchman, all I can say is: Oh to have been there.
Rainwater had deteriorated much of the mortar over the centuries. Iron support bars that were fully corroded will be removed and replaced by titanium. The specialists had no plans at first to open the tomb, but they decided a couple of weeks ago that they needed to do so in order to ensure that nothing could leak inside.
It was a delicate operation. The top of the tomb was split, and the specialists worried that lifting it would break it.
“The main goal was not to break the plate,” said Harris Mouzakis, an assistant professor of civil engineering at National Technical University who is working on the project.
The team felt the pressure. “We had to be very careful,” Mr. Mouzakis said. “It was not just a tomb we had to open. It was the tomb of Jesus Christ that is a symbol for all of Christianity -- and not only for them but for other religions.”
I would be curious to know if other readers had second thoughts about the first-person construction of this piece. Please leave your thoughts in our comments pages.
Editor's note: Click here for an initial National Geographic piece on this project.