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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

112117 tombWASHINGTON, D.C. — In the modern-age, news about Jesus doesn't just sell newspapers, it racks up page views, too.

In 2016, when renovations around the site believed to protect the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem were underway, religious leaders agreed to the temporary removal of the marble slab covering the tomb so that restorers could install a moisture barrier to protect it. It would mark the first opening of the space in perhaps centuries.

A team from National Geographic, which had been at the site to document the restoration, was allowed, during a relatively short window of time, to document the opening of tomb, in words, photos and video. National Geographic noted the interest by the number of clicks on the story and images the team posted about those 60 hours, which appeared on its website, not its iconic magazine, because of its immediacy.

"There was this incredible response to the news story in October (of 2016)," said Kathryn Keane, vice president of exhibitions for National Geographic during a Nov. 9 interview with Catholic News Service.

More than 3 million viewers worldwide flocked to the National Geographic website to read the news documenting the removal of the slabs and to see photos that included images of broken marble around the tomb inscribed with a Christian cross.

"It was one of the highest-rated stories of the year for us," said Keane. "We got a sense from that, that there would be a lot of interest in this story."

Though the tomb of Christ had never been featured in the pages of National Geographic, the magazine's iconic yellow frame this December features a Rembrandt painting depicting the face of Jesus on its cover, along with an accompanying story about what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus.

The organization also had previously published the book "In the Footsteps of Jesus," which is now being sold in paperback at its store. National Geographic also will debut a documentary Dec. 3 on its cable channel about the restoration work at the tomb, and recently opened its "Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience" virtual exhibit, which uses 3-D and VR, virtual reality, technology to provide visitors to its Washington museum a different way to visit the tomb.

"We have for many years been taking people on journeys to places that they may never get to visit," said Keane, and with new technology, there are new ways to do that.

"We have many ways to tell a story," said National Geographic archaeologist-in-residence Fred Hiebert. "The exhibition is a chance to walk into Jerusalem and into the church itself, the magazine article is mainly about the larger context of the footsteps of Jesus, we have a book about that, too, with maps, great storytelling, very historical … we do the whole story."

The opportunity to present the story of the tomb arrived when officials from the Greek Orthodox Church asked National Geographic if it would be interested in covering the restoration. The Greek Orthodox, along with the Armenians and the Franciscans, share stewardship of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the main structure over the smaller shrine, called the Edicule (Latin for "little house"), covering the tomb.

Hiebert, who had worked on a previous exhibition about ancient Greeks, joined a group of engineers, led by scientist and professor Antonia Moropoulou, who directed a team from the National Technical University of Athens, while they restored the small shrine to structural and physical glory.

"Monuments talk and the tomb of Christ was talking to us," said Moropoulou, who spoke briefly at the opening night of the exhibition in Washington. "This was a place full of energy … it was a tomb but it was alive."

And the team from National Geographic captured part of that life, with images of pilgrims arriving, the work before and after the restoration, the opening of the tomb, the reopening of the Edicule and pilgrims crowding around the space once more.

J.J. Kelley, senior producer at National Geographic Explorer, had set up cameras inside the small shrine, hanging above the tomb to capture the moment when the slabs were lifted.

"I got chills, goose bumps being inside that space," Kelley said during a panel at the museum on the opening night of the virtual "Tomb of Christ" exhibition. "It's one of the most profound assignments you could ask for."

Part of that journey will air in the Dec. 3 documentary. Some of it is featured in the exhibit, and other parts of it have been posted in news items on the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.com.

"They were trusting of National Geographic, that we would get the story right," said Keane, of the religious leaders who gave the organization an exclusive media agreement, meaning no other organizations would have access to the story, to cover the restoration. "They knew we would tell the story the right way and that we would share it with the world in a way that other media organizations wouldn't."

National Geographic staff writer Kristin Romey asked the opening night panel whether anyone had stopped to question why the organization, "known for our wildlife, adventure, mountain climbing, pandas, did anyone stop and ask, why Jesus?"

"National Geographic tells the stories of people," said Kelley.

And a critical component of that includes faith and spirituality, Romey said.

"It is our job to document how people move," including through journeys of faith, Romey said. "That is just as important as understanding farming in the desert. This is one of the most important pilgrimage sites, if not the most important in Christianity."

Moropoulou shared during the opening evening of the exhibition her hopes for the journey of the small shrine, the tomb and a new life found in their restoration.

"When we opened tomb of Christ … it opened a door, from Jerusalem to the world, that made the history of the restoration of the holy Edicule, a possible history," she said. "Today this history is in front of you and has opened the doors of hope, the doors of the message of the Resurrection to the world. We hope the holy Edicule restored and the exhibition ... have their own trip, their autonomous voice, their own life to the world. Let's begin with it."

— Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

112117 tombWASHINGTON, D.C. — In the modern-age, news about Jesus doesn't just sell newspapers, it racks up page views, too.

In 2016, when renovations around the site believed to protect the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem were underway, religious leaders agreed to the temporary removal of the marble slab covering the tomb so that restorers could install a moisture barrier to protect it. It would mark the first opening of the space in perhaps centuries.

A team from National Geographic, which had been at the site to document the restoration, was allowed, during a relatively short window of time, to document the opening of tomb, in words, photos and video. National Geographic noted the interest by the number of clicks on the story and images the team posted about those 60 hours, which appeared on its website, not its iconic magazine, because of its immediacy.

"There was this incredible response to the news story in October (of 2016)," said Kathryn Keane, vice president of exhibitions for National Geographic during a Nov. 9 interview with Catholic News Service.

More than 3 million viewers worldwide flocked to the National Geographic website to read the news documenting the removal of the slabs and to see photos that included images of broken marble around the tomb inscribed with a Christian cross.

"It was one of the highest-rated stories of the year for us," said Keane. "We got a sense from that, that there would be a lot of interest in this story."

Though the tomb of Christ had never been featured in the pages of National Geographic, the magazine's iconic yellow frame this December features a Rembrandt painting depicting the face of Jesus on its cover, along with an accompanying story about what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus.

The organization also had previously published the book "In the Footsteps of Jesus," which is now being sold in paperback at its store. National Geographic also will debut a documentary Dec. 3 on its cable channel about the restoration work at the tomb, and recently opened its "Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience" virtual exhibit, which uses 3-D and VR, virtual reality, technology to provide visitors to its Washington museum a different way to visit the tomb.

"We have for many years been taking people on journeys to places that they may never get to visit," said Keane, and with new technology, there are new ways to do that.

"We have many ways to tell a story," said National Geographic archaeologist-in-residence Fred Hiebert. "The exhibition is a chance to walk into Jerusalem and into the church itself, the magazine article is mainly about the larger context of the footsteps of Jesus, we have a book about that, too, with maps, great storytelling, very historical … we do the whole story."

The opportunity to present the story of the tomb arrived when officials from the Greek Orthodox Church asked National Geographic if it would be interested in covering the restoration. The Greek Orthodox, along with the Armenians and the Franciscans, share stewardship of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the main structure over the smaller shrine, called the Edicule (Latin for "little house"), covering the tomb.

Hiebert, who had worked on a previous exhibition about ancient Greeks, joined a group of engineers, led by scientist and professor Antonia Moropoulou, who directed a team from the National Technical University of Athens, while they restored the small shrine to structural and physical glory.

"Monuments talk and the tomb of Christ was talking to us," said Moropoulou, who spoke briefly at the opening night of the exhibition in Washington. "This was a place full of energy … it was a tomb but it was alive."

And the team from National Geographic captured part of that life, with images of pilgrims arriving, the work before and after the restoration, the opening of the tomb, the reopening of the Edicule and pilgrims crowding around the space once more.

J.J. Kelley, senior producer at National Geographic Explorer, had set up cameras inside the small shrine, hanging above the tomb to capture the moment when the slabs were lifted.

"I got chills, goose bumps being inside that space," Kelley said during a panel at the museum on the opening night of the virtual "Tomb of Christ" exhibition. "It's one of the most profound assignments you could ask for."

Part of that journey will air in the Dec. 3 documentary. Some of it is featured in the exhibit, and other parts of it have been posted in news items on the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.com.

"They were trusting of National Geographic, that we would get the story right," said Keane, of the religious leaders who gave the organization an exclusive media agreement, meaning no other organizations would have access to the story, to cover the restoration. "They knew we would tell the story the right way and that we would share it with the world in a way that other media organizations wouldn't."

National Geographic staff writer Kristin Romey asked the opening night panel whether anyone had stopped to question why the organization, "known for our wildlife, adventure, mountain climbing, pandas, did anyone stop and ask, why Jesus?"

"National Geographic tells the stories of people," said Kelley.

And a critical component of that includes faith and spirituality, Romey said.

"It is our job to document how people move," including through journeys of faith, Romey said. "That is just as important as understanding farming in the desert. This is one of the most important pilgrimage sites, if not the most important in Christianity."

Moropoulou shared during the opening evening of the exhibition her hopes for the journey of the small shrine, the tomb and a new life found in their restoration.

"When we opened tomb of Christ … it opened a door, from Jerusalem to the world, that made the history of the restoration of the holy Edicule, a possible history," she said. "Today this history is in front of you and has opened the doors of hope, the doors of the message of the Resurrection to the world. We hope the holy Edicule restored and the exhibition ... have their own trip, their autonomous voice, their own life to the world. Let's begin with it."

— Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Archaeologist finds his human side at the tomb of Christ

Archaeologist finds his human side at the tomb of Christ
WASHINGTON, D.C, — Fred Hiebert's identity is firmly grounded in academia and in his professional work as a scientist.

Over the years, he has studied and taught about ancient trade routes, such as the Silk Road, from China to Europe, and led underwater archaeology projects beneath the Black Sea.

The lively and friendly archaeologist-in-residence at Washington's National Geographic Museum is not a stranger, by any means, to ancient treasures and places.

He speaks about communing "like this," closing his eyes, with objects and in places thousands of years old. He gets excited talking about a 5,000-year-old piece of pottery or a 600-year-old brick, a piece at his office, which he excavated under water from a palace in central Asia.

"This was a sign of royalty to have that blue glaze," he explained, holding the decorated brick that is in the shape of a slice of pizza. It's part of the palace of Tamerlane, also known as Timur, a Turco-Mongol conqueror related to Genghis Khan.

"I've been to Machu Picchu, I've been to the tombs of the Mycenaean kings in Greece and it's … you commune with the past. You sort of close your eyes" trying to imagine cultures and people who lived there long ago, he said about his job.

It was an easy feat until his last assignment, one he wasn't expecting and which took him in 2016 and 2017 to the bustling city of Jerusalem and the place long believed to be the site where Christ was buried and where Christians believe that he returned to life.

"In this case, there's no possible way to close your eyes and commune with the past because everybody's pushing you," he said of the experience of visiting the Edicule, the small shrine within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which is the home of the tomb.

"I've never been in a place where a Greek Orthodox monk says, 'You have 30 seconds to be here'" and then tells you to exit, he said. That's the typical experience many pilgrims get when they arrive to venerate the tomb.

In addition to the quick visit, the tiny space within the shrine, where the tomb is located, snuggly holds three or four people at most. But that's where Hiebert ended up in 2016 after he had worked with National Geographic on an exhibit about the ancient Greeks.

Officials from the Greek Orthodox Church, who'd heard about the "The Greeks -- Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" exhibition that the National Geographic Museum in Washington had featured, called up museum officials to see whether they'd be interested in covering the restoration taking place at the site of the tomb of Christ.

"It's a big story," said Hiebert, who was one of those contacted about the project. "I thought, from my point of view, that's interesting but I usually don't normally work on projects that I don't know anything about. I'd never been to Israel."

But soon, Hiebert, described by some as the Indiana Jones of National Geographic, was on a plane from Washington to Jerusalem. That's where he first encountered the elbow-to-elbow experience many go through when he lined up next to eager pilgrims near the Edicule, Latin for "little house," which surrounds the tomb.

When he arrived, before the restoration, the shrine had scaffolding surrounding it. It was in danger of collapsing, which had led religious leaders to agree to the long-needed work to fortify the structure.

"They threw this iron frame around it. It was really ugly. It looked like a bird cage, like a jail," said Hiebert.

Along with a media team from National Geographic, he ended up being present at different stages of the restoration work, but also for the experience of being in a small group allowed in the shrine surrounding the tomb when the church closed for 60 hours in October 2016. That's when marble slabs were taken off the tomb, exposing the cave so the restoration team could put a moisture barrier around it.

The National Geographic team ended up filming, not just the work of those 60 hours, but also the emotions surrounding the opening of the tomb. Surprisingly, that included the emotions of its archaeologist. Hiebert said his knees started shaking during the opening of the tomb.

"I'm not supposed to be like that," Hiebert said in a Nov. 9 interview with Catholic News Service. "Earlier in the year, I was all by myself in (King) Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. My knees didn't shake then."

But the centuries-old tomb underneath the Edicule and the flurry of activity that surrounds it is unlike any other. In the Valley of the Kings, for example, people have long disappeared, a contrast to the emotions Hiebert saw from pilgrims venerating the tomb in Jerusalem.

Though the tomb has many lessons, for Hiebert, it showed him an important one about himself: that even a scientist may occasionally have emotions while at work.

"I'm an archaeologist, so I'm a scientist first, but it was just as important for me as a scientist to be following this, as it was as a human," he said, which may be why his knees started shaking.

"There is a certain … something about the Church of Holy Sepulcher. It's alive. It's a living monument," he said.

— Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

To experience one of the holiest Christian sites, head to Washington

To experience one of the holiest Christian sites, head to Washington
112117 tomb 2WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the nation's capital, a $15 museum ticket and pair of 3-D glasses is the passport Christian pilgrims and others need to experience what may be the holiest site in Christianity.

Employing state-of-the-art technology, the National Geographic Museum in Washington Nov. 15 opened an exhibit that virtually transports visitors to the streets of Jerusalem and through the doors of a small church that protects what is believed to be the site of Christ's burial and, to Christians, the site of his resurrection.

"We put you in the Old City, we talk to you a little about the walls of the city, how they move over time and where the Gospels say that the Crucifixion took place, and try to give you the context," said Kathryn Keane, vice president of exhibitions for National Geographic during a Nov. 9 interview with Catholic News Service.

After an introductory video explaining some of the tumultuous history surrounding the tomb of Christ site, where structures above have been built and torn down repeatedly over the centuries, visitors walk toward a set where a virtual guide projected on a wall welcomes them to a courtyard just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

It's a visual appetizer to get them ready for the experience of, not just entering via 3-D through its doors, but also of flying over it and witnessing, from a bird's eye view, a time-lapse of the structure's physical history.

"We're not only taking you in the church the way it looks today but we also go up above the church and we take you back through time," said Keane. "It's a bit of a time machine and we show you all the evolutions of the building, from the time that it was, under (Roman emperor) Hadrian, a pagan temple."

"This is not what I would consider a traditional exhibit. It's more an experience than it is an exhibit," said National Geographic archaeologist Fred Hiebert, whose unique experience inside the church led to "Tomb of Christ: The Church of Holy Sepulchre Experience," which runs at the Washington museum until August 2018.

Last year, Hiebert witnessed various stages of a nine-month-long, $3 million restoration of the small shrine within the Holy Sepulcher that protects the tomb of Christ. The shrine often is referred to as the Edicule, Latin for "little house." During the process, the three religious groups with jurisdiction over the structure, and who had agreed on its restoration -- the Armenians, the Franciscans and the Greek Orthodox -- agreed to also allow restorers to put a moisture barrier around the the tomb itself.

The tomb likely had not been opened in centuries and, at some point, marble slabs were placed on top, perhaps to keep pilgrims from taking home parts of it. It has been venerated since the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor who, in the fourth century, sent a team in search of the holy burial site. Soon after, they identified a quarry as that place and Constantine's mother, Helena, had a shrine built around it.

The exhibit explains how the effects of weather, earthquakes and also great numbers of pilgrims, many of whom light candles that contribute to a buildup of soot, had brought the structure to the brink of collapse.

It also explains the dilemma religious leaders faced when they learned that by injecting liquid mortar into the shrine to reinforce it, it presented the possibility that it would seep into the tomb itself -- defeating the purpose of protecting the most important part. They had to swiftly decide to shut down the shrine to allow the team to protect the tomb -- and that meant briefly opening it.

"They said, 'Do it, but don't take more than 60 hours to do it,'" said Hiebert.

When restorers temporarily shut down the site, Hiebert and other members of the National Geographic team were present to witness the opening of the tomb, which exposed the original limestone bed and the walls of the cave, which Christians believe witnessed Christ returning to life.

"To think that we, we were some of the few people who were locked in that church, got to see what people for hundreds and hundreds of years of Christianity hope to see, and we had a chance to see that ... if there's anything that drove me to do a virtual exhibit, it was that guilt," Hiebert said to an audience gathered at the museum on the opening night of the exhibit. "We have to tell the world about this."

The National Geographic team scanned the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the smaller structure inside, the Edicule, in such detail, that visitors who stop by the exhibit can don a VR, or virtual reality, headset and enter the tiny shrine, navigate the small passage way that leads to the tomb, a space that accommodates no more than three or four people, and see an exact visual representation of the tomb, without the real-life inconveniences.

"As tourist, you get maybe 15 seconds in the tomb and then they move you out," explained National Geographic engineer Corey Jaskolski at the opening night event. "Part of capturing this and being able to share it with the world through the National Geographic Museum is that we can let people spend as long as they want in the tomb. You can go in there and have your own personal experience and be able to see it in all its glory without the interruptions and bustle of the crowd around."

The exhibit explains some of the technology the restoration team from the National Technical University of Athens used, as well as what National Geographic used to scan the images that made the visual aspect of the exhibit possible.

"We can tell a story about great science and there's a certain great aspect of faith to it, too," said Hiebert.

Keane said the project is an intersection of history, architecture, science, technology and faith.

"All of these things aren't at odds with each other," she said.

The exhibit displays the document that Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Franciscan leaders signed in 2016, which made the restoration possible, while also noting in a timeline that the groups had agreed in principle in 1959 that the "little house" needed the renovations.

Hiebert applauded the cooperation among the religious groups as a "brave" and said of their ability to agree, "That happens once in a lifetime with these guys."

The project shows, Hiebert said, that there can be cooperation among different groups in the Middle East.

"Having reviewed the history of the (Holy Sepulcher) church, and realizing that it's a contested space, in a contested area … here was a project that was bringing people together to do something that was positive," he said. "That is a metaphor for optimism in the Middle East. In a place as difficult as Jerusalem, as complex as the Middle East, it's still possible to do an optimistic idealistic project."

Archaeologist Hiebert said the exhibit, as well as a TV show about the restoration of the tomb of Christ that National Geographic documented, will debut Dec. 3 on its cable channel. The December cover story of National Geographic magazine also focuses on archaeology and what it reveals about the life of Christ. It shows that science and faith can go hand in hand, Hiebert said.

"When we look back on the history of exploration and even the history of National Geographic, we realize that this idea that science is divorced from faith is not true," he said. "It seemed to me natural that National Geographic would be in a position of, here's a site, which is sacred and historic, and we're about to embark on an epic adventure."

— Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service