All journeys have identifiable moments that can be used to depict the trajectory of the journey. The traditional stopping points that Catholics use to mark the journey of Christ to his Passion and Death are the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Today, I actually traveled the presumed route of Christ’s journey to his Passion and Death. In homage of my Catholic heritage, I will describe the experience in fourteen stations.
Station One: From the Upper Room
I started my journey today very early. I woke up as soon as I could, in order to take advantage of the sun rising over the Mount of Olives as it casts its golden light on the old city of Jerusalem. I began my journey from the south of the old city, where the Upper Room is located, and moved to the east of the city, where Gethsemane is located.
What struck me most about this walk was how the old city was in clear sight the entire journey. From the Upper Room to the Gethsemane isn’t a very long walk, but during the walk, Jesus would have intentionally had to walk around the Temple counterclockwise. It would have only been 90º around the temple, but he still had to deliberately avoid it. The temple would have been in sight the entire time.
Station Two: Gethsemane
After his journey to Gethsemane, Jesus stayed there to pray. So much of the details of the story get lost when you don’t know the physical place. Gethsemane, again, is in direct view of the temple, and not that far away. Of the many places in the Bible that are mentioned, we have very few ways of knowing exactly where the physical location was because the cites have been destroyed and rebuilt many times. But we do know Gethsemane, and we do know the Temple. The location of these do not belong to mere speculation. There is a particular rock in the church at Gethsemane in which it is believed that Jesus prayed. Knowing that this is “the rock” is a little more speculative, but being by the rock, and touching it, makes the experience of knowing that Jesus spent his last moments in this area very real.
But so does the very word “Gethsemane.” The word literally means “olive press.” Why do you press olives? …well… to get oil of course. And what is the real meaning of the word “Christ?” …”The Anointed One.” And what is “The Anointed One” anointed with? …that’s right… oil… from olives.
Whether Christ literally came to this spot, or Gethsemane is just a literary device describing the experience of Christ before his crucifixion, there is something really interesting going on. Jesus did not enter the sanctuary of the Temple to find the strength he needed to make his final journey, he found his graced anointing through prayer, in the midst of the pressure of life – the olive press. It was through his encounter with hardship, not religiosity, that gave birth to his deep inner strength.
For ourselves, it brings up the question, “Where do we find God?” Many people may answer “The Church / the Temple / the Synagogue / The Mosque.” But many people will also answer places that are outside these sanctuaries as well. Gardens, forests, beaches, mountains, and so on. Little secret that you should know… it’s O.K. to find God outside of the Church, Jesus did too.
Station Three: David Gets Lost the First Time
Gosh Jerusalem is a confusing place! There is a simple valley between Gethsemane and Jerusalem which is now littered with roadways and cemeteries. To get from one area to the other, you need to zig and zag. For the soldiers who took Jesus, it would have been more of a straight shot. They didn’t have to avoid passing cars.
It also would have been a lot easier for them because they probably didn’t turn the map on the wrong side like I did. I continued to go counter clockwise around the city. When I would arrive at a gate, I looked at the map and saw that it wasn’t the gate I was looking for, so I continued going around until I realized that I was on the other side of the city walls, and had missed the gate that I was supposed to enter. Oops!
Station Four: David Finds the Path
No sense in going back around the city, instead I walked through it. I found the Via Doloroso (which literally translates the Way of Sorrows… the Way of the Cross), and was able to find the gate where the soldiers would have led Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. It is very comforting when someone is lost to find their way again. But now that I was at the gate entering the city, and beginning the Stations of the Cross, I had a new problem, the Stations of the Cross are not exactly marked the same way that they are in a church. They are not so easy to find in the streets of Jerusalem.
Station Five: David Buys a Map
Even when you have found your way, it helps to have a map. A simple guidebook with pictures and descriptions of the Stations is an enormous help to someone who doesn’t know a thing… like me. A quick trip to a gift shop and ten sheckels provided me with a map. Now, I can more easily find the places designated for the last moments of Jesus Passion and Death.
Station Six: David Walks the Stations of the Cross
After walking up and down the Via Doloroso three times, I finally know what I’m looking for. There is a courtyard of a college which is near the old temple. From here, Caiaphas would have judged Jesus, then down the road, no more than a block really (I used to think these events were separated by miles and miles), the area where the Roman Consul used to be. This would have been where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus, had him beaten, and so forth. The prison where Jesus was kept, and finally the Second Station, where Jesus took up his cross.
Station Seven: David Gets Lost the Second Time
The instructions on the map clearly state “At the corner in El-Wad Road stands the Polish chapel which marks the third station.” Well, when you get to the intersection of Via Doloroso and El-Wad, it isn’t very clearly marked. There are plenty of stores and shops along the way, and plenty of barkers luring you with their low, Arab voices, that I find somewhat intriguing, and somewhat intrusive, “You are welcome my friend. Hello. Excuse me. Come in…”
But the Third Station? It isn’t very clearly marked, and I walked around the corner four times before I saw a tour group passing by, and followed them. Sure enough, the guide knew where the third station was, and I was back on track.
Station Eight: Discovering the Journey
What I find remarkable about a journey, is that you really don’t know what the journey is about, until you are on the journey. You can make plans. You can make schedules. But all of those things can be as harmful as they are helpful in the process of the journey.
I have realized this truth many times during this pilgrimage. I felt a calling to go on the journey, and had a strong idea of what was going to happen, but I have really discovered the value of solidarity, and the value of the Church which calls us into solidarity, through the journey itself. The questions I needed to ask, and the things I needed to see were predicted, but could never be truly determined in advance. You have to be on the journey, to make the decisions that the journey requires you to make.
That is the macrocosm of “life on a journey.” The microcosm which led me to reflect on that truth is what I discovered while on Via Doloroso today. I didn’t plan it, but half way through this experience, I realized that I had forgone breakfast. It was nearly noon, and I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all morning, save communion at Mass in Gethsemane.
Great! I’ll do the same the rest of the way! I’ll fast during the entire journey to Golgotha. It will make me more aware of the experiences that Jesus went through, although… (selfishly thinking to myself…) Jesus died in the Spring, and it is now Summer. It is much warmer NOW than Jesus would have had to endure, therefore I am the one who… no… hold on… I’m not going to go down that road. It is quite clear that Christ had a more difficult experience than mine. Giving up food and water for another hour or two is nothing in comparison.
Station Nine: David Gets Lost the Third Time
Why can’t they make these places easier to find! This is such a back-assward city! I’ve never had such a hard time finding my way. I’ve gotten used the fact that the stations are these little nitch chapels along the Via Doloroso, usually hidden behind a merchant who is trying to sell you exotic scarves, but this is ridiculous! Somewhere back here there is supposed to be a marking for the eighth station, but I can’t find it anywhere, and never did.
Station Ten: The Holy Sepulchre
I merely walk through a place where others are walking. A Maronite Church, A Greek Orthodox church. I stop to pray, and begin to walk back the other way. A priest stops me and points me the other direction. When I exit, I enter a courtyard, and for the first time, I see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is amazing to be lost, wonder in the dark, through narrow passages that lead you into mystical Greek style churches, and then to open up to an amazing courtyard filled with people, coming as pilgrims to the place of Jesus’ death and burial.
All expectations have been thrown out. First, I realized that I hadn’t really walked that far as I had imagined I would need to walk once I was in the Old city of Jerusalem. The path has been just a couple of blocks. I had always imagined that the Via Doloroso would have been miles and miles. Not so.
I also expected the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be a church like that of St. Peter’s in Rome. Large beyond scale and well lit. Not so.
There is mutual ownership and use of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which makes it one of the most disorganized, gaudy buildings I have seen on this pilgrimage. Every Christian denomination is interested in doing their own thing, so there is no cohesive theme to the construction or art within the building. The Greeks have their portion, the Romans have theirs, the Armenians have theirs. Together they coexist… sort of.
In the Church, there are the final Stations of the Cross representing where Jesus was nailed to the Cross, where he died, and where he was taken down from the cross. And of course, in the center of the church is the most important artifact in Christianity, the Tomb of Jesus.
Station Eleven: David Enters the Tomb
As a pilgrim, documenting my experience is always awkward. I’m always taking pictures and standing outside of myself thinking “What does this mean? How do I represent this? What will others find intriguing?” It is very difficult to have a subjective experience of a shrine or time of prayer, when you are constantly looking up and asking yourself, “Is this the best the light is going to get, or will it shift in a half hour? What is the best angle to accentuate the natural lines and perspective of the edifice in the photo? What do you mean Mary died here in Jerusalem? I thought she died in Ephesus. You mean she has two tombs? That’s weird.”
Sometimes however, I am overwhelmed at what I am seeing and must forego the objective, and feel the power of a pilgrim’s purpose. I’m standing in line to enter the tomb of Jesus. I have a whole list of books which I was required to read in graduate school which argue whether or not Jesus really died, how he died, if he was he buried, where the real tomb was, on and on and on and on. But here I am at a rock slab that has been revered for years. Is it Jesus’ actual tomb?
It doesn’t matter.
Jesus died. He was buried, and with that burial, Adam and Eve’s Sin was buried with him. I am a sinner because Adam’s sin has been passed to me, but now in this space, I can choose to put my sins in THIS tomb. I can bury them with the burial of the sacrifice of Christ.
And I do. Before I enter, I recall the many failings and limitations that I have as a person and say a simple prayer, “All of these Lord, I put here, in your tomb, in your death. Take them and do with them as you want, but to me, they are buried.”
I enter the tomb. It is cold and serene. A tiny, cramped space, with a stone tablet where Jesus was laid to rest. I put my hand on the stone and felt its cold, worn surface, made silken smooth by centuries of pilgrims who have also put their hands here before me. I felt a surge go through me by the presence of this holy site. It is the kind of connection to energy so deep within the universe that it makes you realize the power of an individual, and the miniscule threat that death is. Christ has conquered death. It is no longer a limitation. Here my own sinfulness will remain, and I can go forth without fear. Without fear.
The last few days I have reflected on that word so many times. Fear is what kept the Apostles in the Upper Room. Fear is what the Israelis use to control the Palestinians. Fear is the border we have in our own lives that atrophies our possibilities, and confines us to the sinfulness inherent in society. But this tomb represents the end to all that. I can no longer be afraid.
Station Twelve: David Leaves the Tomb
They don’t let you stay long in the tomb. I guess they remember what happened the last time someone spent three days there, and they are trying to avoid another big “to-do.”
Coming out of the cramped, confined space of the Tomb, I could understand the joy that Jesus must have felt when he came out. I felt as I had been… resurrected. It was refreshing, invigorating. I felt as If had all the energy in the… wait a minute. I’m hungry… and really, really thirsty.
No wonder the gospel narratives have so many stories about Jesus eating with his Apostles after the Resurrection, the whole Crucifixion thing must have made Jesus a little low on the electrolyte count. It could leave a person wanting.
I arrive at a stand selling fresh squeezed orange juice, and in one gulp, feel the life of water reenter my body. I had lost so much water from the sweat pouring out of me on today’s journey, that I had forgotten the vitality that a drink can bring to a person.
Refreshed. Revived. Resurrected. I felt ready to live out the prayer that the Stations of the Cross should mean to all of us. It should not lead us to sadness and sorrow, weeping inside the church for hours, but should lead us to courage, joy, and a passion for the gift of life.
Station Thirteen: David Visits the Western Wall
Having completed the task of the doing the Stations of the Cross, I sought out brotherly relations with the other children of Abraham. I went to the Western Wall of the Temple. The Jewish people have revered this site for centuries as the only remnant of the great Temple that Solomon built. It is tremendous to see the faithfulness of the Jewish people who come here and pray, as God has instructed them to do in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though it has less significance for me, it is clear to see that this site is as important as St. Peter’s is in Rome, or the Holy Sepulcher is here, for Christians. This is the point of unification for all Jewish people.
Station Fourteen: David Tries to Visit the Muslim Quarter
Having visited the important site in Jerusalem for my Jewish brothers and sisters, I intended to go to the sites of my Muslim brothers and sisters, however, as I approached the Muslim quarter I was stopped by an Israeli solder. “No… not here.” He said to me. I was surprised, and a little sad.
I have made many Arab and Palestinean friends the last few days. After five minutes of talking with them, we shake hands with a closeness that I have only experienced with someone with whom I share the title “brother.” I am sure that anyone of them would take me into the Muslim Quarter if they were here with me now. All I needed was a chance to explain to any of the Muslims here, who I was, and what I was doing. I’m sure I could find someone who would walk by my side, and tell me what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
But I’m in front of an Israeli guard, blocking my path. The decision now is no longer just about being in solidarity with Muslims by visiting their holy temple, it was a decision whether or not to be in conformity with the Israeli State. I still have to get out of this country. If I cross an Israeli soldier, I’ll be branded. I will be considered a supporter of Palestine. I will have my bags thoroughly searched, and possibly parts of my equipment, camera/laptop confiscated. I can’t risk that. Not now. I turned around, obeying the will of the Israeli solider, and somewhat disappointed with myself.
What happened to that surge of life that had rushed into me only an hour before when I came out of the Holy Sepulcher? What happened to the vitality felt while eating and drinking for the first time on this hot, long day? Instead, I am turning around, taking the bus, taking the train, and going back to Ibillin.I’m not defeated. I had come to realize that I am not responsible for fighting every battle. I am here to make the journey that I am meant to make. For today, that journey has been completed. I have become aware of my own triumphs, and my own limitations. Tomorrow’s journey is for tomorrow. Who knows the trajectory, or what stations will mark it?