Good evening my dear followers along the Way! I have gone silent for what feels like forever because I have been traveling for two days and just now getting to post. What surprises me though is that technically we left the Holy Land Wednesday morning, but with the whole moving across different time zones thing, we gained back the hours we lost when we traveled to Israel nearly two weeks ago. So here we are almost 36 hours later and a lot has happened in that time, so let me get you all caught up. Fair warning, this post is long as I use John Peterson’s book, that we had with us, to help flesh out the experience of walking the stations of the cross through the Old City.
Our final morning began before the first rays of light broke through the partly cloudy morning. We gathered at the pillar in the center of the courtyard at Saint George’s at 5:30am. We had returned from Iyad’s house in Jericho the night before at a decent time; enough time for me to run into the Old City to buy twenty beeswax candles so that I could make it to the Church of the Resurrection to light the candles and pray for people back home. I managed to make it back to Saint George’s by 8:30pm to finish packing and get to bed. I am sure everyone was packing and trying to figure out how on earth they were going to fit everything in their bags. So 5:30am came quickly, perhaps too quickly, but it was essential for us to get an early start to walk the stations of the cross before the city woke up and became busy. We were prepped by John Peterson of what to expect as we walked through the quiet streets of the Old City and we were instructed not to take pictures because we were in pilgrim mode and not tourist mode.
The silent contemplative procession left Saint George’s and we walked the two blocks from the campus to Herod’s Gate. From there we entered the city and proceeded to the first two stations that are housed within the Church of the Flagellation. John carried the cross to the first station, and from that point on one member of the group would carry the cross between stations. The streets of the city were quiet, except for the trash collectors driving their narrow tractor-like vehicles that could navigate the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City. At the first station, and every subsequent station, we began with a versicle from John and then our response, “by the holy cross, you have redeemed the world.” (Or something close to this.) Then John gave us a short description of what occurred at this station. We read a portion of scripture, and then prayed three short litanies from John’s book, A Walk in Jerusalem, on walking and praying the stations of the cross.
At the first station Jesus is judged. So we picked up right where we left off the day before when we visited Caiaphas’ Palace and the place where Jesus was incarcerated. “At the First Station, we are confronted head-on with a divine reversal. All the things we hold so dear—wealth, power, security—are replaced by a crown of thorns. Everything that seems to give us meaning in life—authority, prestige, our own self-importance—is turned upside down by a crown of thorns.” (Peterson, 3) We prayed for world leaders and those who administer justice with mercy, for those condemned to death, and for ourselves when we judge others instead of seeing the face of Christ in them.
We crossed the courtyard in the same church for the second station where Jesus receives his Cross. John told us that he would not have carried the full cross as we so often see in depictions of this station, and unlike the cross that we carried that morning. Instead he would have received just the cross beam to carry to the execution site, the quarry that was just beyond the city walls and was only good for executions. “In Jerusalem, the second station is at the Church of the Condemnation. Pilgrims stand on the beveled flagstones of an actual Roman road. This is one of the few places in Jerusalem where there is original Roman pavement on the Via Dolorosa, one of the few places where Jesus placed his own feet that day. Most of the rest of the route of the Via Dolorosa is approximately sixteen feet above the original path. Let us think about those sixteen feet. Every single millimeter, every single inch of dirt on which the pilgrims walk includes dust from the shoes and tears from the eyes of pilgrims. We join with them in weeping for the prisoner condemned as The King of the Jews, despised and rejected, carrying so much more than a heavy, bruising, rough beam of wood. He is enduring the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne.” (Peterson, 5-6) It is deeply moving to think that we have joined that procession to Golgotha; a procession that has lasted nearly two thousand years and will continue for years to come.
We then left the church and started walking down the road to the Armenian Catholic Church and the third station where Jesus falls for the first time. “Jesus will fall three times during his walk to Calvary. God falls. God is not supposed to fall, but God does fall. Like the crown of thorns, this is a divine reversal. Everything we hold so important—power, physical strength—is turned upside down. God becomes weak, no longer the all-powerful, but one who can fall, one who can die. God becomes human in the person of Jesus, and we confront the humanity of God in the act of Jesus falling.” (Peterson, 10) We prayed for all who are weighed down by sorrow and grief, for those who feel physical and emotional exhaustion, and for those who seek to be agents of God’s healing presence in the world.
The fourth station is right next to the third station because this is where Jesus met his mother. “This is one station at which we all have something in common, because we have all been mothered. At the other stations we may have similar concerns, but at this station our relationships with our own mothers provide a bond with Jesus as we reflect on his meeting his mother. We think about Jesus’ mother, Mary, as she saw her Son in agony and in pain, and we lift up all mothers who have to see their sons and their daughters suffer. We know the tremendous pain of parents seeing their child in pain, seeing their child in any kind of agony. We know the pain of parents who see their child die. As Jesus meets his mother, their love and joy in each other are whole and unblemished. They are one in their total obedience to the heavenly Father’s will. The pain and sorrow of the sacrifice God asks of them now is almost overwhelming. Here at this station we give thanks to all who have cared for us as we say, ‘I’m sorry when I have hurt you. Help me to be more Christlike in my relationships. Help me to wear a crown of thorns instead of demanding a crown of gold in my relationships.’” (Peterson, 13-14) Here we prayed for our mothers and fathers, and all who have loved and shepherded us in our lives. We also prayed for those who had difficult relationships with their parents, hoping that they know the love of God as the Father to us all. This station was hard for me because I remember very vividly how my grandmother had to bury two of her own sons. I am comforted that she is with both of them now in God.
We continued walk the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrows” to the fifth station where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross. It is here that John reminds us that the scriptures are color blind. We know of people’s nationality or at least where they are from, but never to we know what they look like. We do not know the color of Simon of Cyrene’s skin. We do not know if he was black, white, or olive-skinned. All we know is that he came from the area of North Africa that is now called Libya. “At the Fifth Station, we are given the opportunity to lift up our own prejudices and fears to God: prejudices and fears that stem from our own weakness, that make us less human because of the anxieties they provoke. We may become anxious when we encounter someone with a different skin color, a different religious tradition, or a different ethnicity. We lift up and surrender our prejudices and our fear at this station so that we may be healed and live as Christ lived. We accept the invitation to turn upside down the value systems on which much of society is based. This station is another example of the divine reversal.” (Peterson, 17-18) Here we prayed that we remember that we all created in the image of God and to surrender our fears when someone is different from us.
We turned a few corners and made our way towards the Cardo Maximus, the Main Street of any Roman city. We stopped outside a small convent where the sixth station is located where Veronica wipes Jesus’ brow. From her home on this street, a woman sees Jesus approaching. In her compassion for his pain and suffering, she quickly dampens a towel and darts out of her house. Going between the guards, she wipes and cools his ravaged face. Later she will discover an icon of that face, marvelously imprinted on her towel; she will come to be known as Veronica. The word Veronica means ‘true icon,’ and icon ‘image.’ God has sent his Son, the exact image of his own being. In her compassion, Veronica sees through the horror and ugliness to the beauty of Jesus. She seems to know instinctively that it is the Lord who has made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved. As the Scripture takes Jesus from his judgment to his crucifixion, Veronica comes forward from our hearts to wipe the blood, sweat, and dust from his face.” (Peterson, 19-21) At this small convent the nuns continue to offer that radical hospitality of Veronica. If you need food, clothing, or shelter, they will provide it with no questions asked; one doesn’t even have to be Christian. To fund their missionary efforts, they write and sell icons; a perfect way to honor Veronica’s actions that day.
We continued on to the seventh station where Jesus falls for a second time. “At the top of the Via Dolorosa he falls for the second time. In Jesus’ day a city gate stood at the spot where the Via Dolorosa feeds into the original main road of Jerusalem, the Cardo. It was not unknown for Roman authorities to let the condemned get to this gate before granting them a pardon or commutation of their sentence, so the execution detail holds the procession here for a while. But Pilate has granted the one and only pardon this day to Barabbas. Jesus knows this. There is no pardon for the supreme pardoner: No one in authority cares about his fate. Willingly he gives himself to be wounded because of our sins. Jesus knows the way he is walking is irrevocable now. It is the way to his death. Even though Simon of Cyrene is carrying his cross, Jesus’ energy is running out. His time is running out.” (Peterson, 23) As we walk in the Jesus’ footsteps carrying our own crosses, I could help but feel the impending fate of Jesus. We climbed the same steps up to the Cardo and I could feel the weight of the experience on my heart. We are almost half-way, and there is still many more steps to make before we were done.
Not far from the seventh station is the eighth station where Jesus talks to the weeping women. ” Seeing that no last-minute pardon is coming for any of their prisoners, the execution escort prepares to get the condemned men moving again. Realizing what this means, some women who have accompanied the procession begin to mourn and wail aloud. Their compassion is aroused by the sight of the beaten and abused men being driven or dragged to execution. But their compassion for Jesus is heightened by their own recognition that he is the innocent victim of the political machinations of their own leaders and of the representatives of the Roman occupying power. Jesus turns to them. ‘Daughters of Jerusalem,’ he says, ‘do not weep for me.’ Jesus’ death is not the accidental by-product of contemporary politics. It is a deliberate act of self-giving. He tells the women of Jerusalem to weep not for him but for themselves.” (Peterson, 27) At this station Jesus is telling us to not weep for him, but for ourselves in our injustices and in our cruelty towards others and God’s creation.
We continued on to the ninth station just outside of the Church of the Resurrection. “The execution procession has come out of the city gate into an area called Golgotha, or Calvary. This is the unused quarry that Herod the Great made into a public place so people could see the executions and learn the dreadful lesson that the crucifixions are intended to teach. But often passersby are indifferent. On that busy Passover eve, how many people do you think really cared that another three men were going to be crucified? The Roman guard, the sentenced men carrying their crosses, and the crowd following the procession add congestion to the busy street when everyone is hurrying home. We fall whenever we pass by a person who needs us. Jesus has become the lamb about to be slaughtered, the sheep about to be sheared, and he never says a word. Though he, of the three sentenced to die, seems least able to withstand the pain and awful humiliation, he endures it humbly; he never says a word. How often have we passed indifferently by such a person?” (Peterson, 33) How often have we been indifferent to people around us? How often?
We entered the Church of the Resurrection through the Crusader doors and we left our cross outside because as Anglicans we technically don’t have the right to have formal prayers in the church. So, leaving the cross outside is a nod to this, and they allow us to finish our walk. As we entered, we were met with a cacophony of voices and chanting as two completely liturgies were occurring by Jesus’ tomb; one by the Roman Catholics, and the other by the Greek Orthodox. We gathered in the side chapel for the tenth station where Jesus was stripped of his garment. “For Jesus, this is perhaps the most terrible moment in the whole appalling day. As a Jew he has been taught never to be seen naked. To be exposed to the curiosity of anyone and everyone passing by is one of the worst things that can happen. His humiliation, his degradation, is virtually complete. Only the absolute helplessness of being stretched on the cross remains. We stop to think how often people strip other people of their dignity for their own gratification; of the many times we have stripped other people of their dignity, of their human worth, just so we might feel a little bit better ourselves.” (Peterson, 34-36) As we prayed this station I was reminded of our Baptismal Covenant, where we make promises to uphold the dignity of every human being, and how I have failed to honor the image of God in others. We remembered Jesus’ being stripped of his garments, and we offered up all the times when we, too, have stripped other people.
We then moved to the Chapel of Adam, which is hewn into the rock underneath where the cross was erected into the rock. It is here that tradition says where Adam and Eve are buried, and as Jesus’ blood flows down the rock it mingles with Adam and Eve, giving them new life as Jesus the second Adam. In this small chapel we prayed the eleventh station where Jesus was crucified. “After the humiliation of nakedness, Jesus is subjected to the physical agony of having great spikes, [nine-inch nails,] hammered through his wrists to stake his arms to the crossbeam on which he lies. The beam is then raised until it fits into its socket in the upright beam. Jesus hangs suspended from the spikes hammered through his wrists. A third great spike is driven through his ankles. Jesus himself says, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Those who hear him do not know that it is because of our sins that he is pierced and that we die with him on his cross. They do not know that nails are not what hold him to the cross but rather his life-giving love for us. Three condemned men hang on their crosses, slowly dying. But it is the man in the middle who holds everyone’s attention, even that of his companions in agony. One of these joins the mockers in the crowd and screams insults at him. The other man protests and, perhaps even to his own astonishment, acknowledges that Jesus really is a king. Despite his own weakness and pain, Jesus turns his head toward this man, saying, ‘I promise you that today you will be in paradise with me.’” (Peterson, 37-39) For most of us, we are feeling the weight of Jesus’ actions in our hearts. Several pilgrims prayed this station with tears in their eyes. How can we not feel the enormity of the situation? How can we ignore our own actions that make us complicit in allowing sin, suffering, and death to consume us?
We stayed in the Chapel of Adam for the twelfth station where Jesus died on the cross. “Death is not far from him now. The other two men are enduring their execution strongly, but Jesus is visibly weakening. ‘Father,’ he whispers, ‘in your hands I place my spirit.’ Suddenly his face changes and he cries out in a loud voice, “It is finished. It is accomplished! All that the Father sent me to do I have accomplished!” He dies.” (Peterson, 42) It is at this moment when the feeling of hopeless creeps in. There is no going back. Jesus is dead. His lungs are no longer drawing breath. His heart is no longer beating. His suffering is over, but for those gathered around the cross their suffering continues as they weep for their loved one.
We then moved down to Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea for the thirteenth station where Jesus is taken down from the cross. “As the bodies are about to be taken down and thrown into a mass grave, two local dignitaries arrive with an order from the governor allowing them to remove Jesus’ body and to bury it privately. The two, Joseph and Nicodemus, remove the iron spikes and lower Jesus’ bloody, grimy, sweat-caked body into the arms of his mother and the tiny band of watchers. By now it is too late in the day to complete the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial before Sabbath begins. Therefore, the body is taken to the nearby tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. Now it awaits preparation for proper burial before Sabbath. For Jesus, all the suffering, all the pain, is over. All the words that could be spoken have been spoken. Now we are left with silence.” (Peterson, 45) This was another station that acutely affected me. Not too long ago I too stood in Joseph and Nicodemus’ shoes, as I stood over the body of my father. My mother and I watched as the nurses began to prepare his body. They removed his wedding ring; the first time it had ever left his finger. I didn’t know it then but it will be the same ring that I will wear as a sign of the covenant that I made with my wife to love each other and to serve God. We prayed over my father’s body as he was taken away for his final journey to God, his creator.
We stayed in the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea for the fourteenth and final station where Jesus is laid in the tomb. “In the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, there is a small building called the Empty Tomb. What other church, what other cathedral, what other basilica in the world hosts an Empty Tomb? None other does. Such a church is found only in Jerusalem. Our roots stem from this Empty Tomb. This Empty Tomb makes sense of our lives. This Empty Tomb gives meaning and purpose to our lives. This Empty Tomb makes us all citizens of Jerusalem – not only this earthly Jerusalem, but also the heavenly Jerusalem, where we look forward to feasting on the heavenly bread.” (Peterson, 47) Even though we were all carrying the weight of the deaths of Jesus and our loved ones, we ended this station with hope. Though we would not experience the moment of resurrection that day, we all know how the story ends, or rather how it continues to this day with each of us.
We left the Church of the Resurrection having walked in the footsteps of Jesus and having shared in his passion. We remembered how we have been complicit in the sins of the world and how we have failed to honor God. But we also remembered that it is precisely because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb that we have a pathway back to God, so that sin and death do not have the last word but God in Jesus Christ, the indwelling Word that was God and with God from the beginning of creation, have the last word thereby offering us hope in our earthly pilgrimage.