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Retracing Jesus' Steps in Jerusalem: Visiting the Via Dolorosa
BY Virginia Morrow Black
The Christian visiting the Holy Land today continues a tradition started by early followers of Jesus many centuries ago: stopping at places associated with the Lord's passion and death. The pilgrim traces the steps of Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Through the noisy, narrow, crowded streets of the walled city of Old Jerusalem, the pilgrim wends a prayerful way, following Christ.
The starting point is usually the Rock of the Agony inside the Church of All Nations, on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. There, eight ancient olive trees, said to date from Christ's time, still stand. The word Gethsemane means “olive press” in Aramaic, and the area is carefully tended by the Franciscans.
The pilgrim is amazed at the close proximity of the Holy Land shrines. “Why, you can stand here on the Mount of Olives and look right across the way, and see — there's Jerusalem before you,” exclaims a surprised tourist. “Jesus didn't have to go far at all to get to Pilate.”
It is true. The Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrow, is directly across the way within the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The morning sun colors Jerusalem a golden yellow as the pilgrim enters the square-mile city. Upon entering by the Damascus Gate, the most handsome of Jerusalem's eight gates, a guide explains that this was the main entrance to the city during Roman times.
The visitor is stirred to awe at a city 40 centuries old, the nerve center of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Jerusalem is layer upon layer of civilization, each layer a coveted city once fought over, destroyed and rebuilt. Jerusalem, full of tensions, full of holiness, the home of the three great monotheistic religions, reflects this tension, this holy demeanor, in some of the monuments and rubble that have withstood these 40 centuries of spiritual foment and world-ly turmoil.
To the Christian, however, making the 14 Stations of the Cross, the tomb of Jesus, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the end of the Via Dolorosa, is the final goal.
At the start of the Via Dolorosa is the Convent of the Sisters of Zion. The convent's vaulted basement covers the remains of an ancient Roman pavement (Lithostratos) made of large flagstones that were specially etched to prevent horses from slipping. It is in this area that the Fortress Antonia stood 2,000 years ago. Here Jesus was brought before Pilate, then scourged and mocked by Roman soldiers. The Sisters of the Convent conduct guided tours of the Lithostratos and offer excellent explanations of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Ecce Homo arch, near the spot where Pilate is believed to have spoken the words “Behold the man!” when he presented Christ to the mob, washed his hands, and condemned Jesus to death, is also a part of the Lithostratos area the Sisters purchased in 1857.
Sometimes pilgrims, individually or in groups, carry large wooden crosses while praying the Stations of the Cross. There are some interesting stories behind this old practice.
During World War II, a 12-year-old German orphan named Alfred Winkler vowed that one day he would carry a cross all the way from his homeland to Jerusalem. He would fulfill his vow 35 years later.
On Jan. 6, 1977, Winkler picked up a large wooden cross in Griesbach, Germany, and set out for Jerusalem. He arrived in the Holy City on Friday, Aug. 5, 1977, at 3 p.m., just in time to participate in the official procession of the Way of the Cross that day. Before he returned to Germany by plane, he donated his cross to the Chapel of the Second Station (Jesus Takes Up His Cross). Today it is under the care of the Sisters of Zion, who make it available to pilgrims for their devotions along the Via Dolorosa.
The third station, marking the spot where Jesus fell the first time, is at a corner in El-Wad Road, where a chapel built by Polish Catholics marks the spot. Above the entrance door is a high relief that depicts the scene.
The fourth station, where Jesus met his mother, is marked by a small oratory near the entrance to a church called Our Lady of the Spasm, honoring Mary's help of the infirm.
The fifth station, where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross, is marked by a Franciscan oratory at the site where the Via Dolorosa ascends steeply to Golgotha.
The sixth station, where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus, is marked by a fragment of a Roman column embedded in a wall of St. Veronica Church. The church, beautifully restored in 1953 on the traditional site of St. Veronica's house, contains ancient remains, thought to be from the Monastery of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, built in 546-63.
The seventh station, where Jesus fell the second time, is marked by a great Roman column which is housed in a Franciscan chapel. The second fall occurred as Jesus was about to leave the city of Jerusalem through a gate. Tradition has it that Jesus’ death notice was later posted here after the crucifixion. Hence the Christian name for the gate, Judgment Gate.
The eighth station, where Jesus consoled the women of Jerusalem, is marked by a Latin cross on the wall of the Greek Monastery of St. Charalambos.
The ninth station, where Jesus fell the third time, is marked by a Roman column in the Coptic monastery near the apse and roof of the Holy Sepulcher Basilica. It reminds the pilgrim that Jesus collapsed very near the place where he would die.
The next five stations are within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. This fact is not always realized until the pilgrim traverses the Via Dolo-rosa and completes the first nine Stations of the Cross — out on the street, so to speak.
The site of Calvary, then, and the site of the tomb of Jesus are both contained indoors, in one church. They are, in fact, about 125 feet from each other, consistent with St John's account: “In the place where Jesus had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been buried” (John 19:41).
The 10th station, where Jesus was stripped of his garments, is marked by a mosaic design on the floor of Calvary.
The 11th station, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, is represented here also. Considered a main Latin shrine, it was beautifully redecorated in 1938.
The 12th station, the spot where Jesus was crucified, is marked by a Greek altar beautifully ornamented in Eastern style, and built over the spots where the crosses of the two thieves and the cross of Jesus were erected. In the bedrock beneath this area is a large crevice, said to have been caused by an earthquake on the day Jesus died.
The small altar between the large main ones on Calvary marks the 13th station, where Jesus was taken down from the cross. Mary's grief at this place is reflected in a beautiful statue, the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, fashioned in the 16th or 17th century and sent from Lisbon, Portugal, in 1778.
Finally, the 14th station, marking the most sacred spot in Christendom — the site of Jesus'burial and resurrection — occupies its own chapel. Here, of course, is the focal point of the entire Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. Jesus was placed in the tomb and then, on the first Easter Sunday, rose from the dead.
To stand in the very place where the redemption of the entire human race took place is to experience the sublimely spiritual. Unfortunately, it must also be said that this holy place is not without its distractions.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is sometimes a source of dismay and confusion to pilgrims. Dark and oftentimes in disrepair in certain sections, it is constantly filled with jostling tourists. But one big disturbing problem is an ongoing one. It is the jealous possessiveness exhibited by the six groups that own the various sections of the Church. Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Syrians — all eye each other suspiciously throughout the day, every day, to make sure that rights are safeguarded.
Each group performs separate services and maintains distinct altars and chapels. Sometimes the rivalry and pettiness can be over-looked, however, when the high vaults, the Eastern grandeur of the Church, and the very complexity of the edifice are considered.
The altar over the tomb itself is divided into forward and rear sections officiated over by the Greek Orthodox and Copts, respectively. Many lamps and ornaments embellish the area. A Franciscan from New York explains to English-speaking pilgrims that the Greeks allow the Franciscans to say Mass on the tomb at 4 a.m. The Greeks and the Copts, owners of this particular site, offer their Masses at more reasonable hours.
The Franciscan chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher contains a section of the column or sacred pillar at which Christ was scourged. The Franciscans also have glass wall cases in their chapel that contain items dating from the time of the Crusades.
The late poet and president of St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., Holy Cross Sister M. Madeleva, captured the color, the tumult, the confusion and the jubilation that is Jerusalem in a poem she called “Gates.”
She wrote: The oranges at Jaffa gate Are heaped in hills; men sell and buy Or sit and watch the twisted road Or David's tower against the sky. The world has narrow gates and wide;
Men seek their loves through all of them.
And I have come here, seeking mine, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Virginia Morrow Black writes from South Bend, Indiana.