Walking the Via Dolorosa
Christianity is the faith of divine Incarnation. Our Christian life is one long meditation on the Incarnation of our God and a rebirth of Jesus Christ in us. Consequently, there is nothing so profound and at the same time, so perfectly practical, as walking in the actual footsteps of our Incarnate God. After all, the whole Christian life has the purpose of following our Divine Redeemer. We are body and soul–as He is–and so the literal walking as well as the spiritual following are meaningful. What is it like to follow the actual Way of the Cross? Recently, ninety-five pilgrims had the opportunity to follow the Via Dolorosa on the Regina Caeli Youth Holy Land Pilgrimage. This article provides a glimpse of this experience for those who have not yet been able to go to Jerusalem.
The Via Dolorosa, the sorrowful road of Jesus during His Passion, begins at the site of the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. Part of the ancient Roman Praetorium, the fortress where Pilate condemned Jesus, and part of the ancient Roman road, on which Jesus set forth on His way to the cross, are underground beneath the Ecce Homo Basilica and Convent. The Praetorium is also known as the Lithostrotos in Greek, which means “stone pavement.” It is believed that this Praetorium was located at the Antonia fortress built by Herod the Great at the Temple Mount. In his Gospel, St. John also mentions the Lithostrotos or Praetorium. “When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement, which in Aramaic is Gabbatha” (Jn. 19:13).”
Although the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since the time of Jesus, the stones of the Praetorium and the ancient Roman road were preserved and easily discovered since the Emperor Hadrian decided against covering this level of the city with dirt. Instead of filling in this level, he built pillars on top of it to support the city’s new ground level.
Descending a small staircase, we find ourselves in a low, damp stone chamber. A small, bare stone altar stands at the center of the remains of the courtyard where Pilate condemned Jesus. Here, on the far side of the courtyard, the Pharisees stood so that the Gentile would not dirty them before the Lord’s Sabbath, while they disfigured their souls by calling that same Lord’s blood down on themselves and their children. Though the courtyard is now underground, seeing it, we can imagine Pilate standing on the steps of the fortress at one end of the courtyard, disgruntled and disgusted at the Jews whom he addresses across the courtyard. We can imagine the Pharisees, spitting their cunning words across the courtyard, leaning forward in their wicked eagerness, confident in the power of their guile.
To the right of the courtyard, a narrow rail divides the ruins of the ancient Roman road from the ruins of the Praetorium. The Savior embraced and took up his cross on this road. We take off our shoes and walk on the large, cold paving stones.
Emerging into the sunlight, we walk a short distance down the narrow cobblestone street to the Franciscan compound containing the Chapels of the Flagellation and Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross. The chapels are located on either side of a courtyard beside the Franciscan monastery. The buildings in the courtyard are constructed with the same warm, golden-brown limestone which comprises the foundation, walls, and roads of the city. Palm trees and bright pink flowers planted in the courtyard sway gently in the breeze, lending to the peacefulness of the atmosphere, so different than the atmosphere of violence during the Savior’s scourging and condemnation. “But He was wounded for our iniquities, He was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruises we are healed” (Is. 23:5).
The Chapel of the Flagellation is a small stone church built in the Gothic style. A large semicircular stained glass window above the altar shows Jesus, bound to the pillar with His hands behind his back, with evil-countenanced men behind Him and around Him on balconies. The small dome above the sanctuary is covered with gold and a mosaic at its center depicts the woven crown of thorns with jeweled stars.
Across the courtyard from the Chapel of the Flagellation stands the Chapel of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross, with its five white stone domes representing the Five Wounds of Jesus, each with a cross imposed on it. Behind the altar, set against a background painting showing the pillars of Pilate’s fortress, are statues of Jesus taking up his cross and Pilate washing his hands.
We leave the courtyard and begin the walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Calvary hill. We pass under the Ecce Homo Arch, believed to mark the place where Pilate presented Jesus to the people. Already at 9 o’clock in the morning, the heat has risen to eighty degrees and the air of the crowded city is heavy. Spices and smells from the street vendors’ breads and meats settle on the warm air. Although cleaner than Nazareth, Jerusalem is not a clean city. Smells from the cobblestones waft through the streets.
As we kneel to pray the first stations of the cross, we press against the walls on either side of the narrow limestone streets, allowing motorcyclists, residents walking to work, and other pilgrims to make their way through. The large cobblestones are rough and sharp, even for our covered knees. It is easy to imagine how painful were the Savior’s three falls onto the cobblestones under the weight of the cross. Some passersby scold us for taking up too much room. Others, Muslims and Jews, stare and mock, although a group of pilgrims must be a familiar sight to them. Haredi, ultra-orthodox Jewish men, pass by in their black suits, white shirts, square black hats, tassels or tzitzit hanging from their waists, and side curls hanging on either side of their faces. Some of these Jewish men, on their way to the Jewish bus stops or the Wailing Wall, turn their backs on us in order to reject the Gentiles.
To most people, Good Friday must have been the same as today–just another day. Some shopkeepers might have glanced up and noticed more commotion than usual, but it was the Pasch, after all, a busy time in a busy city that gathered people from all corners of the world. Passerby must have looked at the Savior with disgust and annoyance, seeing only another base criminal crowding the streets with his Gentile executioners and a violent mob, inconveniencing their workday. That day was the only truly historic day, defining all time as salvific history, but to most, it was just another day.
The streets are narrow–at places they measure approximately eight feet in width. Most of the stations are marked by reliefs on the stone walls, showing Jesus on His Way. At some of the stations, there are small chapels, belonging to the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, the Greek Orthodox church, and the Franciscans. After the Fifth Station (Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry His Cross), which is marked by a Franciscan oratory, the road ascends steeply to Calvary. At the Ninth Station (Jesus falls for the third time), we pass under a metal Roman arch, with a Franciscan cross above it. The apse and the roof of the Holy Sepulcher Church, the shrine built on Calvary, are now visible beyond, reminding us that Jesus collapsed for the third time in sight of His place of crucifixion.
The final stations, Ten through Fourteen, are commemorated by chapels inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The church is built over the sites of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. The structure is best described as a series of over thirty chapels in corridors surrounding the large stone structure of Jesus’s tomb. Unassuming from the outside, it is huge and awe-inspiring on the inside.
Entering the main door of the church, we pass by the slab of reddish stone, which commemorates the place where the body of Jesus was anointed after being taken down from the cross.
We climb narrow stone stairs to the right of the main entrance which lead up to the Calvary rock. The stone is within an ornate Greek Orthodox chapel, which is in a kind of loft above the main level of the church. A simple stone altar, overhung by red lamps, stands over part of the limestone of Calvary. Pilgrims and tourists kneel, one by one, beneath the altar and touch the limestone through an opening. A large, Eastern style cross hangs directly behind and above the altar. An intricately carved gold and silver panel on the wall behind the cross and altar depicts figures of Our Lord, Our Lady, St. John, angels, and saints. A statue of Our Lady of Sorrows stands in a glass case beside the altar. The low arched ceiling of the chapel is covered with colorful frescos decorated with gold.
People press together in the small space, waiting in line to touch the Calvary stone. The air is warm and nearly stifling. A glance instantly distinguishes the pilgrims from the tourists. The tourists talk loudly, taking pictures while hardly looking at the stone. Some exchange phones so each can have a picture of himself or herself touching the stone. A young man walks by the altar, glances at it, and continues on without touching the stone. The Pilgrims are solemn, silent. We attempt to recall the profound importance of this site, on which the most important act in human history was accomplished. In some ways, this scene resembles the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of God. People from all countries, crowded together, at this site at which roads from all nations meet. There are many people ignorant of the extreme significance of this site, this act of God once accomplished, yet continued eternally. The atmosphere feels profane, in a way, not entirely sacred, because of the attitudes of the onlookers and the smallness of the space. Even for those of us with some understanding of this mysterious work of redemption, it is difficult even to evoke this faith in our minds and hearts in the moment, pressed between unbelievers. So it must have been for St. John and the holy women. God died here. This tremendous reality, this unutterable paradox. The Savior hangs from His crucifix as before, and always. The vulgar mass gathers around, now, as then, unknowing and unrespectful.
We descend the staircase, back to the main level of the church, and kneel to kiss the Stone of the Anointing. A dazzling mosaic with a golden background, depicting the anointing of Jesus’s body, covers the wall behind the stone.
The tomb of Jesus stands in the rotunda, a large, open, circular area behind the entrance chamber containing the Chapel of the Crucifixion and the Stone of the Anointing. The impressive stand-alone stone structure encloses the sepulcher of Jesus. A shaft of sunlight shines down on the tomb from the huge, open dome above. The opening in the dome is surrounded by golden rays, so that with the light pouring in, it resembles the sun. The open dome with its sun above us symbolizes the risen Son of God and reminds us that neither the crucifixion nor even the resurrection is the end, but new life.
We join the crowd of tourists gathered in the sun-scorched square, bewildered by the light. “He dwelt amongst us (Jn. 1:14).” Among us, in this dirty, smelly city. Among us, the swarthy foreigners of God. As we walk away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the mosque horns break the heavy afternoon air with their unsettling, jargonish tones. Praise Allah, they say, praise the god of the skies, the aloof one, waiting only to judge and reward. And you pseudo-Christian Westerners, praise your watchmaker god, away in the clouds. But God, the Man of Sorrows, the man of the sorrowful road, is as different from these gods as the East is from the West, as the Earth is from Heaven. He is beyond our weak imagination. And what could He imagine that we couldn’t? That He would choose not only to become human, but less than human, “a worm and no man” (Ps. 21:7). That He not only walked with us, but He lives in us. Why is love so difficult for the human heart to accept? Easier to invent an Allah or a watchmaker god than a Lover God. The human heart trembles at love, but thanks be to God, “the wisdom of God is the foolishness of men” (I Cor.).
PHOTOS courtesy of Fr. Scott Graves, SSPX.