In 2007, I spent two weeks in Israel and Egypt as part of a group from my divinity school. It was the trip of a lifetime, one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever received. Being there, seeing the places where so many stories I’d read in the Bible actually happened, was overwhelming. Sometimes I go back and read my journal from that trip. I filled almost the entire book in those two weeks. During Holy Week, my mind takes me back to the places Jesus walked, where I got to walk, too. I shared my experience of the Garden of Gethsemane two years ago. On this Good Friday, I’ve been re-reading some of what I wrote after walking the Via Dolorosa:
“It’s called Via Dolorosa, which means ‘the way of suffering.’ This is the road Jesus walked to the cross. The street is very narrow, lined with shops where people sell everything from t-shirts to silver to fresh meat and pungent spices. Dr. Canoy (the dean of the divinity school) said it would have been much the same in Jesus’s day, that those stalls cut into the rock have been shops for thousands of years. The air was thick with exotic scents, and people from all over the world crowded past us – Christian groups from England, India, South Korea, Brazil, as well as local Jews and Muslims. Shop owners shouted at us to stop and look at their wares, but Theo (our Israeli tour guide) kept us moving.
“We first saw the Arch of Ecce Homo, which means, ‘Behold the man.’ Theo told us this marks the spot where Pilate brought Jesus out and said just that. Of course all this is based on tradition and it might not really be the exact spot, but still. Next we saw the Church of the Flagellation, marking the spot where Jesus was whipped. As we stood in the courtyard there, we heard noisy crowds out on the street, laughing, shouting in different languages. It gave me chills, because it was not so hard to imagine an international crowd of Passover travelers and locals in those same streets shouting, ‘Crucify him!’ and mocking as Jesus was beaten.
“Inside the church, we saw three amazing alabaster windows depicting the scourging, and a huge crown of thorns on the ceiling. We walked further on to the next station of the cross, and the Church of the Condemnation. We flew through all of this so fast, there was no time to ponder or reflect. That was a bit frustrating. We saw the markers of all the stations of the cross, some of which are based on scripture and some on tradition.
“At the end of the Via Dolorosa is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s a massive structure that covers a traditional site of Calvary and one of several traditional sites of the tomb. It’s used by five different Christian groups, we were told – Catholic,
Russian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic. Because there was so much disagreement among all those groups long ago, the keys of the church are held by two Muslim families, handed down from Saladin. It was an interesting story from our tour guide.
“It’s impossible for me to picture this place as it was. The huge, garish, even gaudy church was overwhelming to me. It was dark and overcrowded and noisy. It wasn’t what I had pictured at all. But I did the traditional thing of kneeling under the altar and putting my hand into a hole to touch a rock said to be the rock of Calvary. Whether or not it happened here, somewhere not too far away God in the flesh died for us. What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul . . .”