On the Via Dolorosa

I arrived at the Old City of Jerusalem near dawn on Good Friday. It was early – too early for any of the local parking lots to be open. I had come to meet a group of Lutherans and Episcopalians who were going to walk the Via Dolorosa at sunrise, but by the time I was able to find parking, they were long gone.

During the day, the Old City is packed. There are countless street vendors, crowded into tiny shops that open onto the narrow streets. There is no car traffic in most of the city. The streets are too narrow for even one-way traffic, and during the daytime they are jammed with a mix of tourists, pilgrims, and people who live and work in the Old City.

If you arrive around sunrise, the streets are quiet. The sidewalk shops are closed, and the tourists, pilgrims, and residents are still asleep. The morning sun glimmers on the dusky straw-colored cobblestones, and there is a sense of imminent expectation. Soon Jerusalem will be vibrant and bustling, but now the Old City is filled with a peaceful quiet, gently illuminated by the early morning sunlight.

To be honest, I was not sure that I wanted to come. I did not have much free time in Israel, and I had to choose: the beach, the woods, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, or Jerusalem on Good Friday. To visit Jerusalem on Good Friday was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But in my experience, crowded cities are not always the best place to have spiritual experiences. I suspected that my chances of having a truly deep spiritual experience in Israel were going to be better on a quiet beach or in a lonely woods than in the narrow walkways of an old and crowded city.

I think Jesus would have agreed with me on this. What Would Jesus Do? Jesus would skip the city and go to a mountaintop, or the seashore, or the wilderness, or out on a boat. What Did Jesus Do? Jesus went to Jerusalem. So, following Jesus, I went to Jerusalem on Good Friday to walk the Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross.

The Stations of the Cross are a Roman Catholic tradition. Each station represents an event that occurred on the first Good Friday, beginning with Jesus’ being condemned to death and ending with Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb. It is common for Roman Catholic churches to have artwork depicting each of the fourteen stations as an aid to prayer and meditation.

For my Good Friday devotions, I decided to spend fifteen minutes in meditation at each of the fourteen stations. I knew enough about Jerusalem to know that the current locations of the Stations of the Cross are, at best, guesses. The entire city was leveled and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 135 CE, and most parts of it have been rebuilt many times since then. I had no illusion that I was going to walk the exact path that Jesus walked, but I was going to follow him as closely as I could.

The First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death

The first station of the cross is just inside the Lion’s Gate, one of the major entrances to the Old City. The official location of the station is in the courtyard of Omariye College, which wasn’t open at the time that I arrived. So I sat down on the steps outside and began my meditation.

During my meditation, I was joined by a man named Arthur from Southern California. “Are you a pilgrim?” he wanted to know. “No,” I replied. “I’m just here by accident.” Arthur looked at me with an expression of earnest concern. “No, nothing is an accident! You are here for a reason.”

Arthur and I chatted for several minutes, and then he went off to explore as I continued my meditation.  I wondered what it was like for Jesus at the time of his trial. Was it terrifying? Exciting? Exhilarating? Without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Was he eager to begin the journey, daunted by what lay ahead, or some combination of both?

The Second Station: Jesus takes up the cross

The second station is just across the street from the first. There are a couple of small, beautiful Franciscan chapels where pilgrims can pray and meditate.

As I sat and meditated in one of the chapels, a verse from Exodus came to me. “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.” Could I do that? Could I walk the Via Dolorosa barefoot? Jerusalem is an old city and the streets are not always clean. It is not a place that I would recommend that anyone walk barefoot.

But the way of the cross is not about being comfortable. It’s about facing real hardship in order to do what needs to be done. It’s about taking risks and making sacrifices. Walking the Via Dolorosa barefoot would push me to the edge of my comfort level.

I took off my shoes and socks and put them in my backpack.

As I sat in the chapel with my bare feet on the cool stone floor, a pattern began that would repeat itself all through the day. I would begin my meditation, and a group of pilgrims would arrive to discuss the station of the cross and sing and pray in their native language. Then they would leave, soon to be followed by another group of pilgrims speaking another language. I was moving slowly in the flow of pilgrims, taking my time to meditate on each station as the river of the faithful surged and ebbed around me. First were a polite group of Germans, who asked me for permission before interrupting the silence with their prayers. They were followed by a group of French pilgrims, then by a group who spoke a language I did not recognize.

The third group went about their prayers, and then before leaving the chapel, they began to sing. The music was beautiful and ethereal. As they sang, I could feel their voices reaching back two thousand years to support Jesus as he took up the cross, lifting him up and carrying him on the most difficult times of his journey.

The Third Station: Jesus falls for the first time

It was at the third station that the reporter from CBS radio found me.

“Are you a pilgrim?” he asked.

As with all of his questions, I found it difficult to answer. I wanted to just tell him the simple truth. “No, I am not a pilgrim.” But a more complete answer might have been, “No, I am not a pilgrim. I am just someone who got up at 4:30am this morning so that he could drive an hour to arrive at Jerusalem at dawn in order to walk the Via Dolorosa barefoot and spend three and half hours in meditation, fifteen minutes at each of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Why would you think I am a pilgrim?”

“Yes,” I eventually replied. “I’m a pilgrim.”

“Are you having a spiritual experience here?” I paused. To be honest, I was still thinking that I would have been better off on a mountaintop or in the wilderness, but I wasn’t sure that how to say that on CBS national news. As I searched for an honest and appropriate answer, a passing group of pilgrims began to softly chant their devotions. The quiet sound of their singing took me back to the ethereal music that I had heard in the Franciscan chapel, reaching back across the centuries to support Jesus as he first took up the cross.

“Yes,” I told him, “I am having spiritual experience.”

There were more questions, and more halting answers. I did my best to be polite, but what I wanted to say was, “I’m here to have a spiritual experience, not talk to you about having a spiritual experience. If you wait a couple of weeks until I’ve had a chance to think about my time here, that would probably be a better time to have this conversation.”

After the reporter gave up on his hopes that I might provide him with any usable material, I settled into my meditation.

Jesus falls under the cross for the first time. Whatever he may have been thinking at the earlier stations, this is where it becomes brutally clear. This is not going to be pretty.

The Fourth Station: Jesus meets his mother

As hard as it might have been to walk this road alone, I suspect that having his mother there would make it harder. As you suffer, she will suffer. You’re not doing this alone. Everyone who loves you is going to share this journey too, and they will share in the pain that you feel.

The Fifth Station: Simon the Cyrene carries the cross

It’s not going to be pretty. You have brought pain upon not only yourself, but your family. And yet, there is hope. You will have the help you need to go through this.

Perhaps Simon was a reluctant helper, only there because the soldiers forced him to be there.  Or perhaps he was glad to be able to shoulder the burden.  Either way, the message is the same. Strangers will appear to help you when you face the most difficult of times.

The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the sweat from Jesus’ face

Another companion to help Jesus on his journey. The stations are not just about pain and suffering. They are also about the family members, strangers and friends who help us in hard times.

Recently, there has been a movement to revise the Stations of the Cross. The early stations featuring the care and concern of Veronica and Mary can be replaced with an alternate set of stations featuring first Judas and then Peter betraying Jesus. Perhaps some day I will return to Jerusalem and meditate on this alternate set of stations. But I am glad that the journey I chose was one that included memories of both women and men, and the human aspects of care and comfort to those facing hard times.

The Seventh Station: Jesus falls for the second time

The chapel where I meditated on this station had a beautiful brass sculpture of Jesus with the cross. In the sculpture, Jesus is on top of the cross, almost cradling it. I don’t think it was like that. I think Jesus was under the cross. I think it hurt.

The Eighth Station: Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem

Jesus’ remarks to the women of Jerusalem don’t sound all that consoling. Actually they sound rather cranky. “You think I’ve got problems. Well, let me tell you about the problems you’re going to have!”

Jesus’ blunt remarks caused me to reflect on times when I had held back from calling things as they are, out of a sense that pastors should not appear to be overly blunt, harsh or critical.  Yes, I avoided conflict this way, and perhaps I kept some people’s feelings from being hurt.  But by glossing things over, I may sometimes also have prevented true reconciliation from occurring – the kind of reconciliation that can only be born out of openness and truth.

The Ninth Station: Jesus falls for the third time

Around station seven or eight, I started to keep a tally of the languages I’d encountered so far on my pilgrimage: German, French, Spanish, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and others that I don’t know well enough to recognize. As I approached station nine, I heard a group speaking Mandarin Chinese. The world had come to Jerusalem. Everyone was there.

Station nine was hard to find. I passed the gateway and stairs that led to it several times before I finally found the entrance. I’d now been in meditation at the first eight stations for a full two hours, with an average of fifteen or twenty minutes between stations to navigate the maze of Jerusalem’s narrow and twisting streets. It was getting close to noon, and I was beginning to wonder if there was a way to speed things up. The last five stations are all in the same church – maybe I would do one fifteen-minute meditation session for all of them and be done.

This was also not the first time Jesus has fallen, and I struggled with meditating on this topic for the third time. As a group of African pilgrims sang outside, I heard a strong, sonorous voice proclaiming, “Jesus falls for the third time. It doesn’t matter how many times we fall or how many mistakes we’ve made. God meets us where we are, as we are, and stays with us on our journey.”

The Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped of his garments

The last five stations are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. However, it wasn’t clear that I was going to be able to get there. After the ninth station, I had taken a side trip to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer to take some photos. When I turned back, the Israeli security forces had closed the street for a Good Friday procession. They weren’t able to give us a time when the street would be opened again.

After trying various other approaches to the church, I found that all of them were blocked. I had heard murmuring from other pilgrims that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself had been closed due to the crowds. I had now been on my pilgrimage for nearly five and half hours, and it wasn’t clear that I would be able to go any further. Should I continue, or should I give up?

After waiting for a time, I decided that if I couldn’t get to the church itself, I would get as close as I could and meditate there. So I found a place to sit on a stone post and meditated on the tenth station.

Perhaps it was the crowds, or the waiting, or the uncertainty, but this meditation was not very fruitful for me. After a time, the barricades were opened, and I continued on my way.

The Eleventh Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

Fifteen minutes is a long time to meditate on Jesus being nailed to the cross. As I meditated, I found that I wanted to skip ahead to Easter, resurrection, and new life. I wanted to bypass the difficult parts and go directly to the happy ending.

I held myself back, and allowed the meditation to take me where I didn’t want to go.

The Twelfth Station: Jesus dies on the cross

If I wasn’t eager to spend fifteen minutes on pain, fifteen minutes of death was much the same. As a person and as a pastor, I have encountered death many times. Theologically, I can talk about death responsibly from an informed perspective. But really sitting with death and allowing that to fill your thoughts for fifteen minutes? It’s a lot.

The Thirteenth Station: Jesus is taken down from the cross
The Fourteenth Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb

Deep down in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a chapel carved out of bedrock. It was there that I spent a half an hour in meditation on the last two stations of the cross. These stations are once again about the women and men who care for Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. Jesus is not alone in death. He is surrounded by people who love him.

Fourteen stations. Three and half hours of meditation. Feet that were well-coated with the dust of the streets of Jerusalem.

What did I learn? Good Friday isn’t just about pain and suffering. It is about the community of people who surround Jesus and do what they can to help on his journey. The Stations of the Cross are about the kindness of Simon and Veronica, and the tenderness of Mary and Nicodemus. They are about human compassion in the face of human cruelty, and human caring in the most difficult of times.

Perhaps the greatest insight came early on in my meditation, as I felt the songs of the faithful in the Franciscan chapel reaching back in time to support Jesus on his journey. We are not isolated from the events of two thousand years ago. Our prayers, our voices lifted in song, and our chartable actions can reach back and forward through time to help where they are most needed. This journey can be our journey too, if we choose to walk it.


2 thoughts on “On the Via Dolorosa”

  1. Your meditations are a blessing to all who read them. May many find them, and may they, in turn, be a blessing to you.

Leave a Reply