Walking the holy walk of Jesus’s passion I got twisted a bit. I began at a 6:45am dawn rushing through the Old City almost in silence because few people wandered there, merchants had not yet pushed open the metal doors, my shoes echoing as I climbed up and down too many steps to get finally to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, 1680-years-old home of the proof of our faith and in serious need of repair. At 7 a.m. the mass in the Holy Sepulchre was being set up on a small carpeted platform smack in front of the empty tomb with its ornately carved marble double entrance. The priest wearing white chasuble was aided by a deacon and a trio of Franciscan monks because the logistics of where the gospel book and the ceremonial books were to be when to be incensed made it as complicated as a classical ballet. I was given a thin black book and told to turn to page 18. The whole service and services were displayed in chant form and in Latin. O glory be, I thought. I hoped my three years of high school Latin and my familiarity with Spanish would get me through. Soon I realized the whole thing was to be chanted. A first for me. We were wedged in a small area because that was all the space available. The Greek Orthodox Church large space directly across from the tomb was locked up tight. I felt blessed to be there, sitting on the front row was soul cleansing and hard to beat, and afterwards, helped to form the beginning of the all day lines of pilgrims and tourists aiming to touch the empty tomb, which finally opened after the stage manager, logistics set up types moved things around following the Eucharist.
It takes a healthy low bend to enter the tight “waiting” area where the faithful need to be praying and crossing, because it is a quick visit. Only four were allowed to enter at a time to see and kneel and pray. The empty tomb, one discovers, is sealed with marble. There are major silver icons, lit candles, flowers in a vase, and a marble floor to kneel on briefly. And then you are up and out before you can think about where you had just been. A pilgrim could hardly inhale the magnificence of the site because of the scaffolding covering almost every inch but the low entrance: the structure – a lot of it wood – has been collapsing and it is being saved, rebuilt, so the sacred tomb of Jesus is not violated nor destroyed. (It’s sort of like going to Disneyland and your favorite ride is under repair.)
We went ahead and scouted all the precious places where Jesus’s march to the cross took place. It put me in a penitential mood as we climbed stairs and stumbled across the thick marbled floors of the basilica seeing the spots where His torture was issued. On entering the basilica you are faced with the Stone of Anointing where Jesus is supposed to have been anointed before burial. A group of Asian women lay on it in their hats and swished scarves across it like they were cleaning the floor. I had no idea what that meant, but seemed an odd way to respect such a momentous relic. Up tight marble stairs is the place where Jesus was supposed to have been crucified, the real Calvary, the real Golgotha, now very ornate, lit with bronze lamps, adorned with velvet hangings, Greek orthodox candles, and on the marbled floor one can kneel to pray and put her hand through a hole (you really have to get up to the elbow) to touch the wood that is secured there in stone – confirming that the cross was once there. (Now parts of it are scattered throughout the lands as relics to be adored.) I dared to reach my hand in the hole held together by bronze circle, and the moment of the touch was invigorating and humbling. Said a prayer. And it caused me to think of the hundreds of crucifixes I’ve encountered in studying art history, visiting churches all over the world, and now, here, is the place where it happened, regardless of what one saw on that day, in that moment, in that miracle where all our sins were forgiven, painfully so. One can also glance at the giant rock directly below this point in the Chapel of Adam where Adam’s severed head was buried, directly below the crucifixion spot. According to legend, the blood of Christ ran down the cross and through the rocks to fill the skull of Adam.
Although the Holy Sepulchre is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Copts, Syriacs and Ethiopians, I was told the Protestants and Anglicans, place their vote on the Garden Tomb, as a better choice for the crucifixion and resurrection. The trouble is the Holy Sepulchre is a huge facility with so much of what the gospels tell us about Jesus’ death and resurrection, while the Garden Tomb which is primarily a garden with areas where groups can pray and have an Eucharist is more where what one would reason such things had happen. There is a wall of stone which is said to be where the wooden crosses was inserted into the ground. I still stick to the Holy Basilica, that’s what my heart feels.
One of my favorite spots in the Basilica is in a remote corner, the north-east side, a place to which I went so many times when I was there in 1999 to light candles for “mis muchachos” in prison in Uruguay, is a probably site where Christ was held in prison. The trusty Franciscans vow this is where Jesus was held in chains while Pilate ranted and raved and try to get a reason to kill him. He was also said to be imprisoned at the Monastery of the Praetorium near the Church of Ecce Homo, which is the first station of the Via Dolorosa. (A couple of other possibilities are promoted by various churches.) But sadly, because of all the construction in the basilica, the prison was not accessible much less findable this time, and that I missed.
We sort of took things backwards. Doing the last things first and the first things last. So we were transported to the top of the Mount of Olives to start a symbolic donkey ride (really on foot) to follow the path which Jesus took on Palm Sunday. He had just left the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha which was just on the other side of the hill. This day the narrow road was crowded like a bargain basement sale. Most of the visitors were Asian, a few from Africa, Britain, and the usual Americans and they all pushed and pulled down the road that border the Jewish burial grounds. The Jewish tradition is that the Messiah will appear here and bring the dead back to life. On one side of the road is the holiest cemetery covered with grave stones of the Jews. Being buried there is almost a sure fire answer to being there at Judgement Day.
It was tough going, and it made me wonder if Jesus had to wind his way through tourists, shoppers, or worshipers as he slowly made it down the Mount of Olives (today it is paved and a slippery, almost dangerous descent, so rails have been provided on at least one side of the row. )We started at the very top – with the Church of the Ascension, where Jesus is supposed to have ascended in heaven. Then squirming in out and around the masses, we stopped at the Church of the Pater Noster, which is a favorite of mine since on the walls are tile frames with the Our Father written in more than 454 languages. So fascinating. Then it’s the Church of Dominus Flevit with its window looking out across Jerusalem, where Jesus wept for the city and what it was going to become. I don’t think he ever imagined the complications and problems Jerusalem has suffered since his death, and the extent of commercialism so everyone can earn money on Jesus, his apostles and saints, and the places where he touched. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of productivity that he would have approved. On this day at the moment we stopped by, a Roman Catholic mass was under way so we weren’t able to experience the view Jesus had of the city behind the walls on the other side of Kidron Valley.
At last, we reached the powerful Garden of Gethsemane, the olive trees tortured and twisted by age, still standing, the very ones that heard the Son of God that night when his best apostles couldn’t stay awake to accompany him in his agony and sadness. In the Church of the Agony or the Church of All Nations, is the rock on which Jesus is supposed to have rested as he talked to his Father, and people lay on it, kiss it, embrace it as much as they could in the moments I was in there. When we arrived here a Roman Catholic mass was just ending.
Finally, one of the most important stops for me has always been the tomb of St. Mary. It is an excursion down many stairs into a dark dark place, lit hardly by candles, and I lit a candle as I have in many of these memorial places, praying for our incarcerated youth and my own mom in heaven. This claims to be where Holy Mary is buried, but, there is the other version that she never died but ascended, and when visiting Ephesus years ago, I saw Mary’s home, where she had lived in the care of St. John, and there we are assured the mother of Christ, Mary ascended to the heavens of her son. But in the depths of this church a line was moving slowly after passing through the place of her tomb, so I got into it, behind a group of Germans, the leader of which was not going to let anyone bust into the line. So I figured, stick behind them. There were unruly crowds pushing and shoving those of us waiting. The line led to a revered icon of Mary and Jesus, where most everyone prayed for a few seconds, and so did I. A fitting end to this very spiritual day of remembrance in our churches most holy place.
We were given a ride back to the old city through the Lion’s Gate and picked up the Via Dolorosa at the beginning, in the Flagellation Chapel and the Condemnation Chapel, one across from the other, both cared for by the Franciscans, both over a corner of the Lithostrotos where Jesus was condemned to death, crowned with thorns, and began carrying the cross down the striated stones of a Roman Road. Third station was where Jesus fell for the first time (marked by a Polish chapel); fourth station near the Armenian Catholic chapel, honors where Jesus meets his mother; fifth station where Simon from Cyrene to help carry the cross; sixth station Veronica wipes the sweat from Jesus’ face; seventh stage Jesus falls for the second at the Judgement Gate; 8th, Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem, saying “weep not over me , marked by a Latin cross on the Greek Monastery wall; Jesus falls for the third time, within view of his destination; and the next five stations are within the Basilica – stripped of his garments, is nailed to the cross, dies on the cross, taken down from the cross, is laid in the tomb, all which we had visited for prayer in the morning.