Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday: Remembering our walk through the streets of Jerusalem

In the summer of 2011, Lori and I went on pilgrimage with a group of friends to the Holy Land. On one of our last mornings, we awoke before dawn and walked the "Way of the Cross" through the streets of Jerusalem.

We retraced the steps Jesus might have taken to his death on that first Good Friday. Of course, the streets he walked are now under centuries of rubble. Nonetheless, it was not hard to imagine the loneliness of his walk.

Later that day, I wrote about our experience on this blog from Jerusalem. I am reposting what I wrote below for you on this Good Friday. 

Today at noon, we will gather once again at St. Paul's to stand vigil for three hours at the foot of the Cross. We will hear from seven people in our congregation who will offer reflections on what people might have seen and experienced on that first Good Friday. If you are in the vicinity, come for as much as you can.

May you have a blessed experience in this Great Three Days . . .

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Holy Land Journal: Walking the ancient Way of the Cross

Inside the dome of the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
JERUSALEM – We awoke before dawn on Monday and assembled in the courtyard of St. George’s College.

In the early cool morning breeze, we began our Walk of the Way of the Cross, tracing the footsteps where countless pilgrims over countless centuries have trod to remember the agony and death of Jesus on the Cross.

We walked in silence to each stop on the way. We broke our silence at each stop with prayers, scripture readings and chanting of, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One.”

We agree we would take no photographs until we were through.

For those uninitiated in the Way of the Cross, or “Stations of the Cross,” it is a traditional exercise of veneration at each of the 14 points where the tradition holds that Jesus stopped on his way to be crucified. Many churches worldwide offer this practice during Holy Week, using icons or artwork depicting each of the stops.

On Monday, we walked to the stations the Cross marked along the route on buildings were pilgrims, like ourselves, have paused for centuries of veneration.

Entering the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre after our
Walk on the Way of the Cross
To reach the Old City, we walked past the Israeli police station where we have spent so much of our time in the past week. A few police officers and heavily armed soldiers milled about in front next to their armored cars.

We walked through Herod’s Gate into the Muslim Quarter and found ourselves at the first station, the place where Pontius Pilate’s headquarters is said to have stood. We heard the story of Jesus being condemned to death by the Roman governor. We prayed, we chanted, we kept walking.

We were soon followed by another group of pilgrims, from Romania. Their chants, more melodic than ours, pleasantly filled our ears. As we would leave one station, the Romanians following at a respectful distance, would take our place.

The sun rose above the rooftops; we could soon feel the heat. As we walked through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, the Old City began to wake up. Tractors pulling carts of produce rumbled past, their noisy engines drowning our prayers and chants. We hugged the walls to avoid having our feet run over. People hustled past on their way to work, or to their own worship, and they kept on the opposite side of the street from us.

The ground was wet, hosed down in the early morning hours before our arrival. The smell of rotting garbage filled our nostrils. There were no sweet smells on the Way of the Cross.

At the third station, marked on a wall with “Jesus falls for the first time,” two Israeli soldiers, with automatic weapons, stood talking. They quietly moved away so we could stand there. A car honked at us to get out of the way so it could pass, the driver barking at us as he drove by.

We moved onto the next stations, trying to imagine Jesus on this walk, carrying the crosstree of the executioner’s tool up these narrow streets. Yet, we were very aware that these were not the steps Jesus walked – the streets where he walked are deep beneath the ground, deep beneath our feet, buried under centuries of rubble left by the multiple destructions of this tragic city over 2,000 years.

At the sixth station, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” an elderly nun paused to touch the stone marking the station, then crossed herself before continuing on her way.

We walked uphill, up slippery stone steps, up past shopkeepers beginning to open for the day.

Our ears filled with many sounds, not just our prayers or the wonderful chants of the Romanians behind us. Everywhere, it seemed, we could hear cats crying. The clanking metal of shop door opening echoed through the allies. More tractors lumbered past.

Finally we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop the stony hill where Jesus was crucified. This is one place where scholars generally agree we are in the right place: Golgotha, the “place of the Skull.”

The place of death.

In the time of Jesus, Golgotha was an abandoned rock quarry that stood just outside the city gates. It was a perfect location for the Romans to hang criminals for all to see – and be warned.

Looking down on the domes of the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We
took this photo a few days ago
from the tower at the Lutheran
Church of the Redeemer
Now a huge basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, covers the spot. The quarry is buried beneath centuries of Christian tradition and conflict. The basilica has been built and rebuilt many times since the 4th century. The Place of the Skull has not seen sunlight in 1,600 years.

We would go in, but not yet.

We finished our Stations of the Cross in a sunny courtyard, trading stations with the Romanians. An African Coptic monk, clad entirely in a black robe from the top of his head to his toes, swept the courtyard as we prayed and chanted.

Finally we heard the biblical passages of how Jesus breathed his last, and was lowered into his mother’s arms from the Cross. Some in our group wept.

But I looked up at the sun glistening on the church domes, and all I could think of was this:

“He is not here! He is Risen! He is everywhere!”

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When we finished the Way of the Cross, we walked a short distance to the Lutheran Hospice for breakfast. Our group remained quiet, everyone lost in their thoughts. Some ate then went to sit quietly and write in their journals.

Soon we went back outside to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place I have heard and read about but never seen until today. It is built upon Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull,” or “Cavalry” as some call it. Within its walls is also the place thought to be the tomb where he was laid, and where the women came on the third morning to find that his body had disappeared.

It is certainly the most holy place in all of Christianity.

The traditional spot where it is said
that Jesus' body was anointed with oil.
A marble slab covered in oil
marks the place.
The spot remained largely as it was for three centuries. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and commissioned a magnificent basilica on Golgotha. He commissioned his mother, Helena, to go find it. It was she who declared that this was the spot. Later evidence showed she likely got it right.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The church now standing is magnificent, but it smaller and less spectacular than the original in it glory.

In later centuries, the church was chopped up into sections for warring Greeks, Coptics and Armenians.

Walls divide each sect’s section from the other, and cut off full views of the magnificent domes and nave inside. The division and territoriality in the basilica is a perfect metaphor for the divisiveness in Christianity, and in all of humanity itself.

Huge Paschal candles guard the tome
of Jesus. Lightbulbs are atop
each candle.
Yet I still found the church oddly moving.

As we entered the basilica, we were confronted by a slab of marble representing where Jesus might have been anointed with oil after his death. Lamps hang above, and the slab is covered with olive oil. We took turns blessing each other with the oil.

Up a steep staircase is an ornate altar the stands at the highest point on the hill that is encased inside this church. It is thought that this is the spot where Jesus hung on the Cross. It is hard to imagine except for a series of gray rock outcroppings nearby, underneath glass cases.

The rock is the color of a skull.

We went back down another stone staircase to where Jesus’ tomb is said to be. At the time of Jesus, the tomb would have been one of many small caves carved in the hillside. In the 4th century, Constantine’s laborers carved the entire rock assemblage away from the hillside and then enclosed it in a shrine.

The spot is now inside a large boxy edifice, covered in lamps, icons and all manner of bric-a-brac. Huge Paschal candles with guard the entrance to the tomb. The candles have light bulbs on top, and some of the bulbs are the new energy saving twirly type.

With all of that adornment, I found it very hard to imagine this place as a Jewish tomb in a hillside.

Entrance to ancient crypt
in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Our pilgrimage guide, Mark, wanted to show us something else. He led us through a small door, and down a passageway only a few feet away from the official tomb.

We entered a round room, carved into the hillside, lit with a single light bulb. On the ceiling we could see the dimmest outline of ancient Byzantine paintings, long faded. The walls were blackened with the soot of centuries of candles and oil lamps.

Off to one side was another small door, no more than four foot high. I climbed inside with a flash light, and I found two small crypts, carved into the hillside that is now under this massive church.

Two crypts deep inside the hillside
underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Each crypt could have held a single body.

In ancient Jewish practice, bodies would be encased in these tombs until the flesh decayed, then families would return in about a year to retrieve the bones and then keep them in an ossuary.

It was here, in a place like this, that I could imagine that Jesus might have been laid after his death, and where the women came the next day to look for his body.

And then I all I could think of was this: “He is not here! He is Risen! He is everywhere!”

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