Walking the Via Dolorosa was one of the most moving experiences of my time in the Holy Land. We left the college at 6am, before breakfast, appropriately on our last day in the Holy Land. There were six of us, course members, and four course staff. We were carrying a small cross about four feet high, perhaps a little less, but as a very visible symbol of what we were doing. We walked down the main streets to the Damascus Gate and entered the old city through that gate about 6.15.
There were not too many people around, one of the reasons for going at that time, but the city was beginning to come to life as shops were being opened, delivery buggies taking things where they needed to be, and the cobbled streets being swept and washed. Most people just let us get on with it, but apparently there is always some animosity from folk of other faiths to such an explicit expression of ours.
We took it in turns to carry the Cross. Sometimes, I was told, the person carrying the cross can be jostled or pushed, but that didn’t happen on our walking this special way. Indeed, I didn’t notice anything particularly untoward, but I was told, just after we finished, that there had been one or two who had spat as we passed and one young lad, in particular had sworn very badly (in Arabic.) There were also one or two who crossed themselves.
It was certainly something special to take a turn at carrying the Cross – and just try and think how it would have felt for Jesus and his first disciples. We stopped at each of the fourteen stations of the Cross (or as near as possible, where it was not permissible to go right to the location.) In each place we, in turn, read the Scripture that marked what was commemorated there and shared a brief, relevant prayer. We were using the prayers from John Peterson’s “A Walk in Jerusalem” (Morehouse, 1998) and, as he says, “The Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem today lead right through the busy marketplace; pilgrims are as uncloistered and unprotected as Jesus was on the first Good Friday.”
It is absolutely right that it should be so and, in one way, we felt quite exposed, doing something somewhat strange, though, of course, groups of Christian pilgrims walking the via dolorosa are a very familiar sight. On the other hand, it wasn’t too difficult to feel very absorbed in what we were doing and somehow separate from all that was happening around. We were, I think, very focussed on the significance of where we were and the footsteps in which we were following.
It was all finished by 7.15. We ended up, of course, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As I thought of the pain and anguish that Jesus must have felt as he walked this way and heard about the minimal acts of swearing and spitting that had accompanied our walking, it seemed as though we had got off too lightly – and yet it also seemed as though it was so sad that we cannot live in sufficient harmony to allow each other to do those things that are important to us and to our faith without even minor molesting. In many places, while in the Holy Land, we read and heard the words ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. How that is needed.
John Peterson tells us that in most places we are walking about sixteen feet above the original path and he comments: “Let us think about those sixteen feet. Every single millimetre, every single inch of dirt on which we walk includes the dust from the shoes and the tears from the eyes of pilgrims. They – we – weep for the prisoner condemned as The King of the Jews, “despised and rejected,” carrying so much more than a heavy, bruising, rough beam of wood. He is “enduring the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne.”
As we consider that, let us consider the legacy we are creating.