“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha.” – John 19:17
It was pitch black when we left the Notre Dame Centre at 5:00 in the morning to retrace the Way of the Cross, also known as the Via Dolorosa.1 The route begins in the Arab Quarter, inside St. Stephen’s Gate near the place called Lithostrotos – the “Stone Pavement” where Pilate condemned Jesus to death.2 The route ends inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Jesus’ day, Calvary lay outside the city of Jerusalem. But today, it is enclosed within the walls of the church, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City.3
The Via Dolorosa winds its way through a confusing maze of ancient streets and alleyways. The narrow thoroughfares are home to a wide array of shops and cafes that are always buzzing with activity during the day. Shopkeepers stand in the doorways, pestering passers-by. Anonymous, arched entranceways unexpectedly open into expansive ancient courtyards and imposing churches. Pedestrians scatter and press up against the walls of buildings to allow cars and other service vehicles to slowly wind their way through the cramped streets as they drop off goods and pick up garbage. Store after store is filled with beautiful religious items carved from olive wood. Windows and entrances overflow with a dizzying display of ornate silver icons, incense and hookahs, beautiful glassware, hand woven shawls, Eilat stone jewellery, and Dead Sea bath salts. The aroma of falafel, baklava, Challah, and Turkish coffee mingle with the smell of putrefying garbage and stale cooking oil. It is all a bit overwhelming at first – a confusing barrage on the senses.
But at that early morning hour, the streets were eerily quiet. The silence was broken only by the muezzin’s call to prayer, the quiet murmur of our voices, and the occasional muted sound of a car quietly wending its way through the Old City. We picked our way gingerly along the uneven brick road, peering into the inky darkness that was relieved only by the dim glow of an occasional street lantern and the piercing beams of our flashlights.
We chose this time of day because we wanted to be free of distractions – to preserve an attitude of reverence as we paused to meditate at each of the stations of our Lord’s final journey. But the peace of this early dawn was nothing like the scene that Jesus must have endured two thousand years ago. That day, people would have lined the route, clamouring to see what was going on. There would have been catcalls and jeers, spitting and jostling, tears and wailing. The streets would have been spattered with blood as Jesus and the other two condemned men staggered under the weight of their crosses. People and animals would have scattered to clear the way, watching the spectacle with excited curiosity as the soldiers flogged the men, forcing them onwards. But even that day was not completely devoid of compassion. There was Veronica, who courageously stepped forward to wipe the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face – and Simon, who helped Jesus carry His Cross.
As we took turns carrying a small wooden cross on our shoulders, we sang and prayed and meditated on Jesus’ Passion and Death. We pondered the terrible agony that He endured in suffering and dying for each one of us. And as we mounted the final steps to Calvary, we knew that this is a debt that we can never repay. “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless You. Because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.” Thank you, Jesus.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 The Via Dolorosa, or “Way of Sorrow,” is a holy place. What this means is that it is not the place where Jesus actually walked, but the place chosen by the Church to venerate this mystery in Christ’s life. The ancient Roman pavement lies about 15 feet below the level of the streets today. There are 14 stations along the Via Dolorosa, commemorating Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
2 Because of the impending Passover feast, Jesus’ accusers would not enter the praetorium (the Judgement Hall) at the Antonia Fortress. Instead, Pilate went out to meet them (Jn 18:28-29).The distance from Lithostrotos to the foot of Golgotha (Calvary) is not far – only about 600 metres.
3 Today, the old city of Jerusalem is divided up into four quarters: the Christian Quarter, the Arab (Muslim) Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.