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Pilgrimage, Day 9: Stations of the Cross

In a break from our pilgrimage routine, we did not have a morning talk to begin this day; rather, we had a shorter breakfast window and boarded the busses more than an hour earlier than normal for a short drive to Herod’s Gate of Old Jerusalem for a devotional walk of Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross, on the narrow “streets” of the old city.  Walking the route of Christ’s passion was poignant in smaller, intimate groups of pilgrims.  Led by Fr. Ricardo da Silva, SJ, my group sang a somber refrain between each of the 12 stations, indicated by sculptors’ wall-mounted renderings in bronze of the events described:                                               

Walk with me; Be here with me; Watch and pray; Watch and pray …

The streets were quiet and open during the initial stations, and our progress was unhindered by the hustle and bustle of a living city.  Yet, as the morning progressed, the streets did fill – as streets do – with typical city activities: workers at work, vehicles and bicycles pressing through narrow streets and passageways.  It is clear that the old city was not designed for any of these modes of transport, and congestion and caution are the watchwords.  However, as we continued along the Via Dolorosa, stopping at each of the latter stations, I thought of the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time and of the citizens and foreigners who might happen upon Jesus’ Passion, unknowing of Him, of the events of His arrest, His “trials” before Caiaphas and Pilate, His scourging … And then to happen upon the spectacle of His road to Calvary.  It struck home as our entourage met and was met by the life of morning Jerusalem.

Another thing that struck me during the walk along the Via Dolorosa was the ways in which Old Jerusalem – with buildings centuries old – have been updated to the amenities of modern living.  Electricity, natural gas, in-house water and sewage, and phone and internet connectivity were not even a thing when the latest incarnation of Jerusalem was built.  Consequently, the exteriors of buildings are traversed by utility cables, wall-mounted supply lines, and Lord knows what.  I suppose it is the same in older cities, towns, and villages of Europe, but, while I have seen such places, I never noticed the wall-clinging clutter of modern conveniences.

A pilgrims’ mass was celebrated in the Franciscan Church of the Holy Sepulcher, yet it required the group’s navigation through throngs of people, barriers, and crowd control workers.  The church, virtually under the outer edge of the massive dome over the rotunda where the Holy Sepulcher itself is located, was a surprisingly quiet and intimate space.  Seating for 100 pilgrims and staff was a challenge though, as floor level available seating was inadequate for the entire group; the upper level “choir” level had to be utilized, which caused a confrontation with the Franciscan in charge.  That was the first of several complications in the liturgy.  “Liturgy is messy,” said Rita Pausic, the former DRE of St. Barnabas Parish.  Her words aptly fit today’s mass. 

Among the complications:

  • the lack of a sound system necessitated the use of our Whispers, one-way communication devices with supplied earphones that our guides had used throughout the pilgrimage to communicate; problem was that we could not seem to get them to work with different channels preset for each bus group
  • at points in the liturgy, jackhammers sounded through the ancient walls as work crews labored in adjacent spaces
  • the antique pump organ had a damaged bellows, so there was no accompaniment for the cantor
  • only one plate was available for distribution of the consecrated host, so a quick thinking Ricardo da Silva, SJ, employed the emptied chalice for that purpose
  • more than one pilgrim unintentionally allowed his retractable bench seat to fall forward, filling the entire church with a loud and disconcerting crack (me among the offenders!)

In spite of the complications, the Celebrant and we pilgrims forged on.  While the smallish church seemed like a bump on the side of the grand, imposing Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it did have the most unique Stations of the Cross I have ever seen.  It was a series of artfully-rendered figures representing each station in a continuous path across the wall of the church.  “Like [panels of] a comic book,” said the Franciscan in charge (see panoramic image in slideshow below).

After mass, we had time to explore the Greek Orthodox church, the markets, and sites of interest in and about the old city.  I opted to explore the market stalls in the Christian Quarter, where I found a quaint restaurant where the gregarious owner welcomed me as his only customer.  Additionally, I happened upon a vendor who was also a drum teacher.  He kindly allowed me to film his impromptu performance on a Darbuka, a roughly hourglass-shaped drum from Egypt.  I contemplated buying one of the beautiful instruments, but more of that in the Epilogue post to come.

Treasures in hand and in bags, we pilgrims headed back to the busses for a short jaunt to the Lion’s Gate of the old city, where we visited the ruins of the ancient Baths of Bethesda and the Church of Saint Anne.  As we explored the beautifully manicured grounds and structures, a pilgrim group of Indonesian Christians sang a beautiful rendition of “How Great Thou Art” in their native tongue.  Their harmonious voices filled the vaulted ceilings of the ancient church.

Another short bus ride brought us to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  All descended from the bus to this holy site of prayer.  Clutching the prayer slips filled out by two blocks of my Discipleship and Service students, select colleagues, friends, and family, I found an open space to press my hand to the ancient limestone and to offer prayer for those back home, those who have passed, and for other intentions close to my heart.  I then wedged the written intentions into cracks of the stone – a tradition of this place for those of many faiths.  From the mouth, mind, or prayer slip to God’s ear …  I liked the feel of the place – serene and holy.

Our final stop of the day done, we returned to the hotel for some free time before a late dinner due to the sundown beginning of Shabbat, the Sabbath, when the orthodox Jewry eschew the use of anything mechanical.  The final faith sharing of graces after dinner offered an opportunity to share the recognized fruits of the pilgrimage as retreat as well as to process the immediate experience.