Today we started early, leaving Ecce Homo Guesthouse at 7.30am, in order to take advantage of the quietness of the streets. We walked the path that Jesus took from his condemnation to his crucifixion, stepping in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who have prayed the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa for centuries.
It was a humbling experience to share in this beautiful devotion and feel connected in faith to millions of others who have stood in the same spots and prayed the same prayers while remembering the events of Jesus’ terrible last day on earth. Each Station is marked with its number on the wall and though the streets have been rebuilt since Jesus time, his presence remains palpable to the faithful. The first nine stations are performed in the streets, the others are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though to keep the flow of our prayers our group chose to pray the remaining Stations outside the entrance to the Sepulchre.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most holy site in Christendom, it marks the places where Jesus was stripped of his garments, crucified, was buried and gloriously rose again on the third day, appearing to Mary of Magdala in the Garden of Gethsemane. All of these areas are now encompassed in the Church, which was originally built by St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who began the process of legitimising Christianity in the Roman empire. Christian groups have zealously guarded their rights and interests over it in the centuries since then. Six denominations have privileges within the Church – the Abyssinians (Ethiopians), Armenians, Coptics, Syriacs, Greek Orthodox and Latins (Roman Catholics).
When Helena organised the excavation of the area, on digging down in what is now known as the ‘Grotto of the Cross’ they discovered layers of Gold covering 3 wooden crosses, nails, a crown of thorns and an inscription ‘King of the Jews’ – this is clearly compelling evidence that the site of the true Cross, hidden by Jesus’ followers, had been found. Legend tells us that a funeral cortege was passing at the time and to discover which of the 3 crosses had been Jesus’ they placed them on the dead body, one caused the man to return to life and was determined to be the correct one.Not surprisingly the ‘True Cross’ became a powerful political tool and was highly prized, tragically it was lost to history in 1187 and its wherabouts remain unknown. Luckily, Helena had the foresight to take parts of the cross, nails, thorns and sign into safekeeping, she buried them in Rome and the Church of the Holy Cross was built over them.
The whole area has been subject to destruction and rebuilding several times over. Emperor Hadrian reduced Holy Jerusalem to rubble in 135AD and built a Pagan Temple on the site.In 614AD all Christian sites were destroyed by the Persians. But the Christian faithful have continued to renew the areas, though some of the actions of the Crusaders are questionable to modern eyes, we have them to thank for much of the architecture of the holy sites and for reinstating them.It is partly due to them, and the Franciscans who are the custodians of the Holy Places in Jerusalem, that today we were able to stand at the place where Jesus was crucified and venerate with a kiss the rock the cross stood on; touch the ‘Stone of Preparation’ where his body was laid before burial, enter his tomb and touch what remains of the rock that guarded the entrance.Even the fissure in the rock caused by the earthquake following Jesus’ death, is visible in the Chapel of Adam. There is a legend that Adam was buried here and that Jesus blood renewed him as it does the whole of humanity, whether they are aware of it or not.
A highlight of our day was the celebration of Mass in the Latin chapel at the Holy Sepulchre, knowing we were so close to the events of Jesus final hours was truly inspiring and emotional. We are privileged to have 5 priests in our party who con-celebrated Mass for us – Fr Mervyn, Fr Paul, Fr Ka Fai, Fr Michael (Hospital Chaplain in Coventry) and Fr Gerardo (about to take up post of parish priest in Shirley). Fr Mervyn gave the homily and spoke about Jerusalem being the centre of the world in medieval times and in a very real sense it remains so today for Christians, Jews and Muslims. It witnessed the “bursting forth of our faith” and it is sobering to remember that in the past people died to reach this land on their pilgrimages.Here we “touch the mystery of the mess of our humanity as well as historical events.”
The morning had witnessed us see with our own eyes the most significant Christian shrines in Jerusalem but this city has many other important places of pilgrimage and after a leisurely lunch we did our best to visit most of them. The Upper Room, scene of the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, has had a chequered history as a building. The current incarnation has the ubiquitous ‘Crusader arches’ as a mark of who built it but that didn’t prevent it being converted for many years into a mosque. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Bendeict XVI have been permitted to say mass here, though generally it is not used for services. The Dormition Church was built by Kaiser Wilhelm II for Catholic Germans, to commemorate the death of Our Lady and her Assumption without bodily decay into Heaven. A man of equal opportunities, Wilhelm also built a church for his Protestant subjects.
The Zion Gate, connected with Kind David,still bears the scars of the bloody 1948 conflict between Israelis and Jordanians and is peppered with bullet holes.The House of Caiaphas, which witnessed Peter’s denial of Jesus, is a modern convent and Church, thought to be close to where the High Priest resided in Jesus time.
Our sightseeing ended with a visit to that emotive location – the Wailing Wall. Clearly a place of great significance and prayer life for the Jewish community, being all that is left of the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. Prayers on bits of paper are pushed into its crevices by the faithful and many Jews will not turn their back on the wall, choosing to walk backwards away from it.
Our day excursion to this most historic of cities was truly breathtaking, and after 10 hours we had probably only begun to scratch the surface of what makes it so special and unique.