October 5, 2019
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.Mark 15:16-20
Despite the scant biblical description, Via Dolorosa stretched to about a kilometer through Old Jerusalem marked by nine of the 14 Stations of the Cross. The main reason for a trip a la sainte terre – to walk where Jesus walked – took a literal meaning on this cobbled path that may or may not be the one Jesus trod as he carried the cross to Calvary. Like most sacred sites in the Holy Land, geographic accuracy took a backseat to the event commemorated. Traditionally, the Friday procession route had been taken by Christian pilgrims for centuries.
Our group of mostly non-Catholics visited on a Saturday. The tour – not a “procession” sans religious rituals on each of the Stations – commenced at the Lions’ Gate, so named for two pairs of carved lions on its walls, not for Jesus as the Lion of Judah. The name gave away the age of the present-day Walls of Jerusalem to be only about 500 years old. Rebuilt at the peak of the Ottoman Empire, the walls did not witness the life and times of Jesus Christ.
If Tarantino helmed The Passion of the Christ, it would have unfolded the way our non-chronological Via Dolorosa tour did as led by our guide Sasha Zoiref. I just mentally and visually arranged the Stations of the Cross based on the Roman numerals etched on bronze plates marking each Station.
Station I: Jesus is condemned to death
Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).John 19:12-13
On the biblical stone pavement stood a minaret named Antonia Tower after Mark Antony. The Islamic tower with a Roman name told of the layered history of Old Jerusalem. The starting point of Via Dolorosa, commemorated as the First Station, was the portion of the Muslim Quarter built on the ruins of the alleged praetorium where Roman governor Pontius Pilate tried Jesus for sedition and eventually ceded the judgment to the Jewish religious authorities.
How telling that the Christ’s crucifixion stemmed from political maneuverings of the Jewish establishment and the Roman government. When God became flesh, He was born right into the age-old plight of the common man used as pawns by the powers that be.
Station II: Jesus carries his cross
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.John 19:1-3
The Second Station was the site of Jesus’ flagellation. Flowering trees and a pair of Franciscan chapels, Churches of the Condemnation and Flagellation, stood over the Roman flagstones where Jesus was tortured. Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi evoked the Passion through the Church of the Flagellation’s golden dome with a mosaic design of a crown of thorns over a constellation of stars.
It was at this Station where the Christ bore all our afflictions. I would always claim in prayer that “by the stripes of Jesus we are healed,” as prophesied by Isaiah. The ambiance at the chapel and courtyard was meditative and felt, indeed, restorative; alas, we were herded out before another group filed in.
Station III: Jesus falls the first time
Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).John 19:17
Down Al-Wad Road of the Via Dolorosa, the small chapel of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate marked the Third Station with a bas-relief of Jesus falling with his cross. The Catholic Church had included the image of the falling Christ – three times, in fact – in the Stations despite the absence of any mention in the canonical gospels. It could’ve happened, of course, given the weakness of Jesus’ tortured body and the weight of the wooden cross on his shoulder.
What caught my attention at this point was the presence of armed security in the streets of the Muslim Quarter. A female police officer with a finger on the trigger staked her spot at the barricaded side of the road. At such unexpected moments, the volatile historical undercurrent in the Old City shared by Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and Orthodox Armenians would surface in the open.
Station IV: Jesus meets his Mother
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”Luke 2:34-35
The Fourth Station commemorated another traditional Catholic belief, not a biblical account. A bas-relief, this time of Jesus and Mary, His mother, also marked the doorway to the Armenian Church of Our Lady of Sorrows. A mother’s anguish christened this church built, as it were, on the spot where Mary stood to witness Jesus’ suffering moments before His death.
Station V: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.Mark 15:21
A fellow traveler, identified by his hometown in present-day Libya, made a cameo appearance in the Passion account of the synoptic gospels. Simon of Cyrene, most likely under duress, carried the cross for Jesus along a steep stretch of Via Dolorosa, presently commemorated as the Fifth Station. That seemingly random moment in his trip had immortalized him through the ages. Another Franciscan chapel aptly called Chapel of Simon of Cyrene stood at the site.
Station VI: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.Luke 8:43-44
The likeness of the Christ was believed to have been imprinted on, not one, but two different cloths. Not to be confused with the Christ’s burial linen popularly known as the Shroud of Turin, the Veil of Veronica was used to wipe the blood and sweat off Jesus’ face while He still alive. Though no such account existed in any of the canonical gospels, the act was attributed in the Apocrypha to Veronica, said to be the same woman who touched Jesus’ hem for healing in the early days of Jesus’ ministry. The handkerchief had reportedly been under lock and key at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for centuries.
A piece of pillar embedded in the wall of the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church of St Veronica commemorating the spot where the historic face-wiping occurred became the Sixth Station. What was traditionally accepted as Veronica’s house had been turned into the Chapel of the Convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus, a religious congregation inspired by the life of Blessed Charles De Foucauld, a French pioneering missionary to North Africa.
Station VII: Jesus falls the second time
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.Isaiah 53:7
Sasha brushed aside the colonnaded chapels marking the Seventh Station. Instead, he led us to a nearby wall imprinted with, arguably, the bloody handprint of Jesus. Presumably, He had to hold Himself up under the crushing weight of the wooden cross on His shoulder.
I joined the crowd that had gathered to lay their palm on the stone, now worn down into a craggy impression by centuries of collective devotion. Authenticity aside, legend had it that a vendor preserved this particular slab that somehow cast in stone the destiny of Jesus to upend the course of human history.
Old Jerusalem was actually a medina, an ancient Arabic center of commerce. I had dodged vendors’ offers along the way until I succumbed to the tempting aroma of coffee. I excused myself from the tour group as Sasha led me to Sadek Sandouka & Sons, a stall vending roasted coffee beans for 150 years. The twist in the base note, I soon learned, was the spicy scent of cardamom, an aromatic seed added to Arabic coffee, giving it an extra kick. My walk through Via Dolorosa thus went down the way of the world. At the site of my spiritual redemption from eternal damnation, I was getting my caffeine fix.
We had just passed the city limit of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time marked by the Eighth Station. He trudged through the Garden Gate on His way to Calvary. The prominent Muristan Arch, on the other hand, marked the Christian Quarter of Old Jerusalem and served as the gateway to Suq Aftimos, yet another marketplace. The traditional location of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified and buried was estimated to be within the vicinity. In biblical times, it was an open hill area.
Station VIII: Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem
A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.Luke 23:27-28
Jesus had entered Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey, proclaimed by the palm-waving crowd as the King of the Jews. Barely a week later, He was led out of the city as the Lamb of God for slaughter. How fickle was the faith of mankind.
Station IX: Jesus falls the third time
Though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand.Psalms 37:24
Another fall was commemorated by the final Station of the Cross. Why did the fall take up three Stations? I should’ve asked a Catholic. I was inclined to think it highlighted the humanity of the Christ, that He fell as often as we had fallen in our Christian walk.
Google told me that the Stations of the Cross served as visual representations of the Passion of the Christ at a time when much of the Western World was illiterate. The procession, then, unfolded like a scriptural scroll, though embellished for reasons I would leave the Church to explain. That said, it showed, not what Jesus would do, but what He already did.
On the wall of the Greek Orthodox Church was a stone carved with a cross and the Greek letters IC XC NI KA, meaning “Jesus Christ conquers.” I completely missed this significant stone in the chaos of the crowds waiting to enter the adjacent Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the remaining five Stations of the Cross were situated.
To be honest, my walk through Via Dolorosa was not remotely prayerful or even pensive. The expectation vs. reality was so strong. It was closer to a school field trip than to a pilgrimage. But there lay the point that Via Dolorosa felt deceptively like a walk in the park.
The tempting treats, the political polemics, even the religious rituals may have been distractions in this processional path, but they were the same forces at play in the time of Jesus. They were intrinsic features of Via Dolorosa, providing a stark contrast between the way of the world and the Way of the Cross.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”John 18:36