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In His Footsteps

Following the Ways of the Cross in modern Jerusalem reveals the contradiction of Christ’s passion and death.

At the end of those pilgrimages to the Holy Land that I lead, I always distribute an evaluation form. One of the questions is, “what was the highlight of the pilgrimage for you?” Inevitably, a number of pilgrims will say “making the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem.” For them the emotional climax of their pilgrimage is following the Via Dolorosa – the “Sorrowful Way” – which commemorates the passion and death of Christ.

The evaluation form also asks, “was there a low point?” Ironically, some will single out making the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem. Nothing else in the Holy Land elicits such a divided response.

Why is the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem such a sign of contradiction? One reason stems from unconscious expectations brought by pilgrims to the Holy Land. Year after year Catholics pray the Stations of the Cross in the orderly solemnities of our parish churches and we expect the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem to provide a similar experience. Following the Via Dolorosa can be a very prayerful, holy experience, but that experience is not at all like the one to which we are accustomed.

The Via Dolorosa begins in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and winds its way through alleys that become progressively narrower and more crowded. Shops line the alleys, offering everything from tourist trinkets to shanks of lamb, from underwear to icons. Young boys hawk postcards; pickpockets and beggars ply their trades. Scattered between the shops are signs and bas-relief sculptures that identify the stations. At some spots one can enter chapels to pray; at others, Jesus’ passion must be commemorated on the street.

Pilgrimage groups stop to pray at a station and shops and passengers are blocked, at least partially. Those who must use the street push through: Hassidic Jews on their way to pray at the Western Wall; Muslim women carrying bundles on their heads; tourists with video cameras. The sights, the sounds and the smells are nothing like the quiet in which we pray the stations back home.

I always try to prepare the pilgrims by telling them we will follow the stations through a living city, like the Jerusalem of Jesus’ passion. Most of those living in Jerusalem at that time were neither his disciples nor his enemies; they were simply going about their lives as he was led to death. How many shopkeepers watched him pass, shook their heads at his misfortune and returned to selling their wares?

Crucifixion in ancient times was a public spectacle, a display of cruelty meant to subdue those harboring seditious thoughts. Jesus’ executioners did not have a religious event in mind. Although we meditate on some horrible scenes while praying the stations, we usually do so in the hushed surroundings of our churches, shielded from the reality of a man sentenced to death. Praying the stations in Jerusalem strips away some of that protective veil. The sacred and the profane collide on the Via Dolorosa.

Some groups making the stations along the Via Dolorosa carry wooden crosses. Each member carries a cross in turn. The crosses are symbolic: they are too small for actual crucifixions. In all likelihood Jesus carried only a crossbeam; upright beams would have been permanently fixed on Calvary. These pilgrim crosses can act as powerful symbols: I have seen people visibly moved while carrying their cross along Jesus’ path.

But more is at play than simple piety. The crosses are usually provided by local freelance photographers who snap pictures of cross-carrying pilgrims in order to sell them prints. Some pilgrims are happy to have such photos. Others are put off by commerce capitalizing on their devotion. The sacred and the profane have always intermingled in Jerusalem – recall the dice game played beneath the cross.

Piety can also intrude on commerce. How do shopkeepers along the Via Dolorosa feel about Christian pilgrims blocking their doorways while making the stations? Some shopkeepers politely ask groups to leave room for customers; a few ask less politely. Most wait for the pilgrims to move. Life in the Middle East is often a school in patience.

I asked Muslim shopkeepers along the Via Dolorosa what they thought of the pilgrims. Ali Jabar, who runs an antiquities shop at the sixth station, told me, “They are praying; I respect that.” Pilgrims crowding his door rank pretty low on his list of worries, he added.

Ahmad’s souvenir shop is at the fifth station. “Groups praying don’t buy; those who buy don’t pray,” he said. When one group stopped at the fifth station and blocked his shop, Ahmad watched them silently. Only as they were leaving did he speak up: “If anyone needs film, I have it,” he called to the group.

Although praying the stations along the Via Dolorosa is different from praying them back home, the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem are, somewhat paradoxically, more a reflection of the stations in our churches than they are a tradition native to the Holy Land. There is no record of the early Jerusalem Christians praying anything like what we know today as the stations. The earliest antecedent seems to have been a fourth-century custom of processing, in the pre-dawn hours of Good Friday, from Gethsemane to Constantine’s church at Calvary, which enshrined the tomb of Jesus. This procession made no stops along the way: there were no “stations” commemorating events from the passion of Christ.

The establishment of stopping points, and how these evolved into today’s stations, was an extremely complex process spanning centuries. Some key events took place not in Jerusalem but in Europe after the Crusades. Popular imagination added scenes not mentioned in the Gospels: one or more falls of Jesus; Jesus meeting his mother; Veronica wiping Jesus’ face. One European version of the stations had Jesus falling seven times; another commemorated no less than 42 scenes. Eventually, a 14-station version prevailed in Europe and, because it was what pilgrims expected to find in Jerusalem, this 14-station version eventually became the norm in Jerusalem.

Throughout this changing process the route and locations of Jerusalem’s stations shifted. Finally, in the 18th century, the route of the Via Dolorosa was more or less established, but several of the stations assumed their present location only in the following century. Skeptics point out that the present route is probably not the same route followed by Jesus on the way to Calvary, since his trial probably took place across town from the first station of today. In any case, Jerusalem’s street grid was laid anew by the Roman Emperor Hadrian after he destroyed the city in 135 A.D. The streets of Roman Jerusalem more than likely differ from those Jesus trod.

However, as Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor observes in his archaeological guide to the Holy Land, “the Via Dolorosa is defined by faith, not history.” Jesus certainly walked some route on his way to Calvary and the present Via Dolorosa offers the only hallowed option for walking in his footsteps. It certainly ends in the proper place: neither the location of Calvary nor the nearby tomb of Jesus, both situated within the Crusader Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, are seriously disputed.

One important factor in the development of the stations both in Europe and in the Holy Land has been the role of the Franciscans. St. Francis came to the Holy Land in 1219. Pope Clement IV entrusted his order with custody of the holy sites in 1342. Political conditions sometimes made public demonstrations of Christian faith difficult, putting a damper on groups praying the stations in the streets of Jerusalem. The 19th century, however, brought an easing of restrictions and the Franciscans have been leading regular Friday afternoon stations along the Via Dolorosa since 1880.

A few summers ago I found myself in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon and decided to participate in the Franciscan stations. I knew they began at 3:00 so I went to the first station at 3:00 and waited. And waited. The Franciscans showed up around 4:10, but they were right on time: Christian celebrations in Jerusalem are regulated by Status Quo protocols imposed on the Christians of the Holy Land during Ottoman rule (1517-1917); they are still in effect today. The Status Quo does not recognize summer Daylight Saving Time and requires the Franciscans to leave their monastery at 3:00 for a ten-minute walk to the first station. Three o’clock stations in Holy Land time, therefore, become 4:10 stations during Daylight Savings Time.

On my most recent visit to the Holy Land, I accompanied the Franciscans from their monastery. The procession was led by a kawas, a bodyguard assigned to religious leaders during Turkish rule and still a tradition in Jerusalem. Sometimes two kawas, traditionally armed with mace, scimitar and whip, lead processions to clear a path through the crowds. For the Franciscan stations, there is one kawas; he bears a symbolic coiled whip.

The stations begin at El Omariyeh College, a Muslim school on the site of the Antonia fortress of Jesus’ time. As Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, the school is closed, but its courtyard is made available for the first station. I once thought this was a fine example of Muslim-Christian cooperation but the explanation may be more prosaic: the site has been used by the Franciscans since its time as a Turkish barracks, and its continued use is part of the Status Quo. As our leader, Father Angelo, told me, “Nothing can change here.”

Assisted by a portable loudspeaker, the Franciscans led the stations in Italian and English with a Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Gloria recited in Latin between stations. The procession trailing behind them was a mix of pilgrims from many continents. Most prayed, but a few tagged along to videotape this Jerusalem custom. Few if any local Palestinian Christians were part of the procession; public prayer of the Friday stations on the Via Dolorosa is not part of the devotional life of the local church. The Good Friday procession is an exception; local Palestinians do participate in that.

The Franciscans lead the stations with dispatch but with all the walking they nevertheless take an hour. The ninth station – Jesus falls the third time – is on the roof of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the last five stations lie within it. This church, too, is a sign of contradiction – a jumble of a building, a place of execution and an empty tomb. At the conclusion of the stations many feel the need for a 15th station, preferably a dazzling angel testifying to Jesus’ resurrection. Faith, however, must suffice.

Father Claudio Baratto, O.F.M., speaking for the Franciscans in Jerusalem, told me that the purpose of the stations is to “internalize the passion of Christ” by meditating on events close to where they occurred.

“We need to stimulate our imaginations. Abstractions are fleeting, but the stations are concrete. They are tangible springboards to prayer.”

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is certainly not an abstraction. Pilgrims who follow it take away indelible images of the scandal of the cross, but also knowledge of the passion and death of Christ.

George Martin is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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