Today is known as “Bicycle Day”, at least around Jerusalem. You may be familiar with it, too, but under its more familiar name, Yom Kippur—the Jewish holy day of Atonement.
It feels like we have the whole city to ourselves. We cross streets and boulevards entirely empty except for the stray car here and there. We walk up to Jaffa Gate into the Armenian Quarter where we begin to see a handful of other people. A few shopkeepers begin to setup their outdoor displays while men in yarmulkas and women with wrapped hair emerge from the quiet side streets into the early morning sun.
As it’s a predominantly Jewish city with Jewish customs most of the shops are closed and no cars are allowed to drive in the Jewish Quarter, hence the sparse crowds. Therefore, most of the people out “doing” things are Christians and Muslims. It’s nice as a tourist in some ways because there are fewer people overall, yet, it also means we are all concentrated among fewer sites. It seems most of us have decided on the Christian highlights this morning, namely, The Via Dolorosa, “The Way of Suffering”—the 14-station marked route upon which Jesus carried the crossbeam of his cross to the site of his death, Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”.
We walk it backwards which is unfortunate, but it’s still meaningful at each individual station. Thus, we begin at the Holy Sepulcher, the site of stations 10-14—Jesus is stripped of his garments, nailed to the cross, crucified, and his body is prepared for burial by Mary. As I enter I look past the tomb, past the panorama depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross,
and look up.
I tilt my head up at a mosaic-decorated panel along the arched ceiling. I am seeking connection. I gaze at the illuminated faces of gospel authors and prophets. I hear, “Remember the story.” And, somehow the truth becomes a little more alive in me.
I begin to wander past the crowds around a dark hallway bending to my right. I find a set of quiet-looking stairs descending into the depths of the church. They open to a large room with an illustration on the floor. It’s lovely, but I am not moved. I see another set of stairs traveling yet farther down. I take those. I discover a space hallowed in reverence and adoration for St. Helena. Helena, Constantine’s mother, was sent by her son around 326 to Jerusalem to find Jesus’ crucifix and other relics. She found, under what was then a pagan temple built by Hadrian, what is believed by many to be the site of Golgotha, where the this church now stands. Therefore, we have her to thank for the restoration of this as well as many other important Christian sites.
But, none of that is on my mind as I enter the virtually empty space. Rather, my attention is drawn to one elderly woman sitting on the lowest step, crouched over her knees with her forehead in her hand. I stare at her. She seems tethered to the space. Together we are held in—by the space, in the calm quiet. The silence is magnificent. Sacred. A gift. All we can hear are the soft chants of monks behind us in the distance.
I think, how blessed and special it is we are visiting this site, the place of Jesus’ costly crucifixion, on the day of atonement for the Jewish people. To share that together is marvelous.
I eventually meander back upstairs and return to the entrance.
To my left lay the stairs ascending to the site attributed to Golgotha. I begin to climb. I feel a sense I am walking up as if it were my own passion. I take small steps trying not to crush the fingers or toes of anyone sitting on the stone staircase. I reach the top which opens to a stone floor bearing a sea of faithful visitors. Between the darkened figures held in the low light of glowing lamps and candles I can see the Greek Orthodox altar upon the location marking the place of the cross.
I look around at the scene as beautiful, sacred music streams into my ears. I do not know the words or song, but join the melody. With the little Italian I can recall from my college days I am able to gather we are singing of “The son of the cross”. It is a lovely, mournful song. The priest leads us into prayer and between petitions we pour out cries to God, “kyrie eleison”, Lord have mercy. All the while, I revel in gratitude over the gift of being able to worship with brothers and sisters from around the world in this holy place.
I realize I have no clue where my group is. I feel a bit like Jesus “left” in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Though, unlike Jesus, I think it best to leave and begin looking for my family.
I eventually do find them and after taking in more of the church we leave and migrate with the many other “pilgrims” through the winding, ancient roads to the remaining stations.
We walk into the courtyard of our final stations, one and two—Jesus’ condemnation and flagellation.
I feel a strange tingling and pain as I enter the doors of the Church of Flagellation. An eerie, awful feeling sweeps over me. I breathe for a few moments, look down at the black and white mosaic-checked floor and exit.
Across the courtyard within the Church of Condemnation I am met by another uncomfortable feeling, but this one is different.
“This is the beginning,” I hear myself say within as I sit on the dark wooden pew and imagine what Jesus might have thought and felt as he was sentenced… His heart sinking, nerves and fear rising, the long walk ahead unknown… All for us.