It was just 4 a.m. when the tour group climbed aboard their bus at the hotel. This would be a solemn day in Jerusalem, the day they were walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, through the streets of the old city. Two of the tourists, pilgrims really, were my sisters and their husbands. They rose well before dawn, not to see the sun rise but to beat the crowds that would soon gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It opened at 8 a.m.
The church holds the last four Stations of the Cross, the final stages leading to Jesus’ crucifixion and death on Good Friday. But before the group could get there, they had to walk the first 10 Stations — and that would take them through the narrow and ancient streets of the old city.
It was early so in the beginning it was quiet as they paused at each simple marker in the Christian sector of Jerusalem. But as the day began to dawn, the streets filled with people who ignored the group of pilgrims as they hurried to work, to open their shops along these streets. “I was thinking how tight a space it was,” Mary Pat said, “how much pain He was in and how He would’ve been jostled around.” “I kept thinking, How did He do that?” my other sister Mary Jean said, recalling the busyness of the street in that early hour.
Some visitors might have been troubled by the crowds and the indifference they saw at this poignant moment on the pilgrims’ tour. But Mary Pat said it made the old story come to life: “It gave it a very authentic feel.” “What was extraordinary was how ordinary it was,” she added.
The walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre took about two hours. It’s not a long walk but the group, led by several Catholic priests, wanted to stop at each of the simple markers to recall the path Jesus took. Each marker recalls a moment when he falls, gets help, meets his mother or the women of Jerusalem. “It was like walking down an alley. There was nothing spectacular,” Mary Pat said.
Calvary, also known as Golgotha, was altogether different. A gigantic church has been built over the site of Jesus’s death and burial. Maintained for hundreds of years by varying sects of Christianity, it is wildly ornate with many lanterns to light the cavernous stone building.
“You’re struck by where you are,” Mary Jean said. It’s as if they built a roof over this part of the city that contained the hill of the crucifixion and the tomb nearby.
She recalled seeing a little chapel containing a remnant of wood thought to be the pillory post where Jesus was scourged before His crucifixion. And then there is the stone surrounded by candles where it is believed Jesus’ body was laid before burial. “You could touch where He was when He had died,” she said.
The group arrived at the church in time for Mass. A long line had already formed to touch the stone on Golgotha which served as the base for Jesus’ cross. Mary Pat recalled that pilgrims have to put their hand in a dark hole under an altar to touch the place — hoping all the while they won’t touch a bug or a scorpion.
Having that opportunity — to touch places believed to be places Jesus touched 2,000 years ago — amazed both of my sisters. “The places Jesus was you can touch!” Mary Jean said.
Mary Pat found her opportunity to touch the stone where Jesus died during Holy Communion. No one was in line so she dashed over to put her hand down the hole just before she received the host. “It sent a chill down my spine,” she said. “You knew you were in a holy place.”
“That was probably my favorite thing of the whole trip,” said Mary Pat, who also saw Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Jordan River during their tour.
Their last stop of the morning was the tomb where they saw two chambers. A bit of rock, about the size of a hand, has been preserved under glass. It it all that’s left of what is considered to be the rock rolled in front of the tomb on Good Friday. Inside the second chamber, visitors could touch the rock where Jesus’ body was laid.
“You kind of walked out of there in a daze,” Mary Jean said.
It was very long day, even though the group was back at their hotel for breakfast by 9:30. Both sisters said they appreciated the opportunity to be in the ancient city that’s home to three religious.
Though they were not welcome to enter a synagogue or mosque, they witnessed faith-filled moments of Judaism at the Western Wall and heard the call to prayer of the mosques throughout the day. “You could hear prayers all around you,” Mary Jean said. Mary Pat said she went on the trip in November with no agenda. “You just have to be open,” she said. Mary Jean said she occasionally felt rushed. “But we saw so much,” she added.
Text by Mary K. Tilghman
Thanks to Mary T. Dushel and Mary Pat Tilghman for the use of their photos. Several photos and the map are courtesy www.christianholyland.com.