Day 5 – Via Dolorosa and The Upper Room
We were adequately warned that the day would be an arduous one. After all, we were going to Via Dolorosa or the ‘way of sorrow’. The most important site in Christendom is within the walls of the old city. One of the things you will notice as you enter is that the cobbled stones stones have become polished and slippery with the millions of footsteps that have passed through here. My mind goes back to the many times I have imagined the scene of the crucifixion in my mind’s eye every Good Friday. I am overwhelmed at the thought that Christ carried the cross and was whipped and dripped blood as he stumbled on this very path. The pain and suffering become real and palpable and I get emotional. We pass the place where Pilate ordered the crucifixion, the spot where Christ was stripped, whipped and crowned. The next station marks the place where he saw the ladies weep and he is said to have consoled them saying, ‘Do not cry for me, but weep for your sons and daughters’. The place where Simon, the Cyrenian was summoned to help carry the cross is marked. I look around and try to figure out where Simon would have stood watching the tragic scene and how he was singled out from the crowd to help Jesus with the cross. And as he took the cross he would have sagged under its weight at first and then steadied himself and wondered how this bloodied and tired man carried it. The Bible has many instances of bystanders being pulled into playing important parts, not of their own volition but by divine compulsion, and once they are they play their roles with great conviction
The path leads me into a church, the Church of Sepulcher. The Church has parts claimed by different denominations – Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. There is an interesting factoid that I heard, due to the constant strife between the various factions the Government had to intervene and now the key to the church has been entrusted with a Moslem. Think about, it takes a Moslem to keep peace between Christian groups, ironic.
The order of the holy spots inside the church is in reverse, the tomb, the place where the body was washed and then the place of the crucifixion. The church is crowded and only three people are allowed to enter the cave which is the tomb. The Greek Orthodox priests are stern and shout at people to move quickly. I entered and knelt at the spot, said a quick prayer and quickly snapped a pic on my mobile phone, no time to think deep about the significance of the place. Ahead is a stone slab on which people are placing articles and kissing the stone. This was where the body of Jesus was washed before he was buried. Steep stairs take us up to the Golgotha, a painting on the wall shows where the nails were driven into the hands and feet. And there it was – the Holy of Holies – the spot where He was crucified. There’s a rock with a fissure that is enclosed in glass. A stone altar covers the spot where the cross stood, I crawl under it and kissed the floor and felt a tremor pass through me. Literally pulled out, I stand for a while in the anteroom and imagine the sight Simon saw unfolding in front of him. He would have stepped back after putting down the cross, scared and pained as Jesus would have been laid on the cross. Simon would have flinched as he heard the hammer hit the nail and the piteous groan of Christ. His heart would have gone out to Mary as she stood there weeping loudly in great sorrow as her son was crucified. The cross would have swayed as the soldiers pushed it into the hole in the ground, Simon would have stretched out his hands involuntarily. Tears would have welled in his eyes when he looked up at the bleeding half naked young man as He said, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’. And then it would have all gone still. It was a moment when I felt overcome with sadness.
The room right below spot has the rock that cracked preserved. There is a tradition that this is the centre of the earth. The next room has a preserved piece of a pillar from Pilate’s house. Ahead are two flights of stairs that takes us to the place where the cross was found which was a pond. The belief is that Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, heard that the cross was inside the pond which was smelly and dirty and no one would venture to dive into it and so threw gold coins into it. The cross was retrieved but there were a total of three and to test the authenticity of the cross she touched the three crosses over a sick person who was healed when the right one touched him.
There is a disagreement about the venue of the Last Supper, we are taken a few streets away to a house with a room upstairs that the Catholics believe it to be. Below this is the tomb of King David, guarded by a fierce Jewish man who kept shouting something or the other at visitors. Wonder why Jews don’t smile much. A stone’s throw away is the house of Mark also called ‘The Upper Room’. This is a Syrian Orthodox Church and is said to be the first ever Church in Christianity. We are ushered in by a portly nun who smiles and frowns at almost the same time. Sister Yosnita was a high school teacher who gave up her job to look after this church. She tells us the upper room is a floor below and that is where Jesus had his last supper and later appeared twice to his disciples, the latter instance being at the time of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they were asked to ‘go to the ends of the earth to preach the Gospel’. She also tells us that the icon was painted by St. Luke, he painted a picture Mary with the infant and since he couldn’t draw the infant’s face as he was not there he painted the infant’s face with that of adult Jesus. This is supposed to be the first actual picture of Mary and Jesus. We go down to the room which has an altar with a cross to mark the spot. As the others walked into a curio shop in the compound I went inside the church to copy the inscription on the wall when the Sister told me, ‘You can take pictures, no tell everybody. You share if they want’. And as I moved back a bit to take a wider shot, she gesticulated angrily screamed, ‘Not there! You come here and take picture, bad for icon there’.
We leave for Jericho and from afar see the wall that Joshua and the Israelis brought down after walking around it for seven days while singing and playing bugles and drums. The Dead Sea is a unifying place where people of all races and colours smear themselves with clay and wade into the grey waters. I did too, the waters are so salty that a small wound from a bump hurt as it touched the waters. My eyes were stinging when just a small spray of water fell in my eyes. One just floats without any effort, you just have to lie back and ensure your head doesn’t touch the water.
Tomorrow we leave for Egypt, I do feel sadness about leaving the Holy Land. I would have loved to stay for a couple of days more and spent time reflecting on the significance of what I have seen and felt over the last few days. It has been a blessing to have been here, this visit will be etched in my mind and I know I will relive it over and over.