We came up the Via Dolorosa, singing. It was Sunday morning, the first day of the business week in Israel, and in the old section of Jerusalem the street was still empty. As we began our walk toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, several young men carrying racks of fish and freshly baked bread passed us, the same food that Jesus had eaten. Arab shopkeepers began to unlock the steel shutters of the small shops that lined the street, and an elderly man walked beside us nudging a small wooden cart up the incline. Our chaplain, Fr. Justus intoned the song, and we quietly joined in: “Jesus Remember Me When You Come Into Your Kingdom.” With the city to ourselves, we sang for perhaps a quarter of a mile.
Curiously, it did not seem odd that we sang though we did it for almost the entire way of the cross. We had come early to the Via Dolorosa, “the sorrowful way,” to avoid the crowds. In a short while, the narrow walkway would be jammed with Christian pilgrims singing and reciting prayers. Some, we were told, would carry large wooden crosses that could be rented for a small fee. Religious expression comes easily in Jerusalem.
The notion of pilgrimage is older than the Church. Mediterranean peoples have teemed to shrines and high places long before the time of Christ. There is something in human nature that wants to reach the sacred place, to touch the stones or bathe in the waters. For multitudes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who flock here, Jerusalem is such a place. Our little group had visited many holy places in the Land of Jesus. Now we had reached the Lord’s Holy Mountain — and we were singing.
I ask our Palestinian Catholic guide if Jesus actually walked this narrow street. He replied sagely: “It is better to believe than not to believe.” The Via Dolorosa, overhung with awnings to protect against the sun, is flanked by buildings constructed from reused limestone blocks. We are in a city built on top of itself. The Romans leveled Jerusalem in 70 BC. A contemporary Jewish historian wrote that the city “was so thoroughly razed to the ground by those that demolished it, that nothing was left that could ever persuade visitors that it had once been a place of habitation.” In the 7th and 8th centuries, Muslim invaders demolished virtually all of the Christian churches, only to see many of them rebuilt by the Crusader kings three hundred years later. The uneven stones in walls of the Via Dolorosa were a visual reflection of this broken past.
Eventually we reached the crest of the slope, we turned a corner, and descended into the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The building is an amalgam of Christian art and effort cobbled together over the centuries. Virtually nothing remains of the very original church built in the 4th Century under Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Muslim Caliphs allowed the Orthodox to rebuild portions of the structure in the 11th century, and Catholic Crusaders expanded it a century later. The Franciscan Order again renovated the church in the 1500s, a process repeated by many parties after a disastrous fire in 1808. Contention among Christian communities over the edifice continues today.
We found ourselves in a tide closely packed humanity, surrounded by a cacophony of chants, and prayer in unaccustomed tongues. Even at this hour, a crowd of worshipers already swelled its dark interior. Frescos, illumined by oil lamps, were black with the soot of centuries. Within this mélange of rooms and worship areas, stood the reputed site of Christ’s entombment sternly guarded by an Orthodox monk.
We were approaching the tall, stone monument propped up by girders housing the tomb. Members of our group edged forward one or two at a time though a low, narrow entrance into the small, narrow chamber where Christ’s body was laid and from which he rose from the dead. We touched the stone then quickly left as others squeezed in behind us.
Emerging once again into the crowd, the noise swelled as heavy bells tolled somewhere above us. Religious fervor was tangible, penetrating, unnerving. Then suddenly it all stopped. We had been led through a small wooden doorway a short distance from the Holy Sepulcher. Here the Franciscan Friars maintain a Roman Catholic toehold along one edge of the ancient structure. An underground hallway brought us to a quiet, low-ceilinged chapel where an altar, the Book of Scripture, and Fr. Justus awaited us for the celebration of the Eucharist. In the time before Mass began, we sat in silence and re-centered ourselves, relieved to be in an oasis of calm.
In the space of an hour and a half, our little pilgrim group had walked the Via Dolorosa and had visited the tomb. The journey had been an unforgettable if mind-numbing experience. But the celebration of the Eucharist that morning was particularly memorable. It restored us and helped us recognize that the Church is not a city or an edifice built of stones. It is Christ’s resurrected and living body, celebrated in the Word and Sacrament by the Christian community. In the Mass that morning, we once more sang and were one with Christ. Nothing else really mattered.