Christian Holy Week is upon us, commemorating the crucifixion of our alleged Lord and Savior on Friday and his alleged resurrection on Sunday, and I am here, your certified religion correspondent, to offer some practical guidance to those of you who might be journeying to Jerusalem to mark these solemn events.
Tomorrow, Friday, you will certainly want to walk the Via Dolorosa, that being the way that Jesus allegedly walked from his place of condemnation to his death on the cross. (I’m sorry for the allegedly’s, but newspapers have to be careful.) And you may want to carry a cross yourself, as Jesus allegedly did.
Actually, he carried the cross only per the Gospel of John. In the other three gospels a certain Simon of Cyrene carried it for him, but let’s not nitpick.
A lot of pilgrims carry crosses as they walk the Via Dolorosa, though on my recent trip I didn’t actually see any. I saw only pictures, with the pilgrims sometimes daubed with red paint to simulate blood and thereby more accurately reflect the passion.
The pilgrims I saw making the walk were dressed mostly in T-shirts and ball caps inscribed with the name of their tour group, and they moved in groups as tightly knit as schools of yellow-striped goatfish, so that if you stepped out of a souvenir shop into their path you got swallowed up and generally couldn’t get free until you had reached the Holy Sepulchre, where the trail ends.
Anyway, it will probably occur to you when you arrive at the beginning of the trail, near St. Stephen’s Gate, that you don’t have a cross, that being a heavy and awkward-shaped thing to carry on an airplane. You probably didn’t even think of it when you left home. So there you now are, in a narrow lane between ancient stone walls, eager to emulate the last minutes of your alleged Lord and Savior, and what do you do?
I inquired into this matter on my visit, which was something of an embarrassment to my wife — going door to door and pilgrim to pilgrim asking, “Where can I get a cross?” — but I did it anyway. She kept looking the other way and pretending she didn’t know me, but never mind, I solved the problem.
You can get a cross at the Sanctuaries of the Flagellation and the Condemnation, conveniently located near the beginning of the trail. The joint rents them out for $50 a pop, which is not cheap, but you’ve come all that way, so what the hey?
The guy in charge is a monk named Firos, or at least that’s how he spelled it for me. His English is rough, but you can manage. I asked him how many crosses he had, and, sizing me up, he asked me how many people were in my group. I finessed that one, saying something like, “Um, er, can I see the crosses?” as if I were an especially discerning customer.
Alas, someone else had the key to the storeroom, and he couldn’t find the guy, but never mind. He assured me he had between 25 and 30, and indeed one was visible in the courtyard, leaning discreetly against an ancient pillar. It wasn’t large enough to nail an average-sized man to — it was maybe 5 feet tall — but it would be perfectly suitable for carrying on one’s shoulder a distance of a few blocks and heavy enough, when I hefted it, to give one a hint of suffering too.
Just for the mischief of it, I was going to negotiate a group rate, seeing as how he took me for a group leader anyway, but I decided it would be dishonest and I didn’t do it. I thanked him and left him contemplating the potential take. Hmmm, 50 times 25 or 30 ...
In case you’re wondering, you do not have to bring the thing back after you’ve made the walk. Firos or one of his fellow monks will fetch it from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for you, so you don’t have to worry about that.
You’d look pretty foolish making the walk in reverse anyway, especially if you were daubed with red paint and wearing a crown of thorns. “Hey, where do you think you’re going?” I imagine some made-up Roman soldier yelling at you. “Come back here!”
And there you would be, galloping the wrong way down the Via Dolorosa, thrashing your way through schools of tourists, with red paint dripping into your eyes, thinking, “Why did I ever leave home?”
Persons of sober disposition — not necessarily numerous in Jerusalem — realize that the Via Dolorosa is hardly the path that Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion. The first such path was invented somewhere around the 5th century, and it has been reconfigured many times since then, most recently in the 18th century.
It’s one of those things like Plymouth Rock — something tangible, something visible, that people can hang their dreams on. Or like the Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha allegedly preached his first sermon. A couple of years ago I observed Japanese and Vietnamese monks circling that structure looking every bit as devout as Christians trudging the Via Dolorosa, though to my mind one thing was no more plausible than the other. Believers don’t really care. Faith trumps everything for them.
The Via Dolorosa embraces what Catholics call the Stations of the Cross, those being places along the way where various little telling events occurred, like Jesus having his brow wiped by the saintly Veronica, or stumbling and falling, almost all of which are imaginary, or, as the church says, “traditional,” which means they ain’t in the Bible but were made up centuries later.
My favorite was the indentation in a solid rock wall that was allegedly made when Jesus got tired and leaned his hand there. Every Christian pilgrim to Jerusalem puts his own hand there and gets his picture taken, so there must be pictures enough of that sort scattered through Christendom to paper all the churches of the world.
After much cajoling and threatening I prevailed on my long-suffering wife to put her own hand there, and you can see the resulting picture in my photo gallery, which you can link to here. She has not forgiven me yet, though I’m confident she eventually will. She is a gentle person.
Some people use little point-and-shoot cameras to take pictures of their own hand, and then go home satisfied.
I also took pictures of pilgrims kneeling at and kissing the “Stone of the Unction,” that being the slab of stone on which the body of Jesus was supposedly laid after it was taken down from the cross, at the end of the Via Dolorosa, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though again, there is no such detail in the Bible, and skeptics note that the stone was added to the church only in 1800.
People lay personal items like crosses and rosaries on it, to pick up the holiness. My favorite picture is one I took of a young boy, maybe 10 years old, kissing the stone while laying his toy rifle across it. You can see that on our website also.
In any event, it’s Holy Week, and I wish all believers everywhere the best.