By Nancy T, Lu
Friends asked me what I brought back from my visit to the Holy Land. I told them, not joking at all, that I bought a framed crown of thorns complete with a certificate, saying it “has been sanctified in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher” in Jerusalem. I want to be constantly reminded that life’s pains and sufferings are nothing compared to what Jesus Christ went through.
Traveling to Israel for the first time years ago and making what I truly believed to be the trip of a lifetime, I only knew that I must try to retrace the steps of Christ, especially his passion and sufferings.. The Garden of Gethsemane and the Via Dolorosa in the life of the Man from Galilee were marked from the beginning as of top priority. in my itinerary..
My first whole day visit to Jerusalem began only hours after the wee morning assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza City. Mendy Gonda, the Israeli tour guide with 30 years of experience, appeared visibly apprehensive that day. He was constantly using his mobile phone, checking out the situation in Hebrew.
Looking out to the right side of the tourist bus, he saw a police patrol car blocking a vehicle and accosting the passengers. He remarked: “The police are checking the identity papers of Palestinians who slip illegally into Tel Aviv to find work and rounding them up.”
Israel was not taking any chance. The authorities were on full alert. So was the glib talker Gonda.
“I am not sure that I will be able to get you all into the old city of Jerusalem today,” he announced the bad news.
As he drove, he said: “There is going to be a bomb somewhere. This is all like Russian roulette.”
The tour group spent a lot of time in the rebuilt Jewish Quarter of old Jerusalem, checking out the archaeological sites. During a visit to the Cenacle in a Jewish synagogue, the tour guide questioned the seating arrangement of Jesus and the apostles in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” In his opinion, quoting biblical passages, Jesus would in most likelihood not be sitting in the middle. Rather, he would be the second or third person on one side of the table. Judas would be next to him, driving Peter to complain. Furthermore, he would be in a reclining position, supporting his head with one hand and helping himself to the bread with the other clean hand, claimed the Jewish guide.
The truly exciting part of the visit began near the Jaffa Gate not far from the famous Wailing or Western Wall of Jerusalem, where many Jewish pilgrims, the most prominent being the bearded orthodox Jews in black, turn up to pray and mourn the Temple’s destruction. Many stick folded pieces of paper with writings into the crevices in the wall. These are collected in a container regularly and buried.
The hurried and nervous steps of the tour group led by Gonda provided little time for picture-taking. The guide had warned everyone about the serious security problem due to fear of Palestinian reprisals.
Indeed the Arab-owned shops along the narrow but rather picturesque Via Dolorosa route were all shuttered up on this day. The protest and mourning over the loss of a charismatic leader, whom the Israelis labeled a Palestinian Bin Laden, had begun.
It was impossible to cover completely the traditional route along which Jesus carried his cross from his condemnation to his crucifixion in what was known as the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows). Even the guide book said that the Stations of the Cross may not be exactly the places where the cited incidents happened.
The first seven Stations of the Cross are in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The VIIIth and the IXth Stations are located on the border between the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. The final five Stations are all within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
A small “V” at the junction of Tariqal-Wad and Tariqal-Saray marked the Vth Station, which I visited. According to biblical account, the heavily scourged Jesus fell on his way to Calvary or Golgotha and Simon of Cyrene was ordered to carry the cross. A woodcarving in the small chapel showed this scene.
The Roman numeral VI was on the door of the Church of the Holy Face and St. Veronica, serving as the VIth Station. Veronica was said to have wiped the face of Jesus with a piece of cloth and he left the imprint of his face on it.
Jesus’ fall for the second time was commemorated in the VIIth Station. This was also the Porta Judicaria where, according to legend, the death decree was posted. On this particular day of my visit, the door was open. I slipped inside and saw a huge painting there depicting the fall.
The Xth and XIth Stations were in the Latin Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross on Calvary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Here Jesus was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross. I had entered the church from the courtyard and climbed the steps to the right to get to the rock on which Jesus and the two thieves were crucified on Calvary or Golgotha. According to the guide, the mosaics here were fairly recent, except for one depicting the Ascension, said to be of the 12th century.
The dimly-lit but richly decorated Greek Chapel of the Exaltation or the Raising of the Cross marked the XIIth Station. A crucified Jesus was flanked by the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Below the Greek altar was a small opening. I reached down deep inside to touch the rock surface of Golgotha.
The small Latin Stabat Mater altar honoring Our Lady of Sorrows was sandwiched between the two chapels. This was the XIIIth Station. Here Mary received the body taken down from the cross.
Stairs led the group down to the Stone of Unction, commemorating the anointing of Jesus’ body by Nicodemus prior to the burial. The present slab of limestone was said to date back to only 1810. The previous 12th century one was destroyed in a fire in 1808. Worshippers did not hesitate to touch and even kiss it. Hanging above the stone were lamps belonging to the Armenians, Copts, Greeks and Latins.
The Tomb of Christ, the XIVth Station, consisted of the Chapel of Angels, only 3.4 meters by 3 meters in size, and the even smaller Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, only 2 meters by 1.8 meters in area. I queued and literally stooped to get inside the second chapel to pray. I could not stay too long for many visitors were waiting to gain entrance inside.
On my second visit to the holy site only two days later, Zvi Harpaz – a more considerate tour guide if compared to the first one who even challenged me to convince him about my Christian beliefs – asked if I wanted to have a blessing from the Franciscan monk, who was around. I was delighted.
Moments later, on my way out of the church, a decently dressed guy caught up with me, asking me if I would like to make a donation to the priest who had just blessed me. I pulled out a 20-shekel bill and began to head back to the chapel. He offered to give the donation in my behalf. Fearing that I would be left behind by my tour group, I gave him the money. To my chagrin, he headed for the nearest church exit and disappeared with the sum which I handed to him.
The failure to see the Garden of Gethsemane on my first visit to Jerusalem made me ask my more accommodating second guide early on about including a stop there on my return two days later. On my first trip to Jerusalem, I only saw from a distant rampart the Church of All Nations (Church of Agony) with a gold mosaic façade depicting Jesus Christ as mediator between God and man. At last I was able to walk like many other pilgrims around the site, pinpointed since the 4th century as the place where Jesus prayed, was betrayed by Judas and was arrested. According to the guide, some of the olive trees seen there have been certified to be more than 2000 years old.
The basilica there, a design of architect Antonio Barluzzi, has purple glass on the windows, which dims the light entering the church to suggest “the hour when darkness reigns.” Devotees gathered near the section of the bedrock upon which Jesus prayed before his arrest.
There I ended my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But upon my return to my country of origin, with memories still fresh and vivid to make me feel the Lenten mood, I went out of my way to watch Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.”