The oldest version of the Via Dolorosa dates to the Byzantine era; it made its way down the Cardo Maximus, the main street of the Roman city. But we were following the way that had been mapped out by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. It’s not known which one is more accurate – and following the Stations of the Cross is less about stepping where Jesus actually walked than it is about proceeding deliberately through a meditation of what was accomplished by Christ on our behalf. So we began our morning at the two neighboring Churches of the Flagellation and of the Condemnation. At each stop, we read some Scripture and looked in at the church (if there was one) that commemorated the location.
The final 5 stations are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where the mother of Emperor Constantine, Helena, understood Jesus was crucified and then buried. We wound our way through the highly ornamented church, passing the slab where Jesus’ body was dressed, entering into the tiny cave where Jesus was laid, and then back out. The church is administered by 6 different Christian denominations, and they bicker fiercely over their territory. It’s enough to make even our most dysfunctional church committees look like paragons of efficiency and cooperation. We saw inter-religious conflict yesterday…now we were experiencing it within our own Christian community. Yet, I find it hopeful that each group was coexisting with the others; perhaps not peaceably yet, but continuing to find a way to live with each other.
We boarded the bus again and headed out of Jerusalem into the West Bank. At the checkpoint where Israeli-controlled territory bordered Palestinian Authority-administered land, we disembarked (leaving Toby & Mishi behind) and got on a different bus with a different tour guide to enter Bethlehem. After passing through traffic, we arrived at Manger Square and entered the Church of the Nativity. Built by the Byzantine Church to replace a smaller wooden structure, this large stone church is also administered jointly, by 3 denominations. After 1500 years, it was still holding up remarkably well. We got into (what we were informed was a short) line and descended down to the grotto. Here, a silver star underneath an altar marked the traditional birthsite of Jesus, with many Orthodox individuals climbing underneath to rub a piece of cloth on it or kiss the star. To the side was an altar marking where the manger is said to have been. An open space in the back provided some breathing room from the cramped quarters at the front of the cave; we gathered and sang “Away in a Manger,” which inspired others to sing in their own language after we were done. (We heard what was clearly “The Little Drummer Boy” at one point.) We then moved to the Roman Catholic portion of the church, where we witnessed the priests gathering for their procession to the cave for daily prayer. We had lunch at the Nisan’s cafeteria, and then headed back to the checkpoint.
We could clearly see the wall built by the Israelis to divide the territory. As we rejoined Toby, Michi, and our bus, we got our passports out. But several soldiers boarded and ordered us back off the bus. Michi told us to wait, and after a few minutes of conversation, he came back and said the soldiers would just be looking at our passports on the bus. Smiling now, they came on, looked at our documents, and then disembarked. Michi told us that while we were in Bethlehem there was a demonstration in another part of the town, related to the peace talks going on right now. At the demonstration, there were tourists (I don’t know if they were Americans or not). Hence the heightened vigilence towards tour buses & their passengers, who usually don’t have any problems or even need documents at crossings. I’m just glad we didn’t look suspicious…and that Michi is so well known and respected. We benefited from his guidance many times on the trip.
Back in Jerusalem we went to the Garden Tomb, a British-run site that also has evidence for being the place where Jesus was buried. It was a beautiful location, and we had a moving service of Holy Communion there. But for Christie and I, the best part was meeting Angeleena: she was not only a British Methodist pastor but one that was currently serving with a friend of ours I had been on circuit with in Scunthorpe. Sara had told me to look out for her, but it turned out she was leading our group’s tour! Angeleena was spending her 3-month sabbatical volunteering with the site, and we were glad to make connections to the beginning of my ministry through her.
We finished our day at the Israel Museum, which has a 50:1 scale model of Jerusalem c 40 CE or so, which helped us visualize many of the places we had been so far. We also visited the Shrine of the Book, which houses fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other important texts. Sadly, there were only a few bits from Qumran — perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of the trip. But I did get to see the Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest complete Hebrew Bibles in existence today. It’s one of those things you read about in college and seminary, but I didn’t think I would see it!
But the most powerful part of the day had to be experiencing the singing everywhere – at the Holy Sepulchure and the neighboring Ethiopian Orthodox monastery, at the Church of the Nativity, in the Garden Tomb as we celebrated Eucharist, and remembering our experience the day before at St Anne’s. There is power in music to communicate the sacred, and we participated in it everywhere we went–power to invoke the Holy, and power to connect us across the differences that keep us apart.