By Rev. Deacon Trent Pettit
If you have ever gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, one thing that you will get to do is to follow the “Via Dolorosa,” “the way of the cross,” which follows the path Jesus took through the Old City to outside the city gates to Golgotha. You begin at the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation, the traditional site known to be where Jesus was condemned and scourged. You then begin walking slightly downhill, down a narrow street congested with vendors and shops on both sides of the street. You eventually find yourself at The Armenian Church of Our Lady of the Spasm, the site where Jesus, according to tradition, met his grieving mother, Mary. You continue walking and encounter the stones on which Jesus stumbled as he broke under the weight of the cross.
As you continue, you find the fifth station, at another Franciscan Chapel named after Simon the Cyrene, who, according to the Synoptic Gospels, helped carry Jesus’ cross. You continue down the streets, still walking past shops. I remember the smell: dirt, Turkish-style coffee and spices. You eventually find yourselves near the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Charalambos, where, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the daughters of Jerusalem, to weep for themselves and not for him. The final outdoor station is at the entrance to the Ethiopian Orthodox Monastery and the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Anthony. These monasteries actually form the roof over of the Chapel of Saint Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
From here, the remaining Stations of the Cross are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The smell of beeswax and incense is thick as you’re overtaken by the sense that you’re in one, if not the, holiest place on earth—it is a place “thick” with the holy, centuries’ worth of prayers seem to cling to its very walls, and you can feel it. Once you walk past the anointing stone near the entrance of the church and climb stairs worn super soft and slippery after centuries of pilgrims have come to pray there, you reach a platform over the sight of Golgotha, the hill of Calvary. The Alter over the bedrock of Calvary is decorated in gold and silver and strings full of oil lamps hang overhead. There is a place right under the altar which is exposed for pilgrims to put their hands into and touch the very place where Christ was crucified. This is the moment that the “Via Dolorosa” has all built up to.
As you walk the Via Dolorosa you image that you are walking with Christ along with the crowds gathered about him on Good Friday, though, not as one asking for his crucifixion, but as one that beholds the love of God as it unfolds to its height. One might recall the Christ-hymn from Philippians 2 as if the Spirit were singing it to us in that moment, somehow muting the crowds, revealing what Christ was doing for them and for you.
St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, according to tradition, found the true cross of Christ in Jerusalem. When St. Helena found the true cross, St. Ambrose preached that, ”she worshiped not the wood, but the King, Him who hung on the wood. She burned with an earnest desire of touching the guarantee of immortality.”
When we consider the cross of our Lord, we do so to cling to Jesus, our Savior. Perhaps today you might find time to imagine yourself walking the Via Dolorosa. As you follow Jesus toward Calvary, who do you come to know Jesus to be? May you discover the one who will help you seek and carry the cross God has given you, so that you might serve Him in this life and enjoy Him in glory in life everlasting.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
The Rev. Deacon Trent Pettit is a former parishioner of St. James'. Trent will be ordained to the priesthood this coming Advent. Trent began his journey to the priesthood st St. James' and now lives in a Texas.