Part 11: On the Via Dolorosa

When we follow the Stations of the Cross in our churches, particularly during Lent, we do so in reverent calm, allowing us to reflect on the stages of Our Lord’s suffering before his broken body was finally laid in his tomb, whence he would rise again.

In reality, of course, Jesus’ torturous walk to Calvary was not accompanied by a considerate hush. He had to navigate streets bustling with people making preparations for the Passover and throngs of visitors on their annual pilgrimage to the temple.via_dolorosa

Some probably didn’t pay the condemned man any attention, or perhaps glanced at him with cautious sympathy. Others jeered, taunted and mocked him, rather enjoying the anguish of this minor celebrity with his peculiar messianic ideas. Most on the streets that day were probably just annoyed at the interruptions caused by this miserable procession.

Following the Way of the Cross — the Via Dolorosa — in Jerusalem’s Old City gives the modern pilgrim a suggestion of the chaos that surrounded Jesus as he walked to his death, which he freely accepted. The route follows narrow streets through busy markets frequented by locals, tourists and fellow pilgrims. The groups that are following the Stations of the Cross are really a nuisance in the lives of the locals, who nonetheless mostly accept that as the way of things.

And well they might. Local Christians have walked the Via Dolorosa since the earliest times, long before Islam was even a vague idea, and pilgrims have done so at least since the times of the Crusaders, even if that form was still rudimentary. The Via Dolorosa (or Via Crucis; it has many names) as a structured itinerary of prayer and reflection was introduced by the Franciscans in the 14th century, though the route has changed since then (the current course, just under 1km in length, was appointed in the 1800s).

The Ecce Homo arc on the Via Dolorosa – probably not in the right place.

The Ecce Homo arc on the Via Dolorosa – probably not in the right place.

It is impossible to say by what path Jesus arrived at Calvary — then a rubble heap just outside the city — because there is no reliable record of the location of Pontius Pilate’s Praetorium, his court when he was in the city. So the first station, where Jesus is condemned by the Roman governor, is set at a madrassa, the Muslim Umariya primary school. In Jesus’ time that place was covered in water. Scholars believe that Pontius condemned Jesus at the Herodian Palace on Mount Zion, which throws the historical geography of the Via Dolorosa decidedly off-kilter. But that doesn’t really matter, because a pilgrimage is a journey of faith and prayer, not a historical fact-finding mission.

So the pilgrim will also pardon the insertion of five non-scriptural elements among the 14 stations. One of these is Veronica’s wiping Our Lord’s face. The American satirist Mark Twain, who visited Jerusalem as part of a tour of Europe, Egypt and the Holy Land in 1867, evidently was sceptical about the pious tradition that Jesus’ face superimposed itself on Veronica’s veil. “We knew this,” he noted in a sardonic discourse on the tradition’s authenticity, “because we saw this handkerchief in a cathedral in Paris, in another in Spain, and in two others in Italy. In the Milan cathedral it costs five francs to see it, and at St Peter’s, at Rome, it is almost impossible to see it at any price. No tradition is so amply verified as this of St Veronica and her handkerchief.”

It’s unimportant, of course, whether there was someone called Veronica or a hanky: the sixth station counsels us to be merciful towards the condemned as we hope for mercy ourselves.

The Stations of the Cross in our churches were introduced in the 17th century for the benefit of the many (well, almost all) who would never travel to the Holy Land. They were even given the same indulgences as those who did the Stations in Jerusalem. Again, the Franciscans were the frontrunners in that endeavour. And rightly so: it was their founder, St Francis of Assisi, who first set up chapels with devotions to Christ’s final journey.


Southern Cross pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa, with Bishop Patrick Mvemve in the foreground.

And so our group of 45 Southern Cross pilgrims set out to engage in an ancient Christian custom, praying at the 14 stations that follow Jesus to his death.

Most of the locals happily tolerate these cross-bearing pilgrims. Without pilgrims, almost every Arab family suffers, as was evident when the second intifadah, which broke out in September 2000, cleared the Holy Land of visitors. The travellers have now returned, and few locals resent them because they spend money and create jobs. Still, there are a few who enhance the pilgrim’s experience of following Jesus’ sorrowful way by mocking the Lord’s suffering. It’s very odd that they would do so, even when confronted by crucifix-wielding infidels, because Islam counts among its prophets Jesus, blasphemy of whom is strictly prohibited. I have heard of pilgrims even being spat at, though on none of my five pilgrimages have I encountered such levels of hostility.

For the most part, those locals who acknowledged our presence were friendly, and occasionally amusing. Traders in the Old City are adept at identifying pilgrims’ national identities just by looking at them. It can’t have been difficult to peg our very multi-cultural group as South Africans (who in the Holy Land are often known as Liquorice All-Sorts).

Still, I was surprised and amused when one young chap called out to me, in a near perfect accent: “Hoe is die snoek in die Kaap?” I assured him that the fish in question remains widely available in admirable quality: “Die snoek is altyd lekker in die Kaap, my broe!”

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