So, today I finally get a chance to do a little comparative theology! Most of you know that my sabbatical work is geared toward practical research and writing in comparative theology, which is a most fascinating, wonderful discipline that begins from one’s own committed faith position, goes out from one’s spiritual home & dwells for a time in the house of another [I like that metaphor], and then comes back home changed–with a new appreciation for one’s own faith, but also new questions and challenges. So, while I am in Jerusalem by myself for a week after the group goes home, that is the kind of work I am going to be pursuing, asking new questions of my Christian faith in light of what I learn and experience about Judaism. So, that really happened for me today when we went to the Western Wall. For those who don’t know, this is the holiest place in Judaism, because it all that remains of the great Herodian temple [Herod is the one who restored the temple in Jerusalem in 64 CE. It was destroyed in 70 CE]. There is a separate entrance for men and women, and separate sections of the wall for prayer, too. Also, when you look closely you see hundreds of little papers folded up and pushed into the wall–there is an old Jewish legend that says that an angel comes down from heaven each night and collects the prayers that have been written on the the paper and carries them to God. When you go through the security gate to get to the wall, there is a sign that says, “You are approaching the holy site of the Western Wall, where the Divine Presence always rests.” And, to emphasize the holiness of the temple, Jews are absolutely forbidden to walk on the Temple Mount [this is the site of the Dome of the Rock, which is built on the ancient site of the temple (and where tradition says Abraham prepared Isaac for sacrifice)], since they could inadvertently walk over the site of the holiest of holies [the site where the ark was placed in the temple], since the exact location of that site is unclear. So, having experienced all that, then, I am thinking anew about what the Jewish concept of “holiness” might teach Christians. Traditionally, Jews have much stronger concepts of things being clean and unclean, things [and people] being pure and impure; so the idea of everything/everyone being equally “holy” is not as strong [Kabbalah might be an exception to this–I’m not sure.] So, I have a new appreciation for what holiness means for the Jews, so linked as it is to the idea of God’s glory [Shekinah] dwelling with God’s people in the ark, in the temple–and dwelling there still. I continue to think about what that might mean for me as a Christian. And, today was a good day to think those thoughts, because after we went up on the Temple Mount, we walked the Via Dolorosa. Let me say a bit more about the Temple Mount, and then I’ll get to the Vial Dolorosa. So, as I said, the Temple Mount [which also has stringent security, by the way–metal detectors, no Bibles allowed (no religious symbols/objects of any kind), and no touching between men and women (even wives and husbands)] is a site holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but currently is controlled by Muslims. The Temple Mount is holy because: first, as I said, it is the place where Abraham is said to have prepared Isaac for sacrifice [but NOT Ishmael, in Islam]; second, it is the site of the temple, and thus of the resting place of the ark of the covenant [the two tablets on which were written the 10 Commandments]–believed also to possess the God’s divine presence; and third, it is the place from which Muhammad took his “night journey”–the angel Gabriel is said to have brought Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse [a buraq] and then ascended through the seven heavens together to Allah, where Muhammad received instruction on the daily prayers. The mosque that stands at the center of the Temple Mount is the Dome of the Rock–that is the enormous gold-domed building that your eye is drawn to immediately in any picture of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was conquered by Omar in 638 CE, he was dismayed to find out that the Christians had been using the Temple Mount as a garbage dump. He had the area cleaned and built the Dome of the Rock on the site: construction was completed in 691. At this point, only Muslims are allowed inside. It is an absolutely breathtaking building. Now to the Via Dolorosa. At this point, I should say a little bit about how Jerusalem is laid out. What is called the Old City [the walled city] is divided into four uneven “quarters”–the current designations were given in the 19th century, although traditionally, they go back much further. The four quarters are the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter, and the Armenian quarter. They all run together; for example, today on the way home, we started in the Jewish quarter, coming past the Western wall, went through to the Muslim quarter–all along the same street–and came out at the Damascus Gate. There are seven gates into the city, which are [beginning in the southeastern corner and moving clockwise] the Dung Gate, Zion Gate, Jaffa Gate, New Gate, Damascus Gate, Herod Gate, and Lion’s Gate. Our hotel is closest to the Damascus Gate. [There is also the “Golden Gate,” which is now walled over, but was a historic entrance to the city–it actually led right into the Temple Mount] The present walls of the city were constructed by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificant, between 1537 & 1542 CE. The Western Wall, obviously, is in the Jewish quarter. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre [more in a second] is in the Christian quarter. The Temple Mount is in the Muslim quarter. [We haven’t been in the Armenian quarter yet]. OK–so, the Via Dolorosa is actually in the Muslim quarter, primarily. It means “way of sorrows,” and it is the traditional route of Jesus’ walk to Calvary [on top of which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built] from Pilate’s headquarters at Antonia Fortress. I can’t tell you how grateful we were today to have relatively few people around us as we followed the walk–we have heard that it is pretty much a mob scene in April & May. So, if there are any Catholics reading my blog, you don’t need to hear what the stations are! But for the Lutherans and others, there are 14. Each one of them is marked–some with a church, some with a small chapel; and the last five stations are all in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. This Church, by the way, was built by the order of Constantine, and was completed in 335 CE [the site of Jesus’ burial had been commemorated there since the 2nd century CE]; it was destroyed, and then rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Currently, there are six Christian groups that dispute ownership of the Church, so there are lots of little chapel areas within the Church–every group has staked out its claim! [Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic Churches have the biggest areas; then the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox & the Syriac Orthodox have smaller areas & lesser responsibilities. Aren’t we supposed to be a one, holy, catholic, apostolic church?!] We walked the route, and stopped at all the stations–some briefly, some for a little longer, depending on what was there. So here they are, with commentary: 1. Jesus is condemned to death–there are two Franciscan chapels almost side by side that commemorate stations one & two. 2. Jesus receives his cross [and he is scourged, mocked by the soldiers & given a crown of thorns]. Incidentally, when you go down under the current foundation, you see what is called the Lithostrotos, which is where tradition holds that Jesus was condemned. Their are faint outlines of a dice game [called the Game of the King] that were carved into one of the stones, which again, tradition holds was played by the guards as they mocked & tortured Jesus. Also here, you have what is called the “Ecce Homo” arch [Pilate’s words, “Behold the man.”], which marks the spot where tradition holds [get used to me saying that] that Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd. 3. Jesus falls for the first time–there is a small Polish chapel here 4. Jesus meets his mother–a little Armenian Catholic chapel marks this spot; and there, when you descend into the grotto, there is a mosaic pavement depicting two sandals–it is ON THAT SPOT where Jesus is said to have met his mother. [Not quite footprints, but close!] 5. Simon is forced/helps carry Jesus’ cross–again, a small chapel 6. Veronica wipes the sweat from Jesus’ face. Nothing to see here–we were not able to get into the chapel 7. Jesus falls for the second time–there is a Franciscan chapel here; and the tradition says that Jesus’ death notice was posted here. 8. Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem–I had to run up to see this! It is a little off the path, and there is only a Latin cross carved into the wall to mark it. 9. Jesus falls for the third time–we didn’t go into this church, either. 10. Jesus is stripped of his garments–this is marked by a small chapel outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 11. [Now we are inside the Church] Jesus is nailed to the cross–there is a beautiful Latin shrine here with lovely mosaics [and an emphasis on the suffering of Mary, too, as one might expect]. 12. Jesus dies on the cross–there is an elaborate, ornamented Greek altar, which stands over the Rock of Calvary [that is, the place where the crosses of Jesus & the two thieve are said to have been erected. Again, this whole Church is a pretty well-attested site, given that it was venerated very early in the church’s history.] As I said earlier, you can reach in through a hole and touch the rock. [I did–I just felt like since I was there….] 13. Jesus is taken down from the cross–on the floor near the entry of the Church is what is called the Stone of the Annointment [a large, flat stone], where they put Jesus after his death. It was very interesting to me to see people come up and touch the stone itself–it is quite accessible–kiss it, touch a scarf to it, etc. 14. Jesus is laid in the tomb–“Christendom’s most sacred place.” [As for me, I am holding out for Bethlehem. Having just written my book on the infancy of Christ, I am sticking with the importance of the incarnation, at least in conjunction with the crucifixion/resurrection.] There is a small chapel built right inside the Church itself, which houses this site of Jesus’ burial & resurrection. I must be honest–all of this did not move me spiritually. [I wonder if I am taking the holiness of my own tradition for granted. There is something about it all that continues to feel incongruous to me, however; the fact is, my personal sense of “holiness” is not linked to these specific sites in Jesus’ own life and ministry. I’m still trying to sort all that out.] Don’t get me wrong, though–I was very glad to have seen it, and for me, it really enriches the whole tradition of the Stations of the Cross, which I have seen in so many different churches. However, I WAS moved to find myself walking up the stairs to the 11th station in grooves that had been worn into the stone stairs by millions of pilgrim feet that had come before mine. It really does connect you with the whole church, in all its diversity and beauty [in spite of what I just said about about the territorial in-fighting!], especially when you look around and see all the different people from different church bodies who are there with you, in their own religious dress, following their own religious customs. [For example, on one side of the chapel that houses the tomb, there is an area to light candles and burn incense-above that area, prayers had been shoved into the chapel wall. I assume this is a practice learned from the Jews–interesting.] It was very unifying that way, and I liked that a lot. One other site we visited today [just so I don’t forget it myself!] is St. Anne’s Church & the pools of Bethesda–here is where tradition holds that Jesus healed a paralyzed man [John 5:2ff]. St. Anne’s Church commemorates Mary’s birthplace: it is located in an area that traditionally has been identified as Mary’s childhood home. It is interesting: it was built in 1140 CE by the Crusaders, but then converted to a Islamic school when the Muslims after took the city in 1187. Even though it is a church now [it was given to the French in the mid-19th century], you still can see the Arabic writing over the doorway. The last thing we did was visit the Jerusalem archeological park, which is the center for Second Temple archeological research and exhibition. One of the things we saw is an area called the “Rabbi’s teaching stairway,” in front of the Western Hulda Gate, where it is believed Jesus would have taught [and perhaps even condemned the Jewish leaders from here]. We walked all the way home through the bazaar [street markets] in the Old City. That was REALLY fun, and so interesting to see–everything you could possibly want is for sale, including t-shirts with American sports teams written in Hebrew! I will be going back for some extended time next week, just to look at everything more closely!
Published by happylutheran
I teach theology at United Lutheran Seminary, and I am the Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life/College Chaplain at Gettysburg College. I am an inveterate optimist, runner, vegetarian, and harp player. I love Mary Oliver and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and like them, I'm continually delighted by all the surprising and wonderful ways God shows up in the world. View all posts by happylutheran