ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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(Virtual) Israel travels

The Last Supper, Cave of Agony & Via Dolorosa: An Easter guide to the Holy City

Before the virus struck, pilgrims would follow in Jesus’ footsteps from the site of his Passover celebration at the Cenacle to his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

  • Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, and clergy members, lead the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet at the Armenian Saint James Church in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, on Maundy Thursday, during Easter week, April 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, and clergy members, lead the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet at the Armenian Saint James Church in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, on Maundy Thursday, during Easter week, April 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Chinese Catholic pilgrims carry a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 19, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
    Chinese Catholic pilgrims carry a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 19, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
  • Franciscan priests lead a procession through the Via Dolorosa on a Friday in Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Franciscan priests lead a procession through the Via Dolorosa on a Friday in Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Stone of the Anointing, or Unction, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was prepared for burial. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Stone of the Anointing, or Unction, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was prepared for burial. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The 14th station of the Via Dolorosa in the the oldest and the most important section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The 14th station of the Via Dolorosa in the the oldest and the most important section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Easter proceedings at Jesus' tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Easter proceedings at Jesus' tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Greek Orthodox priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Greek Orthodox priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The 12th Station of the Via Dolorosa in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The 12th Station of the Via Dolorosa in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Christian pilgrims at the Via Dolorosa's fifth station, where Christian tradition holds Jesus rested a palm in order to gain a small moment of respite. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Christian pilgrims at the Via Dolorosa's fifth station, where Christian tradition holds Jesus rested a palm in order to gain a small moment of respite. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Greek Orthodox altar at Station 12 of the Via Dolorosa, built over the exact spot on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Greek Orthodox altar at Station 12 of the Via Dolorosa, built over the exact spot on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Easter pilgrims stream toward Qasr al-Yahud on the Jordan River, the traditional site of Jesus' baptism. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Easter pilgrims stream toward Qasr al-Yahud on the Jordan River, the traditional site of Jesus' baptism. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Crowds gather outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Crowds gather outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The 14th Station of the Via Dolorosa inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have been buried. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The 14th Station of the Via Dolorosa inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have been buried. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Children gather eggs on Easter in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Children gather eggs on Easter in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate Pierbattista Pizaballa leads the Easter Sunday procession, on April 1, 2018, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
    The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate Pierbattista Pizaballa leads the Easter Sunday procession, on April 1, 2018, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
  • Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) leads the Palm Sunday Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 9, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)
    Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) leads the Palm Sunday Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 9, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)

In the Holy Land, when the coronavirus doesn’t change life as we know it, Palm Sunday commences with a joyful procession from Bethany to Jerusalem and marks the start of the Christian Holy Week. With a lively crowd waving palm branches like those mentioned in the Gospel of John [12:13], the procession commemorates the entry made by Jesus of Nazareth before his crucifixion.

A few days later, Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples in a “large upper room” [Mark 14:15]. Traditionally, for many, that room is known as the Cenacle or Coenaculum and is located above David’s Tomb on Mount Zion.

At the conclusion of what is known, today, as the Last Supper or the Lord’s Supper, Jesus and the disciples walked to a garden on the Mount of Olives [Mark 14:26]. Today the garden boasts a number of gnarled ancient olive trees, and a grandiose basilica.

According to early Christian tradition, Jesus prayed all night in a cave on the mountain sometimes called the Cave of Agony. Afterwards, he was betrayed by Judas and taken by a crowd up the steps leading from the garden to the palace of the Temple’s High Priest, Caiaphas. Catholics recall this time of suffering at a splendid church on Mount Zion named for St. Peter.

Steps leading to the site believed to be Caiaphas’ palace. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Beneath the church are a series of carved-out chambers from the Second Temple period. If this is the site of Caiaphas’ palace, it follows that Jesus may have been imprisoned in one of these very same underground crypts. Other traditions place the palace/prison higher up on the mountain.

In the morning, on Friday, the chief priests and elders of the people decided to hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor [Matthew 27: 1-2]. Thus begins the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Sorrows, the route that Jesus followed from condemnation to crucifixion. It begins where the Antonia Fortress, which featured luxurious quarters for the Roman governor, stood 2,000 years ago.

Every Friday, but especially during Holy Week, pilgrims to the Holy City in non-virus times follow brown-robed Franciscan priests (or their tour guides) along the Via Dolorosa. For many devout Christians this slow amble in the footsteps of Jesus is the highlight of their trip to Israel. Walking quietly behind a group leader who is bent over under the weight of a large wooden cross, they pause at each of 14 different stations along the route. In somber contemplation they listen as the priests read from the Bible. Then all recite a solemn prayer.

What follows is a guide along that route, which for most of us, right now, can only be taken virtually.

A Catholic pilgrim carries a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 19, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Starting the Via Dolorosa at Antonia Fortress, where Roman Governor Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to his fate, is a 13th-century modification of several more ancient routes. But while much of the first portion of that route has changed, the final section of the Via Dolorosa has remained the same. It is the world-famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher – almost universally accepted as the site at which Jesus was crucified, buried, and subsequently resurrected.

The second Station of the Cross features two Catholic sanctuaries: the Chapel of Condemnation on the left of the entrance to the Station, and the Church of the Flagellation. In Roman times, prisoners, including Jesus, were often scourged with leather whips called flagella. This horrid instrument ended in leather thongs with bone or metal slivers that would rip the skin and draw blood — an especially cruel punishment for those condemned to death.

A procession of pilgrims on a Friday on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jesus’ crown of thorns makes up the basic motif of this powerful chapel. An extraordinary mosaic crown of thorns interwoven with light-colored flowers covers the inner dome of the sanctuary. Several of the geometric designs on the floor also resemble the spiky laurel, and an abstract half-circular thorn design dominates the entrance.

Crowned with thorns, lugging the cross, or crossbeam on which he will face his death, Jesus attempted to walk forward. Tradition holds that Jesus collapsed under the heavy load at Station Three. Two ancient pillars are incorporated into the iron gate in front of Station Three and a powerful bas-relief of Jesus’ fall is located over the door to the Armenian chapel established on the site.

It is believed that Jesus’ mother Mary was standing nearby when Jesus collapsed, and that she broke through the crowds to reach him. They are said to have met at what is, today, the fourth station. A poignant relief above the entrance to the church that stands there shows Jesus holding a cross, his head and Mary’s so close together that they could almost have been touching.

Christian pilgrims at the third station of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Obviously, Jesus wasn’t going to be able to finish the march while carrying the cross, so the Roman soldiers accompanying him looked into the crowd for someone to take over. That man was Simon from Libya: “A certain man… was passing by… and they forced him to carry the cross.” [Mark 15:21]. There is a depression in the wall of this, the fifth station. It is here, according to Christian tradition, that Jesus rested a palm in order to gain a small moment of respite. Pilgrims invariably do so, as well.

The walk would have seemed never-ending and Jesus was tired, dusty, injured and drenched with blood. At this point, it is said, a woman holding a cold, wet cloth rushed to Jesus’ side and washed his face. Looking down at the cloth, she found that an impression of Jesus’ features had remained on the fabric. Because the Greek word for true is “vera” and “icone” means image, tradition has named the woman Veronica and implies that this — the sixth station — is where she lived.

As Jesus walks the steep ascent leading out of the city, he falls a second time. That spot is the seventh station and features two different chapels.
Jesus stopped to speak to the women of Jerusalem at the route’s eighth station. “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him.” [Luke 23:27-28]. All that is visible at Station Eight are a cross and the Greek word “NIKA” engraved in a stone. NIKA means “Jesus Christ conquers.”

The Ethiopian chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A pillar is encased in the wall just outside the Coptic Patriarchate and directly across from the Coptic Church of St. Anthony. This column marks the ninth station, where Jesus faltered and fell one final time.

And so he reached the crucifixion site, today the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Station 10, just outside the church, is where, according to tradition, Jesus was unrobed before being nailed to the cross. Above the gilded altar and couched in an elaborate golden frame is a touching picture of the weeping women at the Crucifixion.

Inside, at the Latin (Catholic) Station 11, a striking altar designates the site at which Jesus was nailed to the cross. Above the altar, created in 1588 in Florence, Italy, hangs an intensely moving painting that depicts Jesus lying prone at his mother’s feet.

The 11th station of the Via Dolorosa during a Latin mass. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Greek Orthodox altar at Station 12 was built over the exact spot on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified. Beneath the stand is a large silver disk and countless pilgrims put their hands reverently through the hole. That way they can touch the rock that held the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

Between the two altars is the site where, according to tradition, Mary took her son’s body into her arms after he was removed from the cross. A statuette representing Mary is enclosed in glass and situated above an altar. Adorned with jewelry that was donated by thankful pilgrims, the figure is made of painted wood and appropriately called Our Lady of Sorrows.

Before the advent of the pandemic, at any hour of any day you would find people bent over a red marble slab located just inside the entrance to the church. Called the Stone of the Anointing, or Unction, it marks the traditional spot on which Jesus was prepared for burial (embalmed). Many a pilgrim would throw him or herself onto the slab; others would weep or kiss the stone.

Christian worshipers wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus, pray at the Stone of Anointing, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 12, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Inside an impressive rotunda whose magnificent cupola is supported by massive pillars, Jesus’ tomb, at Station 14, is the oldest and the most important section of the church. Within the encasement are two halls. The atrium is called the Chapel of the Angel, for on “the first day of the week… an angel of the Lord… rolled back the stone and… said to the women… Jesus… is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” [Matthew 28:1-6].

Among Easter traditions in the Holy Land is a pilgrimage to Qasr al-Yahud, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism by St. John (Matthew 3: 13-17). Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world throng to this very spot for an Easter ceremony led by patriarchs and bishops. Some even jump into the water, overwhelmed by the sanctity of the moment.

Qasr al-Yahud, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, on Easter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In many countries, children hunt for multicolored “Easter eggs” on Easter Sunday — the last day of Holy Week, a day of joy for the Christian world. Traditionally, eggs were considered the symbol of life and eventually came to represent the resurrection of Jesus. We have watched children collecting eggs near the restored Crusader church in Abu Gosh… though we’ve yet to see an Easter Bunny.

This article is adapted from chapters in Aviva Bar-Am’s book Jerusalem EasyWalks.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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