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"And yet ours were the sufferings He bore, ours the sorrows He carried. But we thought of Him as someone punished, struck by God, and brought low. Yet He was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins" (Isaiah 53:5).
Jesus was crucified two millennia ago. The city of Jerusalem in His time was destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century AD then completely rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century.
Today, it is almost impossible to follow the exact route Jesus took to Calvary. Nine of the fourteen stations of the Way of the Cross (or Via Dolorosa) have some historical value, while the rest are the result of Christian tradition.
Veneration of the Way of the Cross has deep roots in Christian culture, although one may ask whether or not this tradition finds its basis in the New Testament. The answer is most likely no, as the first disciples of Jesus did not venerate the places that He passed on the way to His execution. The disciples lived in constant expectation of the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Since the time of the Temple, Jerusalem has always held a special place in the hearts of pilgrims and non-Jewish people who believe in Jesus.
Jesus calls everyone who believes in Him to ''renounce himself, take up his cross every day and follow Him'' (Luke 19:23,14-17). During His last supper with the disciples, He admonished them to remember what He has done for them on the cross:
“And He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, ‘this is My body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19).
Jesus was crucified. Who crucified Him? The answer through the ages has been 'the Jews' and that is why so many crimes were committed against the Jewish people and why many are so ashamed today.
In the Jewish repetition of the Law, called Mishnah, the death penalty was allowed in the following ways: stoning, burning, beheading and strangling. Crucifixion was probably Persian traditional execution adopted by Romans.
Apostle Paul, himself being a Jew, however states: “The Jews (or the Judeans, people from the region of Judea) who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets”
(1 Thessalonians 2:14).
The Gospel tells us it was the Jewish Temple aristocracy, the Sadducees, who plotted against Jesus. The position of the Temple was already threatened by the rising influence of the Pharisees and the separatists of Qumran (perhaps called Essenes) so it was crucial to remove Jesus away from the public eye. Many of Jesus' contemporaries were responsible for his death, but the Apostolic Creed says:"He suffered under Pilate".
Pontius Pilate was a Roman prefect, a high official and a procurator, responsible for judging and administering Roman law during his reign in Judea 26 - 36 AD. According to the ancient historians, Philo and Flavius Josephus, Pilate was a cruel heartless ruler, responsible for widespread bloodshed. It is supposed he committed suicide at Vienne, Gaul, after being deposed from the office. The story of the trial of Jesus is best recorded by the evangelist John:
"Are You a king of the Jews?'
'Do you ask this of your own accord or have others spoken to you about Me?'
'Am I a Jew?'
'Your own people have handed you over me, what have you done?'
'My kingdom is not of this world'.
'So, you are a king then'.
You say I am a king. For this cause I was born and for this cause I came into the world, that I should bear witness of the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.
What is the truth?' "(John 8:33-38).
In the Gospel of John, the place where Jesus was judged was called the Praetorium and its location is still uncertain. Some scholars speculate it was located at Herod's palace in the west of ancient Jerusalem. However, the Crusaders identified the former Antonia fortress with Praetorium. The fortress was built by the Hasmonean kings in the second century BC, but later was expanded and renamed by King Herod the Great. The latter named it after his patron Mark Antony, then obviously it was built before the battle of Actium in 31 BC. It is more likely that this was the place to which,
”The tribune ordered Paul to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this” (Acts 22:24,25).
The fortress was destroyed during the Great Jewish Revolt and today is the site of the Moslem boys' school Omariya. The site was also mentioned by the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who visited the Holy Land in 333-334 AD. The school building served as army barracks in Turkish times and then residence of the Turkish Governor of Jerusalem at some point. During the Independence War, it was the headquarters of the Arab Legion. In the school’s courtyard, Christians venerate The First Station of the Way of the Cross.
'So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. And the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe. Then they said, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they struck Him with their hands" (John 19:1-3).
After Jesus left the judgment place, He was publicly scourged on the plaza called Lithostrotos (a stone pavement or a mosaic floor when translated from Greek). Here the soldiers mocked Him, dressed Him in a purple cloak to imitate the mantle of a king and placed a crown of thorns upon His head. Then laughing, the soldiers paid him homage, hitting Him on the face and the head.
These events are commemorated at the 2nd station which is between the Omariya school and the Franciscan compound. There are two Franciscan chapels at the site. To the right of the entrance is the Chapel of the Flagellation commemorating the scourging of Christ. There was a church here built in the Middle Ages which the Franciscans bought in 1858. Later it was renovated in 1929 by the famous Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi.
On the left side there, is the Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross, built by another Franciscan architect, Vendlin Gierlich in 1904.
The Gospel account tells us:
“They then took charge of Jesus, and carrying his own cross, He went out of the city to the place of the skull or, as it was called in Hebrew, Golgotha” (John 19:17).
"Pilate went out again and said to them, 'See, I am bringing Him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.' So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, 'Behold the man!' (Ecce Homo in Latin).
When the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out, 'Crucify Him, crucify Him!' Pilate said to them, 'Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.' The Jews answered him, 'We have a law, and according to that law He ought to die because He has made Himself the Son of God'” (John 19).
To the west of the second station stands the Ecce Homo Church built by Pere Alphonse Ratisbonne in 1858. Next to it there was an ancient triple arch which was thought be the place where Pilate presenting Jesus to the crowd with the words: Ecce Homo (Behold, the man). Today, the arch has been proven to be the remains of the triple gate built by Emperor Hadrian in 135 AD.
The Third Station is in a few hundred steps away from the Ecce Homo Arch at the intersection of two streets: El Wad (The Valley in Arabic) and Via Dolorosa itself. There are remains of the pavement on the street dating back to the 1st BC until 1st AD and here you can really feel like you are walking in the footsteps of Jesus Himself!
There is a small chapel indicating the Third Station. At one time, a Turkish bathhouse was located at the site of both the Third and the Fourth Stations until 1856 when the Armenian Catholic Church acquired the whole compound. The Third Station commemorates how Jesus fell under the weight of the cross for the first time. The fall is not mentioned in the Gospel, but the tradition has preserved the event occurred which was near the ancient Fish Gate.
The chapel was remodeled and generously financed during World War II by the Polish architect Tadeush Zelinski and Polish soldiers from Sanders' Army who were evacuated to Palestine from the Soviet Union.
"Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25).
From Apostle John's account, we know the Mother of Jesus accompanied and followed Him during his Passion hours.
Although the event of a meeting between Him and His mother on his way to the cross was not recorded in any of Gospel sources, we should not treat the ancient tradition lightly because at the end of his Gospel, John says (21:25):
"There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."
Likewise, there may have been some events that were not recorded in the Gospel but were kept in the memories of those who lived in the streets where it all unfolded.
One of such events is commemorated outside the Armenian Catholic church of our Lady of Spasm - The meeting of Mother and Son. In the basement of the church there is a beautiful fourth century mosaic with the imprint of sandals and a small chapel indicating the exact spot of that meeting. When Jesus fell on that pavement of the third station, the tradition says His Mother was at hand to comfort and console Him.
From here, The Way of the Cross makes a turn right to the accent that eventually will lead to the Holy Sepulchre Church. The local Arabs call this part of Via Dolorosa Tareek al Alam (the Road of Sorrow). The Fifth station is dedicated to Simon of Cyrene and marked by a small chapel which was built in 1895 at the site, the first Franciscan Order property in Jerusalem since 1229.
"As they led Him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene,who was coming in from the country.They placed the cross on his back and made him carry it behind Jesus." (Luke 23:26)
According to this account Simon carried the cross of Jesus all the way to Golgotha.
Evangelist Mark (15:21) says that Simon had sons:
"The soldiers forced a passerby to carry his cross, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country (he was the father of Alexander and Rufus)."
The Gospel of Matthew also mentions this event (27:32). Only Apostle John did not record this event and even says that Jesus carried the cross Himself (19:17).
We will never know for sure why the Gospel authors preserved the name of Simon from oblivion, and although he was forced to carry the cross of Jesus, it is good to remember we are called to carry each others burdens (Galatians 6:2).
The tradition says it is the place against which exhausted Jesus leaned while the cross was given to Simeon.
The Sixth Station is indicated by a column embedded in the wall on the left side of Via Dolorosa street. The tradition tells us about a woman named Veronica who took pity on Jesus and stepped forward from the crowd of weeping women and cleaned the blood and sweat from His face. Tradition says His image. remained on that cloth. The name of that woman Veronica (Vero Icon) is translated as a true image.
The Station belongs to the Greek Catholic church and was purchased in 1883. The little chapel has 15th century painting of Veronica holding the cloth with the image of Jesus. The chapel was renovated in 1953.
While the story of Veronica is not found in the Gospel and is likely a result of Christian tradition, it still demonstrates love and compassion.
The Seventh Station is located at the "T" junction of Via Dolorosa and the street of a large Arab market, Suk Khan ez Zeit. Normally this street is very crowded now and in Jesus' times when He was led to His execution.
This junction is at the same place where once was a crossing of two Roman roads: Cardo Maximus and Decumanus. There is an opinion that there was a gate here in the times of Nehemiah (12:39),
"...and above the Gate of Ephraim, above the Old Gate, above the Fish Gate..."
There is another tradition that says when Jesus passed through this gate, He fell the second time. His death sentence was posted on the gate, hence the name - The Judgement Gate. The chapel in honor of the Second Fall stands on the site.
Next we turn right onto Aqabat el Kanqa Street. A few yards down on the wall of the Greek Orthodox Convent of St. Charalambos, there is a stone with the cross and letters NIKA , abbreviation of "Jesus Christ conquers".
This is the Eighth Station where Jesus speaks to the weeping women, which is recorded only in the Gospel of Luke,
"Large numbers of people followed Him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for Him. But Jesus turned to them and said: 'Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me; weep rather for yourselves and your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, happy are those who are barren, the wombs that never borne... and breasts which never nursed!’ Then they will begin ‘to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ’For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:27-31).
Many commentators see these words as the prediction of a cruel fate of Jerusalem and its residents when the Roman army destroyed the city and the Temple of God.
Continuing along the market street, we turn right towards the Holy Sepulchre Church which is the site of Calvary and the burial of Christ.
The market street is a food bazaar where meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and clothes are marketed as it was in the past when it was part of the Roman Cardo Maximus Street and also in the Crusaders' times when it was known as Malcuisinat (The place of bad cooking).
Up the wide stairway through a passage that leads to the roof of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the Ninth Station. The third fall of Jesus is commemorated by the shaft of a pillar set in the wall of the Coptic Patriarchate.
The synoptical Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew mention that a certain Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus. It is only John who tells us that Jesus, who called His disciples to pick the cross and follow Him, carried the cross Himself to Calvary.
"And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him..." (John 19:18).
This is confirmed by an old tradition that every criminal was supposed to walk his last part of the journey carrying his own cross. Jesus was already so weak by that time that He fell the third time.
The remaining five stations of the Way of the Cross are in the Holy Sepulchre Church.