When I talk about walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, in Jerusalem, what do you think of? A solemn procession through ancient stone pathways, prayerful and reflective? Well, you have the stone pathways and the prayer part right, but it’s not aways solemn and reflective. The Via Dolorosa isn’t some Disney-esque attraction sealed off from the secular world, it’s a series of stops winding a path through the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. While it’s a prayerful walk for the faithful, for others it’s just the route they take to meet Omar at the falafel place and all of us are in the way.
In all honesty, I found it a little frustrating last year. I hadn’t been in Jerusalem’s old souk before, and the crowds, the sights and smells of everything from candy to spices to sides of lamb hanging in market stalls was distracting. Salesmen pitched scarves, rosaries, sandals and more at every turn. A small group of teenagers tossed rude remarks towards some in our group and the crowds made it hard to keep up sometimes. I even missed the 8th station entirely. (Ironic, isn’t it? That’s the station where Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem and I missed it because I was gawking at scarves.)
This year, however, I realized that all those distractions, all the people in the street, would have been there 2000 years ago as the locals went about their daily lives. We tend to forget that seeing a condemned criminal carrying his cross would not have been an unfamiliar sight to the inhabitants of Roman Jerusalem so there would not necessarily have been universal interest in the event. Just as they do today, people would have reacted in all sorts of ways to this Jesus of Nazareth, condemned to death.
Certainly some in the crowd would have been like those teens, or worse, spitting and jeering at Jesus. How many would have been indifferent to the whole scene, too focused on choosing the best dates in the market to wonder or even care if THIS man, THIS death, was significant? Some might have been curious, having heard murmurings about Jesus’ teachings, but afraid— either of the Roman authorities or of what following this man might mean to their comfortable lives. An of course there was Mary, dedicated to the end, and at least a handful of other followers who walked the path with Him, focused and faithful.
Then there would have been those like me, who heard Jesus’ teaching and wanted very much to follow him, to be steady and stalwart in the faith. But, despite their best intentions, they kept getting distracted by a guy selling tasseled scarves. (They were very unique and in my defense, they were for gifts.)
So while the Via Dolorosa might not have been my most prayerful moment of the pilgrimage, it was a beautiful reminder that Jesus lived in real time, that the people he encountered were not all Cecil B. DeMille extras—one-dimensional villainous Romans or pious followers. They were fully human, like Him, and subject to much of the same distractions and temptations that we encounter 2000 years later. In those worn stones, I felt the sweep of all those years of human and faith history come alive in the bustle of the streets.
I miss it already.