Living in Jerusalem, as my wife and I did for several years, provided a kaleidoscope of experiences – some good and some difficult. Holy Week was one of the better ones.
On Maundy Thursday evening a number of us would walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, where we lived, to the Mount of Olives. The local police chief (a friendly Arab Christian) always wanted to provide us with a police guard, and to refuse could be offensive in the local culture. So we trudged off with two armed Israeli policemen who were always relieved when we thanked them (after a decent delay) and said we’d be fine without them. What a contrast with Jesus’ experience on the same night 2000 years ago! The armed guard came to arrest him, not to protect him.
We walked down into the Kidron Valley as Jesus did that night. On one occasion we were standing near some very ancient tombs praying and thinking about the intense suffering of Jesus as he would have passed where we were standing. Then, out of the darkness, a priest friend of mine appeared. He is a Palestinian who founded a theological group calling for the liberation of the Palestinian people. It made me think of their on-going pain, and that of Israelis traumatised by suicide bombs and the like. On-going trauma in the place where Jesus suffered.
On the other side of the valley is the Garden of Gethesmene after which the Mount of Olives rises very steeply indeed. One year we stopped half way up, in a garden belonging to a local convent. Looking back over the valley the Old City glowed with lights underneath the bright Paschal moon. It was beautiful. But the experience I shall never forget was hearing the great bass bell of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It rang out across the valley with incredible solemnity and pathos about once every 25 seconds. I can still hear the sound in my mind.
On our final Good Friday in Jerusalem, I decided I must, once in my life, walk the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday, the “Sorrowful Way” Jesus trod to the cross. The narrow, uneven cobbled streets of the Old City were crammed with pilgrims moving from chapel to chapel ending up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Actually, leading Israeli archaeologists told us that the real Via Dolorosa isn’t that route at all, but actually very close to Jaffa Gate, partly beneath the compound belonging to the church of which I was Rector. Nearby, just outside the Old City walls, just south of Jaffa Gate is a raised platform surrounded by stones almost hidden in the grassy bank. It is virtually certain that this is the site of the Praetorium (the Roman governor’s official residence) and the platform on which Pontius Pilate displayed Jesus after his whipping to the crowds, saying he found no fault in him. More than once I stood there alone, with modern Jerusalem stretching out before me and all the noise of the traffic a couple of hundred yards below, and reflected on the deeply significant events which had taken place on that neglected and ignored spot.
I didn’t like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at first. It seemed a rather dirty place full of ecclesiastical clutter. But it grew on me, especially when I began to notice the ancient rock faces beneath various altars etc. It is highly likely that these are the actual rocks of the hill of Calvary. Just sometimes it was possible for me to be in there almost alone and to reflect on the awesome thing Jesus did for me (and you) there. To show the eternal, infinite love of God who went through hell for us. Not just the “hell” of crucifixion, but the real hell of God forsakenness. He cried out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” In some way we cannot understand, God was bearing the pain of all human failing and sin. Such love!
However, the culmination of the whole experience was very early on Easter Sunday morning. Some of us climbed up onto the flat roof of Christ Church for the sunrise service. There we sang joyful Easter hymns and spoke of resurrection. Just to the north was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Calvary. To the south in the distance was the desert where Jesus had been tempted. To the East was the site of the Temple where he had taught and healed many people. Beyond it was the Mount of Olives where Jesus, after his resurrection, ascended to heaven.
Christ is risen: he is risen indeed. And he has blazed a trail through death for those who trust and follow him.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction