Today is Palm Sunday. For millions and millions of Christians all over the world, it marks the beginning of a week-long spiritual reflection on Christ’s passion and resurrection, culminating in the celebration of Easter Sunday. Those who are not Christian, nor even especially religious at all, still acknowledge and respect the various observances associated with the season, including the Pope’s annual Easter blessing from his balcony. This year, however, there will be no processions, no packed basilicas, and no big crowds gathered — not even in St. Peter’s Square.
I was raised Roman Catholic, so all the traditions of Holy Week, indeed all the rituals and services of prayer and sacrifice for the full six weeks of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, are deeply ingrained. My responses are automatic: going to confession, not eating meat on Fridays, making the Stations of the Cross, giving up a favorite treat (candy, ice cream, TV), and giving away to charity (time, money, food). I hardly think twice about the what or the why of these Lenten practices. I just perform them. But the downside to such automatic practice is that rituals once intended to renew and inspire lose their mystery and power over time.
Our guide in Jerusalem was named Asher. He was a well-spoken and knowledgeable young man who had traveled widely, who exhibited an impressive command of history and culture, and who genuinely respected the three great religions that make his City sacred: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We had begun our tour that day with a typical tourist photo-op from high on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane toward the Old City and the domed Temple Mount. (There’s a reason this view is on every postcard.) We were a small group, so Asher introduced himself, asked us where we were from, and inquired if there were any historic or religious sites were were especially anxious to see.
Now let me make it plain: I am not a pilgrim. Certainly, in my travels over the years, I have found myself in places that others consider sacred, and I have even had some odd experiences here and there that I couldn’t logically explain, but I do not travel seeking cures or expecting miracles or anticipating a “spiritual awakening” of any kind. Even in the great churches of Europe, while I may be moved by the art and the architecture, it is not because of any particular religious significance. That includes St. Peter’s in Rome.
We entered Jerusalem amid a throng of people through the Dung Gate up to the Temple Mount, a compound that has been the scene of momentous historic events for thousands of years and which is sacred to Jewish, Muslim and Christian believers. From there we walked around to the Western Wall, which is the last remaining segment of the second Temple of Jerusalem (built in 515 BC after the first Temple built by Solomon in 957 BC was destroyed). The Western Wall is also called the “Wailing Wall” because pious Jewish pilgrims come to pray and “to wail” over the destruction of their history and heritage. Today, visitors from all faiths come to touch the Wall and to insert prayers of petition on small pieces of paper in between the cracks. They, too, are often moved to tears for purely personal reasons; I was one of them.
Up the street, the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow) is a half-mile walk that supposedly follows Christ’s passion through 14 Stations of the Cross marked along the way with plaques and Roman numerals. The first station begins at the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation, where Christ was scourged and condemned to death. (Evidence indicates that this probably happened at Herod’s Palace, which no longer remains, but which was about five miles to the southwest.) The stations continue through the alleys and hills of the Old City on uneven pathways and through busy markets, ending with stations 10-14 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This Church, with its side altars and crypts, encloses the various sites of Christ’s crucifixion, death and burial. It was so designated in 326 A.D. by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine (first Christian Roman Emperor), who claimed that she had found relics of the true cross here. (A short walking pictorial of the Via Dolorosa is available at www.verywellfit.com by searching for “Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.”)
As we proceeded along, Asher was careful to explain, especially when pressed by someone in the group to clarify apparent factual discrepancies about a particular location, that while the route had been recognized and had been drawing pilgrims since the 8th century, the Way of the Cross was established more by oral tradition than by archeological fact. That qualifier seemed to bother some people, at which point he simply shrugged. “As your guide, I can only relate the stories and traditions, but faith is a matter of personal belief,” he said. “Everyone has to find his own truth.”
All I can say is that this tour, this visit to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and the walk on the Via Dolorosa, profoundly moved me; it refreshed my spirit and brought new appreciation for all those Bible stories, both Old Testament and New, that I’ve heard and read so often. Now, when I make the Stations of the Cross or engage in other Lenten practices, I have visuals. I can draw on first-hand memories of dust and donkeys and a demanding day in Jerusalem. And even though archeologists, historians and religious scholars don’t always agree on factual details, it is the meaning of the larger story, not the details that matter.
So this year, while we are all unable to attend religious services or to otherwise engage in our usual Easter celebrations because of COVID 19 restrictions, I am recalling my experiences in the Holy Land and reflecting on the universal insight I gained there, which seems especially relevant right now. After all, the truth is always greater than the facts.