Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage is available in paperback and on kindle and is being reprinted on Catholic News Agency with author’s permission. Cheryl’s non-fiction book is called Our Jewish Roots: A Catholic Woman’s Guide to Fulfillment Today by Connecting with Her Past.
Pleasing words are a honeycomb, sweet to the taste and healthful to the body. Proverbs 16:24
Elizabeth didn’t know where to start a conversation and decided, once again, to take her cue from the news interviews. She remained silent as they walked down the stairs and out the front door. The day was slightly overcast, with rain suggested by the clouds. Beth was glad she brought a sweater although figured it would be worthless against a hearty downpour. She thought of the phrase, ‘worth a plug nickel’ and then spent time wondering what a plug nickel was and why it was worthless. Had it always been worthless, she asked herself. Who knew? She smiled to herself as she heard that faint rise in inflection, just as Ayala had always done. Who knew?
Even though it was a rhetorical question, sometimes Beth really did want to ask someone, anyone, Who knew? Who knew the answers to some of life’s big questions? At forty eight she was starting to feel that she had more questions than answers and somehow felt that made the cosmic order of things completely unbalanced. Weren’t mothers supposed to have all the answers? Were they, too, allowed to be afraid?
Rachel broke the silence, and Beth’s mental ramblings, with a topic that affected all three women, Ayala. “Miriam has been almost inconsolable. We are very worried about her. Her mother was an angel and we will all miss her kind words and caring gestures. Since Miriam’s accident, Ayala has been at her side day and night. If it wasn’t for Ayala, Miriam never would have survived such a thing.”
Sipporah could tell by Beth’s face that Beth was in the dark about Miriam’s accident. Sitting in the back seat of the small car they had gotten into, Sipporah sent Rachel a look in the rear view mirror that said, Shh! You’ve said too much. Sipporah quickly changed the subject. “Beth, Miriam tells us you have three teenage sons and a teenage daughter! What a job you have with them, no?”
Beth loved the way Sipporah used the word ‘no’ at the end of her sentence. “Yes, I have quite a job, but really, they are good children. Just like all kids, wanting to see that you mean what you say and you say what you mean.” Beth wondered if her children felt about her the way that Miriam felt about Ayala. It was difficult to tell with teenagers, especially boys. Sophia, on the other hand, tended to make her feelings quite clear. Beth thought of her time with her children. One minute she was laughing and joking with them and the next minute she was their arch enemy. Who knew?
It was exhausting, truth be told, but Beth kept that to herself. In no small way they were part of the reason for her excursion. It seemed as if motherhood had very few perks and even fewer accolades. If Beth waited around until her kids were old enough to show their appreciation, well, she often said she wouldn’t actually see that day, having had her children in her thirties and all. People loved to hear Beth’s humor in regards to mothering but she needed to be replenished before she could go on. She felt like Mike had taken a lot out of her during his junior and senior high school years and now Sophia and Joseph often seemed to be vying to pick up where Michael had left off. Yes, she was a parched desert traveler and felt that the Holy Land was calling to her, to quench her thirst.
“Well, I am sure that your children are wonderful but know that you came to the Holy Land for a reason and we are here to help you see the sights most precious in your heart and to share some of our own favorites with you. When you go back home you will be filled with a new joy and a new spirit.” Beth listened to Rachel and wondered if Rachel had mind reading capabilities.
“What did you have planned for today?” Beth inquired.
“Well, maybe we should ask you if you have anything that you feel you can’t leave without seeing and we can go from there.”
“Hmm…Let’s see…okay…I really want to see the Wailing Wall, the Garden Tomb, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and Via Dolorosa. What do you think?”
“This is no problem! You have a made a nice list for yourself and we would be glad to help you see and enjoy those places. If you don’t mind, we could also offer a few of our own suggestions. I am on a sabbatical from the university right now and Sipporah is putting the final touches on her term papers so we are both quite available over the next week. It would be a mitzvah to be your guide.”
“I honestly don’t know what to say. Although I have only been here but a few days, it is if I have lived here my whole life and have the best friends in the world!”
All three women smiled knowingly. There were times when God just opened the heavens and showered you with riches and this was one of those times.
Within a few minutes, Rachel was parking her small car. “This is as far as we can go by car. The rest we will cover by foot. Cars are not allowed. I believe the perfect place to begin is the walk of Christ, or what is called Via Dolorosa. It begins here, at St. Stephen’s Gate in the Muslim Quarter. It winds through with a number of spots marked for the different stations and then ends in the Christian Quarter, at the Holy Sepulcher.”
Beth was already beside herself with excitement. “Why is this called St. Stephen’s Gate?”
She listened with rapt attention as both Sipporah and Rachel took turns explaining how Old City was constructed. Beth was told that there were seven gates from which a visitor could enter the area. Each one named according to its unique location or because of a particular characteristic. For instance, The Jaffa Gate faces West towards Tel Aviv and Joppa while The Damascus Gate, located in the northern wall, was where a traveler would enter if he or she had come from Galilee, the Golan Heights and Damascus.
The Zion Gate is located on Mt. Zion, near the Tomb of David and by the Upper Room where Christ celebrated the Last Supper. The Dung Gate, aptly received its name from its history as it faced south towards the Hinnom Valley, where refuse had been dumped in early days. Where they would be entering, The Sheep Gate is next to the sheep market and is also called St. Stephen’s Gate or The Lion’s Gate.
Beth liked the symbolism of entering the Old City via The Sheep’s Gate. Wasn’t she, after all, one of His flock? It made so much sense that Beth felt giddy.
As they began their tour through the narrow streets of Old City, Rachel and Sipporah continued sharing their wealth of information with Beth. The tour began with the first station at The Monastery of the Flagellation, marking Jesus being condemned to death.
Rachel pointed to the sign indicating the path and Beth felt quite thankful to have such a knowledgeable guide. Rachel told Beth that there were a few opinions on the route but that they would follow the most common procession. Beth could see that the route itself was going to afford little, if any, time for prayer and mediation. The narrow streets were filled with people and merchandise, both of which fascinated Beth.
Sipporah made sure that Beth saw the two small chapels. The one on their right called The Chapel of Flagellation which is where Christ was beaten. The chapel on their left being called The Chapel of Judgment and is where Pilate’s judgment was made again Jesus.
“Would you like to step inside the Chapel for a moment?”
Beth quickly agreed that she would and the three women stepped inside the small chapel. Taking a back pew, the women sat for a few minutes, each in her own thoughts. Sipporah was the first to move, gesturing toward the door so as to avoid distracting the other occupants of the church. Rachel and Beth quietly followed Sipporah out of the church.
Once outside they turned south and passed one of the northwestern gates of the Temple Mount. Although Beth knew most of what Rachel and Sipporah were explaining, she listened nonetheless. Sipporah was speaking about the Temple Mount as the place where Abraham brought Isaac, in following God’s instructions, and would have sacrificed Isaac had not an angel stopped his hand. Rachel ruminated about the difficulties in following God’s will and Beth lamented the often difficult task of discerning it before it could be followed. All three women wholeheartedly agreed.
“Don’t forget that the Temple Mount is also of great significance to our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is where their great prophet Muhammad ascended to his father in heaven. It is where the Dome of the Rock is built, the third holiest place on earth to the people of Islamic faith.”
Beth was impressed at Sipporah’s compassionate way of speaking about Muslims, calling them ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ and wanted to know what the first and second most holiest places were for the Muslims.
“That would be Mecca and Medina,” answered Sipporah.
Rachel explained that Sipporah’s parents were that rare mix of Christian and Muslim. She didn’t offer who was of what faith and Beth didn’t feel it was right to ask. Sipporah also didn’t offer details about her life in a Jewish nation with parents who were Christian and Muslim, but Beth could only imagine. “Well,” Beth began without thinking. “We certainly have our bases covered!”
Laughing, Sipporah said, “We sure do!” With station two having been in close proximity to station one, they were nearing station three, it was marked by a relief sculpture above the door of a little Polish chapel. Station three is where Jesus fell, under the weight of the cross, for the first time.
Very close to station three was station four. The Armenian Church of Our Lady of the Spasm marked the site. Beth, Rachel, and Sipporah went inside so that Rachel could point out in the mosaic floor, an outline that was said to be that of Mary’s sandals. Looking at the imprints, Beth realized that it actually did not matter if they were or weren’t what they were purported to be. For Beth, these small points of contention were introduced to change a person’s focus, which was supposed to be on Christ.
The fifth station, almost part of a group that included stations three and four, was where Simon of Cyrene was forced by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry this cross. Beth knew this to be from Matthew 27:32 and Mark 15:21, as well as Luke 23:26. These had become Beth’s favorite, or maybe she would have said most relevant, scripture verses over the past couple of years as she did her best to understand her oldest son’s belligerence and her own discontent. Everyday Beth tried to honor God by taking up her cross.
From the fifth station the women began an uphill walk through narrow streets towards the sixth station, where Veronica wiped Jesus’ face. Pilgrims, like Beth, filled the street. Once in a while Beth would catch a glimpse of a child skipping or laughing. The simple beauty of such a sight clarified why Christ would have said that the kingdom belonged to such as these. She smiled at the memories of her own children, as youngsters, enjoying a day in the park or a bike ride through the neighborhood.
While they walked Rachel shared a bit of the history of the walled city with Beth. “The Walls of the Old City were built by an Ottoman ruler named Suleiman. He lived in the mid 1500’s and built the wall, after he had conquered the Jewish people, because he believed he would be killed by lions if he did not. So, he enclosed the city.
Today there are four areas inside: the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Arab market runs throughout and gives the city its vibrancy and appeal. You feel like you have walked back in time when you visit the Old City. “
Beth completely agreed as they worked their way up the steep hill to station six. She noticed that the uphill climb was a bit of a challenge and was glad that she had worn short sleeves with an optional sweater, which now hung loosely tied around her waist. She bent over to pick up a stone and turned it around in her hand before dropping it gently back to the ground. To be walking in Christ’s last steps was almost incomprehensible to Elizabeth.
“Earlier I mentioned the gates that you could use to enter the city but did not mention the gates which are not in use. Of particular importance, and a main attraction for tourists is the Golden Gate. It is located in the east portion of the wall. It is where many Jews believe the Messiah will arrive. For Christians it is where Christ is expected to return and for Muslims it is where divine judgment will occur. So, you can see how important that gate is to billions of people worldwide!”
“Why couldn’t we use that gate to enter?” Beth asked.
“That gate was sealed by Suleiman,” Sipporah laughingly answered. “Suleiman thought he could prevent the Messiah from arriving by blocking His expected entrance!” Beth and Rachel also chuckled at such an idea.
As their laughter subsided, they found themselves at the sixth station. And none too early as far as Beth was concerned. While she wanted to know a bit more about the Golden Gate, she was ready for a rest. Station six also had a church, The Church of the Holy Face. Once again, all three women stepped inside for a moment of prayer.
As they sat down, Beth wondered if Sipporah was a practicing Christian or a Muslim. She knew, based on what Miriam had said, that Rachel was a Christian Jew. For the first time ever, Beth showed great restrain in letting this all go. She decided that these things would reveal themselves, in God’s time, over the next few days. Right now she just wanted to enjoy her few minutes at The Church of the Holy Face.
Leaving the church, they headed on a ways, towards the Franciscan church marking the seventh station; where Jesus fell a second time. They moved in unison, silence peacefully settling upon them as the weight of Jesus’ last hours began to manifest in their minds and in their hearts. Even Miriam had once mentioned being affected by thoughts of Christ’s suffering and tortuous death.
As Beth approached station eight, the words of Jesus rang through her ears as she recalled Luke 23:27-31, A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?”
There weren’t many Scripture verses that Beth had committed to heart, but the few that were reflected in the stations had become a very large part of her life of late. Beth stared across from station eight and saw a cross with the Greek inscription NIKA on the wall of a Greek Orthodox Monastery.
Silence was now the fourth member of their group and the women moved to station nine. It was at the Coptic Patriarchate next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The site of Jesus' third fall was identified by a Roman pillar. Beth’s heart started picking up its pace as her eyes took in the church.
The remaining five stations of the Via Dolorosa were inside this ancient church. Many people believe that Jesus was buried and raised from the dead on this very spot. It is, by most, to be considered the holiest site in Christianity. Beth traveled half way around the world to stand on this ground and the significance was palpable.
“The silence we have shared will feel like chaos compared to the beautiful silence you will feel once you step inside this church,” Rachel offered in a hushed voice. “I know you have probably done your homework before taking this trip but I wonder if I might give you information about the church before we enter and then you will be free to walk around, pray, do as you wish or as God wishes you to while you are inside this sanctuary.”
Rachel had been right, Beth did her homework, so to speak, but was unaware as to the specifics of the church. All she knew was that it was shared by a few different denominations. “Yes, please share with me some of the details of the church and then we will go inside.” Sipporah took a few steps off the walk so that they could gather and speak without hindering pilgrims making their way to the church.
Rachel then began, “As you know, Golgotha, or Calvary, is where Jesus was crucified. Constantine, the first Roman Christian ruler, built this church over the area where Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection occurred. As you know from our walking, we are now on a hilltop and it is here that Roman Catholics celebrate the tenth station.
Interestingly, the church has been split into two parts. The left area belongs to the Greek Orthodox and the right to the Roman Catholics. But you will also see that in many ways it is like a large building that houses many small churches. The building seems to change with every turn you take because of these different hands lovingly taking care of it.
Actually, as a result of the many different Christian denominations that are under this one roof, the main key was given, in 1192, to a Muslim family, who became guardians of the door with the responsibility to open and close it every day. At one point another family, the Joudehs, was brought in and entered into the current arrangement; that a member of the Joudeh family brings the key to a member of the Nuseibeh family, who then opens the door!”
Beth couldn’t help but giggle at such an arrangement and yet was taken aback at the solemnity of the centuries old tradition. Rachel nodded as if to say, Amazing, isn’t it? and continued on, “Immediately inside you will see magnificent lamps suspended over the Stone of Unction. The stone honors the preparation of Jesus' body for burial and the lamps hanging above it have been donated by various denominations. The stone itself is a polished limestone that dates from 1808 when the prior slab was destroyed.
This sacred site, who most agree is, in actuality, worthy of its claim, belongs to the four main sects; Armenians, Copts, Greeks, and Latins. It is about the length of an average size man and maybe two or so feet wide and is at the foot of Golgotha. You can so easily imagine our crucified Savior laying on the slab and that is why you will see visitors weeping for their Savior at this spot.
They are immersing themselves into that point in time and mourning His death, knowing that He loved them to such a degree as to offer His life for their sins. It tends to make visitors pause, whether in sorrow or in regret, for the sins of their lives.
Moving on, you will see that the tenth station is venerated at the top of the stairs, leading to Calvary, where Jesus was stripped of his garments. Each step you take will feel like a step you are taking with Christ and you will enter your own communion with Him during this time. I have walked this many times and have witnessed, over and over again, how pilgrims seem to transcend time and space, just as you do during the transubstantiation of Eucharist at your mass.
The eleventh station is at the silver altar where Jesus was nailed to the cross. My first pilgrimage here, I felt the heartache of the visitors who wept for the pain they felt they had inflicted upon Christ through their sins.”
Beth felt as if she could bear no more and wondered if she would actually be able to walk these last stations. What have I done to cause Him such pain? She asked herself, knowing that her sins were both in what she had done in life but also in what she had failed to do. Rachel saw Beth’s inner turmoil and offered words of comfort, “You will be okay Beth. Not every Christian can take this journey and you are very blessed to be able to do so. The Lord will be with you and reveal to you His love during these last few stations unlike anything you have experienced before. Remember that He died for you so that you may be resurrected with Him.”
Beth smiled at Rachel’s kind words and nodded for her to continue explaining the last few stations.
“The twelfth station is on the Greek Orthodox altar. It is where our Lord and Savior died upon the cross. There is a limestone rock underneath marking where Jesus’ cross stood as well as the crosses of the two thieves who were crucified with him. The great schism which was caused by the earthquake that took place at the time of Christ's death is also visible. As much as I turn to Scripture for knowledge of these sites, this particular one always makes me think of the beautiful C.S. Lewis tale, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” where the stone altar breaks apart after the lion is sacrificed. Mr. Lewis was a magnificent writer.”
Beth agreed with Rachel as she recalled reading the entire C.S. Lewis series with her children when they were younger. She loved how Lewis had crafted such a novel, rife with Christianity.
Rachel finished explaining how the Roman Catholic side marked the thirteenth station, where Jesus was taken down from the cross and that it was commemorated at the altar of Our Lady of Sorrows. She shared that below Calvary was the Chapel of St. Adam which memorialized the parallel between Adam, the first man, through whom the human race first sinned, and Jesus Christ, the new Adam, through whom we have our salvation. She finished by suggesting that it was time to step inside and allow their spirits be guided by God.
Beth and Sipporah agreed and the three approached the door. Opening it, Beth half expected to be lifted off her feet and swept up into the heavens. She was more than ready for this moment and stepped inside.
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