Day 6: Via Dolorosa

Sunday morning in Jerusalem is a lot different than Sunday morning in Holland, MI, or in Sioux Center, IA. I have lived almost my entire life in cities that would identify themselves as “Christian.” Jerusalem is not a Christian city. Jerusalem is divided between the Jews and the Arabs/Muslims. According to our tour guide, Jerusalem is comprised of 33% religious Jews, 33% “secular” Jews, and 33% Muslims. The Jewish and Muslim quarters are so divided that neighborhoods rarely interact, and they even have their own shops and services.

For those who are good at math, you’ve probably noticed that these percentages don’t quite make a whole. The remaining 1% of Jerusalem is Christian, but there is no distinct Christian quarter. The Christians live among the Jews and the Muslims alike. The Jerusalem cross, we are told, has become a symbol for this.

Jerusalem Cross

The four smaller crosses remind the Christians living in Jerusalem of their neighbors in the four quarters of Jerusalem; the large cross – the cross of Jesus Christ – does not divide Jerusalem, but unites it and binds it together. Division is not the answer that we think it is; political solutions to racial and religious conflict have often centered on division (Bethlehem’s wall is a primary example). We who are in Christ are called to be ambassadors of peace and reconciliation, going into places of conflict and reconciling it, rather than “managing” it by division or compromise. A hard word for a quiet Sunday morning; a call to discerning action and many prayers.

The Via Dolorosa

Sunday morning in Jerusalem is not marked by the solemn parades of cars to churches and home again for family dinners, like it is at home. Sunday here is another normal workday, a day for families to run errands, pick up groceries, go for a jog, walk pets, meet friends. The few Christians there are in Jerusalem find their way to their churches – Roman Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc. — in peace, largely unnoticed. Our group chooses to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord on Sunday morning by walking the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Suffering,” the route Jesus took on his painful journey to the cross.

We go early, before the narrow maze of Jerusalem’s historic streets are crowded with a normal day’s traffic. Our group gathers around empty church doorways and ignored plaques in the brick walls, often blocking the entire street; we are one more small reminder to the Jews and Muslims going about their day that Christ’s disciples are called to take up their cross and follow the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the inconvenient, narrow way of suffering that winds its way through the heart of the world’s great conflict.

As we walk the path of Christ’s steps to the cross — from the site of the 1st-century Antonia Fortress where Jesus was tried by Pilate, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the historical/traditional sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — like so many Christian pilgrims have for two thousand years before us, we meditate on the Stations of the Cross by reading the story, with its accompanying prayers and hymns.

This was an indescribably moving experience for me. I completely understand why this is one of the most important pilgrimages for a Christian. I know the steps Jesus actually walked are a thousand feet beneath me, but these steps have been trod by countless Christian brothers and sisters just like me, seeking to mysteriously participate in Christ’s sufferings. I also realize that pilgrimage is completely lost on our group, even on me. We don’t think this way anymore, that God’s presence is in and around and among us in this world in “thin places” for us to encounter, so I don’t have the mental infrastructure to fully apprehend and appreciate this experience. Some of our group have done this before so many times that this is just another walk through Jerusalem, hearing the old, familiar story; most of our group have never done anything like this so this is just another walk through Jerusalem, hearing the old, familiar story. I can recognize that this is a unique opportunity to touch holiness and be changed by it, and yet I am also  on just another walk through Jerusalem, trying to experience anew and participate in the old, familiar story in the middle of 21st-century Jerusalem’s workaday busyness. Lord, have mercy. Show up in Jerusalem. Show up to us. Wake us up to the holiness that is thick here, and show us your powerful presence, and give us open hearts to receive it, and respond to it.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. Hezekiah prospered in all his works.

~ 2 Chronicles 32:30

After our pilgrimage on the Via Dolorosa, we take another walk through under Jerusalem: Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Hezekiah was one of the few good kings of Judah — restoring correct temple worship, reducing the pagan shrines, and reinstating the Passover as a national feast — who kept the Southern Kingdom from exile during his reign. His fortification of Jerusalem and other building projects included rerouting water through Jerusalem in order to provide for his people during Assyrian seiges.

The city of Jerusalem has made this tunnel accessible for tours, including the quite narrow stretch of it that required us to walk through knee-deep water in the dark, single-file, and for us taller ones, to duck most of the way. An experience to remember (forget?). The historical significance of this tunnel is minor, except that it demonstrates the strategic mind of King Hezekiah at work in service to his great heart for God’s people in order to provide for them in times of dire need. I suspect that the state of Israel has developed sites like these into tourist destinations to bolster its sense of a great military history; but I wonder what King Hezekiah would say of this posthumous pedestaling of his works, when the Bible remembers him for his devotion to God, his zeal for worshiping God and not himself. I wonder.

City of David

The tunnel runs along the ancient “City of David,” a new archeological find of the Old Testament city of Jerusalem during the days of David. This area is surprisingly small, and, as it is still being excavated, we only got an overview.

Pool of Siloam

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

~John 9:6-7

Hezekiah’s Tunnel finishes at the Pool of Siloam. We exit the tunnel at a pool that was long thought to be the biblical pool of Siloam, but has been recently proved to be a later work. We walk down a bit further to what is now known to be the biblical Siloam, a pool still mostly unexcavated. This pool is the site of only one verse of Scripture, where a blind man washes his face and opens his eyes seeing. An incredible story in its own right, but the surrounding events of this story are even more remarkable.

John 9 records the story of a man blind from birth, a disability that everyone — disciples and Pharisees alike — assumes the wages for some sin, either the man’s or his parents’. Jesus answers that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). And God’s works are revealed. The man is healed with a strange formula of Messiah saliva and Jerusalem dirt and spring water, but it is not mysterious mud that makes this man see. Siloam, John tells us, means “sent,” and just as this man is “sent” to receive his sight, so also is Jesus Christ “sent” from God to restore all things, including sight to the blind.

This pool has biblical roots that go deeper than this episode, roots that tie this man’s healing into the Messiah’s whole project to restore creation to its Creator. The water from the pool of Siloam is living water, water fed from a stream, rather than a well or a cistern. This means that the water can be used for temple worship in its rituals. During one festival in particular, the Festival of Tabernacles/Booths (called Sukkot), a priest would go to the Pool of Siloam, while all the people followed singing, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation!” (Isaiah 12:3), and the priest would gather water from the pool in a golden pitcher. Everyone would return to the temple, where the priest would pour the water out into the basin by the altar for all to see as a remembrance of the water that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.

Jesus attends the Festival of Booths, and “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ‘ “ (John 7:37-38)

Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah who will “draw water from the wells of salvation.” He is the Living Water sent from God for the healing and restoration of all things. Thanks be to God for sending us The Living Water, Jesus Christ, for our journey through the wilderness of life, who satisfies our thirst and gives us eyes to see the works of God in the world to redeem it and restore it and recreate it.

Israeli Museum

In the afternoon we visited the Israeli Museum, which is home to a number of exhibits:

  • Model of Jerusalem
  • Archeological Museum
  • Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit
  • Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
  • Children’s Memorial

This was a complicated and difficult afternoon for me, and I’m not sure what to post. “Yad Vashem” (“Hand and Name” in Hebrew) is a single vault of concrete and steel and glass with a one-way path of exhibit rooms winding back and forth across it. There’s an atmosphere in this brutal march that is simultaneously punishing and pitiable, as if the air itself were humming “Never again. This will never happen to us again.” Among the other tourists there were groups of American Jews on their birthright tour and Jewish soldiers in military garb; both groups were young adults ages 19-25, and the message of Yad v’Shem seemed to reverberate off of them: “Never again.” Their tears, their anger, their shock, all transfigured this exhibit into quite another via dolorosa, a very different “way of suffering.”

I did my best to really absorb the entire exhibit, to not become numb or distant, to charitably engage what I was seeing and hearing with generous ears, to understand. This was hard. The videos and displays and presentations and the very walls echoed with the voice of a belligerent victim: “Never again. This will never happen to us again.” When that message is all that you hear, all the time — in every article, every conversation, every news report — there can be no room for grace, no room for forgiveness, no room for reconciliation. Hurt people become so filled with their hurt that all they offer the world is their hurt. Yes, they are certainly victims of great injustice, and not just in the last century. But when all you are is a victim, then the only thing you get is what is owed you. Grace cannot be owed. And grace is the only thing that transforms a “way of suffering” into a way of healing and restoration.

Parents’ Circle – Family Forum

In the evening our group gathered to hear from two individuals on behalf of Parents’ Circle Family Forum, an organization that helps connect people who have lost family members to the constant conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. This is not a religious group, but their work is born out of the belief that reconciliation is the only way to lasting peace in the Middle East.

We listened to stories of pain and grief and anger, and how their meeting other fathers and mothers who had lost children, or husbands and wives who had lost spouses, transformed their solitary “ways of suffering” into a path toward reconciliation walked by many others. In the wake of the sorrow caused by religious and political and family conflict, reconciliation is crossing the divide between Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, victim and victor. While this reconciliation is not going forward in Christ’s name, I felt in my heart as I listened to their stories that the only way this kind of reconciliation happens is in Christ’s power. The message of reconciliation is going forward, creating a way of healing out of the way of suffering.

***

I’m trusting these sensitive reflections to the internet, mostly because I recognize that most of you reading this are people who already know me well and understand my heart behind these words. The situation in Israel-Palestine is political, and I don’t offer any of these words as political discourse in favor of any one position or party. The situation in Israel-Palestine is also religious, and I am reflecting here on my experience of another culture as someone deeply committed to the way of Jesus Christ: I share my reflections because seeing the Cross of Christ at work in another place can open our eyes to see the Cross of Christ at work in our own as well. May we have eyes to see.

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