One of the traditional biblical genres of praise is the "song of ascents" (Psalms 120-134): that is, a walking-song, or, more precisely, a pilgrimage-song, which worshipers would sing as they made the journey up to Jerusalem to visit the Temple of God. The hymn below is my own attempt at a pilgrimage-song, set to a tune that fits a cheery walking gait: the charming (but rather too repetitive in its original lyrics) "Cleansing Wave" of Phoebe Palmer. Walk with Me I walk this day in pilgrimage Within the Father's grace: A journey from these vales of sin To wonder and to praise. (Chorus): Lord, take my hand and walk with me, My Guide and fellow Trav'ler be; Oh, let Your mighty mercy lead, And on this journey, walk with me. My faithful Shepherd watches me Upon life's winding trail; His rod and staff, they comfort me; His love shall never fail! (Chorus) As Christ and his disciples walked The roads of Galilee, May I too listen and be taught As Christ walks forth with me. (Chorus) Amid the triumph of my King I follow where He goes; Yes, further up and further in, To new creation's hope! (Chorus) One day in glory I will see The Lord who walks with me, And we'll forever journey forth Beside the crystal sea! (Chorus)
Every now and then, a fellow Christian will inquire into my testimony of faith, saying something along the lines of, “Tell me about when you were saved.” Of course, I’m happy to share the story of how I came to know the Lord, but every once in a while I take that opportunity to make a winsome and important theological point: “I was saved two thousand years ago, on the hill of Calvary.” Now, on that bright morning in Jerusalem, I found myself standing in front of that very spot—the place where Christ had won my salvation, the place my whole life’s journey revolved around, like the Earth to the Sun. This was the moment I had been waiting for with heart-aching hopes. Though I hadn’t set high emotional expectations for any other spot on our pilgrimage itinerary, whenever I had imagined this particular place, the thought was instantly met with a rush of bright tears.
As I had feared, our time looked like it would be shorter than I hoped to have there. But now I was here, and with the place itself before me, those old fears melted away in the grandness of the moment. We entered the courtyard that stood beside the church, where the main entrance was nestled in the corner between the nave and the transept. It was a huge, old, complicated church, and I had spent hours studying maps and pictures of its layout, so I knew what to expect. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre can often present a bewildering—and in some cases, distasteful—experience to novice pilgrims, but if you know a little about the place and its arrangement, it takes on a wild and mystifying sort of charm. One of the things the church is well known for, aside from enclosing the traditional sites for both Jesus’ death and resurrection, is that it is jointly managed by a handful of ancient denominations that are constantly competing, sometimes in tremendously acrimonious ways, against one another in their claims on the place. But that didn’t bother me much—it seemed oddly fitting, in a way, that the church of Jesus’ death and resurrection should be rather like a portrait in miniature of the global church—sometimes divided by silly and stupid quarrels, but still, in a mystery of grace, forming a single, grand, beautiful community of faith with one another.
The first thing I looked for, before even entering the church, was a little stairway to a small chapel up on the right, which commemorated an ancient pilgrim whose story had blessed the shape of my own journey. Mary of Egypt, a young prostitute living in Alexandria back in the days of the old Byzantine Empire, had decided to join a group going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She had done it in a spirit of mockery, as a bit of a jest, and had paid for her way by seducing various other pilgrims as she went. When she finally reached this spot, though, standing before the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she had felt both an overwhelming desire to go inside, yet also a crushing awareness of her own sin and unworthiness. And, as the story goes, the Lord had mercy on her, and in a single moment, as her heart-cry of despairing faith reached out to him, he cleansed her completely of her life of sin. In fervent repentance, she dedicated the remainder of her days to God, serving him as one of the wandering prayer warriors of the Judean wilderness: one of the greatest “desert mothers” of them all. Her story spoke to my own deep desire for transformation, gave hope to my dream that God might somehow have mercy on me by giving me such a spirit of unflagging thirst for holiness that nothing could ever stand in the way of that pursuit again.
We passed beneath the great doorway, and I made a quick sign of the cross. Ahead of us was a group of women kneeling by the stone associated with the story of Jesus’ preparation for burial, and I knew that just to my right, behind where the tombs of the great Crusader-lords Godfrey and Baldwin had once stood, were the stairs that led up to Golgotha. To the left, I also knew, was the great round rotunda where the Edicule stood: the little church-within-a-church that housed Jesus’ empty tomb. We turned right, climbed the narrow stairway to the chapel there, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion on Calvary, and joined the back of the line of those waiting to kneel down and touch the ground beneath the altar. Many Protestant pilgrims rue the fact that Calvary looks absolutely nothing like they imagined it: encased within a church building, one would never know that it was anything other than an upper story of the church unless one were told so. But we, in our desire for preserving the original state of things, are simply seeing things from the lens of our own culture; many other previous generations of Christians thought it a far finer thing to surround and encase the most precious places of Jesus’ life with monuments grand and beautiful. So you have to use your imagination a bit to remember that you are now standing atop what was once a hill that lay just beyond the city gates in the crook of Jerusalem’s wall, and to see in the gold-edged icons of the chapel a reflection of the glory of what Jesus did there on that bleak and rocky rise.
So amid the dark stonework of the ancient church, we waited. The line moved slowly, ever so slowly. I drank in the beauty of the artwork over and around me while I waited, watching each pilgrim stoop down and reach beneath the altar, to where the old rocky surface of Golgotha could still be felt. And it was just then that Onus came up beside me with an apologetic expression on his face. “Sorry, Matt—we’re going to have to leave as soon as we’re through with this line. We have to make our appointment at the Garden Tomb, or else we lose our spot.” I groaned inwardly. To leave the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without ever having even stepped into sight of the Edicule of Jesus’ tomb!—it was a heart-sinking blow. The one place I had most wanted to see—the place I would have traded seeing all the others for—was being ripped away from me. Onus gave an apologetic pledge that he would try to make sure we could return later on that day, but I knew that the chances for such things were slight foundations on which to set one’s hope; particularly since we had two other sites on our itinerary after the Garden Tomb.
Feeling suddenly desolate and forlorn, I approached the altar of Golgotha. In a way, it was just right, though—to have to let go of my own fleeting hopes, to be forced to let die an imagined future that I had clung to with great desire—it was just a small piece of the far greater sorrow and despair that Jesus’ followers would have known as they stood on Calvary. I looked at the icon of Christ crucified, hanging there before my eyes, and thought of his pain-wracked sacrifice on the cross—the climactic act of his endless love, which overturned the universe and poured the grace into my soul. And then I knelt down, reached beneath the altar, and put my hand down into the hole. There my fingers brushed the craggy stone on which his blood had been poured out; there, kneeling at the foot of the cross, I had finally arrived at the place I had long told people about: the place where I was saved two thousand years ago.
Back in Roman days, Golgotha had stood in the middle of an old quarry. Before that section had become engulfed in the ever-growing city, its stone had been cut for use in building projects. There was one section of poorer-grade stone, however, that had been left standing in the quarry, and that formed the little hillock of Golgotha. It was, quite literally—(just as the ancient prophecy of the Psalms had said in reference to Christ and his sacrifice)—“the stone the builders rejected.” That stone had become the cornerstone of my life—I had felt the foundations of my existence; I had come for the first time to this spot, in the middle of an ancient city thousands of miles from my home, and found that I had known the place all along.
This new hymn is based loosely on several passages in the book of Ecclesiastes, which our church's prayer-meeting group just completed a long study in. I've set it to the traditional Celtic tune "Wild Mountain Thyme," with an extra bridge-chorus that is my own addition.
To All Things There's a Season
To all things there's a season, Times for laughter and for tears, Times for living and for dying, 'Mid the ever-circling years; Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
(Chorus): Praise the Lord in your sorrows; Praise the Lord in times of joy; Ever let your heart sing to Him: Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
In all life's changing seasons, Times of war and times of peace, There never is a season When the praise of God will cease; Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
(Bridge-Chorus): Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Allelu, praise Him, allelu.
So serve the Lord with gladness, Through all the years He gives you; When in hardship or in plenty, Let His praises rise within you. Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
He stretched out his hands on the cross to encompass the ends of the world. For the central point of the earth is Golgotha here… He who set the sky in place with his spiritual hands stretched out human hands. They were fastened with nails for this purpose: that when the humanity which bore the sins of mankind had been fastened to the wood and died, sin might die with it, and we might rise again in righteousness... So take the cross as an indestructible foundation on which to build to rest of the faith.
- Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 13
~ ~ ~
The next day was Wednesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel, and our final day in the country. I awoke with a strange mixture of excitement and dread: excitement for the sights that lay ahead, including the one I had most longed to see, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but dread at the increasingly likely possibility that our schedule would force us to rush hastily in and out of that ancient church without time to pause or pray. I had pressed Onus, in his rearrangement of the schedule, to make sure we wouldn’t slight the Holy Sepulchre, the one place that for ages past had been the defining stop of a true pilgrimage: for travelers, crusaders, and wandering saints, anything less would have counted as a pale half-measure. “It’s the most important place in the history of the world,” I told Onus—and I believe that it is just that, because of the cosmic, history-shattering significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection—so it would have been a grave disappointment to have to shrug it quickly off like just another check-mark on our itinerary. But our schedule had us beginning the day by walking the whole of the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrow”), with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as its end-point, and then going to an appointment set up for our group at the Garden Tomb, a Protestant site thought by some impressionable pilgrims to be a rival claimant to the title of Jesus’ burial-ground. The fact that the Holy Sepulchre was sandwiched between an event that seemed likely to run long, and another event with an immovable start-time, did not assuage my fears.
But I tried to brush all that aside, and go into our final day with a sense of humility and openness, to embrace whatever God had for me on that journey. So we started out early, walking through the northeastern Muslim Quarter of the Old City, until we came to the Catholic monastery grounds that marked the beginning of the traditional Via Dolorosa: the route that Jesus had been thought to walk from his trial to his crucifixion. We had entered the city early enough that the peaceful magic of the sunrise hours still lingered in the air: quiet, empty streets greeted us, and there was a stillness to the city.
The first set of stops on the Via Dolorosa are within the grounds of the Catholic monastery, where two chapels commemorate Christ’s sufferings under Pilate’s guards at his trial. While it is the case that the place stood adjacent to the old Roman garrison, the Fortress Antonia, and that authentic first-century paving-stones reminiscent of the Gospels’ reference to the “lithostratos” at the trial have been uncovered there, it is now the practically unanimous consensus among scholars that this is not where Jesus had been put on trial. Rather, that most likely occurred in the western part of the city, where the Roman officials held court in or near the Herodian palace complex during their infrequent visits to Jerusalem (or alternatively, a site in the central part of the city)—which means, naturally, that the whole route of the traditional Via Dolorosa is nothing more than a pious fiction. Nonetheless, hallowed as it is by time and by the memories and prayers of many faithful pilgrims and saints who’ve walked that path before, each group still walks the route from Antonia to the tomb, remembering Jesus’ sorrows along the way.
Like many other pilgrim groups, we rented a wooden cross at the first station, and then began our long walk through the Old City of Jerusalem. Though we didn’t stop at every one of the traditional fourteen “Stations of the Cross,” we paused every now and then to hold one of our mini-services of prayer, with recitations of the story of Jesus’ passion. At each stop, I would lead the group in singing a verse of the old spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”—a song which, whenever I hear it now, brings me back to the narrow alleys and market-stalls of the Via Dolorosa. I ticked off the Stations of the Cross as we walked by them; occasionally we would stop at one for a moment’s rest. In one, I was able to share with the group the story of Saint Veronica, a tale which, not appearing in the Bible, tends not to be familiar to Protestant groups. We also paused at an archaeological site along the way, which featured the underground foundations of the old Fortress Antonia, and again beneath the famous Ecce Homo arch, from which Pilate had long been imagined to have proclaimed “Behold the man!” at his final judgment over Jesus.
On the second half of our walk down the Via Dolorosa, it came to my turn to carry the cross. It was heavier than I expected. Beneath its weight, I wove my way through the now-crowded streets of Jerusalem. The route was commonly full of pilgrims, but it was also a normal set of streets and alleys, filled with all the passersby, residents, and sidewalk merchants one might expect. This seemed fitting to me: the call to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus was not something that took place far away from the world of everyday life, but in the very middle of our busy existences, full of neighbors, jobs, buying and selling, traveling and rest. So there, in the middle of the bustling world, I carried my cross for Jesus. It also struck me as fitting in another way: though I knew, historically speaking, that this was almost certainly not the real route that Jesus walked to Calvary (we were coming from the northeast, he from the south or west), it was not Jesus’ own cross that I was called to bear. When he asked his disciples to take up the cross and follow, it was each disciple’s own cross that he spoke of—the love-sorrowing cost of following a crucified Lord. And when the book of Hebrews speaks of the call of discipleship, it exhorts us to go outside the city to the place of his disgrace—not to walk his own pathway, for there is but one atoning passion, Christ’s alone, which we cannot replicate, but to walk our own journey to meet him there. We all trace our own pilgrimages to Christ, from many different places and through many different ways, but we all meet him at one and the same spot: the rugged rock of Calvary, where his sacrifice and our journeys always intersect.
We came to the ninth Station of the Cross, the last one outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We leaned our cross in the corner of the street and looked in soaring expectation toward the rising domes of the church, now separated from us by just one low wall. We stood there and sang “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” one last time. It called to my memory a dear church lady who had passed away the year before, old and long impaired with mental disabilities, who had loved that hymn and sang it with gusto at nearly every one of our music-based “singspiration” services. It’s not quite right to say that her mental disabilities impaired her, though—rather, they clarified her spirit into the sort of loving simplicity which those of us with more complicated mental lives could only regard as something beautiful and saintly. She had walked her journey—a very different journey than mine—and was now with her Lord. But for both her and me, though our pathways were different, they both intersected in the unshakable reality of what had happened at the place that stood in front of me now: the spot where my life, and hers, and those of a billion other saints, had met the Master at the foot of the cross.