JERUSALEM, March 23, 2013 – For more than 2,000 years Christians from around the world have been drawn to Jerusalem, “The Apple of God’s Eye,” to walk in the very footsteps of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Again this year, 100,000 of Christ’s followers from abroad will be drawn to the Eternal City. Their weeklong pilgrimage will begin and end with boundless joy. However, midway through their journey they will encounter times of great sorrow and despair.
I know, having experienced the same spiritual peaks and valleys as an Easter pilgrim in the Eternal City.
Jerusalem, founded more than 3,000 years ago by King David as his Royal City is where the temples of the Jewish Kings Solomon and Herod once stood.
Solomon’s spectacular temple has been regarded down through the ages as one of the Ten Wonders of the Ancient World.
But today only a remnant of the Jewish temples remain: the massive Western or Wailing Wall, a section of their foundations now deemed sacred to the Jewish faith.
Today the Old Walled City is home to 35,000 residents. Surprisingly, three out of four are Muslim! Christian inhabitants total 6,000 and Jews, just 2,500.
Holy Week in Jerusalem begins for Christians on Palm Sunday in churches other than their own. I attended a traditional mid-morning Lutheran service in the heart of the Holy City with resident Palestinian families and visiting pilgrims from abroad. All worshipers were provided with palms to process into the sanctuary to start the memorable service. Just imagine the joy: Palm Sunday in Jerusalem!
Immediately following the worship service, the congregation departs for the climb up the Mount of Olives to assemble with thousands more pilgrims. All will join in the reenactment of Christ’s “Triumphal Entry” beginning high above the ancient walled City of Jerusalem. Waving palm branches and singing loud “Hosannas” in many tongues, thankfully theirs is downhill procession.
Just before reaching the pilgrim throng, I encountered a lone donkey tied along the way. It was like a flashback to the first Palm Sunday, when Christ said to his disciples,” You will find a donkey tied, untie it and if anyone asks you, say The Lord has need of it.” (Luke 19:30-31)
It takes nearly an hour for the throng to reach the walls of the city entering through St. Stephen’s or “The Lion Gate,” one of seven gates to the Old City.
Once inside, the procession ends at St. Anne’s Church with a mass for the Latin faithful. Other pilgrims congregate at the nearby Pool of Bethesda to contemplate how Jesus healed a man who waited beside the pool for 39 years to enter its healing waters.
Three more days have now passed during Easter Week and it is Maundy Thursday. In the morning I visited the traditional site of the Upper Room where Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover with his disciples. Here He inaugurated the rite of the Last Supper taking on the servant role Himself by washing the feet of his own disciples.
The same night, his disciple Judas would betray him for 30 pieces of silver and lead the Jewish authorities to take him captive while at prayer with his other disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
In the evening, I observed Holy Communion in the Old City at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer built on a site given to the German Kaiser by the Turkish Sultan in 1898. During the service, hymns are sung in six languages while the sermons and communion are given in three.
The congregation then processes from the church in the dark led by a huge wooden cross through the empty city streets and out of the city once again up to the Mount of Olives to the Russian Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Here the narrative of Christ’s betrayal by Judas and the three-times denial by His beloved disciple Peter is read. After the singing of hymns, the crowd disperses.
Now it’s Friday. Somehow it’s been called, “Good Friday” but I don’t ask me why. Of all the days of Holy Week this is the most tragic. Accused by the Council of the Jewish High Priest and sentenced to death by crucifixion by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus is brutalized, stripped, crowned with thorns upon on his head, mocked and made to carry his cross through the streets of the Holy City to His death on Calvary.
The Way to Calvary is called in Latin “Via Dolorosa” or “The Way of The Cross.” It is about a mile through the narrow twisting streets of the Old City. Tens of thousands of pilgrims follow in the footsteps of their Savior to His crucifixion starting late in the morning of Good Friday.
The Way has 14 stations; the first nine are along the narrow and winding city streets. The final five are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. These include Mount Calvary where Christ was crucified and the Empty Tomb from which He arose resurrected on Easter morning.
Easter morning, while it is yet dark, believers congregate on the slopes of the Mount of Olives to celebrate their Savior’s resurrection. As the sun begins to rise, pastors loudly proclaim, “He Is Risen!” And their pilgrim congregations shout in reply, “He Is Risen, Indeed!”
After the sunrise service I return on foot again to the Old City below to complete my pilgrimage within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the 14th and final Station of the Cross: Christ’s Empty Tomb.
The space inside the sepulcher is small: accommodating only four pilgrims at a time. Once within, they find themselves all alone. Their Living Savior, now ascended, is now waiting to receive them in His heavenly home on high.
I walked today where Jesus walked,
And felt Him close to me.
Lyrics by Daniel S. Twohig
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