Gethsemane - the Agony in the Garden
There are two parts to modern Gethsemane: the part which is still a garden, and the part which has a church built on it. Given that we usually the associate the garden with darkness (actual and metaphorical), it can be quite a surprise to come upon it looking pretty in the sunshine. The gnarly olive trees, some of them up to 800 years old, try to look suitably foreboding; but the prevalent sun shining on flowers like hollyhocks and bougainvillea make the place actually rather pleasant. We don't know what it was exactly like 2000 years ago; but there's no reason to suppose it wasn't just as beautiful - a little consolation for the human nature of Jesus in His suffering.
|The Garden of Gethsemane in late-afternoon sunshine|
In a deliberate attempt to provide a grimmer atmosphere, the church is a darker space, with stained-glass windows that don't let much light through. In front of the altar is a large and mostly flat rock, which is supposed to be the place that Jesus prayed and sweated blood. When I had the privilege of celebrating a Mass there, for a group of American pilgrims, I attempted to startle them by saying that God is 'pro-choice'. But they didn't seem particularly perturbed as I went on to explain that God allowed the disciples to witness something of the agonising choice that Jesus made there in Gethsemane, thus implying the importance of the fact that He did freely choose to undergo His sufferings for our salvation. Behind this lies the mystery of the free will that God gave to all of us. It is the drama of every human story that we have the freedom to choose between good and evil, and it matters drastically which we choose.
Lions' Gate Road - the Scourging and the Crowning with Thorns
Leaving Gethsemane and crossing the top of the Kidron Valley, we come up a steep road to the Lions' Gate (thus named from the lions carved upon it) to enter the Old City of Jerusalem. With the Temple Mount to the left of us, we continue up the road until we reach the site of the Antonia fortress - one of the main Roman fortresses in Jerusalem and the traditional site for Christ's trial and condemnation before Pontius Pilate. The main part of the fortress to the left is covered by a Muslim school, but to the right is the Franciscan Monastery (sic) of the Flagellation.
|East window of the Chapel of the Flagellation|
Behind the altar of the church is a stained-glass window depicting the scourging of Jesus. This was a brutal method of punishment, intended to cause open wounds. The severity and duration of it could vary; but when it was a prelude to crucifixion, as in this case, the soldiers probably didn't hold back. Victims sometimes died just as a result of the blood loss.
The crowning with thorns probably happened in the same place as the scourging, so the third sorrowful mystery can also be commemorated in the Chapel of the Flagellation (there is a chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that is dedicated to the crowning with thorns, but it definitely didn't take place there).
|Ceiling of the sanctuary in the Chapel of the Flagellation|
Painful though the crown of thorns would have been, an essential element to this mystery is the mockery. Apparently being taunted by the soldiers and others was a normal part of the process: punishments like crucifixion were a social, not just a physical annihilation. In the nearby Ecce Homo convent there is a Roman stone pavement (about one hundred years too late to be the one mentioned in John's Gospel, however) with engravings on the stones that some people link to the mocking games soldiers would play with the prisoners.
Via Dolorosa - Jesus carries His cross to Golgotha
These pilgrims are just
leaving the Fifth Station
The stations probably don't correspond to the actual locations of the events. But it's instructive to note, for example, that Simon of Cyrene is commemorated just at the beginning of a long uphill stretch. It's also instructive how the normal life of the Old City continues more-or-less regardless as we follow our Stations of the Cross: shopkeepers carry on their business and people keep squeezing past the groups of pilgrims on their own way somewhere. It was probably much the same when Jesus and two criminals were being led off for execution.
Somewhere about the seventh station is where they would have passed out of the city walls on that first Good Friday, although it is now well within the current walls. Executions and burials had to be outside the city. But only a decade or so after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, King Agrippa expanded the city limits northwards, beginning the construction of what is called the Third Wall. After that, no more executions or burials took place where Jesus had been executed and buried.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the Crucifixion
Although the church as a whole is named after the Tomb of Jesus, it also contains the site of His death. Turn immediately right when you enter the church and go up the steep stairs to reach the Chapel of Calvary, which is built on the rocky outcrop where our Lord was crucified (it's not as big a hill as depicted in some films or paintings). The bedrock has been made visible on either side of the main altar in the chapel, and pilgrims can touch the rock through a hole underneath the altar.
The Chapel of Calvary
(note the bedrock visible under the glass either side of the altar)
This process of venerating the rock of Calvary (or Golgotha, to give it its Hebrew name) is slightly slowed down by the photo-taking tendencies of the modern pilgrim; but an attendant Orthodox monk keeps that under control and there is generally a much more reverential atmosphere about it than in, for example, the Grotto of the Nativity. Only a few steps away, in other parts of the chapel, people are milling around and guides are explaining things; yet it remains the most sombre place of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, as one would expect, and it's a good place to pray if you can find a spot to do so.
Christ's sufferings on the Cross lasted only a few hours; but in His Church He continues to suffer the wound of disunity, among other things. The main Chapel of the Crucifixion is under the care of the Greek Orthodox, while a few metres to the side of it is the Catholic Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross. The Armenian and Coptic Churches also have their stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, adding up to a certain counter-witness to the Gospel in the heart of Christendom. Relations between the Churches have improved in recent times; but we still have a long way to go to achieve the unity that Jesus prayed for before His Passion.
The marble slab marks the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial