Updated: Jul 14
During my first trip to the Holy Land in 2014, our tour guide took us through the old city of Jerusalem along the path of the Via Dolorosa, which means "the Way of Suffering." This excursion is on the itinerary of almost every tour of the Holy Land, and for a good reason. The Via Dolorosa is the road Jesus walked carrying His cross to Golgotha that commemorates the sites of the most momentous event in human history. The modern-day road was built during the Middle Ages and has 14 stops (or stations) beginning at Pilate’s house and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of the crucifixion. The stations highlight events during Christ’s Passion as recorded in the gospels.
We began at the top of the Mount of Olives and descended down the steep road to the Garden of Gethsemane, the ancient olive grove where Jesus was betrayed by Judas and taken into captivity. Next we climbed a steep road up to the Lion's Gate to enter the walled city of old Jerusalem. A few hundred yards ahead is Station #1 where the Via Dolorosa begins. Station #1 is currently Umariya Elementary School, but historically this is the place of Antonia Fortress built by Herod the Great where Jesus received His crown of thorns. This station (as well as others) is only marked with a bronze disk with Roman numerals, but other stations have a chapel commemorating an event.
In my experience, the most memorable and emotionally moving places along the Via Dolorosa were between the official stations and deep underground the old city, where it isn't so busy. After Station #2 is the famous Roman arch and the Church of Ecce Homo. A long stairway winds deep down to the actual Roman road from 2,000 years ago. There is a carving on the original stones Jesus would have walked upon where Roman soldiers played a game called, “King for a Day.” Apparently, Jesus was not the only subject to be mocked, crowned with thorns, and dressed in a robe. This was a game that Roman soldiers played regularly with those destined for the execution stake.
Before Station #3 is the Holy Monastery of the Praetorium where Christ was kept in prison before His trial with Pilate. There are other sites where Christ was confined along the way, but this looks and feels the most authentic and is also the most historically accurate. A narrow staircase leads down beneath the monastery to a prison that would have held Jesus and the two thieves. In one cell there is a stone slab with two holes chiseled for the legs which would have been shackled at the ankles. The ceiling is low, the stones are blacked with soot, and the air flow is stale. Those detained here would have sat in their excrement in the dark. This place made the reality of Jesus’ suffering come alive.
As I continued winding through the narrow, slippery, and crowded stone street to Station #9, I wondered how Jesus only fell three times! Then I wondered if His three falls along the Way of Suffering symbolized the taking upon Himself the three falls of humanity, sinking deeper away from the love of God. (i.e., disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Fall #1, Gen 3), sexual immorality and the Nephilim (Fall #2, Gen 6), and the idolatry of angels after the Tower of Babel (Fall #3, Gen 11 & Deut 32:8)). Because Christ took upon Himself the totality of our sin, there is no sin that cannot be forgiven and cleansed.
God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
At last, we came to the final destination, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in 326AD. As we entered the large doors, where Saint Mary of Egypt encountered a supernatural blockade, I noticed innumerable crosses scratched into the pillars: the traces of ancient pilgrim graffiti. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was packed and the line to enter Jesus' Tomb was unending, so I didn't get to go inside. So, I wandered to a less busy area where I saw a stairway leading deep below the ground level of the ancient church. It isn't one of the 14 Stations, but this place turned out to be the excavation site where Saint Helena unearthed the relics of the True Cross. The chapel is built into a cave like area of the bedrock.
Walking the Via Dolorosa was an experience of a life time, but I realized there was something deeper I had missed in the hustle and bustle of the tour. I hoped I would be able to return someday to take it all in. This opportunity came a year and a half later in 2016 when I was offered the chance to volunteer in Bethlehem for a year. That trip changed my life too, and now I am permanently attached to the Holy Land by way of marriage. Yet since there is no path to residency for American spouses of Palestinians, my husband and I must live in the USA and be content with visiting our home in the Holy Land, God willing (Inshallah).
Like most Christians from Bethlehem, my husband and his family earn their living from the olive wood craft industry. Olive wood carvings are an ancient handicraft dating to the 4th or 5th century AD when Christians first began taking pilgrimages to the holy sites. It is said that Greek monks, likely living at Mar Saba (the oldest inhabited monastery in the world), taught the locals how to carve the olive wood that is so prevalent in the region. This craft has been passed down through the generations, and it remains the primary source of income for indigenous Christians.
This year, while helping my husband unpack a shipment of olive wood crosses from the Holy Land, I noticed a unique stamp on the back of most of them. I asked, “What does this Jerusalem stamp mean?” He told me it was the Stations of the Cross. I replied, “Oh, I’ve been there.” He said, “It’s not just about the sites. It’s a way to pray.” I had no clue. This was the deeper meaning of the Stations of the Cross along the Way of Suffering (i.e., Via Dolorosa) which I had overlooked on my Holy Land tour nearly 10 years ago.
The Stations of the Cross are a series of 14 contemplative prayers also called the Way of the Cross. There are many ways to pray. Contemplative prayer is a method of reflecting deeply upon the scriptures and in this case, the suffering of Christ’s Passion. Though Franciscans during the Middle Ages are generally given credit, the prayers developed organically over the centuries. Church tradition records that the Blessed Virgin Mary walked the path of her Son’s suffering daily after His ascension, and others sought to preserve the way of her devotion.  They are commonly used by the Catholic Church during Lent, but the Way of the Cross is universal. Reflection upon the sacrificial life of Jesus Christ is for everyone, no matter one’s religion, denomination, or lack thereof. Jesus died for all, so that anyone can accept God’s love and experience eternal life. Though it is traditional for this reflection to occur during the weeks preceding Easter or Pascha, every day is a good day to consider the Way of the Cross and determine our response to God’s sacrifice.
When Jesus had spoken these things, He lifted up His eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You. For You granted Him authority over all people, so that He may give eternal life to all those You have given Him. Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent. I have glorified You on earth by accomplishing the work You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)
Below are a few printable copies of the prayers for the Stations of the Cross. There are different versions, but all carry the same message of salvation through suffering and sacrificial love.
July 12, 2023
1. Kosloski, Philip. “Who invented the Stations of the Cross?” Aleteia, 18 February 2021. 11 July 2023. https://aleteia.org/2019/03/08/who-invented-the-stations-of-the-cross/