We were following a group of pilgrims who had begun the Stations of the Cross from the First Station on the Via Dolorosa, close to where the Antonia Fortress stood. They had taken a cross and, between them, carried the cross between the Stations. As they arrived at each one they stopped, gathered in as close as they could and someone, perhaps the priest who was with them, led them in prayer and reflection.
We noticed how busy and noisy the streets were, how many distractions there are around, the people buying and selling in the souk, people going about their normal business, children playing, a young boy delivering sweet mint tea or strong coffee to some elderly men sitting, talking as they played cards.
But the group of pilgrims try to shut all of this out, as best they can, and respond as at each Station the priest says
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.
and they answer
Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
But after the Eighth Station things change. The group has left the market behind and climbed up some flights of steps onto the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The noises are different up here, the busy world at a distance, below them. A few Coptic monks move between their churches and lodgings built onto the roof and there is the sound of people worshipping as they move through the final Stations and then descend from the bright light outside into the comparative gloom of the Church beneath.
To get to the Eleventh and Twelfth Stations involves patience and persistence. From inside the church, in which candles burn and every sense is assaulted at once by the sights and sounds and sensations of the place, you climb again, an internal staircase onto what appears to be a large balcony on which are located these two Stations. You jostle for position with other pilgrims. British sensibilities about forming an orderly queue are quickly overcome as you decide that you either do as others do or you have no chance of seeing what you came to see.
It is so busy that the church authorities don’t allow you to worship in this space. So you are on your own as you approach the Twelfth Station. For those who have been to the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem there is something very familiar about the place.
As you descend the steps into the grotto beneath the High Altar of that church in Bethlehem you find an altar under which has been placed a star on the spot where the new born Jesus was laid. Pilgrims line up one by one. Then, defying creaking knees and arthritic backs, they get down and touch or kiss the star, the place. They have a moment to pray before they crawl back, being helped not to bang their heads as they do so on the mensa, the top, of the altar – and make their way out.
It is a similar arrangement at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as you might expect as both churches were built under the orders of St Helena. There under the elaborate altar is the hole in which the cross stood. Pilgrims kneel and kiss the place and put their hand into the hole, as close as they can possibly get to where Jesus, our Saviour, our Lord and our God, died.
Despite the noise and the crowds and over officious monks and the sharp elbowed nuns and the tourists and the bustle and heavy iconography and the gold and the silver and the kitsch and the smell, it is amazing. It is a touching place with heaven. And as I kneel there I know that whilst I can’t get a cast iron guarantee that this is the exact spot where the cross stood, millions of Christians have knelt where I kneel and have validated the place with their prayers and their tears and their hopes and their belief and their doubts and who they are and what they have brought.
Of course my thoughts turn to one of T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, ‘Little Gidding’ where he writes
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
The place has been validated by prayer, our prayer as Christians, desiring to be in the place where Jesus died.
The way in which this journey has taken place has brought us to this Station the day before we remember this event. Today is Maundy Thursday and the beginning of the Triduum, the great Three Days which will take us to Easter Day and the realisation that the tomb is empty. But that doesn’t matter. Pilgrims arrive at the Twelfth Station every day, every day of the year. It is not the day that matters, even the place doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that is all important and what we bring to the journey.
I have a ‘Holding Cross’. I bought it on one of the pilgrimages I have made to the Holy Land. It’s simple, made of olive wood; it fits neatly in my hand and in my pocket. And I can hold the cross and remember what Jesus has done for me and done for you and done for every person. To be honest I’m still not entirely certain what happened on the cross, how atonement was achieved, how my redemption was won. All I know is that God loved me this much that he was willing to die for me so that I might live for him. And I hold my cross and I am brought to my knees in love and adoration.
The final verse of that most well loved him ‘Abide with me’ comes to my mind as in my mind I am there, at Calvary, where I, with so many pilgrims and with you, have been bound.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you
because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.