The Via Dolorosa, the road Jesus walked from the place of Pontius Pilate’s sentencing to Golgotha, means “way of sorrows.” The beautiful hymn that begins “On a hill far away...” has led many to picture this last road as a pastoral, quiet scene, a path wending its way, perhaps among old olive trees, up a mountain to where crosses stand starkly against the sky. Walking the real street in Old Jerusalem that bears the name “Via Dolorosa” means putting aside these images, but hopefully replacing them with other, even more meaningful ones that will bring you closer to moments you will always hold precious.
You’ll find the street can be noisy – with venders vying for your attention calling out their wares. Old stone buildings rise up on either side, and instead of a tree-lined country lane, seemingly endless stone steps ascend through the city. Christian visitors are sometimes startled to realize that this is not new; in fact, it is exactly what Jesus would have seen that Friday. It was Passover week; Jerusalem was bursting at the seams with pilgrims. Many would have looked away for fear of the Romans. Indeed, the Romans forced Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross (Mark 15:21).
For as long as Christians have been coming to the Holy City, they have walked the last path of Jesus. At least for the last 1,000 years, it is the same path visitors walk today. As time went on, the sacred stories became sacred landmarks – the Stations of the Cross.
There are fourteen stations. The first is the Praetorium, where Pilate condemned Jesus and Jesus took up the cross (Mark 15:15). A convent now stands over a small part of this huge fortress. In its basement are ancient flagstones, by tradition known as the Gabata (John 19:13), or stone pavement. Beneath the pavement is a gigantic water cistern built by Herod the Great, which might have quenched the thirst of the Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus (Matt. 27: 27-31).
Emerging from the antiquities, about 20 feet below the present road, visitors find the Stations of the Cross modestly marked. When the Jerusalem Municipality found ancient stones during maintenance work some years ago, they repaved the present Via Dolorosa with them - the better to show the sacred sites to Christian visitors. Past the Praetorium is station three, where Jesus fell with the cross; tradition says this event recurred, and it is marked by stations two more times. The fourth station is where Simon took up the cross. Each station and its story: Jesus meets Mary, a noble woman of Jerusalem wipes the sweat from Jesus’ brow; Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-30), and onward to the last stations the crucifixion and burial, located within the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Via Dolorosa’s setting despite – or because – of its present-day atmosphere, imparts an authentic sense of Jerusalem as Jesus experienced the city in those last hours.
Luke Chapter 23
26 And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. 27 And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. 28 But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.
The Revised Standard Version, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.) 1973, 1977.