In the footsteps of Christ

Every year, like millions of my fellow Catholics, I take time during Lent to meditate on the life and death of Jesus Christ, attending Stations of the Cross devotions and doing spiritual reading. And of course, I listen to the Passion readings that are so central to the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and Good Friday liturgies. 

This year, I am able to have a fresh perspective on the Gospel accounts of the events that took place in Jerusalem during Holy Week, thanks to a trip that turned out to be an excellent preparation for Lent. 

Holy tomb of Jesus
A Church of the Holy Sepulchre visitor touches the slab on which the body of Christ was laid. Photos by Sarah Hayes

In late January, I traveled to Israel with 10 other journalists as part of the Catholic Press Association Holy Land Tour, sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. We were editors, reporters, photographers, bloggers and communications directors from various regions of the United States, but we were united in our awe of visiting the land where Old and New Testament figures walked and breathed. 

In addition to sites such as Stella Maris Monastery on Mount Carmel in Haifa and the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, we went to many locations important in the life of Jesus Christ, from the annunciation in Nazareth to his birth at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the sites near the Sea of Galilee where he carried out his ministry, including Cana, the Mount of Beatitudes and Tabgha, where he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. One of the highlights was a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, gazing at the verdant hills that surrounded the water. How could it not be when you consider this is the very place where Jesus walked on the water and calmed the winds? We did not have to contend with a violent squall, though, just a bit of rain at the end of the ride. 

Some of the most powerful moments of the trip, however, were visits to the sites of Jesus’ agony, passion and death. I’m sure that would have been the case any time of the year, but to do so just a few weeks before the beginning of Lent seemed especially appropriate.

Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane, which we visited one morning as we hiked down the Mount of Olives, inspired meditations on Christ’s agony and betrayal, of course. Seeing the gnarled, 2,000-year-old olive trees, it was easy to visualize Jesus in prayer beneath them, asking the Father “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” and telling his disciples “Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.” Adjacent to the garden, the Church of All Nations, also called the Basilica of The Agony, certainly provided the proper atmosphere for such reflections as well. The dark church (the only true light comes from the purple — of course, an appropriately penitential color — alabaster windows) holds the rock upon which Jesus was praying when he was arrested. 

Having descended Mount Olives, we ascended Mount Zion, stopping at the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, a colorful structure run by the Assumptionists that commemorates St. Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus Christ (gallicantu means cock’s crow in Latin). Underneath the church are ancient crypts, where it is believed Jesus was held after he was seized at Gethsemane.

Via Dolorosa

It was a cool, rainy day in Jerusalem when we walked the Via Dolorosa (or “Sorrowful Way”) in Jerusalem’s Old City, following the path Christ took from the place where he was condemned to his death on the cross. The gloomy weather seemed appropriate given the events of the afternoon. 

As we followed Jesus’ final footsteps before his crucifixion, we encountered children walking on their way home from school, tourists and shopkeepers trying to sell their wares. It was not hard to imagine that the scene was not too different from the Friday two millennia ago when Jesus carried his cross through the streets of the city. After all, Jerusalem was full of visitors for Passover, and surely many people were going about their everyday business even as Christ was suffering his passion. 

Church of Holy Sepulchre

Stations of the Cross
A close-up view of the sixth station of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

The five final stations of the Via Dolorosa — Jesus is stripped of his garments, Jesus is nailed to the cross, Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus is taken down from the cross and Jesus is laid in the tomb — are located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  

As is the case when visiting holy sites that are also popular tourist destinations, I felt a tension between wanting to have some quiet time for prayer and needing to keep moving so as not to be trampled by the crowds. Still, it was an awesome experience to reach down below an altar and touch the limestone rock where Jesus died on the cross.  

Although I valued being able to visit the church as part of the group’s tour of the Via Dolorosa, an impromptu visit during some free time on our final day in Israel was truly memorable. A cool, rainy afternoon kept many tourists away, so I was able to have some quiet time to really reflect on what I was seeing.  

Of course, one does not have to travel thousands of miles to pray and meditate on the Lord’s passion. It can be done simply by visiting a Catholic parish, each of which contains the Stations of the Cross. 

Yet, following in the footsteps of Jesus and encountering him where he revealed himself to the world was a truly awe-inspiring experience, and one for which I will always be grateful. 

Sarah Hayes is OSV presentation editor. She visited Israel as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which funded the trip.