The Holy Week and the Easter celebrations are at the center of Christianity.
The events around death and resurrection of Jesus happened in and around the old center of Jerusalem and their locations can still be found today.
One of the focal points is the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, that describes Jesus’ last way from his trial to his death on the cross. Today it is a popular pilgrimage route and important to the spiritual lives of millions of people.
The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem
The historic route of the Via Dolorosa starts at the site of the former palace of Pontius Pilate (Station I). It follows nine liturgical stations through the Old Town of Jerusalem for about 500 m. It ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were it is believed that Jesus died on the cross and was buried nearby.
The sequence of fourteen stations of the cross – nine outside and five inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – are the traditional form to remember the Passion of Christ. Processions are held along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem every Friday and especially on Good Friday.
In medieval times, the Order of the Franciscans formalized the Via Dolorosa as the route to remember the suffering of Jesus in Jerusalem.
The Franciscans also made celebrations along series of outdoor chapels popular in Europe. These shrines and the observance of the stations of the cross inside churches made symbolical pilgrimages possible without a journey to Jerusalem. Now everyday people were able to honor the Passion of Christ.
The scenes of the fourteen stations of the cross do not all have foundations in the bible. For example, Jesus falling three times under the cross or the wiping of Jesus’ face by Veronica are not mentioned in the gospels.
Other events leading up to Jesus’ trial by Pilate are not part of the Via Dolorosa, although they can be traced to locations in modern Jerusalem.
Locations of the Passion of Christ around Jerusalem
The day before his death, Jesus held the famous last supper with his disciples. It is believed that the location of the last supper was in the south of the Old City at what today is the Cenacle.
Jesus’ group then spent the night at the Garden of Gethsemane east of Jerusalem. Here, Jesus was arrested by the Jewish priests and brought to the temple for trial. The temple was at the Temple Mount with its center presumably at the Dome of the Rock.
From here, he was brought to Pontius Pilate. Traditionally, it is believed that Pilate resided north of the temple, where the Via Dolorosa starts.
Recent excavations however suggest, that his palace was near the Tower of David west of the Old City.
Should these historic inconsistencies and the lack of biblical foundation of some stations of the cross question the Via Dolorosa as not historical?
Relevance of the Via Dolorosa Today
I think, the Via Dolorosa should be seen in a different way.
It is fascinating how much of the biblical story of the Holy Week can be attributed to actual locations today. It is probably worth mentioning that the events about 2000 years happened to a small minority sect who opposed the traditional religious views. Still, the early Christians were able to spread the story through time and space so accurately that today we find significant evidence for it. This is astonishing especially due to the turbulent history of Jerusalem since Jesus’ time.
Today’s Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is a historic route in itself. Based on the knowledge and believes of medieval Franciscans, it has a history and tradition that goes back centuries. Processions along the stations of the cross are an important part of the spiritual practice of millions of Christians today. Whether these happen symbolically in the local church, at outdoor shrines, passions plays or in Jerusalem itself.
As a historic route the Via Dolorosa therefore has multiple layers:
- the historic events leading up to the death of Jesus
- the route we can trace with our knowledge of these events
- the pilgrimage route established by the Franciscans in medieval Jerusalem
- the spiritual route used for religious services around the World today.
The relationships between these layers and the impact they have on people today makes the Via Dolorosa relevant today.