2018 03 30: The Via Dolorosa

Posted on 03 Apr 2018

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

For many Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, the most important site to visit on a Friday is the Via Dolorosa or the Way of Sorrows.  It is believed to be the path that Jesus walked that first Good Friday from the Antonia Fortress where he was condemned by Pontius Pilate to the place where he was crucified Calvary or Golgotha, a distance of about 2000 feet.   The Via Dolorosa has been followed since early the mid-4th century when Emperor Constantine first legalized the Christian faith.  Originally, the pilgrims simply followed a path similar to the one taken today, but they did not stop along the way.  According to tradition, St. Francis of Assisi introduced the discipline of meditating on the events and places along the way.  By the 16th century, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem had acquired its present 14 stations, which mirrored the devotional practice of the Franciscan Order in Europe.  Since the Holy sites in Jerusalem were controlled by the Franciscans, small chapels were soon built to memorialize these events. These same stations are traditionally marked on the walls of Roman Catholic churches today. 

Lutherans have always felt a little awkward and shy about celebrating the Stations of the Cross.  After all, it is hard to know what Martin Luther would say.  If it walking the Stations was done for merit, he would have considered it work’s righteousness.  No doubt, he would have been a little puzzled as well.  In Jerusalem, even pilgrims have to rent a cross to carry through the city.  It is about $50 an hour, and of course, on Fridays in Lent, this is a thriving business.  And that would make it an indulgence. But truthfully, it is hard to overlook Jesus’ own invitation. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take of their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”    

Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem sounds like a wonderful, spiritually fulfilling experience, but let me let you in on a secret.  It is awkward and challenging encounter with the “holy” which only takes on value in the future.   The picture of the Via Dolorosa on the bulletin cover was never our experience.  There were crowds, and vendors and other pilgrims- all trying to sing louder, and outmaneuver one another there to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre first.  We were cut off twice by Polish and Romanian Catholics carrying crosses as human body shields.  It would have been the same for Jesus.  Only 30,000 people lived in Jerusalem at that time, but during the festival of Passover, the city grew to 300,000 people.  

Our band of 34 Midwest Lutherans were a little too self-conscience as we jostled our way through the first stations.  We finally felt confident enough to sing the familiar Good Friday hymns we will sing tonight robustly.  I don’t know if any of us was moved by the experience of walking the Via Dolorosa, but I know that we grew to appreciate the Stations of the Cross.  Perhaps surprisingly, even the traditional Stations that are not known to us in scripture such as the he story of Jesus falling three times, the chance meeting of the woman Veronica who wiped his brow, and the Jesus greeting his own mother on the way, came to have meaning.

One Station in particular has caused me to meditate this Good Friday.  It is the Fifth Station in the Catholic tradition and is remembered with one of the shortest verses.  Apparently we weren’t the first ones to stumble along this road.  In scripture, we read that Jesus himself wasn’t able to carry the cross through the streets, so the Roman soldiers pulled a man out of the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, and they made him carry it the rest of the way.  It’s just one station on the Way of Sorrows, yet it makes the story about Good Friday’s crosses and bearing burdens so poignant..

People often describe a difficult situation in life, the special needs of an aging parent or a child, or a personal handicap, “As a cross they have to bear.”  When I was younger, and more noble and idealistic, I used to object, stating that “a cross isn’t something that just happens to you.  The cross is something, like Jesus, that you take up on purpose, for God.”  But the Stations of the Via Dolorosa and story of Simon of Cyrene has made me question that.  I have grown to recognize that there are many burdens in life that we do not choose, but they are still ours to bear. In fact, they often choose us. 

There is no evidence that Simon of Cyrene wanted or decided to carry Jesus’ cross.  Jesus’ own disciples were nowhere to be found in the city.  The followers who had cried out “hosanna” on Palm Sunday, seemed to have lost their voices by Friday.  So far as we know, Simon had never heard of Jesus, nor had he expected to cross paths with Jesus that day.  The evangelists simply write, “they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.”  Simon just happened to be there, and the soldiers just happened to pick him out of the crowd, and this cross just happened to get laid on his shoulders.  That’s how burdens come our way. 

So, even Jesus needed help carrying his cross. And if Jesus needed help carrying his cross, what makes us think we can carry our burdens alone?   This is ultimately the good news of hope on this Good Friday.  Christ is there to carry your burdens with you and to free you from the weight of sin, the burdens of the world, and the sorrows of the past.  Yes, Christ is ready to take up your cross so that you may experience the wholeness of life he longs for you.  You don’t have to walk the endless road carrying your cross alone.  Jesus will carry your cross with you.   

Unfortunately,  there are many people who get hurt, have surgery and then reinjure themselves because they try to do too much and not let anyone help.  I’ve seen families with financial problems or with a child with behavior or chemical abuse issues all remain in crisis because they keep it to themselves and don’t let anyone know about it.   No burden has to be borne alone, my friends, that is the promise of Good Friday The moment you let someone else carry the load with you, the problem immediately seems less daunting.  And the more you let Jesus help carry your cross, the sooner you will experience his comfort and peace and freedom.   So if even Jesus needed help carrying his cross, surely you and I can learn to share our burdens as well.   

For the rest of his life, Simon of Cyrene was known as the one who carried the cross for Christ.  He may not have chosen it, but he did it.  Theologian Erik Kolbell writes, “We are defined by many things, including both the burdens we choose and the burdens that choose us.”  But you do not have to let the crosses and burdens of the world define you.  The question isn’t whether  you will bear it;  the question is how you will bear it, with bitterness or with purpose and determination?  As we meditate upon the cross this night, I invite you to remember: When you walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and allow him to take up your cross, the miracle of Christ’s resurrection will already be working in your life.  Amen. 

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.