Last year our Holy Land pilgrims from St. John’s traced the steps of Jesus during the final days of his earthly life, from the Garden of Gethsemane to Calvary. Although time has obscured much of the historical evidence of Jesus’ last days, traces remain to this day that bear witness to Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection.
It was to Gethsemane among the ancient olive groves that Jesus retreated from the city after sharing Passover with his disciples. Samples that have been carbon dated from these trees are known to be at least 900 years old, making them among the very oldest on the planet. According to experts they are in excellent health, and DNA analysis shows that they were planted from the same parent plant. Was this an effort to preserve an ancient lineage of trees, dating back to the first century? What we do know is that they mark the general location of the ancient grove where Jesus himself came to pray and prepare for his passion. In this Garden there were many escape routes open to Jesus. It would have been easy to flee through these gnarled olive groves as he faced the reality of the cross which he himself had the freedom to bear or not to bear. It is no exaggeration to say that history would quite literally turn on what Jesus decided here. For here Jesus taught us to pray the prayer of relinquishment, the prayer of total surrender to the will of God, through which he prepared for the hour of his greatest trial.
Here on the Mount of Olives Jesus was betrayed by Judas, arrested by the Temple police and brought first to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest; and then to the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate. During Jesus’ trial, his chief accuser was Caiaphas, who condemned Jesus for blasphemy and handed him over to Pilate for crucifixion. In 1990, the ossuaries or bone boxes of Caiaphas and his family were discovered by archaeologists in Jerusalem. But though Caiaphas' bones have been found, no one to this day has ever uncovered the remains of Jesus. Remember that tombs in Jesus’ day were routinely sealed, as Jesus’ sepulcher was, with a heavy circular stone. Jesus’ tomb was empty and the stone rolled away. Who would have removed such a stone and stolen the body? Not the Romans, nor the religious leaders who wanted him dead. Was it the disciples, hoping to fake Jesus’ resurrection? It seems incredible that Jesus’ followers would endure imprisonment, torture, exile, crucifixion, beheading, and being fed to the lions – just to mislead the world about a risen Jesus. Other messianic revolts in the first century led by the likes of Theudas, Judas the Galilean, and John of Gischala ended in the violent deaths of their leaders. Why did Jesus’ movement endure, and not these others?
Down in the Old City of Jerusalem, we continued our holy walk down the mile-long route of the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) from the Antonia Fortress built by Herod the Great to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This route has been traveled by pilgrims since Byzantine times. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although re-built several times, the church has stood here since the year 327 after Emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky and sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to look for Jesus’ tomb. Today it is difficult to comprehend the massive size of this church complex, which encompasses the likely sites of both Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. Even though millennia of building and re-building has changed the face of these sites and of the Via Dolorosa itself, one can never be physically closer to Jesus’ passion than here.
As we commemorate the Way of the Cross this week you are invited to reflect on the words that Jesus spoke during that final holy week: “This is my body broken for you….” (Luke 22:19), “Father, not my will but yours be done….” (Luke 22:42), “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing….” (Luke 23:34), “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). “It is finished” (John 19:30). Then on Sunday morning, Jesus appeared saying “Peace be with you.” When he showed them his hands and side, joy filled their hearts. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20: 21) Jesus said.
Meeting his disciples on the Mount of Olives, he promised them the power of the Holy Spirit to “be my witnesses…” (Acts 1: 8). Let us give thanks then for the Spirit and the witnesses who took that holy walk to the ends of the earth and across two millennia of history, bringing news of the Risen Savior from this city…to our hearts.