Biblical Palestine is not only a land of Christian pilgrimages but also of great religious processions. The processions are mainly related to our Savior’s life on earth and to the great feasts of the church throughout the year.
The Orthodox processions are more numerous, rooted in the Gospel and the Holy Tradition. In this sense, they are not simple rituals or religious demonstrations but an important part of the intimate life of Orthodoxy in the Holy Land.
The road to Calvary – Via Dolorosa or Via Cruxes – constantly reminds man of the measure of God’s love for him. This love is seen, more than ever, on Great (Passion) Friday, when many faithful walk the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem in the footsteps of our Savior.
Via Dolorosa – follows the crowded streets of Jerusalem, from the Monastery “Ecce Homo”, ending at the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Resurrection. According to the Christian tradition, this is the path that Jesus followed from the Roman courtroom proceedings to His crucifixion and His burial.
Via Dolorosa remains in the memory of thousands of faithful pilgrims of the holy places over the two millennia of Christianity. Its tradition is rooted deep in history. Once the Christian Emperor Constantine the Great (mid-fourth century) provided Christianity freedom of worship, nothing could stop the love and desire of Christians to walk in the footsteps of the God-Man, Jesus Christ – who gave His life for the world.
In the Byzantine times, the pilgrims followed almost an identical way, but without making the 14 stops that have remained in the Church tradition. Over the centuries, the way from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has changed several times (with small differences).
By the early eighth century, the road to Calvary trajectory was changed: From the Garden of Gethsemane, the pilgrims were headed to Mount Zion, surrounding the Temple Mount, then to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
For most of the pilgrims the exact path that Christ followed is of little importance, given the inner meaning that this is the place where the salvation of human race began, despite the crowds and the shops all around it seeking to distract the pilgrims.
The first procession starts on Palm Sunday morning around 08.00 from Bethany to Jerusalem. Hundreds of Orthodox clergy from many countries, and thousands of pilgrims caring palms in their hands, are walking about 6 km from the village of Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus) to the holy city of Jerusalem. The procession is lead by a bishop riding on an ass, just as Jesus did on His glorious entry into Jerusalem.
The convoy of the faithful enters Jerusalem through the gate called St. Stephen’s gate of traditionally the sheep gate, following the way of the cross to Golgotha, and stops in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Then the Divine Liturgy is officiated in the Great Church of the Resurrection.
The second procession takes place in the evening of Holy Thursday. The procession begins at Praetorium, where our Saviour was judged and sentenced to death by Pilate. Over the cave where our Saviour was chained and stoned a small Orthodox Chapel was built. The Cave and the Chapel are called “Praetorium.” It is the place where on Thursday afternoon, thousands of pilgrims, many priests and bishops gathered to start the services for our Lord’ Holy Passion. The first five Gospels are read here.
Starting with the sixth Gospel, the convoy of clergy and pilgrims, with lighted candles in their hands, proceed to Calvary. On the way, the priests make 14 stops, according to the tradition. At each stop, the bishop clothed in black, reads the rest of the Gospels. The last two Gospels are read before Calvary and in front of the Holy Sepulcher, where the procession ends.
Further, other clergy led by a metropolitan, begin the service of the 12 Gospels Matins in the Church of the Resurrection, near Holy Sepulcher. Thus the Holy Passion service is repeated once again in the church ending after midnight.
The third procession takes place in Jerusalem, on Great and Holy Friday. On Friday morning the crowd of pilgrims lead by about 12 bishops and clergy gathered at the Church of the Praetorium, for the liturgy of the “Royal Hours.”
After this service ends, the people, the priests and the bishops start to walk in great procession from the Praetorium to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Many bishops clothed in (dark) robes of mourning lead the procession, as they carry a large wooden cross, which retains some of the original wood from the Holy Cross of our Lord, while the other clerics hold the Holy Gospel, icons and censers.
The faithful hold lit candles in their hands. The procession stops in many places where, according to the tradition, our Lord fell under the heaviness of the cross. People kneel and the bishops read the Holy Passion Gospels. After the procession enters the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the cross is placed over the rock of Golgotha, the place where our Lord was crucified. Here the Gospels of our Lord’s crucifixion are read.
Part of the clergy stand guarding the Holy Cross, until all the people have venerate it. The procession of our Savior’s crucifixion ends with a moving sermon, delivered by a metropolitan. It’s a service of great spiritual challenge, bringing tears to many eyes, a taste of the great and saving passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The 14 stops of Via Dolorosa
The Garden of Gethsemane, where our Lord has spent Holy Thursday or His last night in freedom is covered by eight olive trees, almost forgotten by time, as a witness to the blood shed by Christ in prayer. The Church of Agony or the Church of All Nations, where our Savior is depicted torn by pain, was erected over the Garden of Gethsemane. From this place one can see St. Stephen’s Gate or the Lions Gate, through which Christ entered Jerusalem, in His way to Golgotha.
Via Dolorosa – starts at the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress Antonia, at the Gate of Archdeacon Stefan located in the Muslim Quarter and continues for about one kilometer to Calvary or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the road that Jesus Christ walked caring the heavy cross on His back to open our way to salvation.
Following the tradition of the Church in Jerusalem, Via Dolorosa is divided into 14 stops, each marking a special event. The first 9 stops occur at different points of the city, while the last five stops take place inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. All 14 stops are marked by a sign with inscriptions written in English, Hebrew and Arabic,
1. The judgment place of Pontius Pilate where Christ was judged and sentenced to death
Over the ruins of ancient city Antonia, where Christ was scourged, a church was erected called “The Flogging Chapel.” In this place once named Gavatta – “paved with stones”, Pilate used to hear and judge the matters of the people of Israel. This place was situated at a distance of approximately 300 meters west of the Lions Gate.
The place retains a number of original stones of the courtroom or Lithostratos. The “squares and triangles” engraved on he floor were made by the Roman soldiers. It reminds us how the Roman soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothes.
2. The Praetorium – placing the heavy cross on our Lord shoulders, Who start His way to Calvary
In the Praetorium, the Jews condemned the Son of God to death crying out “Crucify him, Crucify him.” Within walking distance of this place there is a Catholic Church called “Ecce Homo!” – “Behold the Man”, which brings to mind the words by which Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd. Over the cave where our Lord was thrown with His feet and hands chained, a small Orthodox Chapel was built.
From the Praetorium, Via Dolorosa continues trough the Valley of Tyropeon crossing the ancient city of Jerusalem. The arch called “Ecce Homo”, reminds us how our Saviour was crowned with thorns and pushed to the Cross. The Arch is the remaining of a gate built by Emperor Hadrian, its current name being given in the sixteenth century.
3. The first fall of Christ under the heavy cross.
The third stop is at the crossing streets emerging from the Lions and the Damascus Gates. The tradition records that in this place Christ fell under the heaviness of the wooden cross for the first time. The polish chapel raised in this place marks this painful moment. From here, walking towards the left on Damascus Street, one can get to the middle of Holy City, where Christ met His Mother.
4. The meeting of Christ with His grieving Mother.
The Christian tradition says that the Virgin Mary – theTheotokos met her Son, bowed under Cross. In this holy place a small Armenian chapel was built. The mosaic depicting this scene is the work of polish artist Zieliensky.
The church raised here still preserves the original mosaic floor dating from the fifth century.
5. Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross of our Lord
The fifth station, the place where Simon of Cyrene was forced to help Christ in caring His cross, is marked by a Franciscan chapel. Then the road to Calvary curbs to the right, reminding us how Veronica’s veil become of the first iconographic depiction of our Savior.
6. The meeting of our Lord with Veronica – wiping His face with her veil.
From the Franciscan chapel one can walk down the narrow street, paved with large stones that seem forgotten by time, to arrive at the Church of St. Veronica. This church retains many of the original features of an ancient church – the Monastery of St. Cosmos. Restored by Barluzzi, in 1953, the church preserves a series of arcs from the church built by the Crusaders. A crypt under the church is dedicated to the holy image of Christ.
The face printed on Veronica’ veil is considered to be the first icon of Christ, not made with hands, but by the love of a virgin.
Veronica’s name is thought to come from the Latin words “vera + icon”, which means “true icon”. From this church, the road continues on though the bazaar, where the seventh, eighth and ninth stops are marked.
7. The second fall of our Savior under the cross.
The seventh stop is the place where our Lord falls for the second time, weakened by the heaviness of the cross. The Franciscan chapel raised here reminds us how Christ suffered as a man even for those who did not understand His infinite love for humanity. In the ancient times, the city of Jerusalem ended here.
8. The Lord greets the women wailing for Him
At the eighth stop of Golgotha, Christ comforted His Mother, the myrrh-bearing women and all faithful women weeping for him. The place is marked by the Church of St. Charalambos barring an inscription on outside walls in Greek, NIKA.
Strengthening the women, Christ tells them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children, meaning for the sins of the world: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children. “A Latin cross, inscribed in the wall of the Greek monastery remind us of this moment.
9. The third fall of our Saviour
Within the walking distance from the eighth stop, the ninth stop reminds us of the third falling of Christ under the weight of the Cross. In the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church, it is said that the three falls of Jesus represent the three days He spent in the tomb.
The following stops are in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, from its courtyard to the tomb.
10. Golgotha – the place where our Lord is stripped of his garments
Reaching Calvary, located in the ancient times outside the city but today in the heart of Jerusalem, the heart of the pilgrim is overtaken by profound feelings. The huge white tile rock where the cross of Christ was placed so He may be crucified on it is now found in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Here Jesus was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the Cross.
Many tears are shed approaching the door that hides behind it the holiest place on Earth. It’s the place where salvation began, the place where death was defeated, where love conquered all.
11. The nailing of our Saviour to the Cross
Stepping into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, everything is touching, the stones wiped by the tears and prayers of many faithful; the mosaics of rare beauty, the candles with scarce light. The Stone of the Anointing lays just in front of us, but the pilgrim will go first to the upper room to worship at the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross in the presence of His mother. A huge mosaic depicting this painful scene of the Love crucified.
12. The Crucifixion -His death on the Cross
Near the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross, it’s the Stone of Mountain Calvary, where the cross was placed, and Christ lifted up in the view of all. A Greek Orthodox altar was built above the rock of Calvary or Golgotha. Every pilgrim can reach and touch by hand the place where the cross was erected.
13. Our Lord Descent from the Cross – the Stone of Anointing
After Christ death, and after crushing the legs and the two thieves, the three bodies were taken down from the cross. Christ’s body was placed on a stone to be anointed and covered in a shroud, according to Jewish custom, before being placed in the tomb. The rectangular stone of the Anointing, washed by countless tears and prayers, is always fragrant and covered in myrrh; the many lamps that hang over this stone are a symbol of watchfulness, that we may remember to always keep the lamp of our hearts on, awaiting the Bridegroom.
14. Christ burial and Resurrection
After worshiping the Stone of Anointing, the pilgrim walks to the Holy Sepulcher – where a small chapel was raised over the place where our Savior’s body was laid. This is the holiest place of Christianity, sheltering both the Tomb and the miracle of the Resurrection. The Holy Sepulcher is divided into two rooms: the first – the chamber of the angel that proclaimed to the mirth barring women the Resurrection of Christ and, the second room that carried once the life-giving body of Christ.