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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

St. Helena Hits the Spot
December 22, 1999


Hi, this is Nancy Hummel, Abeja's mom, once again. I find myself split in two in Jerusalem. I am here as a tourist. Sometimes I regret that I am not here as a pilgrim. Here I am in the sacred land of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Thousands pour into this city daily because of its spiritual meaning to them.

It was 10:30 A.M. on Friday, December 10, the second day of the new moon and therefore of the Islamic season of Ramadan. Abeja, John, and I were walking along the narrow corridors of the Old City. Suddenly crowds of people came streaming through the Jaffa Gate and down the steps on David Street. Muslim families entering from the Damascus gate poured in and converged with the others. They headed for the square surrounding the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest place for Muslims. The Dome of the Rock is the place where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven one night to talk with Allah, and also the spot where Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac. Over 200,000 Muslims were expected for the noon prayers.

pilgrim - someone on a trip of religious or spiritual purpose
ascend - to climb or move higher
That afternoon we three covered the same area while the Muslim families were leaving. We were going to the weekly Stations of the Cross, which the Franciscan friars lead along the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows). This is the route that Jesus is traditionally said to have carried his cross between the time of his trial and his death on the cross. It begins at what is now the courtyard of an Islamic school. Archeologists have found that the site actually was where the Roman court was held, so it is highly probable this was the place of Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate.

A little after 3 P.M. about a dozen Franciscan friars led the procession into the school courtyard. They led prayers in Latin, English and Italian, described the happening at the station, then led the procession to the next station and repeated the prayers. There were fourteen Stations in all; the last five were inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This immense domed church covers the sites traditionally believed to be where Jesus was crucified, where his body was prepared for burial, and the garden where he was laid in the tomb. It was an intense experience.

I felt skeptical about the actual locations of all these events, but being in Jerusalem where the last events of Jesus' life occurred was deeply moving. "How was the route set?" I asked. I learned that recreating Jesus' steps as an act of remembrance dates from 384 CE or earlier. At that time there was a longer route but no stops, or "Stations," to mark specific occurrences. In the next two centuries, the route changed markedly and devotional stops were added. Various Christian sects provided their own versions and locations, largely depending on where their own churches were located in Jerusalem. The Medieval pilgrims eagerly adopted this devotional walk. All over Europe the 15th century cities had developed their own symbolic Via Dolorosas, usually with fourteen Stations. Jerusalem, with only eight, added six more. The current route was set by the 17th century, but some of the Stations were not in their present spot until the 19th century.

Have you ever wondered how people know where these events happened? At first, the Christian Church was very small. For instance, most of Jesus' followers gathered in one room after his death. No one was keeping track of where he was born or where he performed miracles or preached. By 325 CE this land was ruled by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine. Constantine's mother, St. Helena, was a devout Christian at a time when the Church was still small. As the Empress dowager, she had the resources to pursue her heart's desire. So she came to Jerusalem to identify the major locations of events in Jesus' life. One writer ironically calls her "the most successful archeologist in all history." The locations of these sites came to her in a dream. Three centuries after the event she "rediscovered" Jesus' tomb, Golgotha (the hill on which Jesus was crucified), the true cross, the instruments of his passion (suffering), the cave where he was born, and the site of his Ascension to heaven.

I personally felt more attuned to being in the Holy Land on Saturday night as I sat alone in the dark on the back of the bus driving through the countryside. A thin sliver of moon marked the Galilean hills. I saw a few lights on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The road paralleled the Jordan River as we drove toward Jericho. I could hardly believe I was in Jericho! It was founded 11,000 years ago -- 11 millennia -- as nomadic food gatherers changed to farming, in the Mesolithic Age! Below sea level, it is the lowest and oldest city in the world! Past Jericho we turned west and started to climb toward Jerusalem. Bedouin tents were on either side of the road. These Bedouins are no longer nomads even though they still live in picturesque tents and have herds of sheep and goats. The men work at day jobs while the women and children tend the flocks. The landscape I saw on that journey through Galilee and the West Bank was largely unchanged from Jesus' day. That land, for me, is the heart of the Holy Land.

- Nancy, Abeja's mom

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Kavitha - Tidings of Comfort and Joy…and Exploitation: The Buck Stops With You

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