I heard rain against the window before I knew I was awake. It was February and I thought it was too early to rain. Then I remembered. Jerusalem. Olive Tree Hotel. I was in the Holy Land, and it would be our last day. After many sunny days in the 60s, today our luck ran out. By unhappy coincidence, this also was the day we would be outside walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross.
Two in our group were sick and stayed behind. The rest of us were on-board and ready to go at 6 a.m. The idea was to walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City before the coins of the money changers and the aggressions of souvenir hawkers would distract pilgrims at prayer.
Half of the group, the smart ones, had umbrellas. I did not. Some were fearful of slipping on the stone pavement made slippery by the rain. They wondered if there might be some accommodation so that the group could get to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to venerate the places of Crucifixion and Resurrection, without the walk in the rain. For their sake, I wish there had been a way, but there was not.
It seemed fitting, though, that there was no shortcut to this place. There is no easy way to Calvary and the Tomb, in Jerusalem or in our own lives. We would have to watch out for one another.
Some were more wet and cold than others, but no one was warm and dry. Two or three of the stronger ones stayed in the back to make sure the cautious walkers were not left behind. We stopped 14 times to hear the story of the one who made this path holy, who fell three times and got up, who was mocked by some and received encouragement from others.
All arrived safely but dripping to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the crown jewel of pilgrim destinations. If ever there was a walk that was worth the effort, it was ours that day.
We got in line to touch the rock of Calvary where the cross of Jesus was raised. One pilgrim was very in tune with the sacrificial love of Jesus as he approached the altar.
There, a hole in the floor allows pilgrims to reach in and touch the actual rock. When his fingers touched the stone surface, a prayer burst from his heart: “Ask me anything, Lord, and I will do it.”
The line for the tomb (sepulcher) was much longer. Before taking our place in line, we gathered for Mass in a small chapel tucked away from other pilgrims. I had the privilege of proclaiming one of the biblical accounts of the empty tomb. I literally lost my breath when, not 60 feet from the tomb itself, I read, “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.” Stronger than death and anything else that could steal hope from the human heart was that moment of faith. It was then and can be now.
After breaking and sharing the body and the crucified and risen one, we joined the line at the tomb of Jesus. There is room for only three or four people at a time to enter. We waited for over two hours to have our 15 seconds inside the tomb.
I will always remember the faces of the pilgrims as they emerged from it. Tired with little sleep, worn by the cold and rain, they were also fixed with the stunned silence of holy encounter.
When it was my turn, the 15 seconds seemed long enough. Even in that short time, I sensed the presence of the power that raised Jesus from the dead. I felt called to trust in the power of God at all times. I believed with certain faith that staying faithful to God is all the matters, and that all sacrifices we make for the sake of love are worth it. Then we walked back into the rain.
The next morning, I woke up and looked out the window. There were snow banks eight feet high. I was back in Eau Claire. I crawled back under the covers with renewed appreciation of being dry and warm and remembered the walk, the story, the 15 seconds in the tomb, half a world away now and yet closer than my pillow.
The Rev. Tom Krieg is pastor at St. James the Greater Catholic Church, Eau Claire.