Three Years Wasted? From Golgotha to Resurrection
“You will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you” H. C. Andersen. “Little Mermaid”
“…and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:35
The heavy wooden door slams shut, is locked from the outside, and a ladder is pulled up into the ancient building. The little priest in charge of the ceremony goes away swiftly, and we are left in silence with an African Franciscan who quickly runs us through the rules. You have the tomb until midnight, after that it’s off limits. Golgotha you can use at any time, no sleeping, no singing, no candle lighting. Have a good prayer. Thirteen random strangers and myself are spending 9 hours locked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, (historical) Christendom’s holiest place.
It’s a short way from Calvary to anointment for the burial to the tomb where Jesus was laid. All within the same building, they are only separated by the externals – steps, oil lamps, chapel walls… It must be what it takes in our mind to go from defeat to victory. Just a few steps. It’s a short road from the ultimate death and defeat of the crucifixion, to the last rites on the now ever-fragrant Stone of Unction, and on to the place of burial which, just 3 days later, would become the place of the resurrection.
I’m thinking of the disciples, of Mary and John and Mary Magdalene as I contemplate the picture of the last three steps on the torturous Via Dolorosa. It’s not so much about Jesus for me this time, as it is about them.
Defeated, lost, numb, they didn’t think, didn’t rationalize, all of that came later – with the church councils and the wise men, and the doctrines and the teachers. Then and there they just went through the motions. Take the body off the cross, prepare for burial, put in the tomb. Go home. It was all gone – their hopes, their purpose, their future, their life… it was just dragging through this half hour. And the next. And the next. Hoping to survive, to stay sane. Three years ago, it may have been easier. Now, they have been brought to the point of no return. They could not go back to who they were before him – and yet there was nothing left from those three years that they followed him. Nothing. Three years wasted.
I am not talking about faith and icons and confessions. I am not talking about being a Christian. I am talking about real people, holy or not, wise or stupid – but human, first and foremost. With the same soul amnesia that I was born with, that you were born with – with no memory of our glory with God and our previous soul journeys, having to live by faith, having to find our souls and our connection to God bit by bit again, having to live in time. Never knowing. Believing, yes.
But would Jesus’s sweat turn to blood had he been so absolutely certain about the resurrection? He was not an icon in somebody’s religious imagination. He was real. He trod these steps, and sat on that stone, and drank from this well. Being human is the same for everybody. Like all of us, he, too, had to believe. Like all of us, he had no way of knowing. He had to plunge into the abyss of dying to the ego, dying to his own hopes and dreams and plans – before undergoing a gruesome death of the body.
And as I look onto the mosaic depicting death, anointment and burial of Jesus, I notice a box with nails from the cross in the center of it. So counter-intuitive for our positive thinking. Why keep the memory of the instrument of pain? As my Evangelical Christian friends would sometimes say to me, why worship the cross? But that which changed you the most – wasn’t it also that which gave you the most pain? How many of us have the keepsakes of the memories, from those we loved and those we lost, the good memories often hurting more than the bad – how many of us cherish the moments that brought us redemption? It will never come back, and will never be repeated in the same way it happened then, so the only way to remember sometimes is to hold on to that piece of clothing, or that pen, or that book – the thing that elicits the memories and the feelings long lost and long gone but too precious to lose. And the very sword that pierced your heart – was it not also the sword that tore it open?
And they kept the nails.
Walking through the church to stay awake, I run into my night companions and exchange brief smiles. We all grow calmer and more aware of each other as the night progresses. At 9 we were all a bit passive-aggressive in attempting to secure a spot in the Tomb, where only about 4 people can pray simultaneously. At 11, a woman gets up from prayer when she sees me enter and lets me take her spot, while a formerly obnoxious Greek Orthodox pilgrim thanks me for getting up to let her pass by. I, too, start smiling to people, without attempting to intrude on their contemplation.
At midnight a Greek priest starts preparing for the service on Golgotha. He asks me to give him a hand setting up a platform in front of the altar, and as I am helping him carry the heavy wooden thing, I can’t help thinking – well, in my old age I will have a good story to tell of how I was carrying furniture on Golgotha at midnight…
The Greeks, the Armenians and the Catholics start services almost simultaneously, at around half past midnight – the night office for the handful of priests and religious serving in the Church. The offices are of various length and style, and yet the voices resonate in unity throughout the confusing building known for its perennial discord. Somehow, though, the discord itself brings about the most magical of effects. People praising God from every corner, in different languages and tunes, their voices echoing in empty dim corridors.
Back on Golgotha, I’m angry. Angry that it never became what it could have been, that it never even had a chance. One little chance. I’m angry with myself, angry with you, angry with God for tricking me into this.
Mary, John, Mary Magdalene. Peter in the distance. The disciples locked in “for fear of the Jews”. Angry with him for betraying them. But how did he betray them? He never promised them a kingdom of this world. Was it so that their own expectations betrayed them? They were certain he was the Messiah, the promised one, the liberator. For three years they walked with him, lived with him, talked to him, they left everything, their homes, their families, their jobs, their plans for the future – and now even their security and safety. Where was the guarantee that they would not be arrested for incitement to violence tomorrow?
Where does all this piercing pain come from? It’s as if they still whisper at Golgotha, that what we had, it was so real. We thought he was the One. How? Why? Because it all made sense. Because suddenly everything we knew and everything we learned came together and made sense. It wasn’t just empty words and practices any more. It was real. Love became a person. God became man. When you love, don’t you see the reflection of the divine in your lover’s eyes? It is not merely “the way you make love is the way God will be with you”, it is also so that we relate to God in exactly the same way we relate to those we love, we are as brave or as cautious with God as we are brave or cautious in our loving.
And yes, we know better than to put our trust in a mere man. But it was him, not ultimately even what he said or did, it was him, he himself who opened to us the experience of God. It’s as if everything came together to perfect clarity just by him being around. We would have walked barefoot across the country just to spend ten minutes with him. It’s as if the whole world ceased to exist when he was around. Everything we left, everything we risked, it meant nothing, there was no staying away from him, he himself gave our lives a purpose and a meaning.
Their expectations died, their idea of what was to be, of what this could have been, was crucified, too. It felt so real but it wasn’t meant to be. What came about was something entirely different. Not the comfy happily-ever-after ending. Oh no, far from it.
All the disciples but John died a violent death. Judas couldn’t bear that it turned out to be God’s way, and not his way, and his love and his pain tortured him to the awful point where he rejected the gift of life. He never went beyond Golgotha. But those who did, who died to themselves – they had to keep on walking these steps over and over again. Those who called themselves Christian were constantly in discord, war and misunderstanding. Being persecuted and gruesomely murdered, up to this day. Nothing is happily ever after here. But if we stayed up all night for Him – it must have meant something.
And if we walked the Via Dolorosa so many times – it must have been worth it. For the whole world, and indeed our whole consciousness have been transformed by the man who refused to be put into the happily-ever-after box. Because his aim was bigger than that. His aim was to bring a new consciousness into this world. His crucifixion and death was only a first step into a new life which would be a blessing for many.
Jesus is risen, having destroyed death by his death, sing the Greek nuns. The bells burst out in cacophony as the doors are pushed open and the sound of the first Muslim prayer call enters the Church. For centuries, it has been like that, pilgrims on their knees, worshipping, praying, thanking… Good people or bad, with right intentions or not, they have sometimes spent their life’s savings just to come to Jerusalem and worship him whom they believed to be their savior. The life that has come out of what seemed an ultimate death, defeat and disaster was not just the life of Jesus, or Mary, or John – it was the life of millions. Millions who have been drawn to God, and to the victory of one man, gaining strength and hope and power from that victory. “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” So yes, it wasn’t quite what they had in mind. It turned out to be so much more. Those three years… transformed the world.