Apart from when I was a Parish Priest in Leeds where we had a regular Rosary Group which I used to lead, I can’t say that I have regularly used the Rosary as part of my prayer life. There’s no particular reason that I can point to, just that I haven’t. One of the things that I have done a great deal, however, is to follow the Stations of the Cross. It’s always a feature of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the highlights is being able to walk the Via Dolorosa together, to battle through the crowds, the street vendors, to avoid being knocked down by trucks and carts and bikes and to make it successfully as a group and without losing anyone, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Wanting to experience something different during this time in the Holy Land I wondered whether there might be a way of combining the idea of the journey, the walk, the pilgrimage with the prayer of the Rosary.
As many of you will know there are three traditional sets of Mysteries which form the basis for saying the Rosary (a fourth has been added in recent years). These are the Joyful (around the incarnation), the Sorrowful (around the passion) and the Glorious (around the resurrection). The fourth set are called the Luminous and are around the ministry of the Lord (his baptism, the wedding at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom, the Transfiguration and the Institution of the Eucharist).
For those who dispute with the biblical historicity of so many of the traditional Stations following the pattern of the Sorrowful Mysteries is a much more biblical pattern (though those people might baulk at having to say 53 Hail Mary’s as part of it!). Anyway, I thought I would give it a go.
The first Sorrowful Mystery is the agony in the garden. So that is where I headed immediately after breakfast. It meant walking from St George’s College round the city wall and across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane. But it was a beautiful morning and it was quiet and especially as I reached the Church of All Nations at the heart of the garden. That is built over the rock against which Jesus prayed and where his agony was felt. My intention is to write this Rosary journey up properly, so just a few thoughts along the way.
One thing that struck me as I prayed in the church and in the garden was the way in which the agony and the temptation of Jesus were closely connected. On both occasions there was the idea that he could escape, choose another way out than the one that God had chosen for him. But on neither occasion does Jesus do that. However, both accounts then conclude with the ministry of angels.
In St Matthew’s Gospel it says
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4.11)
and in St Luke’s Gospel
Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. (Luke 22.43)
Perhaps in our own agonies we should look for the ministering angels, however they manifest themselves.
I sat for a long time in the garden looking at those old olive trees and then left to continue this walk of the sorrows. But I couldn’t just walk past Mary’s Tomb which is next to the Garden of Gethsemane. I’ve been there before but not often. It is an amazing church. You enter and are immediately faced with a great flight of steps. It is intensely dark as you come in to the cavernous space from the bright light outside. Then you begin to make out the flickering light of candles below you. But I also heard chanting. The Eucharist was being celebrated. The priest was at the altar, so mostly hidden from view, a thurifer was just outside the entrance to the sanctuary, the bells on his thurible continually jangling. Another monk was responding and cantoring and then there was me. It was a great act of worship to be witness to, to be a participant in, even though a silent one and one not quite sure what was going on. But in the midst of the chants and the bells and the incense I offered another decade of the Rosary in thanksgiving for being there.
Leaving there I made my way back across the Kidron Valley past St Stephen’s Monastery (closed) and then up the steep road that leads to the Lion Gate. This is the entrance to the Old City. Jesus though didn’t come this way from the Garden. Instead he was taken across the Kidron Valley but in the direction of the City of David and the house of Caiaphas the High Priest where the Church of St Peter-in-Gallicantu now stands. As I went through the gate I noticed something I had walked past so many times before – a little sign saying ‘The Birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ So I went through the doorway and found myself in a little Greek Orthodox Church. A nun was tiding things for the beginning of the day. It was a very quiet spot where another decade of those beads demanded to be prayed.
The second Sorrowful Mystery is ‘Jesus is scourged’. So I made my way to the Church of the Flagellation which is the place where the Second Station is remembered. It’s a little church in the same courtyard as the First Station. There is actually a pillar which some say was the pillar of scourging set in the wall of the Church of All Nations but outside on the path that leads down from the Mount of Olives. I had visited that but said my decade in this little church.
In St John’s Gospel we simply read
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. (John 19.1)
It hardly does justice to the agony that Jesus went through but I wondered as I prayed how seriously the soldiers took what they were doing and how seriously we take the cruel injustices that we inflict on others. ‘Oh she knows I didn’t mean anything by it’ we might say in self-justification for a horrible posting on Facebook or a barbed comment. ‘He’s had worse said to him than that.’ Yet the agony and sorrow we so lightly inflict on others might wound to the core of someone’s being as the lash tore through Jesus’ skin and the soldiers laughed in bored bitterness.
The third Sorrowful Mystery is the ‘Crowning with Thorns’. I decided to keep that in the Ecce Homo Convent, or at least beneath it on the Lithostrotos, the Roman pavement that was in the Antonia Fortress where Jesus stood before Pilate. As St John goes on to say
And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ (John 19.2-3)
They thought it was a brilliant joke. People said he was a king, so dress him as a king, a pantomime king, a fool. Yet what truth they expressed as they did it. Pilate talked about truth but it was before him, not crowned with gold but with thorns, yet soon to be reversed. As the hymn by Thomas Kelly expresses it
The Head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now.
Next to the convent is the Basilica of Ecce Homo and what is so amazing in there is to see the remains of the three span triumphal arch that Herod had erected incorporated into the east wall of the sanctuary. You only see the upper section of the arches but it was through these arches that Jesus was led. ‘Ecce Homo – behold the man’. This was as real as it gets, as real as that Roman Pavement beneath with its scratched soldiers games in its surface.
I needed a coffee and a friend had told me that the Austrian Hospice at the junction of al-Wad and the Via Dolorosa serves excellent coffee in lovely surroundings. So I took his advice, rang the doorbell and entered through a most inauspicious door into a world of Austrian regal splendour. This Rosary was going to take a while to complete .. so we’ll take a break there.
I pause with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
O Saviour of the world, who by thy Cross and precious Blood hast redeemed us: Save us, and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.