Not all the holy sites, that are the treasure of Jerusalem, are located in or around the Old City. One of them is actually in West Jerusalem, just below the Knesset and the Israel Museum, and it was there that I decided to go today, to the Monastery of the Cross. Yesterday evening, however, the Feast of Tabernacles began, or Sukkot in Hebrew. What I hadn’t realised is that day one and day seven of the Feast are holidays and in Jerusalem that means no public transport. So my plans to get to the monastery had to change immediately when I arrived at the tram stop to find no trams and no buses either. But I have legs and I had already been debating with myself as to whether I could walk it – the decision was made for me.
In fact there were a great many people walking, especially in West Jerusalem. Individuals and families were making their way to synagogues or to the Western Wall, clutching the fronds that would be used in prayer during what is in many ways both a harvest festival and a celebration of their heritage as a wandering people, tabernacling on their way to the Land of Promise. But I was the only one heading in the direction, I hoped, of the Monastery – and at the back of my mind was the fear that given it was located in West Jerusalem and given that it was holiday it might be closed.
When you walk around Jerusalem as I have been doing, you quickly become aware of the fact that the place is built on a series of hills. In the early morning sunshine the going was not so bad, but with every step I was conscious that I would have to make my way back in stronger light and higher temperatures. But I was on the road and the journey had begun; there was no turning back.
The monastery is located in Emek Hamatzlevah, the Valley of the Cross. The valley is deep and, apart from the monastery, almost empty. Walkways and cycle tracks are on the slopes either side of a busy road. When you get to the edge of the valley you can see where you are heading but getting there is not easy. Eventually though I got across the road (not busy on a holiday) and found the tiny entrance in the massive walls of the monastic complex. I was early, the place didn’t open until 10am. Then good signs began occurring; a couple of men turned up and went through the closed gates looking as though they worked there. They did and at 10 the gates opened.
The impression the place gave me from outside was very similar to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. It is fortress like in proportions, the walls tall and thick. But as soon as you enter it it’s beautiful and welcoming. A couple of inner courtyards lead through to the church. I went in – it is stunning. I can hardly describe how beautiful this church is. The frescos, the mosaic floor, the icons, it is a feast of beauty in simplicity. Everywhere there is something to look at. The apse beyond the iconostasis is loosing its frescos but elsewhere, where they have not been damaged, they are incredible.
Then I noticed in the northern wall an open door beneath a depiction of an all-seeing eye. I went through. First you are met with display cases with vestments in them. At the end of the passageway is a Calvary. But as you turn to the right you enter the most holy part of this holy place. There, behind the main sanctuary, is a small altar and beneath it a hole surrounded with a metal plate with a cross and other symbols on it. Around the walls the story of why I was here is told.
The story goes back to the hospitality of Abraham and his three visitors, three angels, an experience of the Trinity. I was taken back immediately to Hebron and the monastery I visited there. The tradition is that before they left they gave their staffs to Abraham. The story moves on after the events concerning Lot and his sinful acts. He comes to Abraham and asks how he can be forgiven. The Patriarch tells him to take the three staffs left by the angels and plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He was then to water them with water from the River Jordan. If they blossomed it would be a sign that God had forgiven him. Lot takes the staffs and despite the attempts of the Devil to prevent him, waters them with Jordan water. They blossom and grow into one tree composed of pine, cypress and cedar.
The story then moves forward to the trial of Jesus. Pilate orders that this cursed tree (as he sees it) made up of three woods of different heights, be felled and brought for use in the crucifixion. That is what happened.
As I sat there, knelt there, before this sacred spot, so quiet, yet so reminiscent of the hole at Golgotha that pilgrims seek to touch and venerate, I was brought back to one of the earliest texts that we have in English – the 8th century poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.
The poem bridges the Christian and pagan heritage of the time, its images of Christ as the warrior, eager to climb the cross, eager to achieve the victory are very much inspired by the understanding of the time. In the poem it is the Rood, the cross, the tree, that speaks and in that holy place I wanted to hear the tree speak. The extracts from the poem are from a translation by Elaine Treharne. Towards the beginning of the poem, the Rood remembers
I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots.”
I decided that God had set me on a real pilgrimage and that I was to follow the Via Crucis, but not the usual route of the Stations, but the route that this tree took from this sacred grove. I reluctantly left the beautiful church and began to walk back.
The Rood continues
“Men carried me there on their shoulders,
until they set me on a hill,
enemies enough fastened me there.
I saw then the Saviour of mankind
hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.”
I decided that I needed to make my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and within it, Golgotha. This is the way that the men carried the tree, so I walked it and it seemed much shorter a distance than when I set off earlier that morning.
The crowds were larger of course when I got to the Old City and my next stop, the peacefulness and serenity of the monastery left behind. I climbed the steps to Golgotha and watched the vast crowd making their way to the hole in which this tree was planted. It had been pulled up from the living soil, a fruitful grove. Now it was planted in this dead rock.
“I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,
the Lord of heaven; I did not dare to bend.
They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood
poured out from that man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.”
But the tree became more gloriously fruitful than it could ever be in that grove as it bore the Son of God, as it became the tree of life, as it bore the fruit of the tree, the Saviour of the World who would reverse the sin of Adam in taking a forbidden fruit from another tree in another grove.
There was one more stage I needed to make to complete this Via Crucis. I made my way down from Golgotha and around the edge of the church to the stairs that descend via the Armenian Chapel to the Chapel of St Helen. It was there that the cross was discovered by Queen Helena’s workmen. She knew it was the True Cross because when the sick were laid on it they were healed. The Rood said
“Then men began to fell us all to the ground: that was a terrible fate.
Men buried us in a deep pit; nevertheless the Lord’s thanes,
friends, discovered me there,
adorned me with gold and silver.”
From the grove to the pit but then to exaltation. It was St Helena who first asked her son Constantine to build the Monastery of the Cross in the 5th century. It is now a Georgian Orthodox Monastery which since the 11th century has been little changed. It is a remarkable place with a remarkable story to tell. None of the legend it celebrates can be found in the Bible, just as none of the ‘Dream of the Rood’ can be. But there is something powerfully holy about that church and that spot. It took me on a wonderful pilgrimage. I walked over 5 miles but every step on this Via Crucis was a blessing.
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.