Of all of the places that I have been privileged to visit in my life, there are a few places that I desperately would love to visit before God calls me home; one of these places in particular is the Holy Land. As someone who went through the parochial school system from Kindergarten all the way through the “16th Grade” (that means college folks!), and who’s professional career involves promulgating Catholic Social Teaching that is based on the life, words and deeds of Jesus, the Apostles and the Prophets, I would love to someday visit the land where they all lived, and walk the paths that their feet once trod. As things stand I have no current plans to visit the Holy Land in the near future, but if I did, there is one thing that I can assure you – if I were planning the trip, I would want to be in and around Jerusalem for Holy Week. Sort of like being in Times Square for New Year’s Eve (with far more spiritual significance!), the event that I would probably most like to participate in is to walk the “Via Dolorosa” (or “The Way of Sorrows”) in Jerusalem’s Old City on Good Friday, and make the 14 Stations of the Cross walking the path that Jesus himself took on the road to Calvary, to die for my sins and yours (link).
Now because not all Catholics can be in the Holy Land to retrace Jesus’ steps on Good Friday, the Church has provided us with a way to commemorate this journey with the Stations of the Cross – a prayerful contemplation of the suffering that Jesus endured from the time he was sentenced to death to the time he was laid in the tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea. Most often held in a Church, these 14 Stations can help us – through visual images like statues and paintings, and descriptions from Scripture and Tradition – to really experience the tribulations suffered by Jesus just as if we were eyewitnesses. While the Stations are most often held in a Church, because Jesus’ actual Crucifixion was a public event witnessed by many, the Stations are sometimes held outside, such as the torch-lit Way of the Cross conducted by Pope Benedict in the Colosseum in Rome (link); today however I’d like to share with you another public observation of the Stations of the Cross that I attended earlier that was a little closer to home.
This morning at 8:30 am, in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza very near the United Nations, I gathered, as is my tradition, with several hundred others in the dim overcast sunlight to begin the Pax Christi Metro New York Good Friday Way of the Cross for 2009. Before those assemble there was a large flatbed truck that housed three podiums, musicians, and identifying banner and a very large upright wooden cross. There on the platform to see us off was Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican Nuncio to the United Nation, who began us with a prayer before we started with the First Station recalling Jesus’ Condemnation before Pilate. As the flatbed began to move and we started our walk towards the west, then down 2nd Avenue and onto 42nd Street – all the while singing and praying and accompanied by Police escorts (many of whom volunteered for the detail), I took a look at the crowd that was assembled before me and behind me and noticed there were people of all ages, and races and about equal representation of both genders. I then began to wonder if this crowd looked – in some way – like the crowd that surrounded Jesus on His way to Calvary on the Via Dolorosa almost 2,000 years ago. After all, Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan capital city in what was a global empire – certainly there must have been an assortment of nationalities present in the crowd at the time of the Crucifixion. In a similar way, just as Jesus was accompanied on his road to Calvary by the Roman Centurions (the police presence of his society) so too were we accompanied on our journey by a detail of New York’s Finest. Of course, the soldiers that accompanied Jesus on His first Way of the Cross were there to torment him, and the police that accompanied us were there to keep us safe. Yet, the fact that there had to be a police presence in order to assure everyone’s safety is testimonial to the fact that perhaps not so much has changed since that first journey to Calvary so long ago.
As we continued down 42nd Street, our group stopped along the way and prayed at places that reflected the suffering and injustice in the world, places that corresponded to the wounds inflicted on – and the persons encountered by – Jesus on His Way of the Cross. As we passed by Grand Central Station with its bustling of people, we recalled the 6th Station, where St. Veronica steps out of the crowd to wipe the Face of Jesus, asking ourselves if we too are called to step out of the crowd to relieve others suffering; at 42nd Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway - in front of several shinning new buildings housing the headquarters of some major banks, we remembered the 10th Station where Jesus was stripped of His garments, and asked ourselves if we stand in solidarity with those stripped of their dignity, like those who have recently been stripped of a home due to the mortgage crisis; at the Military Recruiting Station in Times Square, we recalled the 11th and 12th Stations, where Jesus is nailed to the Cross and dies, and prayed that all people come to accept a respect for the sacredness of life from conception to resurrection, that we develop a renewed reverence for our environment, and that in our time we come to see an end to the killing involved the death penalty and war. All the while, while we were walking and singing and praying, we encountered New Yorkers of every age, race and religion who were busy hustling on their way to work, or school, or appointments or shopping. In an effort to explain to them what we were doing, hundreds of flyers were prepared and handed out by members of Pax Christi Metro New York to passersby explaining to them the Way of the Cross and inviting them to join the group – no matter their faith tradition – as we prayed and sang together for peace in our hearts and our world on this Holy Day.
Our procession lasted just over three hours – just about the amount of time that tradition hold Jesus hung on the Cross before he died – and ended, fittingly enough, outside of Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Unlike the traditional Way of the Cross (which only has 14 Stations and concludes with Jesus’ Burial), outside of Holy Cross Church, we reflected upon a 15th Station – The Resurrection of Jesus, where the Angel of the Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene to tell her at the tomb that “Jesus is not here, but has been raised” (Matthew 28:1-7). As a response, in reply to His invitation to pick up our own cross and follow him, we pledged to the Resurrected Jesus that we would do so through prayer, holding vigils for just policies, in soup kitchens, in meetings, in prisons and in congressional offices. Jesus has done the hard part for us – he has broken the bonds of sin and death – all that remains for us to do is take up His invitation and follow Him.
May you, your families and those that you love have a Blessed and Holy Easter!
For more information on Pax Christi Metro New York please see: www.nypaxchristi.org.