It started with a wake-up call at 3:30 in the morning.

My wife and I threw on our clothes. I made a cup of coffee in our room, slurped it down, and then we were out the door, to meet the rest of our pilgrims in the lobby and board a bus to our starting point, just outside the city walls, where we would begin walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the Way of the Cross.

Our guide Khalil had arranged for a large wooden cross to be delivered to our hotel, so he had that loaded onto the bus to take with us.

The morning was cool, in the 50s. And dark.  Khalil led the way, carrying the cross.

When we arrived at our starting point — where the ancient praetorium had stood and where Jesus had been condemned to die — the Muslim call to morning prayer had begun. There was a steady stream of Muslim faithful making their way to a nearby mosque. Otherwise, the area was deserted. Dim lights flickered along the narrow streets. We had to watch our footing. The cobblestones were damp and uneven.

We paused, collected ourselves, and took a moment to consider what was about to happen. I started with a short prayer delivered by Pope John Paul II at the Way of the Cross in Rome in 2000: 

We are here
because we are convinced that the Way of the Cross of the Son of God
was not simply a journey
to the place of execution.
We believe that every step of the Condemned Christ,
every action and every word,
as well as everything felt and done
by those who took part in this tragic drama,
continues to speak to us.
In his suffering and death too,
Christ reveals to us the truth about God and man.

Then our journey began.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,

Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.

Shortly after we started, the Muslim call to prayer stopped. There was nothing but silence. All we heard was the sound of our footsteps, shuffling on stone. Khalil directed us to each station. I read the scripture passage for each stop. Then we sang a verse of the Stabat Mater, and Father Antonin offered a brief prayer. We concluded with:

Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us.

Every three stations, we paused to change the people carrying the cross. Those who couldn’t carry it, touched it and walked along with it. In this way, every one of us had the opportunity to re-enact Christ’s journey to Calvary and help carry his cross.

Khalil later told me that he had led groups through this journey at 5:30 or 6 am, but he said that was too late. “By then,” he explained, “the shops are open and crowds are starting to fill the streets. At mid-day, it can be a mob scene. This” — and he gestured to the empty streets and dark alleyways — “is much better.” I couldn’t agree more. It was desolate, haunting, meditative. We were alone with our thoughts, our prayers, our intentions, our Christ.

Near the end, Khalil led us through the narrow passage that leads to the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was where we prayed the last four stations.

I’d seen countless pictures of that courtyard. But never deserted, like this.

We concluded our walk by singing “The Church’s One Foundation,” and then moved inside to see Golgotha and venerate the spot which, tradition tells us, held the cross of Jesus.

Heading toward the tomb, we passed the stone where Jesus was anointed after his crucifixion.

Our Mass was scheduled for 6 am inside the Edicule. 

As an online guide describes it:

The Edicule, which is the tomb of Jesus, is comprised of two chambers.  The first chamber holds The Angel’s Stone, which is a fragment of the stone believed to have sealed the tomb after Jesus’ burial and the second chamber is Christ’s tomb.

I was told they only allow three Masses a day inside the Edicule, and groups are restricted by size. You can’t have more than 30 people in the cramped space. We had 23. Whether by luck or divine intervention, somehow we managed to celebrate Mass in one of the most coveted chapels in Jerusalem — and the holiest site of the Christian faith.

Father Antonin and I went to the sacristy to vest. Then the Franciscan sacristan summoned us: “You must begin. Now. You have 25 minutes. No more. Let’s go.”

I picked up the chalice, patten and corporal, and we walked about 40 feet, over to the Edicule. We then went a few more feet into the second chamber, where an altar is erected above the tomb. You have to bend down to get in there. There was barely enough room for Father Antonin and me.

Our group squeezed inside the outer chamber. But as the sacristan began to close the doors, I noticed someone important was missing: our oldest pilgrim, 86-year-old Rose Marie Cerminaro. She’d taken that opportunity to make a quick bathroom break! I didn’t want to start without her — I had asked her to be the lector for this Mass, which I knew would be the fulfillment for her of a lifelong dream.

But then I saw her face at the door. “Rose!,” I cried. “Come in! We can’t start without you!” She was helped inside and the doors were closed and our celebration of Mass began, inches from where our Lord rose from the dead.

Rose, who had never lectored before in her life, was a natural — confident and clear. I’m sure she never imagined she would be in that spot, reading those words, embraced by so much grace and fellowship and love:.

“You know what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power…”

After Mass, we headed back to the sacristy — overwhelmed, exhausted, blessed beyond words.

I have one regret from that morning: that I didn’t get a good picture of the stole I wore: It was the one I wore when I was ordained, designed by my classmate Deacon Jim Hynes, who died less than a year after ordination. It depicts a fishing vessel “putting out into the deep.” I’m so grateful I had this stole and its beautiful image — and all the memories it contains — close to my heart as I kissed the altar of sacrifice over the place where Jesus was buried.

UPDATE: Fellow pilgrim Terry Osterman Stevenson saw this post and graciously provided a nice shot of the stole. Thanks, Terry!

We left the dark church and were greeted by a beautiful late winter morning, with clear skies and brilliant sunshine. After we’d been in the tomb, every place seemed flooded with light. Resurrection!

Before we left the Old City, I spotted a familiar name: Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating office in the Middle East! Here are their offices. It was 7 am. What? They weren’t open yet??!!

A few minutes later, we were back at the hotel for breakfast, greeted by the towering image of our Blessed Mother and the Baby Jesus atop the Notre Dame Center. 

This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad!

This was, to put it mildly, a morning I will never forget. Even now, the tears are welling up. My heart is full to overflowing.

I prayed for so many people, so many friends and strangers, so many intentions during those hours we walked the streets and carried the cross and celebrated Mass where the Body of Christ had lain.

My hope and prayer now is that the graces of those moments can fill your heart as they fill mine.

As the words of a favorite hymn put it: ponder anew what the Almighty can do!