By Father Pat Travers
Pastor Holy Name, Ketchikan
Diocese of Juneau
This past October, I had the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, and specifically to the holy city of Jerusalem. The trip was both a vacation and a pilgrimage, a break in my normal ministry to get more fully in touch with its foundation in the person of our Lord. I had been to the Holy Land once before, about twenty-one years ago, for a two-week study retreat led by a professor from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and we traveled quite extensively from Galilee to Jerusalem and then to Jericho and the Dead Sea. This time, I decided to stay in Jerusalem, to have more time for relaxation, and also to be able to focus on the many holy sites in that city. My specific purpose was to visit places where Jesus himself would have walked and ministered, many of which have only recently been uncovered by archeological excavations.
In the past, except for a few places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus died and rose again, and the exposed part of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the streets and structures that would have been familiar to Jesus were inaccessible. About forty years after the time of Jesus, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem that he knew, and it was primarily buried under rubble and the pagan city that they built on top of it. What we now know as the “Old City” of Jerusalem actually dates from hundreds of years after the time of Jesus and, for the most part, the places that he knew are many feet below the current street level, under neighborhoods where people live and work today. In addition, as early Christians began to travel to Jerusalem, starting about three hundred years after his time, they were sometimes confused as to where particular events might have taken place. For example, it was assumed until recently that the trial of Jesus and his torture and ridicule by the Romans took place in the Roman fort located next to the Temple Mount. The location of several churches, and the route most pilgrims follow as the “Way of the Cross,” are based on that assumption. Now, many scholars are convinced that these events took place on the other side of the city, in the area known as the Citadel, the palace of Herod. This is where Pontius Pilate probably stayed while he was in Jerusalem rather than the less comfortable Roman fortress across town, and a place that has mostly been overlooked by Christian pilgrims.
In planning my trip, I was aware that over the past twenty years, archeologists excavating in certain parts of Jerusalem, including an area to the south of the Temple Mount and the Citadel, have finally reached the ground and street level of the time of Jesus. They uncovered the remains of the very streets and structures that he would have known, which can now be visited for the first time in almost two thousand years. It was in these areas that I decided to focus my visit.
The area lying to the south of the Temple Mount is available for excavation because it lies outside the current walls of the Old City and the area at the top of the Temple Mount that is now sacred to Muslims.
The excavations have uncovered part of the main street of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. We can be almost 100 percent certain that Jesus and the apostles walked on these very stones, and the experience of being able to do the same was a moment filled with significance for me. The doorways to the left of the street were incorporated into a massive stairway that led from the city up to the Temple Mount. Many scholars believe that these were places where the money changers and animal sellers would have had their businesses so that pilgrims could make contributions and offer sacrifices in the approved ways. The pile of rocks to the right consists of pieces of the temple that were thrown down by the Romans when they destroyed it in the year 70. They were more widely scattered, but the archeologists gathered them in piles like this to clear access to the surrounding structures. Nearby are the remains of ritual baths where Jesus and the apostles would have washed with other pilgrims before going up to the temple itself. Seeing a place where Jesus took a bath brought home for me the earthly reality of his Incarnation—that he truly became like us in all things except sin. Nearby, at lower levels of the excavations, I walked through remnants of the fortifications and palaces of Jerusalem as they existed before its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. These would have been familiar to great prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. Even farther down were recent excavations of the oldest part of Jerusalem, including structures that existed at the time of King David almost a thousand years before the arrival of the Son of David.
On the other side of the Old City, the Citadel originated as the palace of Herod the Great, the king of the Holy Land at the time Jesus was born. It was inherited by his son, Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee during the public ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Both Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of the Holy Land, were in Jerusalem the week that Jesus died and rose because they thought the temple celebrations of the Passover might lead to unrest among the people. Many scholars now believe that both stayed at the Citadel and that this was the site of the trial, mockery, and torture of Jesus before his crucifixion on Golgotha. Today, the Citadel is available for archeological excavation because it is a secular museum, with no overlying neighborhoods or places of worship. As in the area south of the Temple Mount, archeologists have excavated down to the level of the Citadel structures of the time of Jesus. In the picture, most of the structures extending down the middle would have been there at the time of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. I was able to walk among them and reflect on how our Lord suffered so much, probably at that very place surrounded by those very walls. Once again, the concrete reality of his life and death was brought home by these physical remains of his presence.
Finally, a peak moment of any pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where the great events of our salvation—the death and resurrection of Jesus—are reliably believed to have taken place. Golgotha, at the time of Jesus, appears to have been an abandoned quarry just outside the walls of the city as they then existed. The walls of the pit contained many tombs carved out of the bare rock. The place of execution was a raised area in the middle of the quarry, where the stone might have been regarded unsuitable for building. If the condemnation of Jesus took place at the Citadel, his path to Golgotha would have been much shorter than has generally been believed and would actually have been downhill. The tomb of Joseph of Arimathea would have been one of many in the old quarry, and conveniently close to the place of crucifixion.
For this reason, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher includes the places where Jesus died and where he rose again, all under one roof. I reflected on how many Christians over the centuries had yearned to be in that place and how wonderful it was to be standing there.
I also reflected on the fact that each evening, as I celebrated Mass in my hotel room, I had a much more direct experience of our Lord’s loving presence than was possible at any of these very holy sites. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, any Christian who participates in Mass or the other Sacraments, or otherwise shares actively in the life of the Church has a more intimate experience of the presence of Jesus, than most of the people who were historically present two thousand years ago in the places that I visited. I would encourage anyone who can to make a visit like mine to the sites where Jesus spent his time on earth. Such a trip can only enhance the more profound experiences of the Lord that we are invited to each day of our lives. As a priest, I have the ministry of making Jesus present here and now in very special ways. My visit to Jerusalem reminded me that nothing—not even the most wonderful pilgrimage—can substitute for the experiences of our Lord that are made possible by that ministry.