The cross flowers at Easter time. A flowering cross in the great apse of the church of San Clemente in Rome brims with life. It’s a resting place for doves; its branches swirl around the gifts God gives. It brings life, not death, to humanity signified in Mary and the disciple John, to creation itself that draws new life from it. The hand of God makes it so.
The mystery of the sacraments offered in this sacred place brings its life-giving graces to us.
An early preacher Theodore the Studite praises the mystery of the cross:.
“How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.
“This was the tree on which Christ, like a king on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the Lord of death, and freed the human race from his tyranny. This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in his hands, feet and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree once caused our death, but now a tree brings life. Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a tree.
“What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! Well might the holy Apostle exclaim: Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!”
Today’s Tenebrae readings speak of Jesus’ burial in the earth; the seed falls to the ground. Jesus will brings life:
“My heart rejoices, my soul is glad,
Even my body shall rest in safety,
For you will not leave my soul among the dead
Or let your beloved know decay.” Psalm 16
His promise extends not only to humanity, but to creation itself. “Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness.”“
Tenebrae for Holy Saturday ends with an ancient homily:
“Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”
“The earth trembled and is still…”
The Passion of Jesus is not only a human story; creation takes part in it too. At his death “the earth quaked, rocks were split” Matthew’s gospel says. (Matthew 27,51) “From noon onwards darkness came over the whole land till three in the afternoon,” Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us.
The sun that rules the day, the moon that rules the night respond as Jesus cries out in a loud voice and gives up his spirit. Artists through the centuries place sun and moon at the cross of Jesus.
Remember too those great elemental realities blood and water, which John’s gospel says flowed from the side of Christ when a soldier pierced his side. Water refreshed with its contact with the Word of God; blood source of life for living creatures come from the side of Jesus. They also share in the mystery of redemption.
The homily for today says that Jesus at his death goes “to search for our first parent…to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve…I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”
Artists from the eastern Christian traditon see the Passion of Jesus leading to a great redemption. Jesus does not rise alone, but humanity and creation itself will follow him.
Tenebrae for Good Friday begins with a reflective reading of Psalm 22, which is quoted 13 times in the gospel stories of the Passion of Jesus. The psalm reveals someone in the midst of hard suffering, yet with no bitterness, no complaints of injustice, no lashing out against an enemy. It reveals Jesus in his Passion to us.
“We meet a simple abandonment into the hands of God, and in this surrender there is peace. The psalmist asks so little of God; only that God hear his cry of abandonment. (v.2) Once God induces a mystic presence so that the psalmist can whisper ‘You heard me’ (v 21) the psalm modulates into a song of Thanksgiving.
“The psalm leads us into the suffering heart of Jesus,” who does not simply reflect on his own sufferings; “he identified himself with the agony and faith of generations of persecuted, afflicted peoples.”
(Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Psalm 1, Wilmington, Del, USA 141-151)
In his passion, then, Jesus is aware of more than his own suffering. Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews sees Christ as high priest of the good things that have come to be. “ (Hebrews 9, 11-28)
What are “the good things that have come to be? ” Even on Calvary we see them. Blood and water flow from his side as the soldier pierces him with a lance. Blood and water are universal signs of life. Humans need both to live.
In our final reading for Tenebrae, Saint John Chrysostom sees in them Christ fashioning his church as Eve was fashioned from Adam’s side as he slept a deep sleep. Blood and water are signs of Christ’s gift of life to us and his life-giving sacraments.
The saint says further: “As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.”
More than whips and thorns and nails, good things come about on Calvary. Jesus give us life here, life that conquers darkness and death.
We wonder where the gospel events took place, especially during Holy Week.. Where was Jesus judged by Pilate? What way did he go to Calvary? Where was he crucified and where was he buried?
Reliable historians generally agree that the tomb of Jesus and the site of Calvary are in the Church of the Holy Sepucher. “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers. (p 49)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Jerusalem’s “Via Dolorosa”, the traditional way of the cross, is less historically reliable. Beginning near St. Stephen’s Gate, where the Fortress Antonia once stood, it winds up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Murphy-O Connor says it is “defined by faith and not by history.” (pp 37-38) Early Christian pilgrims created it.
Pilgrims on the Vis Dolorosa
After the Christian church was established by Constantine in the 4th century, pilgrims from Mount of Olives, where many stayed, walked through St. Stephen’s Gate up to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopping at certain places to recall incidents from the passion of Jesus. The present Via Dolorosa was formed from their devotions over the centuries. (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, p 37) Pilgrims, not archeologists, have given us the present Via Dolorosa.
Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus
Is their a more reliable way? A reconstruction of Jerusalem (above) from the time of Jesus at the Israel Museum–somewhat altered here– suggests another way that Jesus was led to Calvary. At the bottom right is the luxurious palace complex built by Herod the Great. (below) When Pontius Pilate came from Caesaria Maritima for Passover he probably stayed there and judged Jesus in the courtyard outside the palace.
Herod’s Palace, the Citadel
After sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate handed him over to a detachment of soldiers quartered somewhere in the great towers to the left of the palace, who scourged him and crowned him with thorns.
They then led him away to Calvary, probably parading him through part of the upper city as a warning to others. In our map of Jerusalem above, the rock outcropping near to the city wall is the site of Calvary where Jesus was crucified. The gospels say he was buried in a tomb only a stone’s throw away.
In Jerusalem today the Citadel stands on the ruins of Herod’s palace, still dominating the western part of the Old City.
You can walk on the southern ramparts of the city wall where Herod’s palace once stood and view some few remains of Herod’s building; the towers have been rebuilt.
Murphy-O’Connor suggests a way Jesus was taken to Calvary from here. “If, as seems likely, Jesus was brought into the city on his way to execution, the approximate route would have been east on David Street, north on the Triple Suk, and then west to Golgotha.” (p.38)
I walked that way some years ago, down David Street, to the Triple Suk and then west to Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. My sense is Murphy-O’Connor is right, but I think we better not change the Via Dolorosa. For one thing, good piety has given us the present Via Dolorosa and it has a truth and beauty all its own. More importantly, it would start a war in Jerusalem, and the city has enough grief now.
For more information on the places of the Passion, see