My parents arrived on Tuesday. It’s now Friday (obviously). It’s not yet 8pm as I type this, and yet we are all done in. I suspect they’re already snoring away in the room next door here at the guesthouse in Jerusalem.

And it’s not just the walking and the site seeing that is so exhausting. It’s the intensity of the place, the religious, social, political, cultural tensions and clashes that make it impossible for me to spend more than a few days here at a time. I admire those who feel called to live here, to be peaceful, prayerful presences in the midst of The Crazy.

We agreed this morning that we would walk part of the Via Dolorosa before it got too busy in the Old City. Many of the sites were still closed or were having services, but one of the places we found open was the Orthodox church on the alleged site of the prison of Barabbas and the thieves, and possibly the place where Christ was held before his crucifixion. Now, one must take all these claims to truth lightly. But.

Whether Jesus, or for that matter Barabbas, was held here, the space was incredibly moving. Spiral stairs led deeper and deeper through the hard rock underground, where the smell of incense from the church below was replaced by dank heavy dark air. Single bare bulbs provided illumination, and it didn’t take much imagination to conjure up the stench, the rustle of chains, the moans of prisoners.

I felt trapped. I felt powerless. I felt fear prick the back of my neck. But most of all, I felt deep, deep grief descend upon me as I descended further into the darkness.

The feeling stayed with me as we emerged back in the sunlight. Later in the morning we climbed to the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice where we had a panoramic view of the Old City, but even there, surrounded by churches, minarets, Israeli flags, hanging laundry, and a security balloon, I could feel the cold weight of the stone of the prison. The feeling almost dissipated after a restorative glass of hot apple punch.

But. But then we walked out, back into the heart of the Old City, where crowds were returning from prayers at Al-Aqsa. A group of about ten police and soldiers stood against the wall, watching, waiting.

We slipped into a restaurant across the street to have lunch. I looked at the sign above the heads of the police. Via Dolorosa, it said.

It’s still the way of sorrows. Still today.

It is a way that members of all three Abrahamic religions walk, footsteps heavy with grief, or deliberate with defiance, or quick with fear.

It does not matter what religion, what nationality. All here are frightened. Many are angry. Lots are desperate.

The darkness and heaviness of the prison still lingers, even now. The only thing that has lightened it somewhat was hearing the scouts play Christmas carols on the bagpipes as the lights on a Christmas tree were turned on. The fireworks pierced the darkness like flares of hope sent heavenward.

Is this land really blessed or baptized
in blood
and blood
and blood,
which neither prayer nor sand dries.
– Mahmoud Darwish


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