Near the end of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, we all got up at 5 o’clock one morning to walk the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa. It is the old street in Jerusalem that is remembered as the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion. Via Dolorosa is Latin for the “way of suffering.” The reason we got up so early is that the street becomes crowded and busy later in the day because it is at the center of the marketplace of the Old City of Jerusalem. We wanted time and space to pray, offer a devotional, and sing an anthem at each station.
There was still daily marketplace activity going on even at that early hour. People were carrying goods and setting up their shops, much like the activities that would have been taking place as Jesus made his walk with the cross on the Via Dolorosa. We pilgrims took turns carrying a large olive wood cross that was still much smaller and less burdensome than the cross Jesus carried.
At the fifth station, I was handed the cross to carry. Along the way to the next station, we encountered a very old Palestinian man who was pushing a heavy cart up a hilly cross street. His face was wrinkled and weather-beaten, and he grimaced and groaned as he pushed the cart with all his might to try and get it up the hill. And when I saw him, there was an impulse within me to lay down the cross, leave the group, and go help this old man push this cart up the hill. Several of the pilgrims later shared that they, too, saw this man and felt the same impulse. But we had all been instructed to stay with the group and stay in the moment, so we didn’t go help him. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t ‘color outside the lines,’ put down the cross, and go and push the cart. The old man, after much effort, did get his cart up the hill all by himself. When I think back on our walk that day, the image of his grimaced face and the sound of his groan come back to me vividly.
A number of years ago, there was a television show called ‘Joan of Arcadia.’ It was about a teenage girl who encountered God in the form of different human beings, ranging from a garbage man to a little girl ballerina. The show began with the song, ‘What if God was one of us? Just a stranger on a bus.’
In Jesus, we know that God was, is, and always will be one of us. Jesus is God entering our humanity. He feels real pain and he grimaces, groans, and struggles with his and our very real burdens. I can only imagine all the suffering he has felt during this past year of sorrows. Jesus does carry our burdens, and challenges us to carry and lift up the burdens of others.
I will always remember who God revealed to me on the Via Dolorosa – an old man pushing a cart up a hill.