This is a sign along the Via Dolorosa, the walk that takes you to the fifteen Stations of the Cross. The events are graphically portrayed in the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. The walk is much more prosaic, but at the same time much more profound. It provides the occasion to ruminate not just on the meaning of the Passion, but the reality of it.
The Via Dolorosa was started by Franciscan Monks that came to the Old City of Jerusalem in the Fourteenth Century, but the tradition of walking the Way of Sorrows was started millennia ago by the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Shortly after the Council of Nicae that set the foundations of Christianity, for reasons that are lost in history, the Emperor killed his eldest son and his wife. The rumblings in Rome over this caused him never to return to that dreary place, and to place the new capital at Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, and today Istanbul. His Byzantine Empire outlasted the Roman one, and continued for 1000 years.
Whether to shore up his support among the burgeoning Christians of the Late Empire, or to atone for the deaths, he sent his mother to the Holy Land. She searched for the True Cross, and believed she had found it. In the course of her investigations, she may have uncovered the actual spot on Golgotha where the crucifixion had occurred - certainly the local Christian community kept that tradition alive - and the tomb nearby in which he was resurrected. A great Basilica was built over these spots, and today rebuilt versions of it stand as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also identified were many of what are now the Stations of the Cross. Many pilgrims came over the next few centuries. Even after the land fell under the sway of Islam, pilgrims were still welcomed, and tourism boomed. (The actual tourist franchise was sold to the highest bidder among the several churches lobbying for it; today a dysfunctional crew of five Christian sects manage the rebuilt Church itself.) The major cross streets of the Old City as rebuilt by the Romans made the Basilica near the center of attention, and a lot of shops and stalls as well.
Today, with the city streets now considerably higher than in the Fourth Century (the city gets constantly rebuilt on the rubble from a past conqueror), the main bazaar still sits right outside the Church. The modern Via Dolorosa unavoidably takes you past food stalls, tourist wares and cheesy t-shirt stands. Rather than destroy the meditative moment for the latter-day pilgrims, it smacks you with the full range of humanity at its best and worst, and makes you ponder how the Passion relates to the great Gothic Churches of Europe or the crisp Sunday services of American suburban churches. This is where Jesus ended his ministry, amidst the great steaming masses of the city, not in the contemplative quiet of places like Qumran in the desert. You imagine he would be living there still, if he could.
It is a remarkable concept, that you can see the actual spot where He was crucified, and the slab in the tomb from which He was reborn. Mainstream Christianity has evolved to the point where the truth of these events does not really matter. The "Mystery of Faith" is taken as believing even if the evidence is spotty and the facts aren't so. It is the act of belief itself which is important. This of course reflects the triumph of Ego, the modern worldview that the individual matters most; that it is in your act of will that you can be saved. This train of belief is profoundly at odds with Christian tradition, where it is by the grace of God that one is saved.
Walking the Via Dolorosa confronts you with an uncomfortable but incredible question: did the events actually occur?
It seems a bit more likely when you are there. Let me digress and discuss another more recent controversy where being there explains much. Many people still believe that President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy with multiple gunmen. In the 1970s Congress set up a commission and so concluded, blaming the Mafia. (Maybe the Congressmen had been watching too many Godfather movies.) A visit to Dealey Plaza where the shootings occurred put the mystery largely at rest. It is a very small plaza, hardly deserving the name, and it is easy to imagine a lone gunman popping a man in a slow moving car at a short distance.
So to with a visit to the Old City. There is evidence, if not proof.
As you enter the Old City by the Lion's Gate, before you enter the Via Dolorosa proper, you come to a place off to the right where someone has been excavating ruins from the period of the Passion. As you climb down - immediately seeing how much rubble has been built on in 2000 years - you enter into the foundations of a Byzantine Church which was built over two dry pools, and confront the first historical evidence. One of the miracles of Jesus in his own journey through the Old City is said to have happened at two pools. Many crippled and sickly people waited near the pools, as the tradition was that the first person in the water when a ripple breaks the surface would be magically cured. Jesus got into a brief conversation with a cripple who was unable to move fast enough to ever be first. He cured the poor man, perhaps somewhat offhandedly, and told him to go forth. It is said the man rolled up his bundle, walked into the streets, and was almost arrested for having done work (carrying the bundle) on the Sabbath! A strikingly all-too-human twist to a compelling vignette.
Wandering along the Via proper confronts you with more examples of the physical elements of the long-ago story. Coming to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, even after stopping off for a bite to eat, is thus quite moving, as a body of evidence has begun to be built up. By getting there early enough, the Queen Mother was able to stabilize the major evidentiary spots, and protect them from fraud or ruin thereafter. While corroborating evidence of this sort is not proof, it is a step beyond what is normally considered proof or disproof of religious matters.
Consider some of the many proofs of God and their fundamental weaknesses:
The God of the Gaps. Darwin set in motion a reaction of such depth it continues today in the school of Intelligent Design, a disguised form of Creationism. Why the vehemence against one of the great scientific theories of all time? One proof of God is found in nature. Many religious shrines are placed in places of exotic or profound beauty. The Oracle at Delphi was placed in a location of odd wind patterns and twisted rocks, so the very journey to the Oracle reset the mind away from normal life. The last Samurai leader in the recent movie of that name realized the answer to his Zen Koan, his search throughout his life for the one perfect cherry blossom: as he lay dying, he saw the cherry blossoms for the last time in an utterly moving and beautiful scene, and realized that they were all perfect. One can certainly find the godliness within from deep experience with natural wonder. In the deconstructionist mind of the Westerner, however, we look for more, for a proof of God in the logic of what Science cannot explain. Are there intermediary species? Can evolution create a fully-formed eye? And so forth, with question after question. In a way, this is the original proof of the gods, as the pagan gods were used to explain what science could not - why do trees grow? Where do storms come from? What is the source of lightning? As we are well beyond those reasons for gods, so the God of the Gaps is a vapid and self-defeating approach. As Science explains more, God's proof is less. As the gaps disappear, so does this god. This is not much of a god, this God of the Gaps.
The Philosopher's God. Philosophers have debated God from the beginning of recorded thought. They usually conclude that there at least must be one god, the Demiurge, the Creator, the God who started it all. Before there was the stuff of the Universe, who created it? In a recursively annoying way, this actually explains little, because who then created the Demiurge? Who created that Creator? How many gods can dance on the tip of a pinhead? Science has attempted to explain the Demiurge away by arguing that the Big Bang could have been a random event - probability as god. Even so, they have their own recursion - what did the Big Bang explode within? The answer, there was no within, while pleasing Zen in its construct, again answers little, as how did something come from nothing? Hence typically the mental model is of a Big Bang within an endless sea of stuff, a small bubble in a larger infinite soup. Where did the endless soup come from? Pondering these questions, as with communing with nature, can lead one to believe there is a God, although the proof is lacking. The deep exploration of physics often compels scientists to become deeply religious, although rarely in an organized religion sense. They certainly understand how little they really understand, and sit back in awe and respect for whatever agency actually understands it all.
The God of Judgment. A different direction is the God of morality, the God of good and evil. Many of the beliefs of the three monotheistic religions of the Old City come from or at least echo Zoroasterism, which put forth the great battle of good and evil that God was waging against the forces of darkness. Can God be found in morality? The 20th Century is a case in point. In the 19th Century, Nietzsche pronounced God is Dead! and said that now, all things are possible. The restraints of morality are off. In the 20th, his view got applied in the real world, and the result were the most horrific sets of death and destruction in history. Beyond the wars, in the killing fields of Cambodia and the cultural revolution of China, people were hastened to their deaths because they could never shirk off their bourgeois pretensions and become Communist Man. Man's infinite capacity for rationalizing makes a world without God a fearful one indeed. So certainly a case can be made that at least the illusion of a god-given morality is necessary to organize a good society. Can a stronger case be made that good and evil are wired into the Universe? The basis for morality is free will, the making of moral choices. If the future is determined by God, this is an illusion, so free will requires an uncertain future. At the Santa Fe Institute, computer programs have been written that are essentially indeterminate - even God cannot know how they will come out. Hence the Universe contains the potential for having morality wired in, in the form of free will; but we have not yet deduced the irresistible chain of logic to prove there is a God of Judgment.
The God of Purpose. Aristotle based much of his philosophy on Teleology, which means serving God's purpose. Teleology has been one of those concepts debated by philosophers and grad students for centuries, so let's not go there. Suffice to ask the question, can God be proven by there being a purpose to things? This has a certain resonance, as most people search in their lives for their purpose, their destiny - how do they fit in the larger scheme of things? It is a bit unsatisfying to believe there is no larger scheme. Adam Smith gave a purpose to Capitalism (the Invisible Hand, that each of us pursuing our own selfish ends creates a greater good to society), and Darwin gave a purpose to Biology (Survival of the Fittest, that living things tend to evolve to fit their ecosystem), both without the need for an endpoint, for God's overarching purpose. The Intelligent Design people should be all over this issue, but they are mostly rehashing the old arguments against Darwin, how did an eye develop? rather than ask, where is this all going? Ironically, it is from Science that we are searching for an answer to this question. Every generation creates God in their own image, in the image of the larger mental models of society. Newton's God was a clockmaker; Einstein's God was a gambler, playing dice with the Universe - the probability of quantum mechanics; and Van Neumann's God (so to speak) is a computer programmer. One can view the Universe as like a computer - at every spot in space-time, there is only a finite number of states of the 'stuff' that is there, and it interacts with neighboring cells of space-time in only a finite number of ways (forces), with a new interaction and change of state occurring at every click of the universal clock, at every exchange of force. This is like a type of computer, a cellular automata. Indeed, one can say that the Universe is not like a computer, it is a computer. Naturally the question is, what is it computing? Those with a farcical bent will say "42", the answer given in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (where unfortunately, they forgot what the question was). But if it is a computer, who programmed it and what is the program trying to find an answer to? The work done on Chaos Theory by the Santa Fe Institute may answer this question by coming up with a new Law of Physics, like Gravity or Conservation of Energy: the Law of Self-Organization. Systems tend to get more organized. They use energy in the process, so Entropy is preserved, but look around and you will see that living things tend to create more organization where there had been less. For the moment, however, we have not divined God's Purpose, and again lack the chain of logic to prove our God by His Purpose.
The God of the Bible. We come back to the Via Dolorosa and a different approach to proving God: evidence. The Bible contains an enormous amount of evidence that God exists, and not only that, actively intervenes in human affairs. This God is very different than the gods of logic presented above. Indeed, I will go further and state that even if we could logically 'prove' God by any of the approaches above, or others, it would mean little. One can accept a Demiurge, or a Teleological Endstate Purpose, and go back to daily life. It might make it a bit easier for a politician to say, Yes I believe in God, in order to get the religious vote, but they say that anyway and we are unsure of their true beliefs. The God of Judgment is more a worry, but oh so Old Testament, so we disregard the fear of a Heaven and Hell. But a God who intervenes in our lives - that is a God to be reckoned with.
On Easter throughout the world parishioners will partake in communion and be told of the Mystery of Faith, the bond made with believers at the Last Supper of eternal life. Many Christians participate without really believing that the core event, the Resurrection, actually took place. The real mystery of faith is considering the evidence and believing in the reality of that seminal event in human history.