01.12.06

Worshiping the ritual

Posted in Travel at 22:24 by RjZ

The via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is the fabled path of Jesus walking the stages preceding the crucifixion. Pilgrims from around the world travel to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ. To lean on the wall where he leaned to rest under his burden of the cross. The divot in the stone wall is fully eight inches deep from the centuries of hands who leaned there.

At the end of the twisting road is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the spot where the crucifixion took place. One walks to the altar, listening to pilgrims singing, to the very location where Jesus and the thief took their final breaths. Continue through the dark church and you come upon the a cracked stone and a painting of a skull with blood dripping on it. The guide will explain that, according to God’s plan the crucifixion occured on the very spot where Adam’s skull lays buried and the blood of Christ had soaked through the soil right onto it. Amazing.

It’s even more amazing when you consider that Jerusalem had been razed to the ground at least three times since Christ took his last walk. That the actual location of Jerusalem itself is not exactly known and that this Church wasn’t built until hundreds of years after the death of Christ. But walk they do, these pilgrims, and they feel the strength and connection of placing their hand on exactly the same wall Jesus did for strength.

During this year’s Haj, the at least once in the lifetime of every Muslim pilgrimage to mecca, 345 people died and hundreds more were injured during a stampede that occurred during the stoning of the pillars ritual. There are tasks to complete during the Haj. Every Muslim must run between two hills seven times and circle around the huge black temple, the Kaaba four times at a hurried pace, followed by three times, more closely, at a leisurely pace, in a counter-clockwise direction. Finally, they must throw stones (collected elsewhere) at three pillars that represent Satan. It was during this, the last of the Haj rituals that pilgrims tripped over luggage of other Hajji and ended up trampling each other in an effort to complete the rituals required of them.

The actual intention of the act is to represent driving the devil away as Abraham did in the Bible. The devil, meanwhile, seems to make his presence known year after year as pilgrims forget that this ceremony most importantly a symbol and in there selfish effort to complete the Haj in time trample each other year after year. (In 1990 it was over 1400 people.)

Rituals, religious and otherwise, remind us of important lessons or focus our minds on the tasks before us, but always they are proxies for something larger, symbolic of greater meaning, mnemonic devices of complex stories that we feel are important. Forgetting our common sense in an effort to perform a ritual is like remembering the rhyme but forgetting what it was supposed to remind us of. By focusing on the act we lose the value of the rite altogether and the greatest loss is our own. The ritual doesn’t care either way.

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