by Sr. Pauline Burling o.p.

A talk given at the Women's Day of recollection, Lent 2022

                                         Journey to Jerusalem

It seems fitting that on the Eve of Palm Sunday we are going up to Jerusalem and thereby follow the Prophet Isaiah’s invitation:

 “Come, let us go up the mountain of the Lord to the House of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’          [Isaiah 2:3]

Pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem transports us into Old Testament times, when the Jewish people went to the temple for the big feasts or at least once a year to celebrate the Passover.  They would be singing the so-called 15 ascending psalms [Ps 120 – 134] when going up Mt Zion or the steps of the temple.  Let us imagine joining those Old Testament pilgrims singing with them to the sound of lyres, flutes and percussion instruments:

            ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say: Let us go to God’s house.  And now our feet are standing within your gates O Jerusalem...’  Ps 122 [121] 

Still, I now propose to jump forward from Old to New Testament times in order to join Jesus and his disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Following the synoptic gospels we will start in Jericho where Jesus had predicted his Passion for the third time saying to his disciples:

            ‘Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed        over to the chief priests and scribes.  They will condemn him to death and will        hand him over to the pagans to be mocked and scourged and crucified; and on     the third day he will rise again’.  [Mt 20: 18, 19] 

On leaving Jericho a blind beggar calls out: ‘Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me!’ [Mk 10:46 -52] and after Jesus had heard his request he said: ‘Go; your faith has saved you’.  And immediately his sight returned and he followed him along the road.[Luke follows St Mark but Matthew records 2 blind men, [cf. Mt “20:29 34]

This was the road to Jerusalem, a well trodden and busy caravan route [the equivalent of the A1] and besides the disciples many other people followed.  Let us join this joyful crowd accompanying Jesus as we ascend from the plains of Jericho, ‘the city of palm trees’, up into the Judean hill country which was bleak and deserted. Furthermore, it was a real ascent: from c. 984 ft [c. 300m] below sea level in the Jordan valley to c.1968 ft [c. 600m] above sea level.  The journey was about c. 25 miles [40 km] – almost a Marathon.  This group of pilgrims with Jesus in their midst would have left Jericho early in the morning so as to arrive in Jerusalem in the late afternoon – before sunset.  With some rest in between it would probably have taken them about 10 – 11 hours.  When seeing the first landmarks of Jerusalem and then the temple itself, their joy increased and their steps would have quickened towards the holy city... in spite of their tiredness after the long walk in the heat, and moreover, having endured the long weary stretch of the Judean desert in the middle.  

Let us reflect a little on the theme of pilgrimage:  As many walking pilgrims would confirm, [whether to Walsingham, Santiago de Compostela and other shrines, or from Canterbury to Oxford as four of our younger brethren did last summer] Usually both start and arrival are joyful whereas the stint in the middle can be the most taxing.  It may feel like being ‘under the scourge’, when besides the inevitable fatigue pilgrims are suffering from the heat, or non-stop rain, from blisters and other physical ailments, or from tiresome companions with strange habits!  This drawn out middle bit, seems toughest when realizing that one cannot go back and that the goal is still far distant.  It is well described in diverse pilgrims’ stories, cf. Jerome Bertram[1] in Walking with God in which this dire middle section entitled ‘under the scourge’ is examined spiritually.  

A real pilgrimage is often likened to our journey through life - in concentrated form as it were- with its ultimate goal of the heavenly Jerusalem.  Medieval pilgrims would go on pilgrimage with definite intentions: essentially to reflect on their past life by thanking God for good things but also looking at their failures and sins and resolving to make amends.  In other words many medieval pilgrimages were undertaken for penitential reasons, as for example Kristin does in Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.  Walking barefoot with her baby son in a bundle on her back, she walks for many miles over the mountains to reach the shrine of St Olav in Trondheim, because she wants to atone for her firstborn whom she had conceived before marriage and thereby caused great pain to her parents.

Let us leave the Middle Ages... Also in these days Christians, people of other faiths and also non believers undertake pilgrimages for diverse reasons.  However, it seems that the need for quiet, for a time away from our fast moving and often frantic environment is felt by many contemporaries. Many choose to go on foot, walking for long stretches in order to be alone and have time to reflect.  While hoping to get new perspectives on life and its goal, their thoughts may turn to their past, and then move towards the future. Of course, religious pilgrims are helped by prayer, meditation and maybe encouragement of fellow pilgrims and for Catholics to receive the sacraments.  Pilgrimages can last for months, weeks, or day(s), though very few people have the luxury to do so at length... so that a day of recollection in different surroundings can be a substitute for a pilgrimage and I wish you a fruitful one at that.   Here in the chapel we are blessed by Jesus’ presence, who is with us in Word and Sacrament, especially when we will be celebrating Mass and maybe when receiving the sacrament of Penance.  Moreover, we will have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Let us now go back to our biblical setting:  At long last our group was approaching Jerusalem when Jesus requested a donkey and St Matthew relates:

            ‘The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their             garments on them and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road,      and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  And the crowds that     went before him and that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he     who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  And when he entered          Jerusalem, all the city was stirred saying “Who is this?”  And the crowds said, “This is the         prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.’       [Mt 21: 6-11]

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is Messianic – like an emperor of antiquity he rides into the city with garments and branches spread out before him - and yet doing it so humbly on a donkey - the animal of the poor.  These crowds welcoming Jesus at the entrance gate into Jerusalem hailing him in the name of the Lord as their Messiah, were mostly those (or rather our) pilgrims who had come up with him from Jericho.  Having walked with Jesus they were truly inspired and touched by his teaching and therefore Pope Benedict[2] [and other scholars] suggests that these people formed a different crowd than those who shouted crucify him! a few days later. 

And yet – there is the fact of mood swings in crowds - and in ourselves - , due to disappointments after high hopes or unpredicted distressing events or mishaps.  Hence we become discouraged and lose heart. Moreover, we can be swayed by adverse criticisms and a negative climate surrounding us or just simply drift away.  Especially in good times we may be tempted by too many good things which provide immediate comfort and letting us forget the purpose of our life’s pilgrimage and leave Jesus and his teaching in the background. 

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus faced the increasing animosity of the temple authority, and of the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees: [cf. the rest of chapter 21 and chapters 22, 23, 24, and 25 in St Matthew’s gospel, also chapters 11, 12, 13 in St Mark & chapters 19, 20, 21 in St Luke]  These chapters, describing Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem before his passion contain his eschatological discourse, that is, the destruction of the temple and the end of the world. 

Although these predictions are stark and frightening, their main intention is to summon the listeners and us to be alert and watchful like conscientious stewards, cf. Mt chapter 24.  The three parables following in Chapter 25 illustrate further the state of preparedness for the judgement to come: The Ten Virgins Mt 25:1-13, The Talents, cf. Mt 25:14-30, The Last Judgement – sheep and goats. cf. Mt 25: 31-46. 

After a few days within the temple precincts and surroundings, our pilgrimage with Jesus goes on, that is, right up the Via Dolorosa walking up to Golgotha, which is also called The Sorrowful Way or Way of Suffering.  With Holy Week approaching, we will have opportunity to be with Jesus and follow him, first and foremost by participating in the solemn liturgies on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day.  Besides the liturgies, other traditional practises can be of additional help, e.g. reading the Passion, listening to Passion music, such as Bach’s St Mathew Passion, or turning to familiar prayers and devotions as for example the Stations of the Cross or meditating on the Mysteries of the Rosary.  All these can enable us penetrate ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ.

Somehow HOLY WEEK 2022 may feel different than in previous years after our having emerged from the bleak months with Covid19.  Some of you may have suffered personally and/or witnessed sickness, mental health problems and isolation in your families.  In addition, since 24 February 2022 we are affected by the war raging in Ukraine with all its cruelties – worrying and shocking, even for us as ‘distant onlookers’.  We may feel helpless in spite of our prayers, thoughts and financial support.

So there are two questions:


Here comes Jesus’ answer:  “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” [Mt 16:24, 25]

St John put it differently:

            I tell you most solemnly, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains             only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.  Anyone who loves his life loses it;        anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.” [John 12:24, 25]

By accepting Jesus’ invitation we are called to a closer relationship with him- into discipleship - and that may entail leaving our enthusiastic fellow pilgrims at the gates of Jerusalem.  We could also say that from being with Jesus up to his triumphal moment, we as disciples, are called to go further and follow him on the Via Dolorosa - this narrow path uphill to Golgotha.  Moreover, it is lined by crowds of diverse people: some curious, some indifferent, others openly mocking and despising but also by those who sincerely mourn like the women of Jerusalem.  As committed Christians today - we will meet contemporaries who are not unlike that ancient crowd:  which convey vibes of indifference, contempt, callousness, or direct hostility.    

Moreover, in spite of people around us the following of Christ is the lonely path of suffering and death, if not the real death but still a death to self... 

As Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” 

I’d like to illustrate what following Christ right until death meant for a Christian of  more recent times, that is, the 20th century by looking at Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis today, 9th April, 77 years ago, that is in 1945 just 4 weeks before the end of the brown terror regime of the Nazis and World War II.

You may recall this fine theologian and man of the resistance to Nazi ideology right from the beginning, that is, since Hitler came to power in 1933.   As a dedicated and fearless follower of Christ he lost his position as a professor of theology because of the Nazi interference/control in higher education.  He then, with other pastors and theologians, co-founded the “Confessing Church” of truly believing Lutheran Christians in Germany after Nazi take-over of the Official Lutheran church organised in “Landeskirchen”, i.e. regional churches with a bishop [Superintendent].  Bonhoeffer then clandestinely educated Lutheran future pastors in a secret seminary so as to prepare them for their ministry under the ever-increasing viciousness of this dictatorial regime.  Not surprisingly, the seminary was closed by the authorities after about two and a half years.   One of the fruits of his teaching and formation work of future pastors in and for times of persecution, was Bonhoeffer’s book entitled “Nachfolge” which literally means ‘Following after’.  The English title is “The Cost of Discipleship” which most poignantly explores what is demanded of Christians in an increasingly secular and hostile world.  I think that it is an up to date message for every serious Christian also in our society.  In a chapter entitled Discipleship and the Cross Bonhoeffer says:


“Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God.  Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection.  But each has a different share: some God deemsworthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above whatthey are able to bear.  But it is the same cross in every case.....The cross is laid on every Christian.... it is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is that dying of the old man... Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with ChristWhen Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”[3]  [German:  Jeder Ruf Christi führt in den Tod]


This last sentence is quoted by Bishop G.K.A. Bell in his foreword of the English translation saying that the book shows “the cost at which discipleship, in all nations, is to be won”  


I have no time here to describe Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life in greater detail but his last stretch on his way to Calvary meant enduring imprisonment for 2 years, of which 3 months were in an inhuman prison of the secret police [Gestapo].  I would like to read his powerful poem written during this time of incarceration entitled:              


Who Am I? by Deitrich Bonhoeffer


Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cells confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a Squire from his country house.


Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As thought it were mine to command.


Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.


Am I then really that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectations of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.


Who am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?


Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine![4]


Although the end of the war was in sight, the well oiled Nazi machinery pursued Bonhoeffer to the bitter end by finally executing him in a remote camp for prominent prisoners.  Payne Best, an interned English Officer, reported that on Low Sunday in 1945, somewhere in an old school building in the Bavarian Forest, Dietrich had conceded to a plea from his fellow prisoners to hold a service and so he


            ‘…spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all’….He had hardly   finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in         civilian clothes came in and said: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with    us”.  Those words - come with us - for all prisoners had come to mean one          thing only - the scaffold.’   We bade him good-bye:

            “This is the end,” he said, “for me the beginning of life.”’ [5]


Yes, that is what we also believe:  The way of the cross leading up to Calvary is not the end - but the beginning of life.  Ultimately this brings us back to Our Lord’s own words:


            “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up      his cross and follow me.  For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but    anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” [Mt 16:24, 25]


[1]  Jerome Bertram  Walking with God, Family Publications, Oxford, 2006

[2] Joseph Ratzinger,  Benedikt XVI  Jesus of Nazareth Part II, p. 22 Herder, Freiburg,  2010

[3]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 6th enlarged edition 1958, SCM Press Ltd., London, p.79

[4] text cf. web site:

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge, Collins, London, 1953, p.11

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