On BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme, I learned of a Passion Walk event that would take place on Good Friday. Passion Walk seeks to recreate the experience of Jesus of Nazareth’s final days in a contemporary environment, using local landmarks in place of those around Jerusalem.
Based on the success of a previous Passion Walk in Edinburgh, one was organised to take place in Belfast.
The walk commenced at Grosvernor House on Glengall Street, where those who pre-registered (and those who did not) arrived to collect site-marked maps and portable MP3 players, with individual tracks to be played at corresponding sites. (As the website offered the playlist as a download, I only needed the map.)
You’re invited to sit in the chapel hall to listen to the Reflection 1: Introduction track, to encourage you to take a moment to be still: “If you become distracted, you might find it helpful to concentrate for a moment on the rhythm of your own walking feet.”
Duly quiet in mind and body (and bundled up with a scarf and hat for this blustery morning), I set out to walk the journey of Jesus’s Passion in the streets of Belfast, busy not unlike Jerusalem at Passover.
But this being Belfast on a semi-observed holiday, the streets weren’t so busy. So I paused in front of City Hall. Strangers walking past a beggar felt poignant.
Indeed, later in the walk I witnessed an act of kindness – a woman gave a homeless man a cup of coffee and snack.
The next station was the public sculpture of Sheep on the Road (by Deborah Brown), in front of Waterfront Hall. Here I listened to Reflection 3: Gethsemane, explaining how Jesus is ready to lay down all his strength and authority: “the shepherd has become the sacrificial lamb”.
Appropriately, the Big Fish sculpture at Lagan Weir is where we listen to the perspective of Peter, the fisherman disciple struggling with his failed loyalty.
Custom House is where we learn of the complicated politics of the day that Pilate had to deal with – having to balance Roman authority with local customs. The final passage of this track is thought provoking:
“Pilate is both fascinated by Jesus and frustrated by him. This carpenter from Galilee has more strength, more integrity, more dignity, than all the political leaders he has known. How can it be that this man who has relinquished all power is the most powerful person in the room?”
After observing the elevated platform where Jesus’ fate was determined, I go back into the bowels of the city – a narrow back alley that thousands walk past daily, if we even know its existence. Here we listen to how Jesus was mocked and beaten. On the brick wall is a spray-painted acronym “KAH”. Or is it “KAT”? Whether it’s “kill all huns” or “kill all taigs”, the sectarianism in this city is the plank in our eyes.
Or as I listen to Reflection 7: Carrying the Cross:
“From the City Hall to the Falls and the Shankill,
From Helmand Province to Guantanamo Bay,
In the refugee camp and the hospital waiting room,
The job centre and the methadone clinic,
Among the fearful, the joyful and those who pay no attention,
Still, he carries his cross.”
Continuing on the path to Calvary, we hear how Jesus looks back on the city of Jerusalem with sadness. He wants to bring all under his wings with compassion and love, “but they are not willing”.
And another powerful thought, this time from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human being, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.”
The challenge is whether we have the willingness to accept compassion, to overcome unrest and division.
The walk from city centre to the end of the slipway at Titanic Building is fittingly long. The tall, rusted brown steel beams with jutting lamps now appear before me as mock crucifixes. This is the end of the line. Or is it the beginning?
The Passion Walk booklet provides a reading from Isaiah 53 (extract):
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was on him,
And by his wounds we are healed.”
I take a moment to reflect, and sea gulls fly overhead, which descend closer to the water’s surface in Belfast Harbour, scanning the sea for a catch of fish.
I reverse and listen to the story of Joseph of Arimathea, a senior council member who knew Jesus as a boy, then years later found himself witnessing Jesus’s last days. I am moved by Joseph’s words, his jealousy of Mary Magdalene, and how his washing of Jesus’s unclean wounds of his dead body serves to cleanse his own soul.
Indeed I had to stop walking for a moment, for my own body to absorb the enormity of this wisdom.
The walk concludes in the prayer garden in the Dock Café, with a suggested explanation of the conflict between the joy of Easter with the despair we can feel in our everyday lives, “with its tensions, suffering and wanton cruelty”.
One resolution is faith, to “wait for God, holding our questions, doubts, hopes in his presence”.
Though back at the crucifixion station of the walk, listeners are asked if there is one word that summarises the life of Jesus to them. My word is “justice”. Even Pilate found Jesus an honourable man. Yes, there is much injustice in the world, but for me Jesus’s life demonstrated that this will not change if we keep rejecting God in our lives.
The power of this Passion Walk was to be compelled to reflect upon this historical event in a contemporary way. While the crucifixion of Jesus was a couple thousand years’ ago, its context is not so different today.
But are we listening?