2018 Pilgrimage to DuBai, Cyprus,the Holy Land, & Greece
Days One & Two
Our pilgrimage group landed safely yesterday in Dubai, UAE. The airport was beautiful, the people were gracious and the process of getting our luggage and passing through passport control was efficient.
Dubai, one of the seven Emirates, is approximately 4,600 square kilometers. Although the region has a history spanning back to 3000BC, with fishing as a staple, much of the history begins in the 1950’s with the discovery of oil (it has the seventh largest oil reserve in the world). Since this time, the footprint of Dubai has expanded with buildings and the population has boomed. In 2020 , Dubai will welcome over 25 million visitors, which is why 105 hotels new hotels are being built, one with over 6,000 rooms.
Although we were extremely tired for our flight, the group pushed through to a small museum that shared the humble begins of the region. One of the pilgrims noted (respectfully so) that it was almost like walking through a set from Disneyland. Essentially it was staged so that were walking through sets that communicated history. A more formal museum with artifacts from the region concluded our tour.
We then advanced to the spice and jewelry district. We transferred to a water taxi that took us to and from the district. The amount of shops and people (representing some 172 cultures found in Dubai) was overwhelming as was the amount of saffron and gold! All of the people that we met or who invited us into their shops were gracious, especially to those who were older.
As was explained by our guide Allen, roughly 80% of the population are ex-patriots of other countries. Although they receive visas immediately upon arrival in the country, there are clearly established expectations of what it means to be a citizen in Dubai. Business practices are to be above reproach, crime and public disorder are not tolerated and graciousness should be a hallmark of all interactions. When this is not the case, there are extreme fines and one risks being removed from Dubai.
I neglected to mention that our first email was eventful, at least for a few of us at our table. On account of limited seating, I inquired if we could join two gentlemen sitting together. They warmly received us for which I was most thankful, partly because are conversation was fascinating. We discussed our families, our countries of origin – they were from Pakistan – and our vocations. Although they initially shared that they were both pilots who had trained extensively in the United States, they modestly shared, after learning that my father was in the navy that they were both in the military, one being a Colonel, the other being a Brigadier General! To those unfamiliar with Pakistan or her military, it is quite an achievement to advance to such rank, not to mention that with these ranks there is great respect.
Advancing to our hotel, we settled into our rooms. Our only program for the rest of the day/evening was meeting for dinner in the evening. The food was delicious and the staff was most hospitable. It was a perfect way to close our first day.
Day Three, Dubai
This morning, we met in the lobby at 8AM. Our group will travel to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation where we will be received by the local priest and His Grace Bishop Gregorios of Dubai, auxiliary hierarch of the Patriarch of Antioch. We will celebrate the Divine Liturgy today for the Feast of the Holy Martyr Sophia and her three daughters, Faith, Hope and Love. Even if we had arrived earlier yesterday (Sunday), we wouldn’t have been able to attend services because…Divine Services are not regularly prayed on Sunday! Since the work week is Sunday through Thursday with Friday and Saturday being the weekend, Divine Services are prayed on Saturday, an accommodation made for the faithful to live, physically and spiritually, in the UAE.
Since today is a work-day, our faithful will be responsible for the chanting of the service. I’m therefore most thankful that our parish practices congregational singing and that the Cathedral similarly engages the faithful in worship.
The Church of the Annunciation is one of three Greek Orthodox Christian parishes in the UAE. It was opened on 24 December 2009 and serves approximately 10,000 faithful of every nationality. The Orthodox population is rather transient since most come to the UAE for work. When they’ve made their money, most will leave to return to their countries of origin.
The parish is situated in a complex of other Christian churches, seven or so, if I am not mistaken. Few people live in proximity to the Church. In fact, the nearest parishioner is approximately 15 minutes away with the vast majority live more than 30 to 40 minutes away.
The parish does not own the land on which it was constructed. If I understood correctly, the Church is leased the land on which to build. And, build they did, similar to our building campaigns in the United States. The faithful fund the construction, the iconography, fixtures, etc. which were tasteful, warm and receiving.
His Grace Bishop Gregorios is a pious and gracious hierarch who left his home this morning at 6am in Abu Dabi to welcome us to the Church. He was a schoolmate with Fr. Damskinos, an Antiochian priest who serves the parish of the Nativity of the Theotokos, and also a friend of Fr. Dean in Maryland. His Grace has served this region as a hierarch for the past three and a half years.
After taking a photo and speaking briefly with us in Church, a basilica structure with dome, we advanced to their salon for coffee, sweets and fellowship. His Grace had a wonderful personality and appeared to truly enjoy his time with our group. He also noted that it was truly a privilege to receive a group to the Parish to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
After receiving his blessing and a few little gifts – a bookmark of St. Gregory and a trifold icon of the Mother of God, with a verse from the first chapter of Luke on the back, we boarded the bus for a tour of the city.
Dubai is a remarkable city to say the least. The skyline is filled with buildings of unique architecture. A jewel is the of course the Burj Khalifa, which is situated in the second largest mall in the world, the first being the Mall of America. At over 828 metres (2,716.5 feet) and more than 160 stories, Burj Khalifa holds the following records:
· Tallest building in the world
· Tallest free-standing structure in the world
· Highest number of stories in the world
· Highest occupied floor in the world
· Highest outdoor observation deck in the world
· Elevator with the longest travel distance in the world
· Tallest service elevator in the world
We ventured to the 124 to enjoy the view, which was breathtaking. As a talking video explains as one descends the structure, this building isn’t simply about being tall, it’s about human achievement and cooperation, building what some would consider, the impossible. And, if the view wasn’t enough, the cost of a photo taken by one of their photographers was an amazing $77. Needless to say, we took our own photos.
The mall was like the Roseville Galleria on steroids. Spanning some seven football fields of retail space, it would take approximately 3 days to visit each of the stores. Most of the stores were familiar; I suppose that were just not use to having them all in one space. As most of the stores were very high end, shopping here is left for the rich and mostly tourists from East Asia. We did our part, that is, in the food court before returning to our bus, after a brief stop to enjoy one of the prominent tanks of the Dubai Aquarium.
Dinner is at 6pm and then it’s off to pack up our things. We depart for Cyprus at 7AM for Day Three of our pilgrimage.
Day Four, Departing Dubai, Arriving in Cyprus
Our time has come to a close in Dubai. I must say that I’m sorry we weren’t able to stay a bit longer as it’s a well-defined and hospitable country to tourists. What I mean by “well defined” is that the expectations of being a resident are understood by all. Individuals are able to come to work in Dubai, visas, housing, meals, health care, and transportation as well as a modest stipend (at least by US standards) are provided by their employers. In total, it equates to much more of an income than can be realized in their countries of origin.
For individuals who do not own their businesses, but are here with visas provided by their employers, most will return to their counties of origin in their 60’s. For what I’ve learned, health care changes for those who are older, with most visas being revoked by this age. It’s no wonder that we didn’t see many older people throughout our travels. Simply, it costs too much for them to remain in Dubai.
Again, Dubai is wealthy, hospitable and tolerant society so long as citizens, ex patriots and tourists abide by the societal standards. It’s no wonder that the crime is low, and the tone of the country is rather joyful. For those who have, they will assuredly continue to have in Dubai. For those who labor, they will be provided for, in excessive of what they’d receive in their own countries. And, for those who visit, they will be received graciously, enjoying the sites, delicacies and charm of the UAE
We arrived in Cyprus after another enjoyable leg of travel on Emirates. One of the stewards noticed by kalimakfi (clerical hat) and warmly greeted me in Greek. The flight attendants in our section brought a few gifts for Constantine and Gianna; another came and took our photo with a polaroid. It will be another keepsake from our time together on pilgrimage.
For those of us who traveled to Cyprus a few years ago, upon arriving in Larnaca, we were greeted with the familiar words…”Welcome dear friends.” Our tour guide was George, while our driver would again be Tykes. George is an extremely knowledgeable guide and Tykes a most competent driver who assisted us in 2016. It was good to be back in their care for our brief stay in Cyprus.
Before I begin detailing our day, a few words about the history of Christianity in Cyprus. The Apostle Paul and the Apostle Barnabas, counted amongst the 70 Apostles, are credited with bringing Christianity to Cyprus. The first country in the world to be governed by a Christian ruler, Cypriots also had as their first bishop, Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead by Jesus after four days in the tomb. As is known from John’s Gospel: “the chief priests took counsel that they might put to death Lazarus also, because by reason of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus”(12:10, 11). In turn, Lazarus fled Jerusalem and traveled to the island of Cyprus, where he lived out his years, being elevated to the Office of Bishop of Kition in 46 A.D. His tomb is located a few miles away from the Larnaca Airport.
The Christian Church of Cyprus is the oldest Autocephalous Church in Christendom recognized by the Council of Ephesus (431), and reaffirmed by the Council of Trullo (692). The Church of Cyprus has thrived with the establishment of countless monasteries, cathedrals and parishes. Countless holy men and women have spiritually matured on this island, impacting Christendom through their martyrdoms, writings, presence at various councils, their founding of monastic communities and preservation of Christian history. In the days ahead, we will venerate many of these blessed Cypriot saints who remain witnesses of the Grace that has characterized and sustained the faithful since the onset of Christianity.
Our first stop was the eleventh century Church of Panayia Angeloktisti. The name translates to roughly “the all holy, built by angels”. The church was erected over the ruins of an early Christian basilica in Kition. The original apse has survived together with one of the finest pieces of Byzantine art from the Justinian period, a rare 6th century mosaic of the Virgin and Child between two archangels. What’s fascinating about this icon is that the Mary is referred to as “Saint Mary” rather than “Theotokos” which suggests that this Church might have once had more of a Monophysite leaning, theologically speaking. At the least, it remains a testament to the evolution of mariology (teachings about Mary) which is significant to all Christians since it directly impacts and informs our Christology (teachings about Christ).
Our second stop was the Church commemorating and also possess the Holy Relics of Lazarus, the Friend of Christ, four Days in the Tomb and the First Bishop of Cyprus. It remains one of my favorite churches that I’ve had the privilege of visiting during my travels abroad. There is a certain intrigue, but also a calm found within the walls for me. I assume it also because the Holy Lazarus remains one of fascinating persons in Biblical and early Christian history.
Situated in the center of Larnaca, this magnificent early 10thcentury stone church is one of the most important surviving Byzantine monuments in Cyprus. Byzantine Emperor Leo VI built it in exchange for transfer of the Saint’s relics to Constantinople. The church lays over the tomb of Saint Lazarus, the resurrected friend of Jesus Christ who came to ancient Kition in 33 AD. He was the first bishop of Cyprus and remains its patron saint.
George provided an insightful explanation of the Church – the architecture, the use of space, the icons… I was able to discuss some of the blessings of St. Lazarus and note the change in the reliquary prior to us offering a short prayer through the singing of his apolytikion. We then venerated his Holy Relics and proceeded to the church crypt.
Here, we were able to view the tomb of Lazarus as well as several other marble sarcophagi. It’s a small space, but a blessed space as we consider not only the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, but also his episcopacy and ministry, as well as his repose in Christ, in which he too shares in yet anticipates the Second Coming. Thanks be to God for this beautiful Church, the presence of the crypt and most notably the presence this friend of the Incarnate God.
Our next stop was the historic Fumagusta in what is now the occupied area of the island. In July of 1974, Cyprus was invaded and occupied by Turkey. It remains the last divided island nation with over 40,000 Turkish troops.
George spoke candidly yet with great grace detailing the history of Cyprus and the movement toward unification. It remains a hope and a sincere prayer of all of the Cypriot people that the island be unified. Although we passed through the British checkpoint, George wisely noted that the only borders of the Republic of Cyprus are the coastlines, which are meant for Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Reaching the checkpoint, our passports were collected and an escort joined us for our brief visit. On account of time, we only visited the Monastery of the Holy Apostle Barnabas. George though provided a detailed history of this region.
A city on the east coast of Cyprus, Famagusta is remembered as the most active harbor during the medieval period. Its’ name derives from either the Italian meaning the famous coasts or from one of the kings. The city is also known for the Venetian walls built during the sixteenth century. And, until the year 1571, the Christians lived in the old part of the city within the walls. Following the Ottoman Empire, Christians relocated outside of the city walls.
We learn of the Holy Apostle Barnabas, a levite from Salamis, Cyprus, in the Book of Acts. He was a co-traveler with St. Paul in his first missionary journey and is credited with founding the Church of Cyprus. Martyred by the Jews by stoning, his Holy Relics were collected by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark. In the fourth century, the Archbishop of Cyprus, Anthemios, had a vision in which he learned where the Holy Relics of St. Barnabas would be found.
The Holy Monastery of St. Barnabas, once a thriving monastery, is now a poorly kept museum. The “icon room” is actually the church sanctuary constructed in the 18thcentury and refurbished in the early 1900’s. Walking out of the narthex of the church, we found ourselves in a courtyard formed by the monastic cells. Off to the side of the Church was a remaining grave of the Nun Efpraxia who reposed in 1947, for whom we offered a quiet memorial prayer. May God grant her rest.
We advanced from the monastic complex to a small byzantine cross-in-dome church, built over a crypt which houses the Holy Relics of St. Barnabas. Sadly, a liturgy is only prayed once a year on his feast, June 11. We offered a short prayer, chanting both of his festal apolytikia. May he continue to intercede on behalf of all those who honor his holy memory!
Day Five, Cyprus
Today, we will travel to Nicosia, which is the last divided capital in the world. We will also spend time at the Monastery of Machairotissa and visit the museum.
Our departure time each day is at 8:30, which means that most of us gather for breakfast at approximately 7:30. Members of the wait staff are familiar from 2016. They are truly gracious, joyful and pious men and women. What a blessing it is for us to greet one another in the morning, to share our schedule and to learn of their enthusiasm for our program, to learn of their live and families and to also share our gratitude for their kindness. Father Dean shared icons with a handful of them, for which they could not be more thankful.
At the very heart of Christianity is expressing the love of Christ, which isn’t simply a talking point or abstract idea. I believe it was Francis of Assisi who once taught, “Go forth preaching and when you have to, use words.” What this ought to mean to all of us – clergy and laity alike – is that we carry ourselves with grace, joy, humility and love. Each and every individual that we encounter then, whether they realize it or not, is in fact a child of God, created in His likeness and image. I imagine that this is one of the reasons why some clergy find ways of regularly engaging the greater community, that is, the world outside of our parishes or cathedrals; we are able to express the love that is maintained in its purity in the Divine Liturgy, in ministry and/or in simple acts of kindness (i.e. offering an icon, a blessing or a kind word). Dare I say that when we forget to live with such joy and clarity we cease being Orthodox. Maybe this is a little strong, but if we are Orthodox Christians we don’t pick and choose what we like about Creation or others, we affirm the goodness and also gently attempt to bring healing to that which is ailing. Little by little and with an abundance of Grace!
Back to our trip…
The history of Cyprus spans some 10,000 years. At about 4,000 BC copper was discovered (the very name “Cyprus” is a derivative of “copper”). On account of its strategic nature, situated between three continents, it has been occupied by 17 nations. Each occupying people has left an indelible mark on this land. A trivial fact is that the oldest tree is a pistachio tree (1,500 years old).
This morning, our group the Monastery of Panagia, located near the village of Lazania, Situated at an altitude of about a half a mile up on the slopes of Mount Kionia in a picturesque valley of the Machairas Mountains, the monastery houses the miraculous icon of Panagia of Machairas. Tradition maintains that it was here that an icon written by St. Luke was revealed to two monks. Needing to cut away the undergrowth in the cave to reach the icon, a knife, a machairi, was given to them by a divine hand. The icon of Christ and the Mother of God was therefore called Machairotissa, and later also the monastery.
Obtaining financial support from the Emperor of Constantinople in the eleventh century, two later fathers constructed a small chapel. The space was enlarged a few centuries later, although a fire in the sixteenth century would destroy the church, all but the beautiful icon of Christ and the Theotokos. Rebuilt a little over a century later, it contains icons that span the ensuing centuries, including work that was completed in 1993.
The three-nave church of the monastery was built between 1892 and 1900. Georgios Kyriakou made its wood-carved iconostasis between 1919 and 1921 from the village of Chrysida. The bell tower is approximately 65 feet high and dates to 1900.
We enjoyed the hospitality of the fathers, specifically Fr. Iosif. He spent some time with us in the Church, sharing the history of the brotherhood, monasticism and of the sanctuary. He then invited us to the ahondariki or place of hospitality, for Greek coffee, water and a pastry. He presented all of us with beautiful books on the monastery. When he noted that he wanted to give Gianna a little gift for her birthday in October, Fr. Dean and I tried to persuade him to gift her in industrial Greek coffee maker. Although we were saddened that this was not her gift, Gianna was thrilled to receive a coloring book of saints and also a beautiful bracelet.
Our next stop was the Holy Monastery of the Hierarch Heracleos. Saint Heracleos was the second Archbishop of Cyprus, the first being the Holy Apostle Barnabas. It is said that he provided hospitality to the Holy Apostle Paul and his disciples. He is credited with helping establish the Christian Church of Cyprus, much through his love, graciousness and hospitality.
The monastery was founded in the fourth century. In fact, there are still remnants in the floor of the original sanctuary, making it the oldest kyriakon in Cyprus! There are icons of various periods with the Holy Relics of the Holy Heracleos found in a side chapel to the right. The Church was built over the spot were his relics were found.
Forty sisters are currently attached to the monastery. The Abyss Prodrome is young and gracious. She spent some time speaking with us, sharing the spiritual relationship of the spiritual father, Bishop Athanasios, who is also a spiritual son of Elder Joseph the Hesycast of blessed memory. She kindly sent a gift to Gerontissa (abyss) Marakella of the Life-Giving Spring Convent since they are then spiritually related through the Elder; it’s a small Orthodox Christian world.
Gerontissa also enjoyed her time with Gianna. She offered Gianna a chocolate sweet. To her surprise though, Gianna isn’t a fan of chocolate (this was a first for her), she instead offered Gianna cookies, which she very much appreciated. Gerontissa also invited Gianna to come and stay with the sisters, especially since Gianna wants to have a bakery, similar to the sisters, when she’s older. God-willing, she’ll be able to again enjoy their hospitality. At the least, we’ll be able to keep one another in prayer.
Our last stop for the day is the Archdiocese of Cyprus, which is a metochion (dependency) of Kykkos, located in the capital city of Nicosia. It is in relative proximity to the Green Zone, which one is able to pass through from the Republic of Cyprus to the occupied region. Here, we will visit both the Cathedral and museum.
The Archdiocesan Cathedral is a small, but a beautiful sanctuary (there is talk of constructing a much more grand cathedral for the Church since it is so small, but there is indeed something awesome about this sacred space). The frescoes and fixtures are equally magnificent, some of which we discussed with great detail. Although photos were not allowed for the masses, Christos, the caretaker of the Church, allowed Fr. Dean and I as clergy to snap a few photos (I suppose this is one of the perks while on pilgrimage)!
Day Six, Cyprus
Our morning started with a brief walk on the coast of Limassol. It was a casual and enjoyable stroll along the beach that ended, for many of us, in a gift shop. The owner and keeper of the store, Andreas, shared a bit about his history, which included a brief telling about his boat “Eleni”, that he named after his grandmother. Tragically, with the occupation of part of the island, he lost his family home. He proudly, yet humbly displaces a map with a circle around his family home, also noting how many years it’s been since it was occupied. Andreas offered each of us an icon of his home church as we departed his home.
Shortly thereafter, we traveled to the premises of Dr. Thoukis Georgiou, PhD, who is the Officer of Agriculture A, Section of Viticulture-Oenology, of the Department of Agriculture, Cyprus. Dr. Georgiou is also the Deputy Head of the National delegation of Cyprus at the OIV, a member of the National delegation of Cyprus at the EU institutions for wine, the President of the Wine Experts Committee of Cyprus, a member of the Union of Oenologists of France (U.OE.F), a member of the Union of Qualified Oenologists of Cyprus (E.P.O.K), and a member of the Pancyprian Association of Agronomists. Most importantly, Dr. Georgiou is a devout Orthodox Christian.
I was introduced to Dr. Georgiou in 2007 through his cousin, a childhood friend of mine from the Annunciation Parish in Modesto. In 2008, after several conversations with Dr. Deborah Golino, the Director of Department of Plant Services at the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Georgiou on behalf of the Department of Agriculture of Cyprus, cuttings of the Xynisteri and the Marvon grapes were sent to the United States for our Parish vineyard. After being examined, propagated, quarantined for two years, and cataloged, these vines were delivered to and planted on our grounds by Mike Dindio and his crew of volunteers with counsel from Dr. Richard Hoenisch, of the National Plant Diagnostic Network, the WPDN Training and Education Coordinatorof the Department of Plant Pathology, UC Davis. And when our vines were planted, these mavron and xynesteri varietals were the first to be found in the United States!
The governmental facility includes a vineyard for experimenting with various rootstock on Cypriot varietals, offices, a laboratory, a warehouse with all the necessary equipment for making wine, a tasting room, and even a distillery for making a Cypriot grappa. Upon our arrival, Dr. Geourgiou led us to a section outside of some of the offices where a table was set up with a censor, candles, icons, a bowl of water and basil for the Blessing of the Water. Father Dean led us in prayer and then processed throughout the facility, springing holy water as we chanted the apolytikion of the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. May God continue to keep in His care Dr. Thoukis, his co-workers, and their families, granting them every blessing and good gift from above.
After a sip of Commanderia, Dr. Thoukis answered our questions about his work and winemaking in Cyprus. Both Emil and Anthony were able to ask him some questions about the cultivation of our grapes as well as the winemaking process. We again exchanged well wishes, while also expressing our profound gratitude for their hospitality.
We departed for the ancient site of Curium. Considered one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the island, Curium was an important city kingdom where excavations continue to reveal impressive new treasures. Noted particularly for its magnificent Greco - Roman theatre, it is also home to stately villas with exquisite mosaic floors and an early Christian Basilica among other treasures.
The House of Eustolios, which we were able to visit, is a complex of baths and a number of rooms with superb 5th century A.D. mosaic floors. It was once a private Roman villa before it became a public recreation center during the early Christian period. What a blessing it was to view and photograph these early Christian mosaic floors. Oh, and it was also the perfect spot for us to take a few group photos!
We then stopped at a restaurant with a scenic view of Aphrodite’s rock for lunch. The fresh fish, calamari, octopus, and shrimp were very good. It was a nice break before we visit the Holy Monastery of the Holy Neophytos just outside Paphos, near Tala village.
Saint Neophytos founded the monastery in 1159 and died there in 1219, at the age of 85. In order for one to access the Enkleistra (an enclosure carved out of the mountain by the hermit, Saint Neophytos), one much climb a flight of stairs. Although the hermitage is small, it’s a beautiful chapel dedicated to the Feast of the Holy Cross. The frescoes, his rock-table and the stone platform on which he slept are still preserved in his cell, as is his grave) date from the 12thto the 14thcenturies and are of exceptional quality.
The main church of the monastery was built around 200 years after his death and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Immediately to the left as one enters the Church are many of the holy relics of St. Neophytos. His skull is in a reliquary to the left of the Holy Altar. The colors of the ancillary iconography, that is, the flowers, vines and decorations around the icons, were light, and in some cases almost pastels; they were beautifully drawn and colored.
Next to the parking lot of the monastery was a tasteful café. The proprietor, Savas, was a pious man, who is a son of a priest, Fr. Christodoulos, of blessed memory. One couldn’t help but notice the beautiful fresco icons that were found right above his kitchen. He shared that when he took over the business that space was for the menu. Since his café is situated on monastery grounds, he thought it better to honor Panayia, St. Neophytos, St. Christodoulos, and St. Savas, his namesake.
Since we had several hours before our departure for the Holy Land – our flight wasn’t until 1am – we were able to make one last stop. This historical site in Paphos, specifically lower Paphos, which is in proximity to the harbor, is the pillar of St. Paul. It is believed to be the place where the Holy Apostle Paul was flogged 39 times by the pagans.
In addition to the pillar, the floor plans of both a fourth and sixth century basilica are visible. Many of the floor mosaics remain intact and are easily seen from the walkways above the site that lead to the Church of St. Kyriaki, constructed at the end of the fifteenth century. Today, the Orthodox Christian Bishop of Paphos has allowed the Church to be used by the Roman Catholic community of Paphos with services prayed in English, Latin and Polish every Sunday, with services for Catholics from the Philippines and Srilanka being celebrated once a month.
For the sake of brevity and since it’s 5:03am, we arrived safely in Tel Aviv and have transferred to our hotel. May our time in the Holy City be blessed and unto the spiritual edification of us all!
Day 7, Jerusalem
Today is our first day in Jerusalem. We arrived into Tel Aviv very early in the morning, meeting Olga our guide and Omar, our driver both of whom were familiar to and friends of Fr. Dean. Our drive to the hotel was about an hour on account of having to pass through a checkpoint coming into the Holy City. We arrived at our hotel and went to our rooms to settle in for the next several days.
On account of the late hour that we arrived, most of our group participated in a short tour, that is, everybody except for Constantine, Gianna, and me, visiting the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Martyred Deacon Stephen, and the Church built upon the tomb of the Virgin Mary. Our entire group, regardless of our particular itinerary, will meet for dinner, rest and then travel to the Holy Sepulcher for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Sunday services are prayed from the Tomb of Christ in the evening (or early morning) as opposed at what is considered a traditional time for us.
An overview of the Holy City and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and considered to be the Holiest city in the world by the three great monotheistic religions. Situated on the top of the Judean mountains, approximately 700-800 meters above sea level, the oldest part of the city was settled 4,000 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times and destroyed twice. It spans an area of 125 kilometers and is home to nearly one million people. The Old City of Jerusalem is a walled section within the greater city of today, each wall of the inner city being about 3,000 feet long.
For roughly the first thousand years of her history, all Christians of Jerusalem were under the spiritual care of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Christian Church of Jerusalem, established in Christ, not as a “new” church, but instead as the fulfillment of the faith given to us by God through the Law and the Prophets, had as her first bishop, the Holy Apostle James. Since this time, there has been an unbroken Apostolic Succession, which is not simply the ordination of hierarchs in a lasting order, but also the preservation of the fullness and correctness of the Faith, of the See (meaning the region of which the overseer, that is, the bishop, sees) here in Jerusalem.
In a divided Christianity, which is not what God intended, the Greek Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Armenian Orthodox Christians jointly administer many of the Holy Sites. Having said this though, all of the sites were once in the care of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Today, most all of the sites continue to be under the spiritual direction of the Patriarchate, with the Patriarchal flag (which bears lettering denoting the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher) flying prominently above the site, even though there may be a Roman Catholic and or Armenian presence. It is then our Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Jerusalem that continues to offer hospitality to Christians of every denomination and from every historical or new land, giving them an opportunity visit and pray within our holy sites. This remains a testament to the love, graciousness and hope of our Orthodox Christian faith, which continuously prays for the unity of all.
It’s worth mentioning that each and every center of Christendom had within its title the term “Greek”. This title does not refer to an ethnicity of a people, but properly refers to the language and culture of the Church, for it was within a Hellenized world that the Lord was born, crucified and resurrected. It was also from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament that He taught, and from this Greek text that they Evangelists would also expound on the truths of the Faith. Historically then, it would be the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, of Antioch, of Antioch, of Constantinople, of Moscow…
Today, a term that is sometimes used instead of “Greek” within this region is “Rum”. Rûm, also transliterated as Roum or Rhum (in Koine Greek Ῥωμαῖοι, Rhomaioi, meaning "Romans") is a generic term used in different ways by the Ottomans. A common usage though was as a means to describe those who were Byzantine-Greeks, that is “Greek” Christians in Byzantium. So, as we walk through the Holy City, we may see the term “Rum” preceding “Orthodox” as was done in Dubai, which is under the spiritual care of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.
Back to our tour…
The first stop today was the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Ascension Father Achilaos, the Abbot of the Monastery explained to us the Feast of the Ascension, the layout of the monastery grounds, and the history of the church, including it’s demolition due to a disagreement with the Israeli government. When the local bishop came to stop the bulldozers, he was unable to do so. When the bulldozers began the demolition though, an icon of Christ fell out of the church and lay between the two bulldozers which communicated that they should stop, which they did.
Upon the Mount of Olives is situated an octagonal Orthodox Christian shrine marking the spot at which it is believed that Jesus Ascended to the right hand of the Father on the fortieth day following His Holy Resurrection. Holy tradition maintains that when the Lord ascended into the Heavens, he left beheld two footprints in solid rock, one remains while the other was taken to Constantinople in the early centuries.
A rotunda Church was first constructed in the fourth century. The Spanish nun Egeria writes of the Mount of Olives and the services that were celebrated there. A prominent Church was later built in the 7thcentury, which was destroyed by the Persians. The re-built chapel of the 12thcentury was briefly turned into a mosque, but as a sign of goodwill, it remained a church for Christian pilgrims. The quadrant in which the chapel is situated is Muslim.
Before stopping at the Holy Monastery of the Proto Martyr and Deacon Stephen, the group toured the holy city. Olga highlighted many of the sites that we’d visit in the days ahead as we overlooked the Kedron Valley. It is believed that when Christ again comes in glory, all of the nations of the earth will pass before Him in the Valley. The group was humbled to reflect upon the Last Judgment and also the burial practices of Christians in Jerusalem.
The Holy Monastery of the Proto Martyr and Deacon Stephen marks the location where Stephen was martyred. Situated in front of the Garden of Gethsemane, under the Lions’ Gate is a chapel that preserves the rock floor on which Stephen’s body lay after being stoned, his garments being placed at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. We read of his appointment as one of the seven deacons (they were all Hellenized Jew as their names suggest) and then his martyrdom in the Book of Acts. Crusaders in the 12th century destroyed the Byzantine Church constructed in the fifth; the church that stands today was dedicated in 1900 by the Patriarchate.
Our time would conclude at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, which is located at the north side of the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane, which means “olive press” in Hebrew is located near the foot of the Mount of Olives and across from the brook of Kedron. It is named in the New Testament as the place where Jesus went with his disciples topray the night before he was delivered up to be crucified. The garden is approximately 1,200 square meters in area. Oil is still pressed from the fruit of eight ancient and gnarled olive trees in the garden.
According to the Holy Christian tradition, at the time of her repose, the Mother of God was buried in the north side of the Garden. The Festal hymns and iconography of her Dormition, (August 15) teach us that although the Holy Apostles placed her body in a tomb, her body was in fact taken up into heaven. Although not a dogma of the faith it is incredibly logical that she who was prefigured as the burning bush unconsumed by fire, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies in which God dwelt in the Temple…could not, even in death, be desecrated. Rather, her body was taken into the loving embrace of her son and our God. The historical work, “Euthymiaca historia “, describes the moment when the Byzantine Emperor Marcian (450 -457) and his wife Pulheria asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), for the relics of the Theotokos. The Patriarch Juvenal answered, ” three days after sleep, the body of the Holy Virgin was raised up to heaven, and the Tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane bares only her Veil”, which was later then taken to the Church of Blachernae in Constantinople.
The first church constructed on this site is attributed to St. Helen, the Mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century. In the 5thcentury a magnificent Church was built over the tomb. Tragically, like many of the sites in the Holy Land, it was destroyed in the 7thcentury with only the crypt of the church being preserved. As a means of preserving the site and the crypt, the Crusaders erected the existing structure.
As one processes down the steps, the tombs of Joachim and Anna are found on the right, while the tomb of Joseph the Betrothed is found on the left. Archaeologists in 1972 confirmed that this site was part of a Christian cemetery dating from the first century and that its original structure with three rooms corresponds to the technique used during that period. Some have suggested that this was in fact a family burial plot; hence the presence of the tombs and what would have been the Holy Relics of her parents and her betrothed
A Holy Altar from which our divine services are prayed is found immediately at the aedicule, which is built over her tomb. A miracle-working icon of Christ and the Mother of God is found behind the Altar as well. Countless vigil lamps hang, marking and illuminating this sacred space.
At the close of the tour, our group returned back to the hotel to rest in preparation for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Sepulcher. We will be departing from our hotel at 11PM to arrive shortly before the midnight hour. Father Constantine and I have received the blessing of the Patriarch to celebrate the Divine Liturgy this evening/morning.
Day 7 concludes and Day 8 begins in the Holy Sepulcher
On account of the hour, I’ll limit my account and thoughts.
We just returned to our hotel after the celebration of Divine Services in the Holy Sepulcher. It was indeed a truly blessed evening/morning for all of us to receive the Holy Eucharist, consecrated by the Holy Spirit in the tomb from which our Lord conquered death by His Glorious Resurrection. Thanks be to God for the Holy Patriarchate of Jerusalem that has not only preserved the Tomb, but also affords us through hospitality the opportunity to gather around, if not to pray inside this holiest of places in all the world. It is a divine gift of our Orthodox Christian faith, a gift that distinguishes us in Christendom.
Services began with the Midnight Office at midnight. This service was followed by the celebration of Orthros, which was followed by the Divine Liturgy. Thousands of Orthodox Christian faithful, and approximately 20 clergy gathered from each and every corner of the world to offer thanksgiving to God from the Holy Tomb with Metropolitan Hesychios serving as the chief celebrant.
The first two services are celebrated in the church opposite the Holy Sepulcher, while the Divine Liturgy is celebrated from the Tomb of Christ; we transitioned to the Tomb just prior to the chanting of the Doxology. The clergy took their place in a fashion to a hierarchical liturgy back home, the differences being – the bishop is seated facing the Tomb, the Tomb itself serves as the Sanctuary or Holy of Holies, the clergy who are in the Tomb for the Liturgy do not face the east wall of the Tomb, but rather face toward the congregation. There were other subtle differences in the liturgics, but the rubrics were most appropriate since it’s the Tomb of Christ!
The Metropolitan and the members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher were gracious beyond belief. Fr. Dean served as the second priest, while I served a little further down in line, but we were two of the nine clergy (one bishop, two deacons, and six priests) who remained in the Tomb throughout the service.
It was difficult to stay focused in the services on account of being in the Sepulcher. Whatever one sees, touches, or even hears in the Church is ancient. Everything has its’ place and its living tradition within the sacred space. I couldn’t help but think what a privilege it was to be in the church, let alone celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
When it came time for the faithful to receive the Holy Eucharist, Archimandrite Nicholas, one of the fathers of the Brotherhood who was serving, directed Fr. Dean and I to take a chalice to communion our faithful. It was such an emotional moment for all of us – offering and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ to pilgrims (a distinguishing title for all who receive the Eucharist in the Sepulcher as “Christ is Risen” was chanted in the background was simply overwhelming not to mention the thousands that gathered with us – approaching the Life-Giving Chalice with “faith, hope and love.”
At the conclusion of services, we thank His Eminence and the brothers for the blessing of serving. We departed the Church, some stopping to again venerate the slab on which the Lord was placed when he was taken down from the Cross, and walked toward the bus. We lamented that there wasn’t a Greek diner open at this hour for us to enjoy breakfast, but our next meal and time for fellowship is but hours away as we continued day nine of our pilgrimage.
Day 8, Jerusalem, continued
Our first stop as we processed through the Old City was the house of Ss. Joachim and Anna. A small church sits atop the original house, where the Virgin Mary was born. Traversing several steep steps down, one is able to spend a few moments in what was the house, which is now more of a cave, of the “Ancestors of God”, whose feast was but a few weeks ago, on the Old Calendar, this past Saturday. Much of what we know about the Theotokos as well as Ss. Joachim and Anna is taken from the first century document, the Protoevangelion of James, which is not a canonical text of the Church, but one that has been used frequently by the Church throughout the centuries. We chanted the apolytikia of the both the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos and also the hymn of Ss. Joachim and Anna.
The site is a reminder to us of how the city has literally grown up over the centuries, meaning, that layers upon layers of earth have built up the city. As Olga reminded us, when digging in Jerusalem, “new” artifacts are those 400 years or less. And, it’s always a matter of digging down and through layers, prioritizing what is important to archeologists, ecclesiastical authorities, and the Israel Department of Antiquities.
Our next stop was the Pool of Bethesda. We know from Scripture that the Pools of Bethesda were intended to be the place where the sheep and lambs used for sacrifice at the Temple were washed and then taken to the Temple. This is also the place whereChrist healed the man crippled for 38 years. When Jesus saw the man He asked him, "Do you wish to be made whole?" The man replied, "Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool." Once a year an angel of the Lord would descend and move the waters, the first one to enter would be healed. This man had no one but had never lost his hope that perhaps one day he might be made well. Jesus responded to him, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." The beauty of this message is that no matter how lonely one may feel, Jesus never abandons us!
While the group was above the Pools, I entered the Church of St. Anne, a Roman Catholic parish, which is about 1,000 years old. It is one of the few churches in the city that was not destroyed by the Arabs; they turned it into a school for some time. The priest, Fr. Peter, who is part of a missionary brotherhood called “the white fathers”, that labors in Africa and also in the Holy Land promoting Christian unity was assigned to the parish in 2011. We chatted about our respective parishes and our common matron saint. He asked me to sing the Apolytikion of St. Anna, which I gladly did. Even my voice echoed through the church and didn’t sound too bad on account of the excellent acoustics.
Leaving the Church grounds, we proceeded to the Via Dolorosa. This road traces the path that Jesus was forced to walk on Great and Holy Friday, when he went from His trial before Pilate in the Antonia Fortress to His crucifixion on Golgotha, that is the place of the Skull. The Via Dolorosa then commemorates the Lord’s indescribable love for mankind [which] required that He be arrested, mocked, beaten, ridiculed and crucified (John 3:16).
Many a group will carry a large crucifix as a means of commemorating the Stations of the Cross, which is a practice of Latin Christians. The walk begins at a Catholic Church where a prominent model of the Old City is displayed on the wall. Here, Olga was able to provide us an overview of the Via Dolorosa, including the history of the Passion. It was an excellent account with reference from Scripture. Again, this is why we have churches in various locations; early Christians in the Holy City as well as pilgrims from near and far processed from place to place that were significant in and to a life in Christ. These stops were means for them and for us to bring ourselves into the Scripture, commemorating not simply His Passion, but His glorious Resurrection, His Ascension, the Feast of Pentecost, His Nativity, His Baptism…
Our next stop was the place where Jesus was imprisoned after being taken from the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, but before going to Pontius Pilate (Matt. 26:57-27:1). We were able to descend into the prison cell where our Lord was held by placing his legs through two holes in a slab, at the base of which, His feet were shackled. The icon above this artifact is that of the Extreme Humility, but unlike the icon we bring out for veneration in most of our churches, it displaces the means by which the Lord was shackled. Further below his cell are other cells that are believed to have held Barabbas and the two thieves crucified with Jesus.
After lunch, we continued our walk through the Old City on the Via Dolorosa. We passed by a framed stone in the wall, believed to have been a stone on which Jesus rested on His Procession to Golgotha. At the time that our Lord processed though, the stone would have been several meters down below the current street, again since the City has built up over the centuries. We passed the play where Symeon of Cyrene took up Jesus' Cross, and carried it for Him as well as the place where it is believed that St. Veronica who, according to Church tradition, was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying His Cross to Golgotha and gave Him her veil that He might wipe His forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to His face, and then handed it back to her with the image of His face miraculously impressed upon it; this piece of cloth became known as the Veil of Veronica.
We arrived within the courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site in all Christendom. There was a throng of people - pilgrims, tourists and the curious alike - coming and going from the Church that houses the site where our Lord was crucified, the Sacred Tomb in which the precious Body of our Lord was buried and from where he rose from the dead and also the place where St. Helen, the mother of St. Constantine the Great, found the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of our Savior.
Following the Resurrection of Christ, the emperor Hadrian (beginning of the second century) covered these Holy sites with a pagan temple. In 326 AD at the temple was torn down and a Christian Church was erected by the emperor Constantine I at the direction of his mother. This church was destroyed by Persians in 614, restored, destroyed by Muslims in 1009 and partially rebuilt. Crusaders completed the reconstruction in 1149; the church is essentially the same from this period.
On the north side of the courtyard are two main doors; the left door is the "Holy Entrance", which leads into the church, and the right entrance has been permanently blocked. The Holy Entrance is the main door into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There is a tiny secondary door built into this main door; a Muslim family, established in 1520 AD by the Sultan Suleiman, keeps the keys for the door. A ritual ceremony has been handed down, involving the opening and closing of the church every day since then.
On either side of the doors of this “Holy Entrance” are three marble columns. In 1549, at the request of the Armenian patriarch, Sultan Murat forbid Patriarch Sofronios IV to go into the church to celebrate the ceremony of the Resurrection. The clergy and faithful had no choice but to gather in the courtyard, outside the main doors to celebrate the ceremony of the Resurrection, praying and chanting. To the great surprise and embarrassment of the Armenian patriarch, he was unable to receive the Holy Light from the Tomb. Rather, the Holy Light cracked and came forth through the marble column lighting the candles of Patriarch Sofronios. On account of this incident the sultan issued a decree that recognized the authority of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Immediately upon entering the church on the floor lies the Stone of the Anointing or Unction. According to tradition, this is the spot where Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared the body of Christ for burial, after He was removed from the Cross. Christ's body was anointed with myrrh and aloes and wrapped in a clean linen cloth for the burial according to the Jewish tradition of those days. The slab is made from limestone marble and dates to 1808, replacing the previous 12th century slab when it was destroyed. Over the marble slab hang large opulent lamps that have been donated by the Armenians, Greeks, Copts, and Latins. On the wall behind the stone is a large mosaic depicting the anointing of Christ for burial.
Immediately to the right is a flight of steps leading up to Golgotha. It was here that our Lord was crucified and died upon the Cross. Here the faithful are able to enter a chapel commemorating the Crucifixion and pray at the base in which the Holy Cross was placed.
Descending the steps on the other side, we entered the chapel located directly beneath Golgotha. This is one of my favorite spaces within the Church. Church tradition teaches that this was the place where Adam had been buried. When the Lord died upon the Cross, the earth quaked and the blood of the Lord, the new Adam, washed the bones of the first Adam. This is beautifully illustrated in many an icon of the Crucifixion; sadly though, even though it is expressed in our hymns and in the iconographic tradition of the Church, we often neglect to realize that the Place of the Skull, i.e. Golgotha, was actually the “place” of Adam’s skull.
Departing this chapel and walking to the right is another chapel commemorating the flogging of our Lord. Incased under the Altar Table is a portion of the column (about 3 feet high) on which our Lord was tied while He was being whipped. Another portion of this same column is kept in the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George in Constantinople.
Walking but a short distance, we descended several steps through a chapel dedicated to St. Helen to the place where she found the Life-Giving Cross of our Lord. After researching the history of Jerusalem and the events of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, St. Helen was lead to a site that was covered by a pagan temple. In proximity, she found growing a unique plant, later called basil. Instructing her workmen to dig in this area, through layers of garbage that had been put in the cave to hide the Cross of the Lord, they found three crosses and the plaque that stated "Jesus Christ King of the Jews." Unfortunately, the plaque was no longer attached to the Cross. At that time, a funeral procession was passing. St. Helen suggested that the dead person be brought to her so that the man could be placed on each of the crosses to discern which in fact was the Cross of the Lord. When placed on the third Cross, the dead man came back to life, hence, the Cross became know as Life-Giving.
On account of time and out of respect of spending a few more moments by the Tomb, some of our pilgrims visited or walked by the Chapel of St. Longinus (dedicated to Longinus the Centurion, a Roman soldier who served in Judea under the command of the governor, and headed the group of soldiers escorting Christ to Golgotha); the prison of Christ, where he was temporarily held; a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, Equal to the Apostles and; an unfinished area in which other tombs were hewn out of the rock.
In the center of the Rotunda is the chapel called the Aedicule, which contains the Holy Sepulcher itself. The Aedicule has two rooms, the first holding the Angel's Stone, which is believed to be a piece of the large stone that sealed the tomb. When the midnight Liturgy is celebrated a larger table is put on top of the rock and it becomes the Holy Altar Table.
The second chamber is where our Lord was laid when entombed after His crucifixion. Crouching into the cave, a slab is to the right with a vigil lamp burning in proximity. There is also a magnificent icon of the Mother of God, found straight ahead that powerfully expresses her agony at seeing her son laid in the Tomb.
In 2016, the Aedicule was restored. National Geographic documented the project, which confirmed that the mortar found herein was from the fourth century! When the slab (placed at some point between 1300-1555) that we kneel before and venerate was removed, to the surprise of archeologists, another slab was revealed, the mortar that held this broken slab in place was also from the fourth century!
Father Chrysanthos who stands watch over the Tomb by day and assists with services from the Tomb at night is a kind and gracious man. When he saw Fr. Dean and I walking by the Tomb, he called us over to again venerate the Tomb. We quickly passed into the Tomb, through the first chamber and then into the second to venerate the Holy Slab once more. The feeling is overwhelming and indescribable. To kneel and pray in this holiest of holy spots is a blessing beyond measure.
Upon exiting the Tomb, we both thanked Father Chrysanthos. I returned a few moments later to ask him to commemorate names for some of our pilgrims. He gladly took these names and then took me to a side room to present us Holy Oil from the Vigil Lamp in the second chamber (the Oil will be offered to each of our pilgrims and it will be used for the anointing of our faithful upon our return. He also gave Fr. Dean and I candles for our churches that passed the Holy Light and wax that was used to seal the Tomb in the Paschal Vigil (the fragrance of myrrh on the cotton was overwhelming). What graciousness that not only gladdened our hearts, but it will also gladden the hearts of the faithful in Baltimore, Roseville, and Mobile.
We gathered outside the Holy Sepulcher before returning to the bus. Although it had been a long day, it was an extremely good day. The steps we’ve taken as pilgrims, young and older alike, were defining. May our Lord, who is risen from the dead, grant all of us on this blessed Pascha, for every Sunday is a Pascha, every good gift from above and unto salvation.
Day 9, the Judean Desert, Palestine and Bethlehem
The Monastery of Mar Saba the Sanctified, situated in the Judean dessert was founded in the late fifth century. It is one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the world that has left indelible mark on the Christendom. The monastery preserves a great collection of Holy Relics, including the Holy Relics of Mar Sabbas as well as the Holy Relics of St. John of Damascus.
This Holy Monastery contributed to the development of the liturgy and also the ordering of the liturgical life of monasteries of the Byzantine world (the Typikon is a foundational document that regulates the life of the monastery). In fact, the typikon is the standard form of services in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches; when it spread to Constantinople, it was brought into a relationship with the Typikon of Studion Monastery.
Arriving at the Holy Monastery, the men processed down many steps to a chapel where St. Sabbas the Sanctified was buried. It’s a small rotunda chapel which is decorated with the life of the saint. An icon of the saint is found on the top of his grave.
We advanced to the main church which houses the Holy Relics of St. Sabbas. I was unaware that his relics were transferred from Rome back to the monastery in the 1962, an effort coordinated by Fr. Seraphim of blessed memory who was then the abbot of the Monastery. Next to his relics was an icon of Christ and the Mother of God with three hands. This icon reminds us of a miracle that took place with St. John of Damascus, a defender of icons and monastic of this brotherhood, whose hand was cut off as a punishment for being accused of stealing. When he prayed to the Mother of God, his hand was restored.
After a few moments on a balcony looking out over the gulf and cliffs where St. Sabbas lived in a cave, we went to the Chapel of St. Nicholas that houses relics of the fathers martyred during the Persians invasions in the 7th century. This chapel, like the other edifices of the monastery is candlelit, there is no electricity or running water anywhere on the grounds. The water source for the monastery is a miraculous spring that flows through the monastery; a bottle of water and
We offered one of the fathers a box of incense from one of our monasteries in the United States with a small icon of the Theotokos of Hawaii as we departed. As we exited the monastery grounds, we venerated Holy Relics that were brought forth for women pilgrims, who either remained outside of the monastery gate or who had hiked to the Women’s Tower, as opposed to the Justinian Tower, since they are unable to enter the Monastery. We received our icons and also holy oil from the brothers and departed. We will enjoy a further blessing when we drink a little holy water with a piece of palm at our next meal.
Returning to the Monastery of St. Theodosius, we entered the large, protective gates. Sadly, the environment around this community can be hostile. The 90-year-old priest who serves the community mentioned shared some of the trials, including that he stopped counting at 1,000 times when the electricity and water had been turned off to the community. The grounds are beautifully kept and the Church as well as the cave in which the Holy Relics of St. Theodosius are restored with beautiful iconography and artifacts.
We spent some time speaking with the abbot who shared the remarkable and also tragic history of the community. He also presented Holy Relics of the martyrs killed by the Persian in the seventh century. May they ever intercede for us! Even though the monastery has been fully renovated and can accommodate fifty fathers, sadly, there are only two sisters who assist him with hospitality. Besides hoping that the monastery will be filled with fathers, he also hopes to identify someone to replace him when he is longer able to serve.
Our next stop was lunch! We went to a tent restaurant for a traditional Palestinian lunch which was probably one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip, at least by my estimations. Fresh pita bread and eight or so dips with a salad were delicious. They then brought us an extremely large skillet with barbecued chicken, lamb and beef kabob, barbecued tomatoes and potatoes. The meal concluded with a piece of baklava and Arabic coffee.
As we were departing the restaurant, I was approached by an Ethiopian nun who spoke beautiful English. She asked a blessing and if it was okay for a photo with her mother. When I called over Fr. Dean to join us, he greeted her mother with respectfully with “Yasou Mama” as he gave her a hug. Well, to our common surprise, Mama responded in Greek as did her daughter. It turns out that the nun, Demetra, with her mother and brother lived in Athens for 20 years as she went through school. We laughed and spoke for some time. When Omar our driver came to get us, we said our farewells; Fr. Dean also asked his forgiveness, but we were with some extended family. It couldn’t have been more of a truthful statement; we have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.
After a brief stop at a store for a little shopping, we went to the Monastery of the Shepherd’s Field. Approximately 5 miles to the east of Bethlehem in the village of Beit Sahour, this monastery boasts olive tress dating back some 2,000 years! Additionally, there is a beautiful underground Church dedicated to Synaxis of the Mother of God (celebrated December 26th). Tradition maintains that on the night of Christ's Nativity, this underground church was the cave of the shepherds, who heard the angelic proclamation "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and good will to men" (Luke 2-14).
Archeology dates this church to the early fourth century; the cave was one of the many churches built by Saint Helen in the year 325 AD. The cave functioned first as a shelter, then as a tomb of the shepherds since the 4th century. There were two other basilicas built on this site –one dating to the 6th century and a second dating to the 7th century.
Up to 1972, only the underground church was visible and in regular use, but almost none of the mosaics were visible. In that year the spiritual father of the Monastery of Saint Sabbas, Archimandrite Seraphim had taken control of this holy shrine and helped renovate the grounds as he also did at St. Theodosius Monastery.
We then went into the Monastery Church. The Sanctuary was fully covered iconography which we discussed for some time. If I’m not mistaken, it was accomplished by two different iconographers. It’s truly a beautiful Church that also served as a bit of a respite for all of us.
Our last stop of the day Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is known as "The City of the House of David." The Church of the Nativity was originally built by the efforts of St. Constantine and His mother, St. Helen, in the 4th century. It was later rebuilt by Justinian in the 6th century. Thanks be to God, the Church was spared destruction by the Persians in the 7th century because a mosaic of the Birth of Christ depicted the Magi in Persian attire.
At the entrance of the church is a small opening. All sort of explanations have been given as to why the door is so small. The most logical and I would think accurate is that it would limit soldiers or invaders from riding horses into the church. Regardless, it’s a really small door!
The church was built in the traditional style of a basilica. Some wall and floor mosaics, preserved throughout the centuries have been uncovered in recent years. I remember reading an article some years ago that discussed the wall mosaics of the angels, depicted as if they were processing toward the cave.
Our group gathered in the right aisle to make our way down to the grotto, that is, the cave where Jesus was born, located beneath the Sanctuary. Vespers began as we were waiting, so Fr. Dean and I went onto the solea to pray the service. We were directed into the altar to reverence the Altar Table and then we worked our way out to stand next to the priest, Fr. Essa, who was chanting in Arabic, standing opposite of a priest who was chanting in Greek.
At the conclusion of service we were able to speak with Father in greater detail. It turns out that he went to the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville and now serves as the first priest of this community. In total, there are three Arab priests, two Greek Archimandrites and three Greek monks (if I remember correctly), assigned to the Church by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He’s a gracious, congenial, and dignified younger priest (at least younger than Fr. Dean and me) who either serves or assists with services every morning and every evening, in addition to his pastoral responsibilities – preaching and teaching, working with youth and young adults, visiting shut-ins, etc. Oh, and I forgot, he is there most days to welcome and or direct thousands of pilgrims as well as the curious through the Church.
Father Dean and I met our group in the grotto so that we could together venerate the spot where the Lord was born. There is a silver star under the Altar Table that marks the spot of His birth. Directly across from this spot is the site of the manger. We were able to venerate the holy site as well.
It’s interesting to note that the place of His birth is in fact a cave, not a wooden manger as is depicted in most hallmark cards and many of our Nativity sets. Our iconographic tradition as well as hymnography expresses this truth. Humanity offered Him a mother, the Magi offered their gifts, the earth offered Him a cave, the Universe a star, the animals their breath to keep Him warm and the angels their praise; all of Creation was intimately involved in the Incarnation.
As we exited the grotto, we spent a bit of time with Fr. Essa on the solea. We shared his pastoral work with the faithful of his community that he referred to as the living stones of this edifice. Again, be it a monastery or a cathedral in this region, regardless of the amount of tourists or pilgrims that visit on a daily basis, these communities also serve the local faithful. I would suggest that and we are extremely blessed to have such a dynamic priest at the helm of this most significant church in Christendom.
I would be remiss were I not to mention the Palestinian officers who worked in and around the Church. They were so respectful of the clergy and of our pilgrims. They were quick to offer their assistance and also to direct us in and out of the grotto exit when a few of our folks had missed venerating the manger. Simply, they were extremely gracious to us as pilgrims, going so far as to thank us for visiting the Church and also soliciting our prayers. Again, if there is ever going to be unity in the Christendom, if there will be peace amongst the three great monotheistic religions, it will not come through the sword; it will come through graciousness, humility and love.
As we drove back to our hotel, we were able to briefly review some early church history and also review our plans for the next day. We will again depart the hotel at 8am so that we can work our way to the Old City to visit the Patriarchate. His Beatitude will receive our group tomorrow at 11am. This visit will afford us the opportunity to receive his blessing and also to say thank you for his efforts in helping maintain these churches and monasteries for all of us. The work of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is truly sacred work for which every Orthodox Christian should be eternally grateful. May God continue to give His servants strength and an abundance of Grace as they labor in this historical vineyard!
Day 10, Jerusalem
Our morning began with a short stop at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. We descended into the Tomb, stopping at the sarcophagi of Ss. Joachim and Anna. It was a blessing for Gianna to venerate the tomb of her matron Saint.
We continued down into the church where Liturgy was being celebrated; we arrived as the priest prepared to offer the Holy Eucharist. We waited until the end of service and received our antidoron. We then passed through the tomb of Mary.
After Fr. Dean and I venerated the Tomb we went to the back to receive the blessings of one of the bishops. We also spoke with Fr. Efrosynos, the priest who was chanting Liturgy – his voice was beautiful. We wished him a blessed feast and also a “good paradise”, which is the way we greet monastics on feast days. We don’t wish them many years, but pray that God will grant them Paradise upon their repose.
We departed, traveling to the Holy Monastery of St. Symeon the Righteous; the church is built over his tomb. It’s a little bit off the trodden path, but a stop that ought be made by every Orthodox Christian. Father and I both reminisced about our first visit here and our experiences with the elderly priest who is assigned to the community. Although advanced in age and blind during Fr. Dean’s last visit, he celebrated Liturgy from memory! When it came time to read the Gospel, one of the sisters had a blessing to read it for him. At the close of services, he would ensure that all of the candles were extinguished by running his hand over the lamps and candle stands. And, even though blind, he would escort each group to the door of the monastery church to wish them well. Sadly, he has taken ill and wasn’t there today. Our prayers are with him and the sisters to assist at this holy monastery.
Saint Symeon was one of the 72 learned scribes entrusted with translating of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek (called the Septuagint). This work was directed by Ptolemy II in Alexandria, Egypt. In the holy Gospel according to St. Luke 2:25-35, we read that Symeon was promised by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. The reason for this was that during the translation work of the Old Testament, Symeon was troubled with the translation of the Prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. In that passage it was translated that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” His lack of faith caused him to have difficulty in accepting that God could overcome the order of nature and that a virgin would give birth to a child.
When the translation was completed, Symeon was returning to Jerusalem with two friends. When they reached the Red Sea he told his friends of how difficult it was to understand that passage. He then took off his ring and said: “If a virgin can conceive a child, then God will make sure that I find my ring.” And with that statement, he threw the ring into the sea. When they stopped for the evening, he sat in the restaurant and ordered fish to eat. When he opened the fish, he found his ring. From that moment, he never doubted again.
Through the Angel of the Lord, God had promised Symeon that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. Forty days after the Lord’s birth, while Symeon was in the Jerusalem Temple, the Theotokos and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to be blessed. When Symeon received the child he proclaimed: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace according to Your word for my eyes have seen Your salvation; a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) Shortly thereafter, Symeon fell asleep in the Lord.
We departed the Monastery and returned to the Old City. We would be received by the Patriarch of Jerusalem at 11AM. On account of us being early, we had a chance to stop and enjoy a fresh juice in a local café.
We walked up a side street to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Patriarchate was filled with many pilgrims from several countries that would be received by the Patriarchate. When one of the fathers found out that we were from America, he directed us to a receiving room where we would have an audience with the Patriarch, together with His Grace Bishop Irineh of the Serbian Diocese of the East, some of his priests and members of his community. Father Dean and Bishop Irineh are dear friends; seeing them interact was a joy for all of the pilgrims.
We all stood as His Beatitude entered the receiving room. He welcomed us to the Holy Land, discussed the responsibility of the Patriarchate, the importance of the Holy Land in a period of globalization and when individuals are questioning their identity. He suggested that the Holy City, specifically the Sepulcher, is the place where our identities becomes clear, when truth is communicated through the One Who is fully God and man, Who trampled upon death. His closing remarks were sincere as he expressed his appreciation that we would go to the effort and expense to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Bishop Irineh and Fr. Dean addressed His Beatitude, offering words of Thanksgiving for his hospitality and graciousness expressed to all pilgrims. The words of Fr. Dean were beautiful.; none of us were surprised. Knowing that His Beatitude enjoys chocolate, we brought him chocolate from all over the Unities States! He was thrilled as were his deacons.
His Beatitude then presented His Grace with a mother of pearl encolpion (the medallion the bishop wears) and Fr. Dean with mother of pearl pectoral cross as well as a book on the history of the Patriarchate (in Greek). We then took a group picture with Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, asked his blessing and continued our journey.
After lunch, some of us went back to the Holy Sepulcher to again spend a few moments inside this Holy Church. Since Vespers was being prayed in the Chapel of the Synaxis of the Archangels, Fr. Dean, Constantine and I passed through a chain that blocked off the chapel to join the fathers for service. We then greeted the fathers and then returned to the tomb.
The Protector of the Tomb, Fr. Chrysanthos saw us coming and prepared a way for our group to enter without a long wait. We entered the Tomb to again venerate the slab placed upon His life-giving bier. We blessed all of our crosses and prayer ropes.
Before leaving the Church, I had a few little gifts to offer the brotherhood, through Fr. Chrysanthos – an icon of St. John Maximovich, incense from our convent of the Life-Giving Spring, and some chocolates. He was so thankful, that he again pulled us into a side room where he offered us boxes of Athonite incense, wicks for our vigil lamps, and some books. Again, he and the fathers couldn’t be any more gracious. God-willing and upon their invitation, we’ll serve Liturgy with him tomorrow evening in the Sepulcher, commemorating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross.
Our last stop for the day was the Monastery of the Nativity of the John Baptist. It is a modest monastery served by a truly joyful and diligent priest monk. He joyfully rang the monastery bells for us, welcoming us to this blessed site. Remarkably, like so many other fathers in the region, he tends to this community by himself. He oversees projects, make renovations, tends to the grounds… Sadly, it’s also a bit off of the trodden path so he doesn’t get many visitors.
Upon entering the Church, we discussed the iconography, which was beautifully done. Fr. Dean then led us in prayer, which included the Gospel reading from Luke that tells us of the Forerunner’s Nativity. He then closed the service with a thank you to father for having us come to the Church, also reminding us all of the importance of work and simplicity for it is truly easy in our day and age to get distracted with many things, when only one thing is needful.
As we departed the monastery, father gifted us icons of Mary and Elizabeth embracing (the account found in the Gospel of Luke). It was another kind gesture to us who truly have so much!
Olga, our guide and Omar, our driver have been tremendous blessings to our group. The Old and the New City of Jerusalem are not easy to traverse nor is it easy to corral and also instruct a group of pilgrims, especially when there are in fact so many things to see. To do so with patience, while also serving as our advocates and protectors, for lack of a better word, is admirable to say the least. And, for this, we remain most grateful.
Day 11, Jericho and the Judean Desert
Our first stop of the day was the Monastery built on the Mountain of Temptation. Situated in Jericho, it is the place where the Lord retreated in the wilderness for forty days following His baptism. It was a desolate place where He was also tempted by the devil three times (this section of the Gospel of Matthew is read on the Saturday following the Feast of the Theophany on January 6.
Omar drove us into town in the Judean dessert where we then took a cable car to a place midpoint on the mountain. A few of our folks waited for us there at a café while the rest of the group walked up to the Monastery built on the slopes of the mountain, approximately 350 meters above sea level. The first monastery was built in the sixth century, although it was identified as one of the holy sites visited by St. Helen in 326.
It’s a modest community that has at least two monastics (I believe that there are three brothers who dwell here). The views are dramatic and the place most significant, but it is far from being the wilderness or quiet. Once we reached the main chapel, Fr. Dean spoke to the group about the significance of this spot. An elderly monk seated next to the candle stand anointed each of us with holy oil from the site and gave us his blessing.
Father Christos invited Fr. Dean and me into the altar where we prayed a short service, chanting the apolytikion of the Annunciation, offering a few petitions, and reading the Gospel account. When we closed our service, we thanked the fathers for their hospitality and also discussed that for so many of us who are afflicted with great temptations, including addictions, we could find great comfort and hope on this mountain and monastery. As the Lord was tempted and endured, we too in Christ can be tempted but also endure. We suggested that our pilgrims take little rocks or pebbles from this place for family and friends who might struggle with addictions. Since all can’t make the trip, I would suggest that even a stone from this spot can bring a tangible hope and comfort in the Lord who overcame not only temptation, but also death itself!
Departing the monastery, we worked our way to the Jordan River. Although not the exact location where St. John the Forerunner baptized Jesus, there is an area for Christian pilgrims to go and be blessed with water from the Jordan River. The churches and the grounds are in the care of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Within the past five years or so, Christians were permitted to make pilgrimage to this site. Prior to this, Christians were only permitted to visit on the Feast of Theophany when the Patriarch would celebrate services.
On the bus, Olga discussed the significance of the Jordan River as well as its references in the Old and New Testament. Once we arrived at the Jordan, we advanced to the water and prayed a blessing of the water. Father Dean blessed each of us as we venerated the Holy Cross.
As we concluded our prayers, I greeted a Franciscan monk, who I heard speaking English. It turns out that Fr. Jordan is assigned to the Holy Sepulcher assisting the Roman Catholic community with services and hospitality; he is also originally from Sacramento. His sisters, who we met, together with their parents, were both born in Roseville - one at the old hospital the other at the new hospital. The family now lives in Colorado. May God continue to bless their pilgrimage as well as his ministry at the Sepulcher.
Our next stop was the Monastery Church that is built upon the spot where Zachaeus, the tax collector, climbed a sycamore tree to see the Lord pass by as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Having heard that
Jesus was going to pass by, Zachaeus, since he was of short stature climbed up into a sycamore tree. As Jesus passed by, he called up to Zachaeus to quickly come down from the tree so that He might stay at his house on that day. Zachaeus immediately responded and offered hospitality to the Lord. The story continues and is recorded in Luke 19:1-10. The Holy Apostle Peter later ordained Zachaeus Bishop of Caesarea.
The holy Monastery of the Prophet Elisha houses the sycamore tree, and possibly the home of Zachaeus. The priest monk and caretaker of this monastery is Fr. Philoumenos. He was a gracious host who briefly discussed this history of the monastery, his work as the caretaker, and of course, the tree that is preserved which Zachaeus climbed. He also noted that the tree, which grows to the left of the glass case that preserves a section of the tree, was grafted from the original tree.
After a brief lunch, we advanced to the Holy Monastery of St. Gerasimos the Jordanite. Founded in the fifth century, it is believed to be built upon the place where the Holy Family - Jesus, the Theotokos, and Joseph the Betrothed - rested on their flight to Egypt. In the underground chapel is found a unique icon that depicts Mary nursing Christ; if I’m not mistaken, this is the prototype icon. Additionally there is a beautiful icon of Jesus as a boy reaching toward His blessed mother and an icon that depicts the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. The monastery was destroyed in the tenth century, but was quickly rebuilt.
Born in Lycia (Asia Minor), he left his home and went to Egypt and then Palestine, ultimately settling in the Jordan Valley. A disciple of the Holy Efthymios the Great, he is considered one of the founders of Palestinian asceticism, since he himself established a monastery in 455. The monastery became famous and many hermitages were set up in the vicinity of the monastery. One of the fathers of the monastery was our Venerable Father Zosimos who not only documented the life of our Venerable Mother, Mary of Egypt but also brought her the Holy Eucharist. On one occasion, St. Gerasimos had pulled a thorn from a lion's paw and then trained the grateful animal. St. Gerasimos fell asleep in the Lord in 475 A.D.
Situated in the middle of the Judean dessert, the monastery is peaceful. There are numerous animals found throughout the grounds – pigeons, chickens, dogs, cats, peacocks… The fathers and workers at the monastery are also most hospitable. When I was here some years ago, Fr. Demetrios, of blessed memory and I served Liturgy. When I shared the story of his passing, one of the women gave me a wooden cross fro m the Monastery to place on his grave. May his memory be eternal!
Our last stop of the day was at the Dead Sea. Besides providing an opportunity for some of our pilgrims to bathe, or more properly, float in the salty sea, it gave us an opportunity to briefly discuss the Qumran community and the Jewish sect known as the Essenes. They were a type of monastic community that were against the high priests in Jerusalem because they had not been elected properly. Consequently, they lived their lives in the desert, along the shore of the Dead Sea. It is believed that St. John the Baptist was aware of their practices and teachings.
One of their jobs was to copy the Scriptures, along with their own writings. Threatened by the Roman military forces, as a result of the Jewish uprising in 70 A.D., the Essenes buried their writings in stone jars in that caves of that area. In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy threw a stone into one of the caves. He heard the breaking of glass and went in to see what it was. Inside the cave he found the jars that contained what has become known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the greatest Biblical finds of the 20th century.
After our bathers dried off and changed, we returned to the hotel for dinner and to get our things packed up since we’re off in the early morning to Galilee. A handful of us will be attending services later this evening/morning in the Holy Sepulcher for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross (Old Calendar). Unfortunately, we will not be able to attend the service later in the morning with the Patriarch, but it will be a blessing to pray the Feast tonight.
at the Holy Sepulcher
Last evening eight of us worked our way to the Holy Sepulcher via Uber for Divine Services commemorating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross. Arriving at the Jaffa Gate, we walked through a throng of Jewish families and individuals who were returning to their homes after celebrating the Feast of Sukkot. A few young Jewish zealots thought it wise to show their disgust for us (Fr. Dean and me) by spitting on the ground next to us as we walked; by no means were they ambassadors of good will. Nonetheless, may God continue to bless them as they celebrate their feast.
The Holy Sepulcher was relatively quite at this hour (11:30pm). It was easy for us to navigate our way to our respective places in the Church. Fr. Dean and I greeted the clergy and waited for service to begin. It was a welcome break just to sit and pray, also to ponder how the service we would pray has only been celebrated at the most, 1,692 times in all of Christian history!
The service was beautiful! It began with the censing of the entire Sepulcher by two deacons as a symandron was hit, making a rhythmic sound throughout the church. We then advanced directly into Orthros, which was followed by the service unique to the Elevation of the Life-Giving Cross (which was with a piece of the Holy Cross) and then the Divine Liturgy. Service began in the katholikon as we did on Sunday morning, but rather than going to the Tomb, we climbed the steps to Golgotha to celebrate services there.
The ritual of the Exaltation of the Cross was historical, meaningful and organic. Besides the service being rooted in the early church, the event that we celebrate took place here! It was meaningful as the Cross brought salvation, a passage from death to life in Christ for all, hence the procession of the Cross around the nave and then later around the table as the Metropolitan prayed the petitions. And, it was organic; the interaction between the clergy was natural and what ensued amidst the faithful when the Bishop attempted to pass out the basil was enthusiastic chaos (that’s an entirely different conversation).
The Chapel of the Golgotha was magnificent. To stand before the place of Jesus’ crucifixion to celebrate a liturgy was again overwhelming. The vigil lamps that burned (maybe 100 or so) filling the sacred space with light, illuminating the incense as it lofted upwards toward the heavens, together with the iconography and the chanting was surreal. To receive the Eucharist was a blessing and then as a priest to offer the Eucharist to the hundreds that gathered at this early hour was humbling. Thanks be to God!
Day 12, Mount Tabor, Nazareth, and Galilee
We returned to the hotel at about 4AM. It was a long evening, but another blessed evening/morning. We’ll arise to depart for Galilee by 7:45AM. Our first stop will be the Mount Tabor! We won’t walk the 4,300 steps to the monastery, but rather travel by bus to the small village below the monastery to then be shuttled to and from this blessed community.
Mount Tabor was the site of our Lord’s glorious Transfiguration. The first church constructed on this site is dated to 326, having been constructed at the direction of St. Helen – again, she’s credited with having built over 300 churches. Although the church that stands today is not to original church, the foundation wall at the back of the altar and a few artifacts date to early in the fourth century.
The grounds, bell towers, and Sanctuary of the holy Monastery of the Transfiguration are magnificent. The priest who serves the monastic community, Fr. Ilarion, has overseen the renovation of the Church as well as the iconography found throughout. In addition to its other treasures, the tradition of the monastery is that it has the rock, or at least a piece of the rock on which the Lord was transfigured in glory.
We were again given an opportunity to have a service in which we read the Holy Scripture regarding the Transfiguration and chanted the hymns of the great feast. We also discussed the iconography of the Church and feast at length. Since we were thereat the noon hour, we were also able to experience the ringing of the bells; we couldn’t believe the sound!
Our next stop was the Monastery in Cana of Galilee, a late nineteenth century church, situated in a small village about five miles from Nazareth. The iconostasis and many church artifacts were provided by funds from the Grand Duke Sergei Romanov and his wife, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. In the church at Cana are two ancient water containers said to be from the original 6 that were at that wedding feast. As we prayed and read the Gospel pertaining to that first miracle, we prayed for the sanctity of marriage for our pilgrims and their families. We also offered our prayers for those pilgrims whose spouses haven fallen asleep in the Lord.
In Cana, Jesus attended a wedding feast with His disciples and His mother. By His presence, He showed that marriage is honorable and sacred. Holy Tradition preserves that the Apostle Simon the Zealot was the bridegroom of that wedding. Witnessing this miracle of water being turned to wine, at the intercessions of the Virgin Mary, it is said that Simon then followed the Lord. This is why the icon found above the Monastery gate, which is an expanded deisis – Jesus with the Theotokos on one side and then on the other, Simon is included as is Bartholomew, who was also of this town.
Our last stop for the day was the Greek Orthodox Christian Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The eighteenth century Church is built over spring (well) where tradition maintains the Virgin Mary had gone to draw water - the spring stills flows with water that is considered blessed. The first church at this site might have been built in the fourth century like other churches in the region. At the very least, we know that a church at this site was mentioned in the writings of Arculf, a monk from Gaul, in the seventh century
The first chapter of the Gospel of Luke details the blessed event of the Annunciation. Needless to say, it was extremely moving for us to be there since the Annunciation Church in Nazareth is the “mother” church of the Cathedral in Baltimore and well as the parish in Mobile, AL since both are dedicated to the Annunciation of the Theotokos. We prayed a short service, read from Scripture, drank Holy Water from the spring and spoke of the significance of this event and this church. We also chanted a few hymns with Nabil, the caretaker of the Church, who was a very gracious older man with a beautiful voice.
We departed from Nazareth to our hotel in proximity to the Sea of Galilee. The staff of the Scots Hotel warmly received us. To my surprise, is a guesthouse for pilgrims and visitors operated by the Church of Scotland! Founded as the first medical center of Tiberius in the 1864 by Dr. David Watt, a young Scottish Doctor, it finally closed in the 1950’s. To honor the legacy of Dr. Watt as well as his son, Dr. Herbert Torrance who also worked at the hospital until his retirement in 1953, the Church of Scotland transitioned the buildings and grounds into a guesthouse for pilgrims and visitors to the region.
In a short while, we will close our day with dinner, a walk by the sea, and or a Scottish libation to honor the heritage of our hosts. We look forward to another full day, beginning on the Sea of Galilee.
Day 13, Galilee
Departing from the Scots Hotel after a delicious breakfast, we boarded a boat to sail the Sea of Galilee, or by its others names: the Sea of Tiberias and the Lake of Genneserret. As we began our cruise, to our common surprise, the American, Greek and Romanian flags were raised. Even more surprising, they blasted the National Anthem over the loud speakers of the boat. So, we stood and sung the three anthems of our countries of origin. And, just for clarity, I don’t think this is rooted in the early Christian experience.
This fresh water Sea is shaped like a harp and is boarded by the towns that are located around the Sea of Galilee. The village of Magdala, the home of St. Mary Magdalene, the region of Zebulon and Naphtali to name a few can be seen from the Sea. It is approximately 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. For those of us from California, it’s approximately four times bigger than Folsom Lake. As Folsom is fed by the American River, if I am not mistaken, the Sea is also fed by the waters of the Upper Jordan.
It was on the Sea of Galilee that our Lord walked on the water and called His disciple Peter to “Come” and also walk on the water (See Matt. 14:22-33). As we cruised on the Sea, Fr. Dean read and discussed todays’ Gospel, which discussed the multiplication of the loaves and fish. We also chanted a few hymns familiar to the Sea.
Shortly after a bit of quiet and light conversations, the music started. We learned a traditional Jewish dance, did a few Greek island dances, and enjoyed a little music from the south, and when I say the south, I truly meant THE SOUTH. Sweet Home Alabama” played over the speakers out of our respect for Steve and Stacy who hail from the great state of Alabama (I’m guessing this was the first time Lynyrd Skynyrd was played on the Sea).
When our boat docked, we walked through the kibbutz, Nof Ginnosar. At this particular kibbutz there is a museum that houses an old wooden fishing boat. It is supposedly dated to around the time of Christ and the disciples.
We then greeted Omar and boarded our bus to travel to the site of where Jesus preached the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12; 6:7-15). As we ascended the mount, 175 meters above the Sea of Galilee, we were able to see the Roman Church built by a Franciscan monk from Italy at the first part of the last century. The grounds host s a Roman Catholic Convent.
We read from the holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapters 5:1-12 and 6:7-15. In the Beatitude we have the Lord’s teachings that act as a rudder to guide us through life. In addition to reading this Gospel in our lectionary, we also use recite the beatitudes in the 9thhour before praying Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and we chant them in Great Compline. In the Slavic tradition and in our monastic rite, the Beatitudes may be chanted as the second antiphon in the Divine Liturgy.
In the area of Tabgha, also called the place of the seven springs, we visited a Roman Church built over the ruins of a fourth and then sixth century Byzantine Church. They rebuilt the church to resemble the original Byzantine structure that was destroyed by the Persians in the 7thcentury. This church preserves mosaic floors that date back to the 4th century that depict the images of the loaves and fishes as well as of pelicans that were early Christian symbols of the Eucharistic offering.
Situated along the seashore of the Sea of Galilee, this site is where Jesus fed 5000 men, not including women and children, with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. When the people were filled, there were 12 baskets of food left over. It’s significant to note that on the Altar floor, in the midst of the mosaics, is found a large rock, considered to be the spot where the Lord preached, at least from the fourth century.
This event is considered to be a prefigurement or type of Eucharistic offering. We commemorate this event in the Church with the Service of the Blessing of the Five Loaves, prayed at either the end of Vespers following the procession of the festal icon at the chanting of the Lity or at the end of the Divine Liturgy. In the Service ask God to “…bless the wheat, the wine and the oil: as He once blessed it here.
Our next stop was the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Apostles at Capernaum. This monastic complex, dedicated to the Holy Apostles, is on the site of an earlier Byzantine monastery that was destroyed by the Persians in the 7th century. Since then, the complex has been rebuilt and destroyed numerous times. The sanctuary topped by 12 domes dates from the late 19th century. The restoration program for the church began as recently as 1975. The priest monk, Fr. Eirinarchos, who oversees the Church and has been there for 27 years mentioned that the iconography and fixtures for the church were all funded by their icon store in the narthex – it was one of the most tasteful stands we’ve seen with some of the best items for purchase!
While in the church, we prayed a short service, chanting the apolytikion of the Holy Apostles, reading from Scripture (Mark 2:1-12 since it was in this location that the paralytic was lowered through the roof of a house by his friends and healed by Jesus) and petitioning God on behalf of the faithful. Fr. Dean discussed the iconography while I discussed the altar table in particular. It was beautifully carved and with no covering. Instead, it had the epitaphio, an icon cloth that depicts our Lord being taken down from the Cross following His death on the Cross. It was elegant and much of what I’ve envisioned for our Altar Table; I find that icon so moving from Pascha until the Feast of the Ascension and have wondered if a Altar Table had been set in such a manner.
Our last stop for the day, before returning to the hotel to rest, walk, swim in the pool…was lunch in Tiberias. We enjoyed a meal of fresh fish caught from the Sea of Galilee. This fish is called "St. Peter's Fish" and it was prepared in a light batter and deep-fried. Included in the meal were all sorts of traditional salads, fresh bread, French fries, and dates for dessert.
After relaxing afternoon we gathered for our final dinner together as a group. Sadly, a few of our pilgrims have to depart in the early morning hour. The food, which was magnificent, was only surpassed by the company! With a final toast to our group and Fr. Dean, we ended our dinner, allowing folks time to walk, to visit the lounge or return back to their room to pack before our noon departure for the Monastery of St. George and then the airport as we travel to Athens for an overnight before returning to America.
Day 14, from Galilee to Athens
Today we depart from the Galilee, traveling to the Monastery of St. George and then to the airport on our way to Athens, Greece. We enjoyed our final meal at the hotel, packed up our luggage and then some of us took a way to the Sea for a final salad and drink – the restaurant is Christian owned, the gentleman that served us is Greek Catholic while his wife and children are Greek Orthodox Christian.
The Church of Saint remains a significant Christian shrine for the fourth-century martyr. St. Helen built the first Church in 325 over the tomb of St. George. Like so many other structures, it too was destroyed by the Persians, but was rebuilt by the Crusaders. The Cathedral was again destroyed again in the 13thcentury. On account of the numerous miracles attributed to St. George in the Muslim community, a large mosque was built on the site, incorporating some of the stones from the ancient churches. Today, it is the only Christian Church in Lydda.
In 1871, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem received permission from the Ottoman authorities to build a church on the site of a previous basilica. The church is built over the earlier structure, and occupies the north end of the nave and left-hand aisle of the earlier church, from which there survive two apses - which, contrary to the normal rule, face north rather than east. The Ottoman authorities stipulated, that part of the plot be made available for a mosque. Consequently the current Church of St. George incorporates only the northeast corner of the Byzantine basilica. The prayer hall of the adjacent mosque contains a column that once stood in the nave of the basilica. One tradition states that St. George was chained here by captors who tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him from his faith, another tradition says that these chains were put here as a reminder for those who are “chained” by demon possession.
The Great Martyr George was born of a father from Cappadocia and a mother from Palestine. Being a military tribune, or chiliarch (that is, a commander of a thousand troops), he was illustrious in battle and highly honored for his courage. When he learned that the Emperor Diocletian was preparing a persecution of the Christians, Saint George presented himself publicly before the Emperor and denounced him. When threats and promises could not move him from his steadfast confession, he was put to unheard-of tortures, which he endured with great bravery, overcoming them by his faith and love towards Christ.
By the wondrous signs that took place in his contest, he guided many to the knowledge of the truth, including Queen Alexandra, wife of Diocletian (who is depicted in the icon), and was finally beheaded in 296 in Nicomedia. His sacred remains were taken by his servant from Nicomedia to Palestine, to this town called Lydda, the homeland of his mother, and then were finally transferred to the church that was raised up in his name.
Upon entering the Church, we lit candles, venerated the Holy Relics of St. George and walked down to the crypt in which he was buried. The priest of the community pours oil over the sarcophagus of St. George so that the faithful may be blessed with the holy oil. I was fortunate to anoint our pilgrims as they came into the crypt, through the intercessions of St. George. We then advanced to the nave, chanted the apolytikion of the Feast, and discussed the life of this saint as well as iconography of the Church.
This was our last stop in the Holy Land before returning to the airport for our flight to Athens. We arrived late in the evening –it’s a little after 1AM – to arise early in the morning – Orthros starts at 7AM – for divine services. It’s been a truly memorable and most blessed trip.
Fr. Dean and I met in the lobby of the hotel at 7:15 to walk to the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Church of Greece. It was a short walk, but a familiar walk as both of us have spent some days in Athens in year past. Arriving at the Cathedral, we lit our candles, venerated our icons, walked into the Holy Sanctuary, venerated the Altar Table and greeted the clergy. It was a joy for both us to return to the Cathedral, especially as the restoration work that had taken place for years was finally complete.
Dedicated to the Feast of the Annunciation, the Metropolis Cathedral of Athens, situated in downtown Athens in the plaka, blocks away from Parliament, was constructed in 1862. The walls of this three isle domed basilica are made from marble from 72 demolished churches. Within the Church are the Holy Relics of Saint Philothei as well as Gregory the V, Patriarch of Constantinople both of who were martyred in the 19th century.
Rather than serve today, we simply prayed the Liturgy from the Altar. It’s rare that either of us can sit and just pray, since both of our communities are extremely busy; in all honesty though, the Cathedrals’ liturgical schedule is far busier than our schedule at our parish. The clergy three priests and the deacon who served were dignified and graceful at the Altar; the two choirs that chanted were also magnificent. Father and I both noted that there probably isn’t a more beautiful Byzantine liturgy celebrated anywhere in the world on account of the voices, the setting, and the order. This shouldn’t suggest that it’s the fullest of or most correct expression of our liturgical life, but it’s truly beautiful.
At the close of service, we thanked the clergy for their hospitality, greeted some of our fellow pilgrims and then enjoyed Athens for a few hours. Whether it was visiting with family or friends who might have come to meet us at the hotel or church, enjoying a meal at one of the local restaurants, or shopping at one of the stores, it was indeed a quick visit to Athens. Bags had to be packed and in the lobby at 12:45 for a 1PM departure
As some of our fellow pilgrims had already departed, as others were traveling through Greece or to other countries, our pilgrimage had come to a close. The blessings, the friendships, the memories, the Grace that abounded throughout our travels were gifts for all of us that could not, will not, be easily replicated. Nonetheless, we as a collective group pray that our photos as well as the writings about the holy sites we visited and our experiences shared a little bit of blessings and joys found in the Orthodox Christian Faith. Again, we have not been tourists, nor are we ever tourists when we travel to any historical See of Christianity; we are pilgrims to engage in the worship and share in the unique but also familiar life in Christ to what we treasure in Baltimore, Roseville and Mobile.
God-willing, others will have opportunities to make such a pilgrimage, with us, or with other clergy and sister parishes. We will begin reviewing our notes, solicit the counsel of our fellow pilgrims and consider other historical and or Orthodox Christian lands in which to pilgrimage. And, as we thank you for your prayers throughout our trip, be assured of our love and our prayers for each of you as well as all those who submitted names, close to 80 pages of multiple columns. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ grant each of us every blessing!