So much to say about our final day in the Holy Lands. I will mainly say them through pictures . . . An early morning wake up call and a Patriarchal Liturgy for Pentecost and the Holy Sepulcher . . . Amazing! Following -- we celebrated the Kneeling Vespers and boarded our bus for Jericho. Following the cable car up the mountain, we headed to the Dead Sea for "floating" and "facials". All the young adults went swimming (or floating).
We headed back for dinner and then had a great wrap up session with our "highs and lows" of the week. Quite obviously -- it was difficult to find a "low" -- but almost everyone wanted to share more than one "high".
For me -- the high was seeing these young adults connect to their Faith . . . I was so proud of them -- their example, witness and love of God. I was touched by their humility and reverence for the holy sites we visited. They became "pilgrims" in the truest sense of the word. I know in my heart that they will bring the Spirit home with them and allow it to enter their lives.
To our tour guide -- Ra'ed -- thank you for your love for the country and most importantly your love of the Faith.
Thank you all . . . Bishop Savas, Christina, Jim, Stefanie, Eleni and George, Maria and Markella, Yvonne, Maria, Anthea, Georgia, Kleo, Cassandra, Catherina, Anna, Giselle, Simone, Anthoula, Evy, Maria, Katerina, Michael and Danielle, Alex, Paul, Ariana, Chris, Sarah, David, Yelena, Matthew, Brina, Stella, George, Leonora and Harry.
We rose early in the morning to get an early start on the touring in Jerusalem. We first went to the place where Jesus healed the paralytic in the Pool of Bethsaida. We know that a man was paralyzed for 37 years and at various times of the year, an Angel would come down and “stir up the waters.” The first person to enter the pool would receive the healing powers from above. The man had no one to bring him in the pool and Jesus offered this man of great faith, complete healing. We had the opportunity to walk in the area and to see the ancient pool with 5 porticoes.
Following, we walked through the “Lion’s Gate” into the Old City and followed the Stations of the Cross. We saw a map of the city from the time of Jesus and were able to see how it has grown – a very interesting point.
We then stopped by the Praetorian, where Jesus was held in prison prior to his crucifixion, which also contained the cells of Barabbas and the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus. The modern iconography in the Church was both stunning and unique.
We then went to the Holy Sepulcher, where had a brief tour (we will return tomorrow morning – will explain in a bit) before having a private audience with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos. As we entered the Patriarchate, we were greeted by a Nun and the Patriarchal guard, who escorted us into the Throne Room. His Beatitude came in and spent the better part of an hour with us, discussing the local church and the importance of this great city – both historically and contemporary.
His Grace offered a few words on behalf of the group and Fr. Mark introduced each pilgrim to His Beatitude. He gave us each a small gift and a blessing and invited us to participate in the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy for Pentecost the following day (Bishop Savas and Fr. Mark were invited to assist).
Following the audience we went for an authentic Middle Eastern lunch and had some time to shop in the Old City. We then headed to Bethany where we walked in the tomb of Lazarus. We got to walk in the tomb and sing the Apolytikion to St. Lazarus.
After a brief ice-cream stop, we returned to the hotel for much needed rest as we prepare to visit the Holy Sepulcher in the morning for the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy and Pentecost Vespers.
Once we arrived, we grabbed our belongings and set out for a 3 hour drive through the Egyptian desert. We stopped for a while to play in the sand . . . we collected rocks, took a group picture on a large boulder and thought about making "sand angels" but decided that may be a bit sandy.
We celebrated Vespers with Bishop Savas presiding. We had a tour of the museum with beautiful icons and rare texts, spent time with Fr. Pavlos, and had the opportunity to see the burning bush. We returned to our hotel to get some rest for the early departure the next day.
An interesting note that this monastery is the smallest Autocephalous Church in the world. Archbishop Damianos, who was sick in the hospital and is the Abbot, made sure that we were all taken care of.
Our morning started out with a short drive from our Hotel to the Garden of Gethsemane. A well kept beautiful garden filled with ancient trees and blossoming flowers surrounded the Franciscan Church. This church was erected over the earlier Byzantine Church which was destroyed by the Persians in 614. To the right of the Church you can see the ruins of the Byzantine Church. Ra'ed and Bishop Savas spent some time prior to entering the Church talking about Jesus' time spent in the garden.
Directly opposite in the distance to the Church of Gesthemane was the Dome of the Rock. This is a major Islamic shrine which is built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Following the Church of Gethsemane, we visited the tomb of the Virgin Mary. This was quite spectacular as it was our first time that we witnessed the various Orthodox faiths co-existing in one area. As we walked down the stars into the Crypt -- we were able to venerate the tombs of the Virgin's parents, Ss. Joachim and Anna. As we descended further down, we began to hear an Syrian Liturgy taking place. Directly to the right was the Greek Liturgy which took place inside the tomb of the Virgin. A few steps away from here, we heard the Coptic's celebrating their Liturgy. This was a unique experience in that all of these services were happening within steps of each other at the same time. It is quite obvious that they have learned to block out any other noise besides their own prayer. . . a true spiritual discipline. The picture below is a Greek Orthodox priest celebrating the Divine Liturgy inside the Virgin's tomb. It was noted that only the Greek Orthodox have liturgical rights inside the tomb.
We then approached a panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. His Grace continued with the Psalms of Ascent and we were able to take in the beauty of this ancient and historical city. We even walked by a man who was offering rides on a camel (of course for a "small fee my friend").
Last Thursday the Orthodox Church throughout the world celebrated the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our group traveled to the actual site where the Ascension took place (now enclosed by a Mosque tower). Tradition tells us that it was here where Christ left His Disciples and those on the earth for the Father. You could view and touch the place where Jesus' feet imprinted in the earth.
We then departed for a delicious traditional lunch at a Palestinian Orthodox family's restaurant, called "Ruth's Field". We ate, and ate and ate. And ate the best falafel in the entire universe!!! Really . . . they were amazing!
We then visited the Monastery of the Cross . . . a Byzantine monastery located outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Its name is based on the tradition that it stands where the tree grew that was used to make Christ's cross.
We then departed for the highlight of the day . . . the Church of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we entered the Church, we were greeted by two Monks who lead Bishop Savas and I into the Holy Altar to venerate the Gospel book and Altar table.
To the left we were able to venerate the Manger before moving into the outer sanctuary where we saw beautiful Mosaic original floors from the time of the Emperor Constantine from the 4th Century.
After some shopping, we traveled to the Wailing Wall. Coincidentally today was a major Jewish feast called Shavuot, which takes place 50 days after Passover. This is the commemoration of Moses delivering the Law at Mt. Sinai -- and is actually considered the birthday of ancient Israel. The Wall was packed with thousands and thousands of Jewish pilgrims coming to observe the holiday.
Following the visit to the Wall we returned to hotel for dinner and a presentation from the IOCC Office Staff in Jerusalem. Greg Manzuk and Dr. George spent a few hours with us enlightening us on the amazing work and ministry of IOCC in this region.
We will not blog tomorrow as we are traveling (by bus) to St. Catherine's in Mount Sinai. We will catch up on Friday.
Following Cana we drove to Nazareth, the birthplace of the Theotokos. There were two churches which we visited, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation and the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. Some texts from the Apocryphal writings tell us that this is the site of a well where Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and gave her the "good news." The Church included 20th century frescoes, including scenes of Jesus and Mary in the area of Nazareth. Some of these icons included, Jesus as a young carpenter, Jesus being challenged by the Nazarenes and Jesus teaching in the Temple as a boy and in the Synagogue as an adult.
We strolled along the streets of Nazareth to the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, which was built over the Joachim and Anna's house. Many countries from throughout the world, dedicated icons of the Virgin Mary to the site. These included the countries of Spain, Korea, Poland, Italy and a breath taking icon of the Glykofilousa (sweet Kiss of Mary and Jesus).
This indeed expressed the universality of the Church. In the far corner of the courtyard there were two statues -- one of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and one of Pope John Paul 1 from 1964. This event signified the lifting of the anathemas first placed on the altar of St. Sophia almost 1,000 years prior and symbolized the re-opening of the dialogue between the East and the West.
Our tour guide Ra'ed and our driver Ri'ad (yes -- that is their names), treated us to an authentic, local "comfort food" called Manaish (looked like pizza but with the spices zata, sesame and olive throughout). We picnicked overlooking the Valley of Nain where we could see a 180 degree view. I could not but help notice the young adults, most specifically Georgia from Dallas, who was staring out over the beautiful landscape in deep thought. It is written in scripture that the battle of Armageddon will take place at this site.
We boarded the bus and began our ascent to Jerusalem. During this pilgrimage, His Grace has been referencing the Psalms of Ascent, which the Hebrew people would recite as they ascended to the holy city of Jerusalem. Each day we read 2 of the 15 Psalms or Songs. Upon arriving, we visted some local Christian merchants and supported them in their business. We retired to our hotel after a day of traveling from Tiberias to Jerusalem.
We enjoyed a nice meal at our hotel (Ambassador) in Jerusalem as well as the Christian fellowship.
For almost an hour, we prayed, read the appropriate scripture (ready by Eleni from Arkron) and enjoyed the historical facts from our Orthodox tour guide, Ra'id. He is a pious, God-fearing, knowledgeable Arab Orthodox who spent 25 years as a High School teacher, and decided to follow his dream of teaching others about the Faith. His knowledge of scripture is far superior than most Orthodox Christians and is able to communicate the traditions and faith on a level for all to comprehend.
After the Sea of Galilee, we traveled to the Mount of Beatitudes. This was quite a moving experience as we heard from both Bishop Savas and Ra'id. One of our young adults, George from Raleigh (originally Charlotte), read part of the sermon (Matthew 6-8). As we stood in the same area where Jesus preached this amazing sermon and as we read "a city on a hill cannot be hid", we peered out across the valley to the mountain across to a lone, small village, most likely the same "city" that Jesus was speaking about. We spent a few minutes walking around . . . I quickly found a quiet place and read the entire Sermon on the Mount . . . it has and will continue to take on new meaning.
We shortly traveled to the Church of the Seven Springs (Hepetapegon), where Jesus fed 5,000 men (not including women and children, with 5 loaves and two fish. We saw a beautiful mosaic of this on the floor of the Altar in the German Benedictine Monastery. It was noted that in the depiction, there two fish and four loaves (not five). The reason being that the 5th loaf is in the hands of the celebrant of the Eucharist.
We then traveled to Capernaum, where was the base of Jesus; ministry. We visited the Synagogue where he taught and worked miracles . . . it was noted that Synagogues (translated literally as the gathering place) were not for worship -- but rather for teaching, reading and discussing the Torah (hence the shape and design -- no need for an apse). He impressed them with the perfect knowledge of the scriptures. We walked across the way to the house of Peter's mother-in-law, who was very sick with fever. Jesus restored her fully.
A unique experience was to visit the Church of the 12 Apostles. The iconography was of recent origin and depicted many scenes of Jesus' miraculous activity in the region. A treat was going to a local restaurant to indulge in a delicious meal of St. Peter's fish . . . fish that only live in the Sea of Galilee (musht fish), and the traditional "Arak" drink (raki). It was a nice break to be in the air conditioned restaurant as the heat and humidity are "draining" (600 feet below sea level).
We took a 45 minute drive to Mount Tabor, where the Transfiguration of Christ took place. We drove up to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, where we were greeted by bells in honor of the Bishop. Some of the men (Jim, Paul, Matthew, Alex, Chris and George) decided to wear shorts -- so they humbled themselves with a sarong (borrowed from the women), so that they could enter. We took mini-buses up the mountain and it took us 10 minutes . . . to think that Jesus and His closest companions, walked up the mountain, just amazed the pilgrims.
Following the visitation to the mountain where Jesus was transfigured, we went to the river where Jesus submitted and humbled Himself to be baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. We stepped into the water up to our knees and read from scripture and chanted hymns of Epiphany, and each received a blessing in the name of the Trinity. Some of the pilgrims decided to enter the water fully (Christina, Giselle, Alex, Ivonne, Stella and Leanora). Very interesting was to see the Gospel narrative from Mark 1:9-14, in dozens of languages (some of which we never have heard) -- for example, have you ever heard of "Fang"? or "Tagalog"? It reminded us of Jesus' command in the last verses of Matthew (28:10), "Go and baptize all nations."
An interesting note from our first day -- 7 of the 12 Disciples came from this region (Galilee)-- James, John, Peter, Andrew, Nathanael (also called Bartholomew), Matthew and Philip.
This first day was not just about the history -- but more importantly, how we live this history in the Church today.
37 pilgrims, representing Orthodox faithful from throughout the country, gathered together at JFK, to begin a Young Adult Pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. His Grace Bishop Savas of Troas, the Director of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Church, Society and Culture, is the Spiritual Leader of the trip. His deep knowledge of the Faith, combined with his love for history and scripture, make him the perfect person to be guiding these young adult pilgrims in becoming closer to our Lord.
After a long, delayed trip from JFK to Tel Aviv (via Istanbul), we finally arrived safely in the Holy Lands. We waited at the airport for almost 3 hours as one of our young adults, Alex, was held up at the security due to his Lebanese background. After being grilled by security and after he answered their questions time and time over, they let him pass through. We boarded the bus and arrived at our hotel (a 2 hour drive from Tel Aviv to Tiberias), arriving after 11 pm (27 hours after we met at JFK). By the time we arrived, we were no longer strangers, but we all felt very close to each other.
Here is the tentative schedule:
PILGRIMAGE TO THE HOLY LAND & MT. SINAI
Led by His Grace Bishop Savas of Troas
May 15 – 24, 2010
May 15, Saturday: Depart Hotel
May 16, Sunday: Arrival in Jerusalem
May 17, Monday: Tiberias, Sea of Galilee, Mountain of Beatitudes (Sermon on the Mount) Capernaum, River Jordan, the Baptismal site or our Lord.
May 18, Tuesday: Church of the Holy Apostles, Drive to Cana of Galilee, Nazareth
May 19, Wednesday: Mount of Olives, Tomb of Virgin Mary, Chapel of the Ascension, Bethlehem, Monastery and Church of the Prophet Elias and the Church and Tomb of St Symeon, the Just. In addition, a visit to the Monastery of the Holy Cross.
May 20, Thursday: Drive to St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai
May 21, Friday: St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai, the burning bush, Mount SinaiMay 22, Saturday: Jerusalem, St. Stephen’s Gate, Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Church of St. Anne (birthplace of the Theotokos), pool of Bethesda, Way of the Cross, Praetorium, Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
May 23, Sunday: Pentecost Sunday, Martha and Lazarus Tomb in Bethany (Lazarus raised), Jericho, Mount of Temptation, Church of St. Elisseos and the tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus
May 24, Monday: Depart for USA