The group I've been touring with throughout the holy sites & Holy Land left yesterday morning, and I am sad to see them go, because we bonded as a family of pilgrims by helping & supporting one another as we shared such awesome & wonderful holy experiences at the holy places, & getting to know one another as we shared laughs & our life's journey. To my fellow pilgrims reading this, thank you for being there to share in the experience of the Holy Land, it wouldn't have been the same without you!
Since they have left, I am trying to see some of the sites that we weren't able to even in our packed itinerary, because there is just so much to see here! I hope to feel well enough (I think I'm coming down with a head cold or sinus infection) to make it to Mar Sabbas at the beginning of next week to stay for several days. I'd wanted to make it to the Feast of James the Brother of our Lord this morning in the church of St. James next to the Holy Sepulchre, but I just didn't feel well enough...I'm trying to save my energy to go to the mid-night Liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre, where I've made arrangements with the Brotherhood of the Sepulchre to be allowed to stay in after they lock up at 7pm & just dwell in this holy place & pray until the start of services...I can't wait! So, this will be the subject of this update, the Holy Sepulchre, my experiences there & photos!
I left off telling you about the morning of my arrival...well after being let into the hotel & having breakfast, I felt I had enough strength & energy (although I hadn't slept in 24 hrs) to go & venerate the Holiest place in Christendom as my first act on my pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The Holy City was just starting to stir, with people going to work or school, starting to open shops, running errands, etc. The Old City within the walls is hard to image if you haven't been here, but the best way to describe it is as a labyrinth of old intersecting streets (wide enough for carts & horses at times but very few wide enough for cars) of which many look the same! The elevation changes dramatically at times, some of the streets seem closed in from above due to awnings, and it leaves one with the sense that the whole city is a bazaar, with it's unending variety of shops & teeming life. The current old city is a city built upon a city. When Jerusalem has been destroyed many times over the centuries, most of the time the city was rebuilt ontop of the rubble, so the earlier establishments descend several levels. This also explains the dramatic elevation changes as one walks through the city, depending upon the excavations done in certain areas. Also, almost all buildings have several floors, with apartments on top of shops, etc. It is a very unique city, and it makes sense why they call the people the living stones, because most have been living there for generations and truly know the city because it is tied to their experience.
Ok, so I finally find my way to the Sepulchre that Sunday morning & am happy to find that the Greeks are celebrating Orthros (morning prayers before the Divine Liturgy or the service of Holy Communion) in the Catholicon opposite the Tomb of our Saviour, while the Copts are celebrating their services in their small chapel attached to the back of the Tomb of our Saviour. It was strange to experience this, hearing two services at once almost competing against one another, but I'd heard about it many years before coming here. It is like this almost all day in the Holy Sepulchre due to the site being shared by the Orthodox, Latins, Armenians, & Copts. They have a schedule which determines when & how they share the site which they call the Status Quo. This is usually kept respectfully, but when it hasn't, it has ended in the shoving matches & use of force that we've heard stories about in grappling over the use of the shrine. I couldn't have imagined it until I'd seen the Holy Sepulchre complex myself. One thing that shocks most visitors is what close proximity everything actually is, not only in & around Jerusalem ( e.g. Gethsemane is just down the hillside from the Mount of Olives, which is just on the other side of the hill from Bethany...Bethlehem is only 15 minutes from Jerusalem before the Wall of Shame was built, etc.) but in the Holy Sepulchre itself. But it's because it is easy to skew distances while reading the Bible especially since we are coming from a different perspective of time/distance informed by mechanized travel, whereas the authors of the Bible usually walked and rode animals at best...So, the Holy Sepulchre complex contains the Garden Tomb of our Saviour, Golgotha where the Crucifixion took place, the Annointing Stone where His Holy Body was laid for annointing for burial, the pillar He was tied to for lashing by the soldiers, the place where He was nailed to the Cross, & the place fo the finding of the Cross by St. Helen. It's amazing that all of this is so close together. Archaeology has proven that this site was outside of the city walls during the time of Christ, although today it resides within the current city walls (this is what caused the confusion for the establishment of the Lutheran shrine of the Garden Tomb close to the Mount of Olives). That's something else of note, most of the Holy Sites for the Orthodox are shared with the Armenians, Copts or Latins, but not all, some groups, especially the Protestants & Latins had "founded" their own sites either when modern scholarship/reasoning & guesswork have been used or inadequate archaeology hasn't been able to accurately determine the exact ancient location (sorry to ruffle the feathers of non-Orthodox reading this, but many recent archaeological finds have proven the oral tradition of the unbroken line of people living in the region since the time of Christ & ancient [Orthodox] Christian accounts in writing to be correct). For example, there's a place advertised as the Prison of Christ, which is at current street level...impossible, considering that street level is several meters above the ruins of the ancient city of Christ's time. The Orthodox simply say, if they don't know the exact location, that they haven't found it yet & rejoice in what we have found patiently waiting for the other sites to be revealed if it be God's will & our blessing!
As I approached the Holy Sepulchre, the walkway opens into a stone courtyard, rather large considering the confined space within the Old City. As I approached the main door (the same through with St. Mary of Egypt was mystically barred from entering), I saw the pillar from which the Holy Fire came the Pascha that the Orthodox were locked out of the Sepulchre in 1850 (a great miracle which showed the grace God grants only the Orthodox to receive the Holy Fire on Pascha or Easter, see photo...later in our trip we also visited the Patriarchal Complex which is almost a city on top of the Sepulchre Complex, where there's a chapel dedicated to Sts. Constantine & Helen, where it's been witnessed that the Holy Fire has also entered the small northern window into the Rotunda above the Tomb & lit the lamps there, & that this has occurred on other major holy days besides Pascha!). I was in awe, finally seeing what I've read about & heard about for years...the pillar still shows signs of the fire which come through in the photo. As I entered the complex, the first thing I encountered was a large stone on the floor with 8 lampadas hanging over it & large mosaic on the wall behind it depicting its story. It was the Annointing Stone that Christ's body was laid upon for preparation for burial after being taken down from the Cross! (see photo)
I was moved to tears that I couldn't stop (not like emotional tears, but spiritual, those of compunction & true awe or speechlessness)! I had this experience as I came upon almost every Holy Place within the Sepulchre complex, tears, awe, speechlessness, realizing that I was treading upon Holy Ground unworthily, but still alive & beholding the sites where our Lord worked out the salvation of the human race! From the entryway & the Annointing Stone, Golgotha is immediately to the right & up a flight of stairs above everything with the Chapel of Adam & Eve where their tombs were found directly below it; the Orthodox Catholicon sits directly behind the mosaic & Annointing stone; while the Tomb sits further to the left & forward, across from the Catholicon; the place of the nailing is on the other side of the Catholicon from the entrance to the Sepulchre complex; and behind the Catholicon's altar the passageway is lined with chapels (one including the pillar that Christ was tied to) & a stairway leading down two flights to the place of the finding of the Cross. I know this is all very hard to imagine...it would take either a floor plan or scale model to get a good picture of it or seeing it in person.
So I proceeded to climb the stairs to Golgotha and was in awe to see below the altar table under the protection of plexiglass the rock of Golgotha. They have a small disc under the altar where you can venerate & reach through a whole in the middle to touch the place of our Lord's Crucifixion. (see photo, the disc & whole are just in front of the Nymphios icon washed out by my flash under the Holy Table...unfortunately this photo doesn't show the rest of Golgothat under the plexiglass well) Fr
om this high point in the complex one can see down into the Catholicon & towards the Annointing Stone. I walked down & entered into the Adam's Chapel which is directly below Golgothat & place of the Crucifixion. One can see how the solid rock split in the earthquake during at the ninth hour during the Crucifixion, and the saving blood of our Saviour would have dripped through this crack onto the bones of our ancestors Adam & Eve, as depicted in Orthodox icons. (see both photos) After finding this truly moving set of chapels, I continued to
wander through the complex & found the small Chapel of the Crowning with Thorns which contains a pillar which is reputed to be that which Christ was bound to & scourged. From here I descended the two flights of stairs (past an Armenian chapel) into what used to be a cistern for collecting water (& is still rather humid) to the place where Helen heard the Holy Cross had been dumped & found it in her holy zeal. (see photo)
There is a small Latin alter with a statue of St. Helen holding the Cross just to the left of the place where the True Cross was found marked with a flagstone in the floor surrounded by a rail. I finally proceeded to the Tomb of our Saviour with much compuction, solemnity & contemplation & was stopped in my tracks as I beheld it in the light of the morning sun & splendor of the Liturgy being celebrated just opposite of it. (see photo of entryway)
enters the Tomb of the Resurrection, you first pass through the Angel's Chapel, which has a small remaining piece of the original stone which the Angel rolled away from the doorway of the tomb (see photo with small reliquary on pedestal containing the remains of the rock). Then you pass through another very small doorway into the tomb itself. The actual stone that our Lord was laid upon is encased in marble to protect it, over which a multitude of lampadas hang. One can open a small door behind an icon to reveal the old tomb interior itself as well (see photo). The inner chamber is very small allowing only 3-4 people to fit at a time, I couldn't even get a shot containing everything in perspective in a single photo! By this time I was so mesmerized by
everything that I'd been seeing & experiencing that I was already overwhelmed & couldn't believe that I was actually here at the tomb! I went to the Liturgy after this & just sat praying & contemplating everything. I did well for awhile, but fatigue finally caught up with me & I started to fall asleep. So I decided to leave, saturated with my experience & resolved to return as soon as I had rested!
My feeble words can't begin to capture my own experiences, much less adequately describe the sites themselves. There is so much that I've
missed, after looking over my ramblings that I recommend anyone moved to learn more to either ask questions about specific aspects or read better sources such as "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Land" by Holy Nativity Convent, (which is in fact an indispensible guide to the major Holy Site in & around Jerusalem for the Orthodox, including the specific hymns & Biblical passages for each site), or wait to hear my stories upon my return...it's the type of thing easier spoken than written, with many hand gestures to explain & convey. Before the group left we had a special Holy Fire service of our own in the Catholicon, with bundles of 33 candles like on Pascha, to the chanting of Xristos Anesti, with the Holy Light provided from the Lampada in the inner tomb which is lit annually from the Holy Fire & kept burning without interruption all year until the next Pascha. (see photo)
I will try to send out seperate updates about our subsequent days of pilgrimage, so you can get an idea of about how much one can see & accomplish in a day, if you're considering your own pilgrimage. I highly recommend it, no one should miss visiting the Holy Land at least once in one's lifetime. There's a reason this place is considered the center of the world, worth struggling for between the world's major religions, and considered Holy Land. An Elder put it this way to our group during a talk, that it is considered the Holy Land because it is drenched with the blood of martyrs, and that while Mount Athos produces Saints & Great Ascetics, the Holy Land produces martyrs. We were told that this same Elder picked up dirt & squeezed it while blood came out, showing how blood soaked & holy this place is. Please keep me in your prayers as I get over whatever this bug is...in a week to 10 days I hope to be meeting a good friend in Lebanon to see the Holy Sites there & in Syria. After that, God willing, I think I'll return to St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai to make a longer stay, visit some of the fathers there & stay for the Feast of St. Catherine. From there, we'll see what doors God opens & which are closed, but I'm considering Cyprus.
Labels: Holy Land