The Pilgrims of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA Complete Second Day of their Pilgrimage to Holy Land
Reflection and Photos by Elizabeth Symonenko, Consistory Secretary
As the sun rose over the hills of Nazareth, and the birds sang their glorious songs, the pilgrims, having had breakfast emerged rested and excited to begin the day. Our first stop was Mount Tabor. We had seen the Mountain of Transfiguration the day before, gazing upon it from Mount Precipice, however, today we would step foot on the mountain, itself.
As the bus sped us along the roads of Nazareth, we once again were witness to history. Khalil, our guide explained in great detail the history of the Holy Land, focusing on the topography and not only its impact on the immediate area, but, on world history.
Being located between three continent, Africa, Asia and Europe, the Holy Land has been the hub of activity for centuries. It was the main trade route between Egypt, Syria, Persia, Babylon and other empires. This made the land worth fighting for, for whomever owned the main trade route was guaranteed to prosper.
The Holy Land is divided into four vertical areas. The Coast (shoreline), the Coastal Plains (low lands), Central Ridge of Mountains (hill country), and the Rift Valley, which is part of the Syrian-African rift, extending from northern Syria all the way down to Ethiopia and Mozambique. It is arguably the largest hole on earth.
This topography also influenced the three major bodies of water. The Sea of Galilee (fresh water), the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is salty because all the rivers drain in to it, and yet, the Dead Sea has no exit point. As the lowest point on earth, no water flows out of it, and the salts and minerals are concentrated to such a degree that life cannot exist within its waters. This is akin to humanity, such that a person who takes and takes, but, does not give or share, is spiritually as dead as the Dead Sea.
Learning about the area made the time fly by, as the bus flew through the arid plains. Before we knew it we were pulling up at the foot of Mount Tabor. We entered a location known as Daburiyya. This was the site of the Mount Tabor battle between Barak under the leadership of the Israelite judge Deborah, and the army of Jabin commanded by Sisera, in the mid 12th century BCE. It still retains the name referencing Judge Deborah. Finally we rolled to a stop, as the remainder of the way up was too steep, and had too many sharp (and dangerous) turns for a bus to maneuver. Therefore, we found ourselves waiting for vans to take us up the remainder of the distance. While waiting we were amazed at the number of people who were traveling the Holy Land, as the little boarding area was teaming with humanity, of every color, and nationality, all brought together with a common cause.
As we entertained ourselves by taking photos of the magnificent views, shopping in the gift shop and mingling with other pilgrims. To our utter joy we were not the only Orthodox Pilgrims traveling up Mount Tabor. It was a joy to watch as various Orthodox clergy came up to His Eminence Archbishop Daniel introducing themselves, embracing and interacting with each other, as if they were long lost friends which were so happy to bump in to each other in the Holy Land. I suppose it is true, that being Orthodox, we are all truly one Body of Christ, and therefore, spying another portion of that Body makes us happy.
Having boarded, the two vans sped their way up the Z-line curves, higher and higher until we reached the top, upon which was located the Greek Orthodox Monastery St. Elias. Historically, in the days of the Second Temple (ca. 516 BCE - 70 CE), Mount Tabor was one of the mountain peaks on which it was the custom to light beacons in order to inform the northern villages of Jewish holy days and of beginnings of new months. It is appropriate that this location was also chosen as the beacon to reveal Christ’s true nature.
As we dismounted the van we found ourselves just outside the doors of the monastery’s big black doors. The monastery is not regularly open to the public, but, the nuns were expecting us. His Eminence Bishop Daniel gave a loud knock on the doors, which were embellished with the "TΦ" (Tau + Phi) symbol just above the door, meaning 'taphos' or 'Sepulchre' - the Holy Sepulcher. This is the symbol of the Greek Orthodox church. It is only with permission that we were granted access.
As we entered the monastery, we were struck with the peaceful nature which enveloped us. The sun shone brightly upon us as we ascended the steps in to the main courtyard. As Archbishop Daniel gathered us about him, he began explaining to us about the Transfiguration and its significance. As His Eminence’s voice mingled with that of the birds in the trees, other soft voices were heard from all corners, as soft, dewy eyed cats came to inspect the visitors. There soft meowing enhanced the peacefulness about us. All of nature seemed to be in rhythm and harmony reigned all about us. In to this quiet and serene environment rang Archbishop’s voice as he opened the Gospel and read from Matthew 17. “And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.” (Matthew 17:2-3)
As we listened to His Eminence’s voice echoing off the monastery walls, and in truth traveling down the mountain, we were struck with the same awe the Apostles felt when they saw Christ transfigured. It was a sobering moment, to realize you are standing on that same spot. With the words still ringing in our ears, and our hearts, we quietly shuffled forward and entered the church.
Leaving behind the serenity we found outdoors, we instead were faced with divinity. The walls of the church were covered with icons, and the gold gleamed in the sunshine, as if we too were witnessing a transfiguration. One side of the church depicted female prophetesses, and the other represented the prophets. As we gingerly entered and stood among the saints, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel donned his Epitrachelion (which signifies the lamb being carried upon its shepherd’s shoulders) and signaled for us all to join him.
Today, in the United States, we would be celebrating Veteran’s Day. His Eminence Metropolitan Antony would be praying this day with the faithful at the Metropolia’s Veteran’s Memorial, located on the grounds of the St. Andrew Memorial Church in South Bound Brook. Realizing we would be joining in prayer from half way around the world, gave us all goosebumps, as we all joined our voices to Archbishop Daniel’s as he served a short Litya. He invited us to vocally commemorate all our deceased loved ones at the point in the service where he would pause, whether they were veterans, or not. The church resonated as we all mumbled the names of our loved ones who are no longer enjoying this life with us. After singing Memory Eternal, to all the fallen military personnel and our family members, he continued to pray for those veterans who are alive today, sacrificing their very lives for their neighbors, to keep us all safe and to bring peace to the world. We finished the moving service with a round of Mnohaya Lita/Many Years. With tears in our eyes, His Eminence signaled us forward to be anointed.
Words cannot explain the overwhelming emotions that we were all experiencing – awe, grief, gratefulness, humbleness and joy, all mixed together. With emotions raw, we were reluctant to depart this little piece of Heaven which we just found, but, alas we were just starting our daily adventure. With furtive glances over our shoulders, we all climbed back in to the waiting vans, and zipped our way back down the mountain, forever changed, in a way also transfigured.
After a short bus ride we arrived in Cana, at the Orthodox Church where Christ transformed water into wine. As we once again gathered in a peaceful courtyard, His Eminence again explained a number of symbolic and significant points. We have all heard the story how the Virgin Mary asked her Son to help the wedding party, who had run out of wine, however, there may be certain nuances we hadn’t appreciated. First, Archbishop Daniel explained that in the Gospel there are only two references of Christ referring to His mother merely as “woman”, once at the Wedding in Cana when she asked him to help the distressed family, and the second time when hanging on the Cross, when he delivered care of her to His beloved Disciple John. While at first it sounds almost rude to her, it was done so, because while the Virgin Mary is mother to his human nature, He still always was divine and God. Nonetheless, He did His mother’s bidding and saved the day. It was customary to serve guests the best wine first (while they were sober), and leave the poorest wine for last (when they wouldn’t discern the difference). Christ asked for purified water which was used ritually for cleansing. This water He turned into wine, signifying that no longer will humanity be cleansed merely by water, but wine/blood.
As we entered the church we were just in time to hear the Gospel being read. Many of us don’t speak Greek, but, even if it was all Greek to us, we still understood. Language is never a barrier for the soul, and with bowed heads we took in the words.
To either side of the iconostas behind glass, were two stone “jars”. These are two remaining of the original six. They were made of stone, not clay, as clay could have leached minerals into the contents and ruined it. We all took turns to gaze upon the urns which Christ had touched, some us squeezing our fingers through the gaps in the glass to also touch them, and try to share in our history.
While some remained to pray, others retreated to the courtyard, to taste some wine made in Cana, and to purchase a few bottles to take home. As people stood in line, His Eminence did what he is best at, and continued to make friends left and right. In the courtyard other pilgrims were flocking to our shepherd, talking, taking photos. As we wondered to the giftshop, again he found himself smiling at clergy who were happy to see him. We were in a giftshop looking to buy something spiritual, and yet, it seems God has already gifted us with a great Spiritual Leader that others flock to.
Having purchased our gifts, and wine, we stopped for Falafal, and then continued along the winding alleys and streets to our next destination, the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation. The church was established at the site where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Annunciation took place. Greek Orthodox tradition holds that this event occurred while Mary was drawing water from a local spring in Nazareth, and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation was erected at that alternate site.
The current church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church. Inside, the lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed by many Christians to be the remains of the original childhood home of the Virgin Mary.
The courtyard surrounding the church was filled with icons of the Virgin gifted by various nations. Just inside the entrance, on the left, we all rejoiced at seeing our blue/yellow colors represented in the image sent from Ukraine. The basilica itself was built in the “raw” style, with little elaboration to the concrete façade both inside and out. However, the outside had the Jerusalem Cross depicted. The Cross symbolizes the four Evangelists with Christ in the middle. It also represents the four directions upon the Earth. Further, it is said to represent the original five Christian Patriarchates, with Jerusalem in the center, and Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria and Rome in the corners.
As we entered the church we were stunned at it’s cavernous interior. It was like entering in to a cave. We wound our way around until we descended to the spot behind a gate that represented the Virgin Mary’s home, where the Roman Catholics believe the angel Gabriel visited her. We gathered before the gate and together sang it “It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.”
As we left the Basilica we wound our way through the old Market place, which is a series of interconnected “roads” in the form of a spider web. One entrance leads to various streets of specialty – bridal, carpentry, etc. Thankfully we did not get lost but, found our way to the Synagogue Church, which stands next to the Synagogue where Christ preached. This is the same location to which we referred to yesterday, when the people rejected Christ and led him to the edge of Mount Precipice with the intention of throwing him off and killing him. The church upon first glance seems Orthodox, with the iconostas, etc. however, it is currently controlled by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Standing in the corner, with the light quickly dimming as the sun began to set, His Eminence once again read from the Gospel reminding us of how Christ revealed Himself, and was rejected. The waning light and gathering darkness lent more power to the words he was reading. We soberly exited the church and took a peak in to the synagogue which was filled with other pilgrims who were participating in a service, so we move on to our final destination of the day.
Once again walking through the now empty market area, we made our way gingerly up and up and up, until we once again were standing a courtyard. This time we had arrived at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation within still flowed the spring from which the Virgin was drawing water when Archangel Gabriel appeared to her. It is appropriate that she was at a spring of fresh and cleansing water when this occurred as she would give birth to the one who would cleanse all of us.
We entered the church and with a quick prayer, we descended down to the ancient portion of the church and the grotto with the spring, which was truly gushing forth. Once again His Eminence gathered us near as he read from the Gospel detailing how the Virgin was astonished by the words of the angel, and whom through her trust and love of God agreed to become the mother of Christ. It was sobering and humbling to hear those words echoing within the small area, with the a backdrop of flowing water gurgling beneath. Before leaving, we stopped to fill bottles of that same water, which the Virgin was drawing.
While we were exhausted from the day filled with so many wonders, we are also energized and are eager to see what tomorrow holds...