Reflection and Photos by Elizabeth Symonenko, Consistory Secretary
It’s hard to believe that today marked our fifth day in the Holy Land. Even though we were all tired, we could not wait to climb aboard our bus and head off in to the sunrise.
Today’s adventures took us down very nice neighborhoods within Jerusalem, past the Montefiore Mill and heading towards the Palestinian border. Palm trees added an air of elegance and the flowering bougainvillea made the town erupt in a riot of color.
Once we got through the checkpoint, everything changed. No longer were we driving through luxuriously kept homes, but heading down sloping and winding roads, through an arid landscape. The homes were all topped with flat roofs, as the Arab custom is to keep building new quarters atop the old, for each consecutive generation. There was the odd bougainvillea here or there, but, even it was subdued with a thick covering of dust, muting the colors. It was clear that the people living here were not as wealthy as those we’d driven by earlier that morning.
After only a few turns, through the gaps in the houses, we would catch glimpses of the wilderness opening up before us. Picture in your head how you envision St. John the Baptist preaching in the desert. Got the image? Well, you would be wrong. It is about a thousand times drier, steeper and gargantuan. In all my life I never thought I would see such expanse, which left one feeling humble and inconsequential. The sun beat down upon the desert, with little to no shade available. The cliffs rose, curved and folded in upon each other. It was truly an amazing site.
Eventually we reached a point that the bus could no longer travel the roads and hairpin turns, and we needed to get in to smaller van sized buses to take us the rest of the way to the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified, known in Arabic as Mar Saba. St. Sabbas is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley at a point halfway between the Old City of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, within the Bethlehem Governorate of the West Bank.
The traditional date for the founding of the monastery by Sabbas the Sanctified of Mutalaska, Cappadocia is the year 483 and today houses around 20 monks. It is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world, and still maintains many of its ancient traditions. One in particular is the restriction on women entering the main compound. The only building that women can enter is the Women's Tower, near the main entrance, which the saint had built for his mother, so he and she could visit. It was from this tower that she sat and watched his funeral.
The van made its way down a road with hairpin turns, slowly but surely carrying down to the monastery. Once we reached our goal and disembarked, we carefully made our way to the rocky ledge of the cliff, and peered out in to what seemed eternity. While some of us were a bit more timid, and preferred to stay back from the edge of the ledge, others ran up and down the cliff face like a herd of goats, seemingly oblivious to the dangers, for there were no rails to lean on, to guide you, or stop you from going over the edge.
Having taken in the breathtaking majesty of the Wilderness, we gingerly made our way to the monastery. As I stood there wondering how I would manage the footpath, a young Bedouin man by the name of Adam, appeared next to me. He grabbed me under the arm and in broken English told me not to worry, I would be fine, as he would guide me down safely, which is exactly what he did. Within a few minutes I found myself standing in a peaceful courtyard in front of the monastery. Doves flitted about, cooing and giving the courtyard an air of the surreal. It was as if we were no longer even on earth, and yet not in Heaven, but, just on the brink.
As His Eminence Archbishop Daniel and the men entered the monastery, the women found themselves trying to find shade from the midday sun. Some sought refuge in the shade of the olive trees in the garden, sitting on ancient stone benches, while others huddle close to the monastery wall, which cast a long shadow.
Locals were offering us tiny cups of coffee, or water, in hopes of a tip, as a monk appeared through the door. He informed us that if we were interested he would bring us out the relics of Saint Sabbas. He was true to his word as within a moment he appeared with the reliquary. Once we venerated the saint, the monk gave us a paper icon and a bit of oil, each. We then wrote out lists of people for the monks to commemorate during Liturgy. Thus we spent a pleasant hour in the shadow of the monastery.
Once the Archbishop returned, we all got back in to the van and headed to our next location. We had to hold our breath as the driver once again wound his way up the narrow road, eventually pulling us up out of the Wilderness, to once again weave through modest neighborhoods.
Our next stop was Bethlehem, and the Greek Orthodox monastery at Shepherds’’ Field, located on the West Bank. After the Wilderness, when we walked through the gates, we seemed to have been transported in to a fairytale. The white stone gleamed in the afternoon sun, as we made our way down to Old Church and Grotto. Standing in the shade, before the Grotto, Khalil our guide, explained that Christ was most likely not born on December 25th, as traditionally, the settlement was home to both farmers and shepherds. Throughout the summer months, the shepherds had their flocks up in the mountains grazing for food. Only after the harvest, which took place in late July, did the shepherds come down off the mountains to have their flocks graze on the stubble and grain left over by the harvest.
While in the fields the shepherds would overnight their flocks in local caves, which pepper the entire mountain range. This way their animals would be safe inside from wild beasts, as well as from poachers. It is in to this scene that Christ incarnated. While the shepherds were in the fields, not in the mountains.
After His Eminence read from the Gospel of Luke (2:8) recalling how the shepherds were told the good news, we went down in to the old church and Archbishop Daniel led us all in singing “Бог Предвічний Народився/God Eternal is born”. It was humbling to stand in the intimate little church, below ground, listening to our voices echo off the walls, in full realization that it is near this very point that the angels had come down from Heaven to inform the shepherds that Christ was born. Within the church, nestled against a wall, was a reliquary which contained saints, stones from Golgotha and Sinai. You could easily have just walked right past it and not realized what a treasure lay within. The old church also had remnants of ancient oil lamps, as well as antique vestments, icons and other sacred objects.
We emerged, climbing back up in to the sunshine, across the lovely and peaceful courtyard and entered the main church building. This was like walking in to Heaven, as every inch was covered with iconography depicting various saints, Church Fathers, and scenes from Christ’s life and ministry. Once again, His Eminence led us in prayers, and then we had an opportunity to walk around and admire and venerate the lovely icons.
Back on the bus, we stopped at Ruth’s Restaurant for a quick lunch, then made our way to the Kando Store, located just across a portion to the Wall for some shopping. Having purchased our souvenirs, icons, crosses and incense, we headed towards our final stop of the day – the Church of the Nativity.
The bus dropped us off at the bus station, and then we walked uphill, and uphill some more, until one left turn and the courtyard of the church loomed ahead of us. We were one of about a million tourists at this site. The line slowly made its way towards the church, which had a door that required those entering to bow down and step over a ledge to get in. The door was fashioned this way not only so that the individual entering is forced to bow, but, also to keep out the horses of invading armies.
Once inside, we stood again in a long line, slowly, inch by inch, making our way towards the birthplace of Christ. The church was being renovated, leaving the most predominant feature to be scaffolding. Nonetheless, we were able to glimpse the mosaic angels that had only recently been discovered on the walls, plus the ancient tiled mosaic floors, located below the current flooring, which was covered up so that people would not walk on “crosses” which had been utilized in the design of the mosaics.
The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena over the site that was traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus. We were once again awed to be standing and looking at the columns which had been erected by St. Helena. Therefore, even though we were hot and thirsty, the amazement of it all, kept us going. Eventually, we made our way inside the church, and were greeted by an amazing icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. In most Orthodox iconography the Theotokos, as most saints in all icons, do not portray emotion. They are neutral. However, this icon had the Mother of God smiling the sweetest smile I had ever seen. The look upon her face was complete and utter joy. You could not help yourself, and had to smile back at her.
Once we venerated her icon, we made our say down ancient steps, down in to the grotto and found before us the spot where Jesus Christ entered this world. As we made our way down the dark and steep corridor we finally emerged in to the literal light at the end of the tunnel and were pleased to see His Eminence standing next to the spot where Christ was born, the shepherd awaiting the arrival of his sheep. The location was marked with a silver star upon the floor, and people would kneel and reach out to touch it. Most of us had purchased crosses, so we had them, and those from around our necks in hand to touch the holy spot for blessing. Down another step and we were able to venerate and pray before the manger in which Christ found rest.
Having witnessed, touched and experienced the birth of Christ, we emerged back in to the courtyard to find the sun had already set, the stars were twinkling and tonight, of all nights we were to experience a Super Moon, brightest since 1948. Looking up at it, it reminded us of the Star of Bethlehem. Guided by the light of the moon, we wound our way back down to the bus station, passing by the ever popular coffee shop known as “Stars and Bucks”.
We returned to our hotel rooms tired, uplifted, humbled and overjoyed.