Reflection and Photos by Elizabeth Symonenko, Consistory Secretary
The sun struggled to make an appearance as we started our seventh day’s journey. The clouds hung heavily in the sky, belying the joys we would know before we returned to our beds for sleep. This would prove to be a long day, filled with wonder, awe and transformation for each of us.
We started the morning traveling 3 kilometers from Jerusalem, to the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, to the town of Bethany where the Christ’s good friend Lazarus lived with his two sisters Martha and Mary.
Since 2005 Bethany, in the West Bank, has been cut off from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation wall. Once inside the West Bank (Palestine) it is clear that you have entered a place of hardship and struggle. You are immediately assailed by starker landscapes, dusty hillsides, simpler structures, and people who are trying to eke out a living from what little resources are available to them.
As the bus whizzed by the countless hills and valleys, it was not unusual to see tiny “villages” nestled in the crooks of valleys, along hillsides, or perched precariously upon a cliff. Villagers were seen grazing their sheep and goats on the barren land, leaving one to wonder what the animals could find to eat, as green was not a predominant color.
Driving through the towns one was accosted with the hardships people faced, as many homes stood unfinished, dust covered everything, tiny shops struggled to survive. It is through this gloomy facade that we arrived at the Tomb of Lazarus, which also seemed melancholy, and belied the true life and glory that came from within, just as the Palestinian landscape gave little hint of the joyous, lively and hopeful people who inhabited it.
The entrance to the Tomb of Lazarus opens from the street. We entered a small door with uneven stone flooring, and descended a flight of 24 well-worn and uneven steps to a vestibule. You had to squeeze through the final opening in the rock to reach the burial chamber, which was little more than two yards long. Tradition teaches us that Jesus stood in the vestibule to call Lazarus from the grave.
While during his ministry Christ resurrected a number of individuals (the widow’s son, the Centurian’s servant, Jairus’ daughter, etc.), the raising of Lazarus was monumentally different. The other individuals where “newly” deceased, while Lazarus had passed away four days prior to Christ’s arrival, and clearly his body was decomposing as when Christ instructed them to open the tomb, Martha hesitated warning him that an unpleasant odor was already emanating from the dead body. All of this was to prove, without a doubt, that Lazarus was truly dead, not sleeping, not in a coma, etc. This event would leave no doubt in the minds of those who witnessed it, that Christ truly brought back to life a man who had been dead for four days.
We also read in John 11:35, that “Jesus wept.” God cried. With his tears he reveals his humanity and yet his divinity goes forward to bring life out of death. To stand in the tomb, where Lazarus, Christ’s friend had been buried; to stand in the place where Christ commanded life return to a dead body; to stand where God cried, caused us all to pause for a minute, and contemplate that we were not merely in an enclosed ancient structure, a historic ruin, but, that this tomb, this grave also reflected our very selves. That we often seem rigid and cold, and are in need of Christ to return the spark of life and joy to our beings. Standing in the stone crypt it was not difficult to strain your ears and imagine the words echoing off the cold dark stone, “Lazarus, arise.”
As we carefully, made our way back up in to the sunshine we entered the courtyard of the Roman Catholic Church built over the tomb and dedicated to the miracle of Lazarus. The church was purposefully created in a stark, grave like fashion. It was built in 1954 by Architect Antonio Barluzzi who contrasted the sadness of death with the joy of resurrection by designing a crypt-like, windowless church, into which light floods from the large oculus in its dome.
Our next stop was just up the road at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Lazarus. We were not certain we would gain admittance, but, having a hierarch along opens doors that would otherwise remained closed. The courtyard of the monastery was serene and peaceful, and we entered the darkened church filled with wonder. The golden iconostas glowed even in the darkened interior, and we craned our necks as we looked up and around at all the saints depicted on the walls, and realized they were all looking at us, as we at them. Having said our prayers, submitted petitions, lit candles, we emerged back outside in to a different world. The sun had finally broken through the clouds, illuminating everything around us. The bougainvillea was once again a riot of color, which spilled over everything. We felt as if we, too, had just emerged back to life from a darkened tomb.
Back in the bus we headed through the wilderness, going lower and lower until we left sea-level well behind us. We were heading down, in order to head up. We arrived at the cable car station, and clambered aboard three shiny red cable cars which took us up the mountain. We gazed in awe as the vista spread below us, homes, plantations, lakes, all shrinking into mere specks. We disembarked on the top platform, then gathering our courage and strength embarked on a rather arduous and long climb up what seemed millions of steps the monastery at the top of the Mount of Temptation. After being baptized, Christ entered the Wilderness, and after 40 days, when his body was weakened from hunger and thirst, Satan showed up to tempt him.
We were suddenly grateful for the cloud cover on this day, for the climb was not an easy one, with almost 300 steps. I did not believe I would make it. Every time I stopped to glance up at the Greek Orthodox Monastery, it seemed as if it were further each time, not closer. However, God surrounded me with angels in human form, who fluttered around me, offered their help and encouragement, carried my camera, my bag, and my soul up the mountain to the summit.
The monastery was cool and serene, and we entered the darkened church grateful to have made it all the way, and yet almost fearful, knowing that in this spot, the devil tried to fool God. Climbing a few more steps we found ourselves in a tiny space, where the actual rock upon which Christ stood was visible. His Eminence Archbishop Daniel read the Gospel and we relived the temptation of evil, and the redemptive strength of good. His Eminence brought to our attention the many trinkets (necklaces, chains, earrings, etc.) left behind by previous pilgrims, as a petition to God for healing of body and soul.
Stepping out on the terrace we could see to the ends of the earth, and could well hear the tempting words spoken to Christ. Glory to God for his example to us, and his strength to see us through our most difficult times, so we do not give in to the temptations put before us, as well.
We began our long track down the mountain, as His Eminence who had been making friends everywhere along the way, stopped midway to shake hands and share some encouragement with pilgrims on their way up. When we were on the cable car, it stopped for a few minutes, leaving us hanging precariously, swinging to and fro, as people embarked and disembarked at the top and bottom of the mountain. Even here, as our lives hung by a cable, His Eminence took the opportunity to make friends with the individuals swinging in the cars that had paused on their way up. What a great example to us all.
Having been to what seemed the top of the world, we were once again in our bus heading downward. With a quick stop at the Romanian Orthodox Church, we found ourselves standing before the sycamore tree upon which Zaccheus climbed in order to see Christ as he passed by him. By his effort to “see” Christ, he saved himself, changing from his sinful ways, righting the wrongs, and gaining salvation through a little effort. This was a great example to us all, as we too need to make an effort to “see” Christ and learn from him, changing our own ways.
Once again on the road we drove downward, through dry and arid plains, and finally arrived at the River Jordan, the baptismal site of Christ. As some of the pilgrims dressed in white robes and entered the cold and muddy waters, others timidly dipped their toes in the water. Regardless how wet anyone got, each person was greatly affected by being near the spot where the Holy Trinity was revealed to humanity. Those present as Christ walked in to the water, heard the voice of God the Father, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God the Holy Spirit was revealed in the form of a dove descending from the heavens, and God the Son stood before them.
It was with humility and joy that we each entered those same waters, not caring how muddy the water was, or how cold….but, that we were entering the waters of the Jordan, where Christ had entered and St. John the Baptist had baptized him. Emerging from the water we too felt cleansed and refreshed, energized for the events that were still ahead of us this day.
Our final stop of the day was at the lowest point on Earth – the Dead Sea. It was a touristy spot with cafes and music playing. While some of our braver pilgrims took a dip and bounced along the surface of the calm waters, others shopped at the store selling mineral baths, facemasks, lotions and potions, while others decided to simply enjoy the moment, by sitting, conversing and bonding with each other, amazed that we were currently located at the lowest point, with Jordan glimmering at us through the haze over the Dead Sea, that to the left of us were the remnants of Soddom and Gomorrah, and that all this history, past, present and future lay before us.
Filled with memories, having met challenges, we headed back to our hotels…to await the greatest moment of our journey….as we prepared for Midnight Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.