Friday, January 29, 2010

More Baby Photos

Here are some photos of the babies from the last half of January, my mom's last days with us (this time around, at least). Above, the babies are playing under the table Pelagia built out of an old barber's chair.

Phoebe showing off a new hat, made by Yiayia Sophia.

My mom holding all three of her grandchildren.

Paul's godfather Paris helped out with lunch time last Sunday after the Liturgy.

Here my mom is reading to the babies in their play area in the living room.

It's been quite cold here the last week or so. Nevertheless, we still try to go out for a short afternoon walk when at all possible. Here I am with Paul and Phoebe.

Benjamin got to ride on his mom's back this time.

It's snowed quite a few times in the last week or two, but it hasn't really amounted to much. This is about the extent of it. People still freak out about "all the snow" on the roads though. (As if we needed more chaos on the streets.)

For more photos, click here, here, here, here, and here.

I have an interesting story from today. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of it, and usually when I don't have a photo of something I don't post on the blog about it, but I thought I'd append this to all these baby photos. On Sunday, after Liturgy here in Panorama, one of the public school teachers from the elementary school asked me to come by her class and give the kids a talk about missionary work in the U.S. So I went this morning at 10:00 to Panorama's public elementary school and spoke for 40 minutes to a class of about 20 kids, who must have been about 8 years old.

First, I have to set this up, as it is quite amazing for me as an American, even after living here over 3 years. First, the class had gone to Liturgy that morning, and had just returned when I arrived. The Three Hierarchs (whose feast is celebrated Jan 30) are the patrons of education, and for this reason the tradition is for all kids to go to Liturgy on their feast. Since this year it falls on a Saturday, the kids went today instead.

So the teacher met me at the front of the school and we went to the classroom. On the way, I asked about the make-up of the class. She told me most of the kids were Orthodox, although one child was a Jehovah's Witness (yes, unfortunately, they're even here) and one, the poor soul, his parents had declared him as an atheist. So, in accordance with the law (I suppose), the teacher said to him that he could go join another class, since we were going to have religious instruction. He left, but the rest stayed, including the Jehovah's Witness.

The first thing I noticed about the classroom was a big icon of Christ hanging square above the blackboard. We had a nice discussion about the U.S., the religious composition there, and how some people are finding Orthodoxy and converting to it. One little girl gave me a nice drawing of a priest performing a baptism inside a church and wrote on it that they love me and want me to come back. They then all took my blessing and I left.

Before I left, though, the teacher took a photo of all of us together for their yearbook, and it was then that I was very sorry I didn't have my camera with me. If someone wants to get me a decent cell phone with a camera on it, I could promise that I would put in service of this blog. (Hint, hint.) :)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Baby Photos!

I've gotten some nice emails from people thanking me for the photos and stories of the Jerusalem trip (thank you all for your kind words!), but I know what people really want is more baby photos. Well, don't worry, we have them, I've just been delinquent in preparing them and putting them on the blog. So, as I try to catch up, here is a post of some photos from the beginning of the month.

Above, my dad is playing one of the babies' favorite games, which involves showering them with bubbles from this bubble-making gun that we got from a street vendor in downtown Thessaloniki (which probably came by way of China). Amazingly, the bubble-making gun is still working after more than a month!

Here they are enjoying the bubbles.

Here Benjamin is helping fold some laundry.

Then Paul decided to help him.

Matching outfits.

Here the babies were playing with a lovely Christmas present from their Yiayia Sophia -- handmade personalized stockings, with their names in English on one side and Greek on the other.

Here my mom was playing with the boys. Paul was laughing out loud.

On Sunday, January 10, our good friends Kalliopi and Justin (a Greek girl and an American guy) invited us all to their house for lunch, along with their 11-month-old son Michael and Kalliopi's mom.

Here Paul was playing on Michael's rocking horse. Michael is in the foreground.

Paul's godfather, Paris, also came with us. Here he's helping Paul on the horse.

At the end, Pres. Pelagia and Benjamin performed their tricks, which Benjamin loves. They basically involve Benjamin being spun all around and, as you can see from his face here, he loves it.

For more photos, click here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Shepherds' Field

Our final destination was the church where Lia's father serves, the Monastery of the Shepherds' Field. Again, although it is technically and historically a monastery, for all intents and purposes it is now a parish church. And again, it was closed, but Lia's father managed to find someone to open it for us.

In building the new church (which you can see in the photo above), remnants of three churches from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries were found (you get the impression that that was a busy time!)

Here is the cave where the shepherds were keeping watch when they heard the angelic cry "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Lk 2:14 KJV). As a side note, this probably isn't an accurate translate of the Greek. The Greek probably means something more like "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace toward men of good will" which perhaps means something like "toward men with whom He is pleased."

The shepherds' cave and shelter later served as their tomb. Finally, as you can see in the photo above, the cave was converted into a church by St. Helena around 330 AD. The pilgrim Egeria testifies to this church in her letter from 380.

Skulls of monks from this monastery who were martyred by the Persian invaders in 614 AD.

The modern day church, built just recently and consecrated by the current patriarch, Theophilos III.

Finally, Lia took us to a nearby restaurant called The Shepherds' Tent, which is designed to look like a massive Bedouin tent. Of course, as is almost requisite it seems, we got into a big debate with the taxi driver on how much we should pay, despite having an agreement. He wanted to charge us four times what we originally agreed to. Anyway, after a lot of really unpleasant bickering, we settled the matter and went into eat something. In the photo above, you can see the sampler of traditional salads that we ordered.

After a great meal, Lia put us on the right bus back to Jerusalem. The bus stopped at the border into Israel, where we had to get off and show our passports to some bored, teenage Israeli guards with machine guns. For some reason, I was flagged and had to explain what I was doing in Israel, and then we were back on the bus and headed into Jerusalem.

To see all the photos from our fifth and last day, click here.

The next day, our flight was at 7:00 AM. Israeli security is really tight and requires you to be at Tel Aviv airport three hours before takeoff. Therefore, we had to catch a shuttle outside the walls of the Old City at 3:15 AM. We missed our narrow connection in Athens by one minute, and had to do a lot of bickering before getting on the next flight to Thessaloniki. Thank God, we arrived home safely, having had a wonderful trip. Our only regret was not having more time to make a trip up north to see Galilee, Mt. Tabor, Nazareth, and Capernaum, but I hope to do that on my next trip!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

St. George al-Khader and the Herodium

After the Church of the Nativity, Lia suggested that we take a taxi to the monastery of St. George al-Khader. It was closed, but Lia's father, who is a priest at a parish in the area, called his friend who works there and arranged for him to open the church to us. Although it is called a monastery and was historically so, it is now quite small. I'm not sure if there are any monks living there.

Here, his friend is putting the bridle of St. George's horse on me three times, which is an old tradition and blessing.

After St. George's, the taxi driver suggested that we go to Herodium. Although in the West Bank, the site is operated by Israel and Lia, despite living almost within sight of it, had never been allowed to see it. For whatever reason, though, something had recently changed to allow Palestinians to visit the site, so Lia was excited at the possibility of going there.

As a side note, although I suppose it was obvious, I was startled to realize that Lia, when she travels back and forth to Greece, is not allowed to use the nearby Tel Aviv airport because she is Palestinian. Instead, she has to make a 7-hour bus trip each way to Amman, Jordan. Palestinians' travel is further complicated by the fact that Israel closes its border crossing points on the Sabbath, so Palestinians have to make sure not to go in or out on Saturdays.

Anyway, the site is yet another fortress built atop a hill by Herod. In the photo above, you can see us walking up the stairs that wind around the hill.

A view of the surrounding countryside from the top. One thing that struck my dad and me immediately in the West Bank was the visible signs of poverty, as compared to the adjacent Israeli-controlled territory.

A view of the inside of the fortress. In the bottom left in the shade is an interesting room. It was built by Herod as a Roman-inspired triclinium, but was adapted by the Jewish rebels against Rome (ca. 70 AD) and made into a synagogue. Many think that some early Christian gatherings in the first century were held in such rooms.

As we left the Herodium, we got a slowed down a bit by a Palestinian shepherd walking his flock.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The taxi dropped us off in front of the Church of the Nativity at around 11:30 AM, and, of course, tried to argue for more money than we had originally agreed upon. We gave him a 20% tip for waiting a bit longer than expected at the monastery and then walked away, despite his muttering.

Above, my friend Lia was waiting for us at the entrance to the church, which again is a small door that you have to crouch to get through. This was to prevent attackers from being able to stream through in large numbers and overwhelm the defenders.

There was a huge line along the right aisle of the church waiting to go down in a crypt underneath the altar area and venerate the cave in which Christ was born. Most surprising to me, there were actually quite a few Muslim women with head scarves also waiting in line. Lia told us that this was not unusual.

Fortunately, since I'm an Orthodox priest, we were allowed to by-pass the line and go immediately to venerate the cave, which you can see me doing above. There is only one small spot of the cave exposed which pilgrims kneel down to venerate.

Next to it is a small Nativity scene that Lia explained was traditional.

Here you see the iconostasis of the main part of the church, which belongs to the Orthodox. This church dates from 565 AD. The first church, constructed by St Helena around 330, was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt in 529. Almost inexplicably, the Persians did not destroy the second church when they invaded in 614; tradition says this was because the Persian leader was moved by the images of the three magi wearing traditional Persian clothing.

Here you see the line along the right aisle waiting to go down into the crypt to venerate the place where Christ was born.

Here is the Roman Catholic church which lies adjacent.

A view of the Orthodox church from the back. In the foreground, you can see people standing around what a hole in the floor. These are trap doors which open to reveal part of the original mosaic floor from the first church, built in 330.

The above two photos show some of the mosaics along the sides.

Here is a tiny space in the front left corner that has been taken over by the Armenians. It was this spot, I believe, that caused the melee which broke out just days before we arrived (see this post).

Here we are in the courtyard in front of the entrance to the church. Opposite, you can see the mosque, which was then blasting prayers. Lia said it was quite typical for the Muslims to have a mosque directly across from churches of major significance.

Lia's uncle worked in a hotel and cafe located right in the courtyard of the church, so we sat down to have a coffee and catch up before heading out to see more of the area.

To see all the photos from our fifth and last day, click here.

[Note: I just added a short 3-minute video from the Liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre to this previous post.]

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mar Saba Monastery

On our fifth and final day in Jerusalem, we headed out to the Damascus Gate to try to find a bus to Bethlehem. During my first year here in Greek school, I was classmates with two Palestinians--a Christian girl and Muslim boy--who grew up together and were themselves close friends.

I had contacted her here in Thessaloniki before we left and it turned out that she was going to be in Bethlehem for the holidays, so we arranged to meet.

Getting to Bethlehem, even though it is only 10 km from Jerusalem, is something of an adventure, though, because it lies with the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Of course, we were given conflicting information about the best way to get there, and we ended up taking one of the public buses (actually a van). Since it was Saturday, everything Israeli-controlled (including most of the public transportation system) was closed, but somehow there is a parallel portion of the public transportation system run by Palestinians, and that part was open.

So anyway we got on the van which drove us to the checkpoint for the West Bank and then left us. (Some had told us that the bus would go through the checkpoint and take us all the way into Bethlehem.) The van driver motioned for one of his cab driver friends to come over to van and offer us a deal to take us on into Bethlehem. This driver was willing to take us on this 5 minute ride for only 200 shekels (over $25), assuming, I suppose, that we were complete morons. As we walked away, his prices started dropping, but not fast enough.

So we walked through the checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank, which is a mass of very high walls, barbed wire, and machine guns. Above, you can see my dad looking at the graffiti on the walls. I distinctly remember one that read: "Jesus wept for Jerusalem."

Once we reached the other side, there was a huge flock of taxis waiting, and the drivers swarmed us. They offered to take us to all over the place--Mar Saba Monastery, St. George al-Khader Monastery, etc., again at outrageous prices. I wanted to go see Mar Saba, and we had some time before meeting my friend at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but I couldn't get them to come to a reasonable price, so we asked someone to just take us into Bethlehem. One young taxi driver near the end of the queue volunteered and we were off; the other taxi drivers apparently didn't want to lose their place in line for just a quick, unprofitable ride into Bethlehem.

Once we were in taxi and off, the driver said: "Look, I've been waiting in that line since 6 AM this morning (it was 9:30 then) and I don't want to go back and wait again. How about I take you to Mar Saba for X?" I can't remember exactly how much it was, but after we bargained for a minute, it was a very reasonable price, and we were off.

The road out to the monastery reveals just how desolate the area is. It's just unadorned desert as far as the eye can see. My dad had the taxi driver stop at one point so that he could take a typical photo of the landscape (see above).

There's almost no way we would have found the monastery ourselves in a rented car. They were very narrow, winding roads, and I didn't see any signs in English.

Finally, we arrived at Mar Saba Monastery and the taxi driver agreed to wait for us. The entrance to the monastery is a very small door, and we met this monk (see above) on the other side of the door. Most of the 15-20 monks there are Greek, but we were introduced to one American monk from California. The monk who greeted us at the entrance was very interested in my story as an American convert priest who was studying in Thessaloniki, so I talked to him for awhile. He then pointed us toward the main church, where another Greek monk met us and gave us a tour. Again, this monk was most interested in my story, so I had to tell it again.

Here I am in the cave/cell of St. John of Damascus, where he wrote so many of the church's hymns, services, and treatises defending the faith.

On the left you can see some of the caves in the mountainside that were once home to hundreds of monks.

At bottom in the photo above is an edifice dedicated to St. Sabbas the Sanctified. His incorrupt relics were returned to the monastery by the Roman Catholics in 1965 after nearly 900 years in Italy (they were stolen during the Crusades).

The monastery has an interesting connection to Serbia's own Saint Sava. When St. Sabbas the Sanctified was near his end (6th century), he told the monks to watch for one day in the distant future when an archbishop, a man of God bearing the same name, would come from a far-off western land. The monks were to give this man St. Sabbas' pateritsa (abbot's staff) and an icon of the Panagia. Two hundred years later, St. John of Damascus added his own wonderworking icon of the Panagia Tricherousa (Three Hands) to this inheritance.

When St. Sava of Serbia visited the monastery of his namesake some 700 years after the St. Sabbas' death, the monks had still maintained the prophesy of their founder, and now found its fulfillment in St. Sava of Serbia. This is how the much-revered icon of the Panagia of Three Hands (through which the miracle of the restoration of St. John of Damascus' hand was accomplished) came to reside at the Serbian Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos.

Anyway, toward the end of our tour, we ran into an American tourist, who described himself as a doctor with Buddhist leanings. Our tour guide was quite dismayed at this and asked him several questions, which, although his answers were vague, made it seem like part of his family had been Orthodox.

Anyway, we went inside the main church together, and this man was quite moved when the monk showed us the display cases with row after row of skulls of the monastery's monks who had been martyred.

Finally, the monk treated us to a coffee and a loukoumi ("Turkish" delight) and then my dad and I hurried back to our taxi.