Monday, January 04, 2010

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

One week ago today, my dad and I made our first pilgrimage to Jerusalem, while my mom and Pelagia stayed here with the babies. We left early Tuesday morning on a flight to Athens, and then underwent an extremely thorough screening process by the Israeli airline to board a flight for Tel Aviv. From Tel Aviv, we took a shuttle to Jerusalem, which dropped us off at the Damascus Gate into the Old City, and we were in our little hostel by 2 PM (Jerusalem is actually in the same time zone as Greece). Above you can see me carrying our bags down toward the Damascus Gate.

Damascus Gate leads right into the heart of the Muslim Quarter, which was where our hostel was located (and less than 5 minutes walk from the Holy Sepulchre). The photo above was our first impression as we stepped into the Old City -- i.e., total chaos. People were swarming everywhere, minarets were blasting a Muslim prayer, and I was trying to figure out which of the labyrinthine alleys to take to get to our hostel.

After dropping off our bags at the hostel, our first destination was, of course, the Holy Sepulchre. Above, you can see my standing in the courtyard outside the entrance to the Church. Several things struck me here -- first, like everything else in the Old City, it's actually somewhat difficult to find. Second, it is simply flooded with tourists, some of whom have a spiritual interest, others not. Third, the inside of the Church, like the streets of the Old City, is a complicated mess.

The central piece, of course, is the cave itself, which is covered by what appears to be a small house (see above). Originally, it seems, there was here a series of tombs dug into rock. When St. Constantine's mother, St. Helena, visited Jerusalem in the early 4th century and began establishing the city as Christian, St. Constantine's architects, in an engineering feat, cut away the rest of the rock and isolated Christ's tomb. They then built the Church around it. Today, opposite the tomb, stands the main church within the church, which is the Orthodox church. All around, however, in every conceivable nook and cranny, are chapels belonging to the Roman Catholics, the Coptics, etc.

Above, my dad is walking inside the Orthodox church directly opposite the tomb in which Christ was buried and rose again.

Here you can see the line circling around Christ's tomb. Clergy from the Orthodox Church, and representatives of the various Christian factions, take turns controlling the flow of traffic into the entrance of the tomb. As a priest, I was fortunate to be allowed to bypass the line and go immediately to venerate inside the small cave. My dad and I were given about 2 minutes to pray before someone yelled for us to hurry it up.

Surprisingly close, up a flight of stairs in one part of the Church, we came to Golgotha, the place on which Christ was crucified. The Orthodox have a chapel on the spot, with glass covering the actual rock. The altar, as you see in the photo above, stands over the spot where Christ was crucified. When not in use, the antimension and all the altar vessels are, of course, taken away and stored (given all the tourists who have no regard for such things), and the people then crawl underneath the altar to venerate the site of the Crucifixion.

Coming out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and being somewhat dazed and confused by the whole experience, I noticed a sign in the courtyard for a Metochion of Gethsemane. Looking up the narrow staircase, I saw a Greek flag, so I decided to walk up and see what I could find.

There we ran into two nuns and few devout Greek laypeople (see above), who were happy to show inside the Metochion's small chapel, which housed the icon of the Panagia that they carry around the Holy Sepulchre during the procession for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15/28 (see photo below).

The abbess, Gerontissa Melania, was a Greek who grew up in Australia. Her English was a welcome relief for my dad, and she was extremely helpful and kind to us. She suggested we meet her the next morning inside the Patriarchate for Liturgy with the Patriarch, and then showed us how to find the Patriarchate. On the way, we ran headfirst into a procession of strangely dressed Catholics, and then, near the Patriarchate, we ran into the abbot of the Orthodox monastery located at the tomb of the Theotokos (see above).

After seeing where the Patriarchate was and taking our leave from Gerontissa Melania, my dad and I made our way to a recommended restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and had some very good and interesting Armenian food.

Stay tuned for more posts about our eventful trip. For more photos from the first day, click here.

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