Posted by: oldbelieving | February 23, 2009

A trip to the Holy Land

Back in May I had the great blessing of visiting the Holy Land, including Mt. Sinai, and Constantinople, with my glorious godfather Alex and his family and a bunch of other people, led by Fr. Steven Vlahos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Wildwood, NJ. Needless to say the trip was amazing. Here’s something I wrote up about it for the PSU OCF Alumni newsletter:

 

Although salvation is offered to all mankind, its history is set amongst the Jewish people in what we know as the Middle East, and most especially in Israel.It is there that God definitively revealed Himself to the world.Thus, this land, known as the Holy Land, holds a special place in the faith of Christians worldwide, and has been a place of pilgrimage for well over a millennium.Following in this tradition, Alex Ibrahim and I, along with his parents and Fr. Steven Vlahos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Wildwood, NJ and several others traveled, by the grace of God, to the Holy Land where God continues to reveal Himself in the holy relics, shrines, churches, etc, of His life and of His Saints.

Throughout our two weeks in Israel, Egypt, and Constantinople we saw far too many holy sites to write about in one article, but the most memorable sites were precisely those places of Epiphany, where God manifested Himself, probably due to the unique presence of God at those sites.We did not visit the sites in the order that they chronologically happened, but it probably easiest to write about them in this order.The earliest Epiphany site that we visited was St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai in Egypt.In addition to the amazing icon and relic collection, the monastery is also home to the Burning Bush where God spoke to Moses, calling him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.It was there that God revealed Himself as “I AM,” or “He Who Is,” which we see written in the cruciform halos of Christ in our holy icons.In doing so, He declared Himself to be the one, eternal God over all creation.The Bush still grows massively and we were able to venerate it, and even collect some leaves that had fallen from it for our home altars.

The next morning we gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai for a several hour trek up the mountain which pilgrims make every day.Although the climb was long it was well worth it to experience a sunrise from the mountaintop where God gave the Law to His Prophet Moses.The bright colors of the early morning sky seemed almost like a lingering of the light which caused Moses’ face to glow and which Church Fathers have identified as the same uncreated light as that of Mt. Tabor. In this covenant God declared that He would be uniquely the God of the Jews who became His chosen people to bring forth the Messiah. Fittingly, there was a group of Russian pilgrims at the top of the mountain who sang Kristos Voskrese, declaring that Messiah to be the risen Lord who had appeared to Moses on that very mountain long ago.

Thousands of years later the fulfillment of the Law was in sight as three Magi came from the east to worship the Christ Child as King and God.In Bethlehem, the eternal Word of God was born to the Holy Theotokos Mary, thus revealing Himself as our God Who would walk among us.In leaving His heavenly home where He is eternally glorified to take on our lowly flesh and come to be reviled, beaten and even killed, He showed His unfathomable love for all mankind.The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a beautiful memorial and place of worship for our Lord’s Incarnation.The walls and pillars contain remnants of once glorious iconography, but the iconostasis remains in full, richly decorated.Beneath the Church is the actual cave where Christ was born and a star marks the exact spot.Thousands of pilgrims come every day to venerate and pray at this holy spot, which is a truly overwhelming experience.It is hard to put into words how one feels at such a place, but it is very powerful.The Church also has a Catholic section, under which is where the Holy Family hid from Herod for a time, and St. Jerome later lived and labored in asceticism and writing.God Who called out the Jews onMt. Sinai became one of them in Bethlehem.

When our Lord was baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest, for the voice of the Father bore witness unto Him, calling Him the beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed His Word as sure and steadfast.The plurality of “Elohim” was shown to be also the oneness of God Whom we worship as Trinity.By His baptism Christ sanctified the waters for all Christian baptisms to be a personal Epiphany and entrance into the Church.At the Jordan River God granted us His blessing through the modified “baptismal” service that we celebrated in which Fr. Steven blessed us with the holy waters of the Jordan as we sang the Theophany troparion.We were also able to fill several water bottles with water from the Jordan to bring back to share with family and friends the glory of our Lord’s baptism.

One of the last sties we visited in the Holy Land was Mt. Tabor where Christ was Transfigured in the presence of the Prophets Moses and Elijah and the disciples Sts. Peter, James, and John.The kingdom of God was come in power in the person of Jesus Christ.The light of Mt. Sinai was show to belong to Christ Who is the eternal God.Atop the mountain stands a magnificent Orthodox monastery which had some of the most spectacular iconography we had seen in all of Israel.There we were able to venerate a piece of the rock on which Chris stood as He was transfigured, and where holy monastics continue to labor, manifesting the transfigured life.Again, it is hard to adequately put such experiences into words.One must simply go experience them.

Of course the most amazing site from the entire trip was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is divided into an Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, and Catholic section.The Church contains several of the holiest sites in Orthodoxy, including the place where St. Helen found the True Cross and where Christ was laid when taken down off the Cross, but the most magnificent spots are of course Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, and His actual Sepulchre, where He rose from the dead, completing our salvation.Golgotha has a massive crucifix along with St. John and the Theotokos at the foot of the Cross, with several beautiful icons and ornate lamps burning in memory of our Lord’s voluntary death.There is also an altar table, underneath which is the hole in the rock in which Christ’s Cross was placed.We of course venerated this holy spot, and blessed several objects on it, as we prayed.It is here that Christ revealed His total self and mission.As Fr. Thomas Hopko says on his Word of the Cross CD, there was nothing else to say.There is no greater love than to lay down your life for friends. Sunday evening I witnessed an Armenian procession which made a stop at Golgotha which rich, prayerful singing that I wish I could have understood.Despite all the amazing experiences we had on our trip, nothing can compare to the blessing of going into Christ’s very tomb to pray and venerate, if even for a short time.Due to the large number of pilgrims we had to wait for about an hour to go into the tomb, and were only allowed in for thirty seconds or so, but the feeling in there is intense.All of history hinges upon that very spot, where Christ rose from the dead thereby defeating death.Alex and I blessed our crosses and some icons on His Holy Sepulchre, but it was hard to even find proper words to pray at the holiest place on earth.Fortunately God’s grace abounds there to more than make up for our own failings. O Christ our God Who art risen from the dead, glory to Thee!

After nearly two weeks in Israel, Alex and his parents and I flew into Constantinople to continue our trip.There are several mosques and Islamic palaces throughout the city, but of course the reason for visiting was to see magnificent Churches of the Byzantine era, including St. Savior in Chora, and of course Hagia Sophia.Hagia Sophia is perhaps the most well known Church in all of Christendom, along with the Holy Sepulchre.It stands as a glorious symbol of the Church and the Byzantine Empire.Of course it is in His Holy Church that God continues to reveal Himself to individuals and to the entire Body, through our sacramental participation in His very life.Thus the Church is the continuingEpiphany of God to the world, as He gives Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist.As a symbol of the Byzantine Empire it reminds us that “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1), and thus all earthly power is in fact a manifestation of God’s ultimate power.His power is certainly felt in Hagia Sophia through the world-famous iconography that adorns the walls and domes.Unfortunately, only a small portion of the iconography remains, but what is left truly speaks to the power of a God Who could inspire such amazing work.As we were still in the Paschal season, Alex and I sang Christ is Risen in several different languages, triumphantly declaring the Truth of the Orthodox faith and the glory of God through all His people throughout the world!God has historically revealed Himself to the world through the Jewish people in the Middle East, and He is still revealing His glory at these holy spots to those who make pilgrimage there.We highly encourage everyone to someday make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the foundations of our faith, where the presence of God can be felt everywhere.

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