After a leisurely morning in Jerusalem, the group boarded to reach their next destination. As they gazed out the windows, they watched everyday life unfold before them. Children in school uniforms stood and waited for the bus, while adults rushed along the sidewalks late to work. Leaving behind the opulent city streets, and lush fields, the bus wound its way through the countryside, heading deeper into the dry arid landscape dotted with goat herds.
Having entered the West Bank, the bus soon came to a stop and the pilgrim disembarked in a large, paved courtyard before an impressive structure which was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They got in line to enter through the tiny door named the “Door of Humility,” which is the only door into the fortress-like front wall of the Church of the Nativity. The previous entrance to the church was lowered around the year 1500 AD to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.
Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace. Constantine and his mother, Helena, commissioned that the Church of the Nativity be built over the cave marking the birthplace of Jesus, it was dedicated in 339 AD. It consisted of an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly over the cave. In the center of the octagonal part, a viewing area with a railing provided a view of the cave. Part of the mosaic of the original floor has survived and can still be seen through trap doors in the floor of the nave.
In 614 AD this was the only church spared by the Persians during their conquest of the Holy Land because they saw paintings on the outside of the church honoring the Magi from the east, who were fellow Persians.
Entering the oldest functioning church in the world the pilgrims paused to view the ancient mosaic floor from the original church before getting into a long line to view the very birthplace of Christ. As they slowly made their way forward, along the right side of the church, they gazed upward where portions of the white walls revealed beautiful mosaics of angels, their golden halos glowing in the sunlight. Leaning against the large pillars they gazed upon the icons that were upon them, painted by the Crusaders. It was humbling to realize they were shuffling slowly along in the steps of millions upon millions of Christians who had come before them.
As they neared the front of the church, they marveled at the ancient iconostas with a myriad of lampadas illuminating it. Soon they line narrowed to the right of the altar, and they were ushered along a narrow corridor and down some final steps under a marble archway to stand within a grotto, which was located immediately below the Main Altar of the church which was directly above them. To their right was a marble altar, with a bronze star immediately beneath it. The 14-pointed star marked the birthplace of Christ is in the center of the grotto (14 points for the three sets of 14 generations in Matthew 1:17}.
Everyone solemnly took their turn to kneel and touch the star. Some removed their crosses and touched them to the center of the star, while others touched handfuls of crosses and medallions to take home to their loved ones. While some still awaited their turn to kneel at the site of Christ’s birth, others wandered off to the right, to view the Manger where Christ was placed – on the right side of the grotto. Slowly the group made their way back up, this time exiting to the left of the upstairs altar and awaited their teammates while wondering at the history and beauty all around them.
Exiting the church, the group walked along Manger Square, and enjoyed a leisurely walk around the town, before returning to Jerusalem for some rest before the amazing night ahead of them in Jerusalem.
Having rested a few hours in their hotel, the group gathered at 11 PM and boarded their bus for a short drive through the darkened city. They were dropped off near the old city of Jerusalem where they made haste though the darkened back alleys.
The alleys glowed a surreal orange beneath the amber lights above as the pilgrims scurried along. Encountering only several local cats on their nightly adventures, the people of the city slept as the group turned right then left, then left and silently continued making their way to their destination. They made one final left turn into what seemed like a dead end and came to an abrupt halt. Here they waited a few minutes standing silently before a large ancient door. Soon they heard the grinding of a key and the heavy door swung open, revealing the courtyard beyond. The group, joined by Orthodox pilgrims from various lands, tried to stay together as they quickly entered the courtyard and turned left down a few steps to stand before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Crusaders rebuilt the church and much of what is standing today is from that time period. They looked up at the ladder in the upper right window known as the immovable ladder, which was placed there while washing windows in 1728 and has remained there ever since the 1757 status quo was established. The ladder is referred to as immovable due to the agreement of the Status Quo that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian Church may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five Churches. With no time to pause in awe, they were ushered inside the ancient structure.
Here, time stood still. They found themselves in another world, suspended somewhere between Heaven and Earth. Before leaving them to serve Divine Liturgy, Archbishop Daniel instructed the group to take every opportunity to wander around and see all they could. During the day, the church is open to everyone – pilgrim and tourist alike. The huge throng of people makes it almost impossible to find a moment of peace in this most holy place. Therefore, he advised that they find time right now, to find a moment to connect with God. The church is opened for Midnight Liturgy a few days a week strictly for the Orthodox faithful to come and worship. This allows for a more spiritual experience, surrounded by fellow pilgrims rather than countless tourists.
As His Eminence, and the clergy members of the team left to prepare to serve, the group got in line to around the Sepulchre itself. The Church is a large and imposing round edifice, with a smaller enclosure built in the center over the Tomb. As the faithful stood in line making their way slowly around the tomb, they were awed by the ancient pillars surrounding them, with hidden nooks and crannies all the way around. Resting their hands upon the cool marble, they knew the Tomb of Christ was just on the other side. It was a humbling experience which words cannot convey. The Aedicule, which is built over the tomb, preserves the location of Christ’s tomb. Over the centuries there have been numerous attempts at destroying the cave, and hiding the tomb, and yet the pilgrims from the UOC of the USA stood in defiance at the attempts to destroy the Church, as they stood patiently in line to worship the One True God.
This location is steeped in history. So much of human history revolves around this very point. To destroy and hide the Tomb, the Roman emperor Hadrian erected a large platform of earth over the whole area for the construction of a temple to Venus. A statue of Jupiter was on the site for 180 years (AD 140–320). When Constantine converted the empire to Christianity, he had the pagan temples dismantled, the earth removed, and a church built over the spot.
Standing in line the pilgrims gazed up at the huge dome overhead. Its outer walls date back to the emperor Constantine’s original basilica built in the 4th century. The very point of the dome is glass, through which the sun pours in during the daytime, and is decorated with a starburst of tongues of light, with 12 rays representing the apostles.
As they made the final turn individuals were ushered into the tomb by Greek Orthodox monks who ensured everyone was orderly and did not linger too long inside, allowing everyone a chance to enter before Liturgy began. Inside there are two chambers. In the outer one, known as the Chapel of the Angel, stands a pedestal containing what is believed to be a piece of the rolling stone used to close the tomb.
Gingerly making their way around the stone, they entered through a very low doorway to the tomb chamber, lined with marble and hung with holy icons. On the right, a marble slab covers the rock bench on which the body of Jesus lay. Falling to their knees and touching the slab reverently, everyone had a few seconds to glorify the Lord and quickly mumble their prayers before being ushered back out.
Midnight rolled around and Divine Liturgy began. The clergy were vested and entered from the right, from the Catholicon, which is part of the Greek Orthodox Church, built by the Crusaders. As the clergy approached, the Tomb was emptied and the faithful crowded in on either side for the long service ahead.
As the Liturgy continued some of the faithful wandered off to explore the Church. The sounds of the service followed them wherever they went, as the voices of His Eminence Archbishop Daniel and His Eminence Arcbhishop Theodosios “Atallah Hanna” of Sevastianos of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem echoing off the ancient pillars.
Heading back to the entry door, they paused at the Stone of Anointing, which marks the location where the Lord’s Body was anointed for burial and marveled at the large mosaic icon upon the wall beyond. Heading up the curved stone well-worn steps they found themselves in the Chapel on Golgotha. With the depiction of Christ crucified before them, they approached reverently and kneeled before the altar, reaching down to touch the spot where the Cross once stood. To the right of the altar behind a glass partition is visible the stone surface of the Golgotha – with a deep fissure where the stone cracked during the earthquake which occurred when Christ died upon the Cross. To the left of this stone is a tiny Roman Catholic chapel where the Lord was nailed to the Cross.
Heading back downstairs, the faithful attended the reading of the Holy Gospel before continuing the sojourn around the Church. It was surreal gazing upon these holy sites with the Divine Liturgy being served, and the sweet aroma of the incense swirling around in the dim candlelight making the entire scene seem otherworldly.
There are 30 chapels peppered around the large Church of the Resurrection, divided between the Greek Orthodox Church, Roman Catholics, and the Armenian Orthodox Church. Orthodox monastics could be found in the tiniest nooks in the facade of the Church - kneeling, praying, sitting in contemplation, guarding, dozing, and being a constant presence of faith at the Center of the Earth.
Leaving behind the crowd, some of the pilgrims headed down an old marble set of steps, finding themselves in a beautiful church below ground. The underground chapel was magnificent and unexpected. Here one such Coptic monk sat on the floor in a corner praying quietly, oblivious to the people milling about him. This was the 12th-century Armenian church of St. Helena, constructed during the Kingdom of Jerusalem. There are two apses in the church, one dedicated to Saint Helena and one to the penitent thief on the cross. The chapel is modestly adorned in memory of Saint Helena's simplicity.
There were more steps leading deeper underground. Taking these, they found themselves in the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross, where St. Helena uncovered and identified the Cross of Christ. Along the right was a glass wall, behind which was clearly visible the stone of Golgotha which was directly above them, and the continued fissure in the stone from above, leading all the way down to this point.
Returning to the main floor the pilgrims made their way around, stopping at various chapels to pray, and contemplate life. They paused at the Orthodox Chapel of Jesus’ Prison, where it is said the Lord was held prior to His Crucifixion.
Behind the tomb of Jesus, on the western side of the Holy Sepulchre Rotunda walls, they happened upon the Jacobite (Syrian Orthodox) chapel. The chapel is located in the 4th Century Constantine church walls. On the southern side of the chapel are typical first century Jewish tombs. According to Christian tradition, these are of Joseph of Arimathea and Nikodemus who took down and buried the body of Christ.
Well after 4 a.m. the pilgrims once again returned to the crowd located in the center of the Church and attended the Divine Liturgy. Having communed, they quickly stepped aside to allow others to approach one of numerous chalices being offered to the faithful.
Tired and hot, they slowly made their way to the cool air outside and awaited the rest of their party in the courtyard in front of the church. Here they once again looked upon the ladder on the second story, but most of their attention went to the pillar to the left of the doorway.
The keys to the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are entrusted to two of the Muslim families since Saladin era. It is a reminder of the long-term Muslim governance of Jerusalem, that the responsibility to open and lock the door of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's holiest place, rests in the hands of Muslims.
During the Pascha of 1549 AD, the Armenians were successful in bribing the Turkish Administrator to issue an order forbidding the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Sophronios IV from entering the Church to perform the ceremony of the Holy Light. The guards closed the Holy Door and Patriarch Sophronios IV, accompanied by men of the cloth and the faithful, stayed outside, praying. That year, the Holy Light did not shine within the holy Aedicule, or anywhere within the Church. Instead, it burst through the Pillar which to this day remains cracked and blackened. To everyone’s great surprise, the candles held by the Orthodox Patriarch then lit up. Sophronios went on to share the Light with the Orthodox faithful in the courtyard, whereas the Armenian Patriarch left the scene in shame. This miraculous event was witnessed by Emir Tounom, a guard at the Holy Door. According to one tradition, Tounom became a Christian, and was killed by the Turks in order to silence the event. A different tradition relates that, upon witnessing the miracle, Tounom exclaimed “Behold the true faith” – and for it he was burnt alive by the Turks. Today his relics are kept in the Monastery of the Great Panaghia. When the Sultan was informed of the miracle, he issued a decree recognizing the Orthodox Patriarch’s exclusive right to receive the Holy Light.
Gazing upon the darkened and cracked pillar by the door they could see many tiny slips of paper upon which the faithful had written prayers, folded, and squeezed into the cracks. Further up the column were countless etchings of Crusader Crosses, etched by pilgrims over the previous centuries.
As His Eminence reappeared, flanked by the clergy from the UOC of the USA, the group gathered in the dark courtyard and having experienced such a soul stirring morning, moved by the Holy Spirit they sang “Christ is Risen”. Their soft voices carried upon the cool air and traveled beyond the courtyard, through the back alleys of Jerusalem, through the opened windows, and down the byways. Indeed He is Risen!
With only a few hours sleep, as even though physically exhausted, they were spiritually awakened, the pilgrims once again found themselves on the tour bus embarking on yet more adventures. Heading towards Jericho, the oldest city in the world, they found themselves at the base of a tall sheer cliff. Visible at the top was a monastery that seemed to hang on the side of the mountain. To access the monastery, the group clambered aboard cable cars which took them to a parapet halfway up the mountain. From there they had to climb large stone steps to reach the Monastery of the Temptation of Christ, where Satan tempted Jesus when He spent 40 days in the desert after His baptism. The temptation to turn a stone into bread is located in a grotto halfway up the mountain. The offer of all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshipping the devil is located on the summit.
Entering the monastery, the group paused to catch their breath, as once again Archbishop Daniel donned his Epitrachelion and Omophorion and read from the Gospel. The faithful bowed their heads before the ornate iconostas realizing they stood where the Lord had once stood as He prepared to begin His public ministry and was victorious over temptations. Praying that they too would be victorious over the temptations they face, they climbed a final few steps inside the church and prayed at the a stone enclosed in glass, over which is located an icon of Christ rebuking Satan, and is believed to be the very spot where Christ this event transpired.
Stepping out onto the parapet they could see all the natural caves in the stone cliff where centuries of monks had their cells and prayed for the world. On their way back down, they stopped at the grotto for more prayers and meditation before slowly making their way back down the steep steps with hairpin turns zigzagging the mountainside. Driving through Jericho, they paused at a beautiful church with a lush courtyard filled with green trees and shrubs. In the middle of the courtyard encased in glass stood the remnants of an ancient tree trunk, gray with age. This was the tree of Zacchaeus, the short tax-collector who climbed the Sycamore tree to get a good look at Christ who was passing below.
When Jesus reached the tree he looked up and called out to Zacchaeus by name asking him to join him. Jesus told Zacchaeus that he would stay at his house that night. The crowd was not pleased and began to talk among themselves saying that Jesus would be staying at the house of a sinner. Zacchaeus was rich, collected taxes for the occupying Romans, and probably over-collected on occasion. For this reason, the people of Jericho disliked him and considered him a sinner.
Zacchaeus then stood before Jesus and offered half his possessions as a gift to the poor and to compensate anyone he had cheated by four times the amount of money. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house as this man too is a son of Abraham.”
The story teaches several lessons. We see Zacchaeus going to great lengths to see Jesus, even climbing a tree which was rather undignified for the short government official. Jesus sees Zacchaeus’ interest and calls to him. The pilgrims paused before the large tree trunk, envisioning a short tax-collector pulling up his robes as he climbed the tree, and realized they were much like him. Instead of climbing a tree, they crossed an ocean, and have climbed mountains to see Jesus.
Having entered the church beyond the courtyard with the tree, they prayed inside and paused in prayer before the beautiful iconography inside.
Traveling a bit further, they drove through a dusty flat area, where the tour guide informed them, they may not wander away from the designated areas as there are land mines still present in the desert beyond. As they neared what seemed like an oasis, a spot of green in the consistent tan haze, they saw a church rising up to one side. Disembarking from the bus, they made their way down to the River Jordan, where the Lord was baptized by St. John the Baptist.
As many of the pilgrims retreated to the modern changing rooms and showers, to put on white gowns, others slowly made their way down and awaited them while watching the numerous other pilgrims from around the world taking a turn in the cool waters of the slowly moving river. As they watched some people were getting baptized by their pastors, while others were standing in the water and taking selfies, while others were holding hands and praying.
As the group reassembled, His Eminence once again opened the Gospel book and read of the account of Christ’s baptism. Everyone bowed their heads and listened intently. Even those from other groups hearing the Scripture being read became silent and listened. Only Archbishop Daniel’s voice echoed down the river making its way between the green reeds and off into the wilderness beyond. The faithful were moved realizing they were standing in the spot where the heavens had opened, and God the Father had spoken, where the Holy Spirit flew down, and where God the Son stood meekly before His Creation. As His Eminence blessed everyone they turned and carefully made their way into the surprisingly cold waters of the Jordan River. Holding on to the railing they dipped under the water, immersing themselves as of old, washing away their worries, cleansing their hearts, and rededicating themselves to God.
Having been to the summit of the Mount of Temptation, from whence they could look down upon the valley below and Jericho in the distance, and having experienced the River Jordan, they now headed down, and down some more, heading towards the border of the country of Jordan, to the lowest point on the planet Earth – to the Dead Sea. With the notorious location of Sodom and Gomorrah, located a few miles away, the desolate location has since been turned into a resort, with shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment, masking the horrific origin of the site.
The pilgrims once again gingerly made their way down a wooden set of steps towards the beach and the water. Some changed into swimwear and entered the Dead Sea, upon which they bobbed along joyfully. While some enjoyed the weightlessness of the waters, others settled down with a cool drink to people watch and to absorb the atmosphere. The sun was already sinking in the west, and the lights were coming on across the Dead Sea in the villages of Jordan.
Having purchased lotions and potions with the salt from the Dead Sea the pilgrims had one final adventure before they finished the day. One cannot travel to the Holy Land and not ride a camel. Encouraging each other, they took turns climbing up on the sturdy beasts and taking a short ride around the grounds.
The following morning, their visit to the Holy Land soon winding down, the pilgrims still have a busy itinerary of sacred sites to visit and memories to make in their final days in Jerusalem. The day began with a leisurely walk, stopping at a lovely church on a steep slope before the walls of Jerusalem. The place of St Stephen's martyrdom is traditionally identified as being close to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, where today there is a church dedicated to the martyred deacon. Stephen was a Hellenist Jew and one of seven men ordained as deacons in the Early Church. He was also the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for preaching that Jesus was the Christ. It was humbling to pray in the location where the first martyr refused to deny Christ and gave his life.
Silently leaving the church, the group walked beneath the speckled shade of carob trees until from the street they looked down into a large plaza below them, with a church beyond. Making their way down they found themselves before the church of the Repose of the Birth-Giver of God. The location of the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is across the Kidron Valley from St Stephen’s Gate in the Old City walls of Jerusalem, just before Gethsemane.
Entering through the façade of a 12th-century Crusader basilica that has been preserved intact, the group paused to allow their eyes to adjust to the dim interior. A wide Crusader stairway of nearly 50 steps leads to the crypt. Partway down, on the right, is a niche dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, with St. Joseph, the Betrothed, buried directly opposite them in a niche on the left.
The crypt, much of it cut into solid rock, is dark illuminated by candles and lampadas. The smell of incense filled the air, and the ceiling was blackened by centuries of candle smoke. To the right, a small aedicule houses a stone bench on which the Mother of God’s body is believed to have lain. The aedicule was richly decorated with icons, candlesticks and flowers, but the interior was bare.
The next stop of the day was at the location where the Christ taught us how to pray, by giving us the “Lord’s Prayer”. On walls around the church and its vaulted cloister, translations of the Lord’s Prayer in 140 languages are inscribed on colorful ceramic plaques. A long tradition holds that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in the cave that forms the grotto under the church. When the Crusaders built the church in the 12th century, they called it Pater Noster (Latin for Our Father). Pilgrims of the time reported seeing the words of the prayer inscribed in Hebrew and Greek on marble plaques. Excavations have uncovered a Latin version.
Stopping at a solid green gate, Archbishop Daniel knocked and the door within the gate was swung open by an elderly nun. Carefully stepping through the opening the group found themselves at the Monastery of Martha and Mary, named for the two sisters of Lazarus. Martha and Mary both witnessed Jesus resurrecting their brother. The gardens surrounding the church were lush and green, flowers cascading in riots of color everywhere. In the corners they could see the sisters tending to the plants, praying in the corner, or tending the small gift shop.
Entering the church, the group were impressed with the lovely iconostas immediately to their left. As they lit candles and prayed, they noted all the beautiful icons and murals covering the walls. To the right of the iconostas was a small structure with a rock visible beneath. It’s believed Jesus sat on this very rock before entering Bethany. Martha met him there and said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The other unique feature in the church is the icon of Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus. Lazarus had to flee Judea after his resurrection, and traveled to Cyprus, where he was later appointed by Paul the Apostle and Barnabas as the first Bishop of Kition (now Larnaca). The icon the pilgrims viewed was unique as it depicted St. Lazarus in his bishop’s vestments.
Next the group found themselves on what seemed a rooftop as they approached a small and ancient church. The Chapel of Ascension sits at the highest place on the Mount of Olives. In 384 AD, a pilgrim named Egeria found two footprints embedded in a rock that she claimed were those of Christ when He ascended to heaven. Constantine's mother, St. Helena, had a church built here at the end of the 4th Century as a memorial chapel. The current chapel the group approached was rebuilt in the 7th Century. Stepping inside the highest place on the Mount of Olives they had the opportunity to touch the spot where the footprint, believed to be Christ’s upon His Ascension, is visible. They paused for a moment, realizing that Tradition teaches that the spot from whence He ascended, will also be the spot to which He will return in His Second Coming.
The group then walked the route believed to be the way the Lord entered Jerusalem, ending at the Garden of Gethsemane where still grew olive trees aged over 2,000 years. Having gazed in amazement at the ancient tree, they entered the church next to the olive grove. The Church of All Nations was built over the rock on which Jesus is believed to have prayed in agony the night before he was crucified. Marveling at the tall Corinthian columns at the entry, the group stepped inside the crowded church to gaze upon the “rock of agony” believed to be the spot where Christ prayed on Holy Friday.
As the day wound down the group of pilgrims visited the Upper Room, reported to the location of the Mystical Supper. The Upper Room is in a second-story building located directly above the Tomb of David, which is a symbolic tomb and not truly the burial place of King David.
The final full day in the Holy Land found the pilgrims starting the day in a peaceful courtyard surrounded by large trees and filled with birdsong. Built around 1140 the Church of St Anna is the best-preserved Crusader church in Jerusalem. It marks the traditional site of the home of Jesus’ maternal grandparents, Anna and Joachim, and the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. Having entered the open doors of the cavernous church, the interior echoed with the songs of the birds outside, the group was easily able to envision the elderly parents of the Birth-Giver of God rejoicing in their little girl.
Stepping back into the sunlight they turned right and soon found themselves at ancient ruins. This was the location of the Pool of Bethesda, where Christ healed the paralytic who had waited 38 years for someone to help him into the pool “when the water is stirred”. The location of the Pools of Bethesda — is series of reservoirs and medicinal pools in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, north of the Temple Mount just inside St Stephen’s or Lions’ Gate. At that time, the gate was called the Sheep Gate, because this was where sheep were brought to the Temple for sacrifice. The pilgrims were amazed to stand at the location where the angel had once descended to touch the waters which would heal the first one to enter the pool. Many gazed upwards to see if any angels might be descending.
The group then made their way in the heat of the day to Judaism’s holiest place - the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Part of the retaining wall erected by Herod the Great in 20 BC to support the vast plaza on which he rebuilt the Temple, it is venerated as the sole remnant of the Temple. The men and women split up, men to the left and women to the right, both group having to cover their heads if they wished to approach the wall. Some followed the example of the local Jewish population who scribble prayers on small strips of paper, roll them up tightly, and tuck them into the cracks of the wall.
The group continued inside Jerusalem and viewed the Eastern/Golden Gates through which Jesus entered atop a donkey on Palm Sunday. The original Eastern Gate was built by Solomon (960 BC), or at a later date, by Hezekiah (715 BC). The ancient posts located inside the gate today, along with the stones beside the gate of the Eastern Wall, date back to these time periods and would affirm its early existence and location at its present-day site. The current gate was rebuilt by Suleiman in around 1541 AD and was built on the foundations of the earlier gates. The Eastern Gate’s outer facade today consists of two blocked-up gateways decorated with detailed carved relief arches. The gate is blocked in order to keep Jesus from reentering.
The pilgrims now walked through Jerusalem following the path Christ walked on His was to the Crucifixion. It was hard to imagine the horror, surrounded today by vendors and shops, people hawking their wares, everything a hustle and a bustle. And yet, it was not hard to imagine, as the city was probably behaving much the same 2,023 years ago, as the populace were preparing for Passover celebrations, purchasing the food to prepare for dinner, etc.
The group walked beneath the Ecce Homo, (Behold the Man) Arch where it is purported that the crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus and continued walking through the back alleys, clambering over ancient stone steps, on their way once again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Resurrection. The group finished of the day spending time wondering once again through the now crowded Church, pausing to pray at the numerous chapels, revisiting the sites they had first seen during the Midnight Liturgy, and being amazed as the bright sunlight poured in through the dome over the Lord’s Tomb.
Before departing Jerusalem, the group stopped at the Monastery of the Holy Cross. The monastery’s name comes from a traditional belief that the wood of Jesus’ cross came from a tree planted here in ancient times. The most common account says Lot planted the tree, but another version involves Adam.
The group entered the ancient church and were amazed by its antiquity and the peace that permeated it. On the left side of the chapel, a doorway led to the heart of the monastery. A narrow passageway with displays of old vestments in glass cabinets lead to a darkened chapel. Beneath the altar, a circular plate surrounded the place where the tree of the Cross is supposed to have stood.
Medieval frescoes on the walls tell the story of the tree. First, Abraham is shown with three heavenly visitors who give him three staffs of cedar, cypress and pine. After Sodom is destroyed, Abraham gives the staffs to his nephew Lot. Lot plants the staffs and waters them from the Jordan River. The three woods grow into a single tree. Centuries later the tree is cut down and a beam prepared for the cross.
Everyone gathered at the spot where the tree had grown as Archbishop Daniel led them in prayer, before they departed for their final stop in the Holy Land.
As the bus arrived in Lod, the group disembarked the bus one final time, to visit the crypt which was the final resting place of Saint George the Great Martyr, a Roman soldier of Greek parents, born in Palestine in the late 3rd century. Saint George became one of the most trusted officers of the pagan Emperor Diocletian, and ultimately gave himself up to martyrdom rather than persecute his fellow Christians or renounce his Faith. In the end, he became one of the first as well as one of the most beloved saints of the early centuries of the Christian Faith.
The large church has two altars. In an ornate box the relics of St. George were visible to the pilgrims, while towards the back of the church were the chains which had bound the saint. Walking down narrow steps in the floor of the church the group found themselves in the tomb of the beloved saint. Here they bowed their heads in prayer and collected some of the blessed oil from his tomb. With final prayers, and purchases of icons, blessed oil, and souvenirs, the pilgrims boarded their bus, and headed to Tel Aviv, to catch their flight to Istanbul, Turkey. The ancient land of Constantinople awaited them.