I don’t really know where to begin today. We visited several monasteries today. As we draw closer to our Lord’s Tomb, which we will visit tomorrow, the depth of our visits hits me more with each visit. Forgive me for admitting, but if my phone did not timestamp each picture, I would never remember what I was looking at. Not only have we seen so many holy places, but I almost ashamed to admit that at this point caves look like caves and ruins look like ruins. I don’t say that disrespectfully, but honestly. I don’t remember having that same reaction when I visited Greece, but I was much younger, and I suppose the ruins were less on my mind. Nonetheless, each cave I enter, knowing at that moment where I am continues to be very moving, and today did not disappoint. Today was also the first day when I was not permitted to take pictures inside each Church.
Our day began at the Monastery of Saint Savas the Sanctified. The road leading to the monastery from the main road was not passable by our huge bus, so we transferred to smaller oversized vans to make our way through the narrow winding roads. Once at the monastery, we were greeted with dozens of merchants trying to sell us their trinkets. Earlier in the week I was a bit put off by their “sticktoitvness” in trying to convince us to buy something for a few dollars. I remember the stories we heard at the Town Hall on Human Trafficking last week, and couldn’t get my mind past how these little children were being used to beg outside the monastery gates. I realized (maybe rationalized) that if they were in true need, the monastery would either help them or let us know. So, I blessed them. While inside the monastery, pictures were forbidden, but I was blessed to offer names in prayer at the relics (the uncorrupted body) of Saint Savas. We also had the special blessing to visit the cave and tomb of Saint John Damaskos, a great theologian and hymnographer of the Church. While in his cave, I offered a brief prayer for our choirs and chanters, and the memories of those Church musicians I have known. As we departed the monaster to return to the women of our group, as they were not permitted to enter the monastery, I received a large bottle of holy water from the Well at Saint Savas which, when you consider the value of water in the desert was a special blessing.
Returning down the winding road, we came to the Monastery of Saint Theodosios the Koinobiarch. I offered names for prayer as I have been doing at each monastery, and entered the cave of the Magi, where they slept on their return after seeing Herod, where also there are bones of dozens of martyr saints from the Persian persecution. The Church is fairly recent and the monastery had been abandoned for many years, but the few resident monks, by God’s grace are slowly restoring the monastery for pilgrims for God’s glory. In fact many of the monasteries we have visited include longs periods of time when there were no monastics, as I mentioned in yesterday’s update.
The theme today was sites near the Birth of Christ. After visiting the Cave of the Magi at Saint Theodosios Monastery, next on our schedule was the Monastery of the Shepherds, another monastery being restored by a few monastics. Downstairs below the level of the new Church is the cave where the shepherds slept on their journey to Bethlehem to visit the newborn Christ.
Following in the footsteps of the Shepherds, we came to the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Church in the Holy Lands. It was not destroyed by the Persians. As legend has it, they saw an icon of the Nativity which included the Magi, who were Persians, so the Church was spared destruction. A TINY (and I mean tiny) doorway leads through the first gate into the second gate with an equally TINY door. When I say tiny, I mean you almost have to do a total metanoia (prostration) just to enter the Church, but it is worth it. I was able to go live inside the Church, which is in the middle of the huge restoration, for a couple minutes today, just a few feet from the cave where our Lord was born. While inside the cave we sang (in Greek) the hymn of the Nativity. From there, we were brought for another special blessing. As Vespers were about to begin, pilgrims were not currently being allowed entrance to the cave. If we had been only an hour later, it might have taken several hours just to stand in line to venerate the spot of Christ’s birth. The special blessing was upstairs from the main Church to another chapel where we saw (you couldn’t venerate) the relics of some of the 14,000 Innocents slaughtered by Herod.
We finished the day visiting two Jewish museums. Pictures were forbidden inside either museum. In the Israeli Museum’s courtyard, there is a scale replica of Jerusalem which includes the various eras at the time of Christ and later as the city grew. Inside the Israeli Museum was learned about the Dead Sea Scrolls. We then ended our day at the Holocaust Museum. As you enter the museum, you find many commemorative plaques honoring those Gentiles who helped shelter or rescue Jews during the Holocaust. As a Greek, I know very well the roll of some of our people who risked, and even lost, their own lives trying to protect Jews during the War, so this was touching for me to see them being commemorated. As it was late, the only exhibit we were able to view was a room filled with shelves of logbooks bearing the names of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, and some photos. It seemed somehow fitting, and tragic at the same time, that we would visit memorials to the victims of Herod, innocent Jews who were slaughtered, and the victims of Nazi Germany, again innocent Jews who were slaughtered. I know many others lost their lives in the war, and injustices have been done to many peoples throughout time, but as I witnessed bones and pictures of innocent lives lost, I was moved to tears.
Today was the most emotional day thus far, but tomorrow is the Tomb of Christ! Continue to pray for us, as we pray for you!