Today is our final day in the Holy Land, but it was no less filled with inspiration and memories. Our first stop today set the tone for the completion of our journey. We ascended the mountain with God and venerated what is believed to be the very spot from Our Lord and Savior Ascended into Heaven 40 days after the Resurrection. The current site is an active mosque, but once each year on the Feast of Ascension, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch celebrates Liturgy here. There is a dedicated Altar outside the mosque for the Liturgy. Across the street the Patriarch of Jerusalem purchased property and is developing the Monastery of Ascension which is struggling to survive amidst serious oppression. The Israeili government has tried multiple times to destroy the Church, but alas, it still stands. It is a modest Church and monastery which strongly proclaims our Orthodox Faith to pilgrims.
We then visited the sites around and near Gethsemane. A Roman Catholic Church has been built around the rock when accepted the bloody sweat of Christ. Just outside an olive grove with trees over 2,000 years old, remind us of the slumbering Apostles just “a feet” away while Jesus prayed. After an entire week of moving from holy site to holy site, I’m still amazed at just how close everything is.
From the garden, we visited the Monastery of Saint Stephen where he was stoned to death. The giant bolder can be venerated below the Church of the monastery.
Then it was off to the Tomb of the Theotokos, but we had to wait a bit for the Armenian Church to complete its Liturgy. Many of the sites are controlled by multiple jurisdictions. Once they were finished with their Liturgy, we were able to enter by descending a long, deep and grand staircase. Once down below, I was blessed to enter into the Shrine and venerate the Tomb of the Most Holy Mother of God. Having grown up in the Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Denver, this was very moving for me. Above the Tomb of the Theotokos rests a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary for the faithful to venerate. Just around the corner a Roman Catholic Church is built above the place where Judas betrayed our Lord into the hands of the soldiers.
We then visited a Church dedicated to the Last Supper, the Upper Room. It really isn’t THE Upper Room as the room itself is a medieval construction, but it is believed to have been in the house that stood on that spot. It has been a mosque (but not currently in use) for several centuries, but one day per year on Pentecost the Greek Orthodox Patriarch is granted permission to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. A Roman Catholic Church dedicated to the “dream” which the Virgin Mary had, during which the Archangel Gabriel told her she was about to die. The Church has several beautiful icons, including one Byzantine icon, of the Dormition of the Theotokos.
The Monastery of Holy Cross was our final “official” stop on the Pilgrimage. I was looking forward to it as a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. I tried going live in the monastery (actually three different times today) but couldn’t seem to get signal anywhere I tried. Sorry folks….no live broadcast today, but we did video the group chanting the hymn of Holy Cross in this ancient monastery. This monastery honors the tradition that the wood used for the Holy Cross was taken from the tree which Lot planted as a penance for sleeping with his daughters in Genesis 19.30-36. The complete story is told in a fresco next to the main Church.
And so our official pilgrimage came to an end, and we were given some extra free time in the Old City. As I had planned, I returned to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and found two additional chapels we hadn’t visited yesterday. To finish the day, I was blessed to attend Great Vespers at the Monastery of Saint Efthymios which we had visited yesterday. Since Jerusalem uses the Old Calendar, tomorrow is the Feast of Saint Efthymios, so one bishop, ten priests, and a small chapel filled to capacity worshiped in Greek and Arabic. I was blessed to attend a service while here. We’ve been running from site to site, we have barely had time to breath, let alone attend a two hour service. I had planned to serve at the weekly Divine Liturgy tonight (Midnight Saturday night) but since tomorrow is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord on the New Calendar, the Roman Catholic Church is having a Mass at midnight, so no Greek Orthodox Liturgy. Maybe next time, and there WILL be a next time. I PROMISE!
Tomorrow we return home!