From the moment two El Al airline security men in suits interrogated me at Kennedy Airport, I knew I was in for an experience of mystery and intrigue. If there are no atheists in fox holes, there are no cynics on a Holy Land Pilgrimage. From Feb. 10-19, I was going to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ, along with thirty-nine other pilgrims. Leading us in the journey of faith were the Rev. Fr. John Vlahos of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and the Very Rev. Fr. Chrysostomos Gilbert of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on the Upper West Side.
We would visit the actual sites where Jesus Christ was born, walked, talked, performed miracles, lived, died, was resurrected, and changed the world.
We would climb, view, weep, search, discover and venerate. Yanni Baboul, a Palestinian Greek, our dynamic guide, offered a brilliant overview at every stop. Adding immeasurably to our understanding, Frs. John and Chyrsostomos read appropriate passages from the Bible at each site.
Our trip began in Tiberias. Driving in from Tel Aviv, a McDonalds twinkled in the distance. A woman looked up at the night sky: “But I had expected to see more stars.” Our first stop was a cruise on the sun-lit Sea of Galilee, where Christ walked on the waters.
We then visited the Mountain of the Beatitudes where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and proclaimed his eternal beatitudes. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God,” a plaque reads. An octagonal church marks the spot, echoing the eight beatitudes. We were advised that Jesus could preach to a multitude of 15,000 people because wind that blew up from the Sea of Galilee could carry his message.
The pilgrimage would not have been complete without the much-anticipated spiritual baptism at the River Jordan, a different spot from that chosen by John the Baptist, because that place is now muddy and overgrown. We donned bathing suits, then put on white robes, $7 each, ours to keep. A pilgrim could choose to stand by the sidelines and be sprinkled upon, or to go for full immersion. Frs. John and Chrysostomos plunged one up and down three times, while securely holding on, an exhilarating experience. Fellow travelers formed a link to pull each person up over the slippery ground.
We visited every important place in the life of Jesus Christ, from Mt. Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration, where Christ first revealed his divinity, to Cana, where Christ performed his first public miracle, turning water into wine.
We encountered old saints and new. In Lod, we visited St. George’s Church, a stirring experience as we placed St. George’s prison chains around our own necks. We discovered San Simeon, who after reading the prediction of Christ’s coming, managed to stay alive for 278 years, dying only after His birth. We walked to Theodosius Monastery, founded in 476, a desert retreat where the wise men rested. At the Monastery of Mar Saba, in the middle of the desert, women were not permitted, but we could gaze from the adjoining mountain. In one monastery, a soulful monk asked us: “How will this trip change you? What will you take with you?”
The Bethlehem site of the Church of the Nativity defied Christmas card pictures but moved our hearts. One takes an escalator up from the street and walks past KFC and stores selling bargain sneakers and clothes. I ducked my head and went through what appears to be a secret door, to emerge into a dazzling temple of Corinthian marble columns.
Years after the birth of Christ, a pagan temple was built over this site. When Helen, mother of Constantine, converted, she went to Jerusalem to search for and discover where the Nativity took place.
Exiting the temple, I walked down into a dark grotto. Oil lamps overhead illuminate this sacred spot. To the left, the birthplace of Jesus Christ has been protected by a box-like structure. I got down on my hands and knees and then crawled into this spot of veneration. I was literally prostrate, and struck by a sense of awe that came unbidden. I struggled to my feet because I was only one in a huge line of worshippers.
Going down more stairs, I viewed tiny bones preserved under glass, heart-breaking relics of the children destroyed by Herod. In these well-trod, ancient and slippery underground places, there are no handrails. I asked the caretaker why not, and he assured me that they are not needed because “You are blessed.”
I reemerged into today’s reality. A man at the bottom of the escalator hawked crosses while swinging a censer. A Muezzin caller cried out over the loud speaker.
Before leaving, we attended Midnight Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The church overflowed with not only Greeks, but Russian, Rumanian, and Serbian Orthodox.
Individuals prostrated themselves on the floor by a long raised marble slab. This is where Christ was laid when he came off the cross. People rubbed their handkerchiefs on the marble hoping to take home a blessing. I got down on the floor and rested my head on the pink, rutted marble with its breaks and crevices. Nobody pushed me to hurry.
Nearby, the service went on, so crowded that the candle stand could no longer accommodate a candle. It had become a pool of melted wax. Communion came like a battle, with people pushing and shoving (we were sure it was the Russians acting like football tackles!). Come here. Go there. Michael, our group MD radiologist, led us upstairs for communion. Our disparate group became protective and supportive, holding hands and reaching out for each other in the crowd. We achieved communion, with Father Chrysostomos holding out the basket of antidoron.
At 4 AM we left over the well-trod stones to return to our hotel.
The final day offered an inspiring walk on the Via Dolorosa, following the stations where Christ struggled with the cross on his back. Many other groups from around the world also made the trip, many of them chanting.
That night we embarked on the El Al journey home. We had seen so many wonders, felt so much. To fully describe this spiritual adventure would require a book. We were exhausted. Squeezed between two good people, I actually slept on the trip back to New York City.