Thursday, October 23, 2008

Priest Becomes a Pilgrim

Special to the Post and Courier
October 5, 2008

Riot shields. A ray of light beaming from the dome of the Church of the Resurrection down into the nave. A Berlin-ish Wall running over the hillside, dividing families. The Great Walls of the Old City. Women bearing machine guns in the streets. The angelic voices of the nuns at the Russian monastery at En Kerem. A late night talk with an Orthodox Rabbi who has a well-known radio program broadcast world-wide. A Palestinian Roman Catholic guide on our trip. An hour with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, successor to the brother of our Lord. Walking—if we can call it that—in a crowd of 10,000 (literally) Muslims leaving the Dome of the Rock on a Friday during Ramadan. Receiving communion at the hand of the Archbishop of Jerusalem at the tomb of Jesus Christ in the middle of the night. These are a just a few of the sites and experiences of my two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land from September 8-20. Our local host, a newly ordained Anglican deacon, began to describe all this to us before we would experience it: “If all the world is a stage, Jerusalem is an Opera.” Opera indeed.

The religious and political history and situation in Israel is as varied as its terrain. Rocky here, desert there, lush and tropical in another spot. Never the same for 40 miles in a row. Jerusalem seems to be a police state. Everywhere we went, the presence of small bands of armed officers were walking about. In order to enter the temple mount, one must go through airport-type security. And yet, despite the military and police presence (or perhaps because of it), I felt entirely comfortable walking the streets of Old Jerusalem at 11pm, 1230am, and 445am.

The only time I ever felt threatened at all was at the Wailing Wall, the remnants of the Western Wall of the Temple, to which many people come to pray, most numerously Orthodox Jews. As we entered the area, Metropolitan Kallistos, Fr Marcus Burch, and I were confronted by a very angry (and I suspect disturbed) Orthodox Jew who came practically belly to belly with our Bishop. He had a very hateful (I use such a term very sparingly, yet intentionally) look in his eyes as he continually pointed the way out, and blocked Metropolitan Kallistos’ every effort to move forward. Finally, Israeli police moved in and escorted the man back towards the wall, in order to leave us in peace. Still, the fellow kept an eye on us from a distance—and I likewise kept an eye on him. He had obviously identified us as Christians by our dress (cassocks and hats), though we were forbidden to wear our pectoral crosses there. Forbidden were all “ritual objects”. Apart from being spat upon by a few Jewish teenagers and receiving the Arabic equivalent of the middle finger by a few Muslim boys, we were generally well received in public. I guess pubescence is a universal suffering.

Jerusalem is a confluence of ancient and modern tides. Where in our country, we think in terms of a few hundred years, and in Europe, one thinks in terms of more centuries, Jerusalem is the land of millennia. King David lived and ruled there nearly 3000 years ago. It was incredibly humbling to walk the Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa—the path the Jesus himself took to his crucifixion 2000 years ago. It was mind-boggling to visit Jericho, the oldest inhabited city in the world—a 10,000 year history (and to see the very Sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed up into. There is only one ancient Sycamore tree in Jericho, and it is more than 2000 years old.) If anything, our pilgrimage helped to establish a sense that we are part of a great and long (very long) history.

My concerns about the mixing of tourism and pilgrimage proved to be true—and not just for others, but for me. It was a difficult line to walk—the line of wanting to be there in the moment to pray, to venerate, to pause, to reflect, but also to record, to photograph for those who could not come along and may never go. The most significant moments of prayer and true pilgrimage occurred at unusual times and unanticipated places. To serve the services at the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre, tomb of Christ), we had to go in the middle of the night. There is simply too much chaos during the day, so the monks begin the liturgy after midnight, when the doors to the church are closed to the public, and open only to those who come to pray. How incredibly peaceful it was to receive communion in the Tomb of Jesus Christ at about 4am, nearly the hour of his resurrection “before dawn”.

Another angelic experience was the Vigil (Evening service) for the Beheading of the John the Baptist, celebrated at the Russian Orthodox monastery in En Kerem, providentially, the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth—the parents of the Forerunner himself. We arrived after the prayers had already begun, and on entering the magnificent church, surely we heard the voices of the hosts of heaven. The monastic women’s choir sang from the loft over the west doors and filled the domed church with the most ethereal resonance. We clergy were also then invited to serve with the monks for as long as we could stay, which turned out to be one of the most moving experiences of my priesthood.

We got a taste of parish life in Nazareth, when, on Sunday, we served with the local bishop and clergy in a packed church. The service was sung eagerly and fervently in Arabic—with a little Greek and English thrown in by us visitors—and was apparently aired on internet TV. The local Orthodox Christians invited us to their version of coffee hour, and treated us like kings. Middle-eastern hospitality ranks near the top of the list. How beautiful that the biblical term is “philoxenia”—the love of strangers.

I really can do no justice to the pilgrimage in a brief column—but I wanted to give at least a taste of my experience here. I thank the Post and Courier for the opportunity to write these two before-and-after columns. To those who did email me names of friends and family, I did pray for you at the Holy Sepulchre and at the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. May the Lord bless you! For a fuller walk through our pilgrimage experience, I invite you to Holy Ascension on Wednesday nights in October. We’ll pray Vespers at 6pm, and from 6:45-8pm, I recount the pilgrimage in pictures and tales. Come and see!

Fr John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 843-881-5010 or

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