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WASHINGTON, DC: August 8, 2006
Parish Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

The Holy Land. The words evoke a pious response in the soul of every Orthodox Christian. Throughout the ages, the faithful have directed their gaze at the Holy Land, both the cradle of the Church of Christ and a witness to the greatest events in the history of mankind. The land is holy, for it is the land in which our Lord Jesus Christ spent his earthly life, the land in which every path and every pebble is a reminder of the holy days of His life on earth.

Archimandrite John Veriuzhsky, author of Nine Talks With Russian Faithful in the Holy Land , a remarkable book published in the early 20th century, compared visiting the Holy Land to a very potent medicine, one capable of helping even those sick people for whom ordinary medicine no longer brings any relief. There, where the Savior spent His earthly life, we cannot help but think about Him. Fr John wrote, “Sight is greater than hearing. What we have seen and felt penetrates deeper into the heart and is more deeply fixed in our memory… The Holy Places are sacred because they strengthen us and raise us up to think of what once happened there.”

From July 14 to 29, parishioners of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist took part in the fourth parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so they could see with their own eyes and venerate the holy sites of Biblical events. With love and fear of God, our parishioners, and other pilgrims from Moscow and France who joined their group, bowed down in the Tomb of Our Lord, before Golgotha, and in the various chapels in Church of the Christ's Resurrection. With a sense of trepidation, they walked along Christ's path to the Cross [the "Via Dolorosa"]. They prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the Upper Room on Mt Zion, and in Bethlehem. They immersed themselves in the holy waters of the Jordan, and ascended Mt Sinai.

Our 65 pilgrims received a warm reception from Patriarch Theophilos, leader of the Mother of all Orthodox Churches, the Holy Church of Jerusalem. His Holiness the Patriarch blessed the pilgrims to commune of the Holy Gifts of Christ at all of the holy places, and allowed the choir of Washington's Cathedral of St John the Baptist to sing the Liturgy at the Holy Sepulcher and the Basilica of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem. His Holiness the Patriarch bestowed upon Protopriest Victor Potapov and Priest Michael Fritz, the two priests among the group of pilgrims, beautiful pectoral crosses made of mother-of-pearl; he also gave each of the pilgrims mementos of their visit.

The audience with the head of the Jerusalem Patriarchate lasted over an hour. Throughout, His Holiness Patriarch Theophilos freely shared his thoughts on how essential it was for Orthodox Christians to constantly struggle to make the Church the center of their lives, and his ideas on how best to oppose secularism and globalization. The leader of the Jerusalem Church said that he was watching attentively the process of unification of the Russian Church. He emphasized that as soon as that process was completed, the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia would be allowed to concelebrate in the churches of the Jerusalem Patriarchate.

Our group received an especially warm welcome from the nuns of our two ROCOR convents in the Holy Land, and from Abbess Moisseia, head of the Convent of the Lord's Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and Abbess Elizaveta, head of the Convent of St Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. The abbesses blessed two of the nuns of their convents to accompany the pilgrims over the course of their two weeks of travel throughout the Holy Land.

The pilgrimage coincided with the beginning of the Lebanon-Israel conflict. It was evident that the military actions caused pilgrims from many lands to cancel their plans to visit the Holy Land, and that those who had already arrived in Israel kept to the safety of the south. In response to Israeli bombing, the radical Hezbollah party in Lebanon fired rockets at towns in the north of Israel. Nazareth, one of the principal sites of pilgrimage lay under threat of rocket strikes. Rockets fired from Lebanese territory had already fallen on the city. Among their victims was the cousin of the matushka of Fr Roman, an Orthodox Arab priest who, by the way, had studied at the Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville.

In view of the circumstances, Fr Victor, the pilgrimage organizer and director, decided not to have the pilgrims visit the holy places in the North of Israel. However, the change in plans gave us the opportunity to visit many holy places not included in the original itinerary. In that regard, and with the help of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, we managed to get Israeli Army permission to visit the very spot in the Judean Desert where our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized by St John the Baptist. The site is near the border between Jordan and Israel, is surrounded by mine fields, and is considered a military no-man's-land. The faithful are allowed access to the site only twice per year: on Theophany, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates the Blessing of the Waters, and on Great Tuesday. Our group pilgrims considered our receiving permission to visit the place of the Lord's Baptism to have been a God-given act of great mercy and consolation. Attired in white baptismal gowns, we celebrated the great blessing of the waters, and immersed ourselves in the holy waters of the Jordan.

Our pilgrims lived and prayed at the holy places as one, friendly, Christian family. The youngest participant was 13 years of age, and the oldest was 86. We did not hear a single complaint from anyone; we heard only words of reverent joy in response to all we saw and heard.

Visiting the Holy Land predisposes us toward seeing our lives in a particular light. Every step of the pilgrimage reminded us of the importance of maintaining those feelings, so that in our daily labors and concerns, we might identify what is most important, and not confuse it with what is of secondary importance.

Glory to the Lord, Who has shown us the uncreated Light and the grace of His earthly homeland!

Protopriest Victor Potapov

Photos: Anton Thaker