A Group of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians of the UOC of the USA Begins a Pilgrimage to Holy Land With His Grace Bishop Daniel
Reflection and Photos by Elizabeth Symonenko, Consistory Secretary
After a lengthy flight, 18 pilgrims led by His Eminence Archbishop-Elect Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, disembarked to find themselves on the precipice of an adventure of a lifetime. Like God’s creatures who looking for salvation made their way to Noah’s Ark, so we gathered, from all corners of the world, converging on the earthly location, which facilitated our own salvation.
Of the 19 pilgrims, which consist of one hierarch, 3 clergy and 15 laity, most came from different states within the U.S., others came from Greece, and one flew in all the way from Australia. What a blessing to be with so many like-minded people, all gathered for one purpose, to better understand their God, their Faith and themselves.
We started our adventure by boarding the tour bus and heading towards Nazareth, our first destination. Just driving from Tel Aviv to Nazareth, we were confronted with not only history…but, our future. Rather appropriately we start with the end and work our way back. As we had our noses to the window enjoying the sites of the country, such as orange trees covered in fruit, locals gathering olives off trees which were lining the roads, camels lazily resting beneath tall palms, mounds of colorful oleander blooming everywhere you look, Khalil our tour guide casually suggested we all look out the left side of the bus. As all heads turned, and gazed across a rather large field, in the distance spouted a single mountain range with a few scraggly palms upon it. We quickly went from unimpressed to overwhelmed when we realized we were casually gazing upon the Mountain of Megiddo, the spot believed to be the location where the final battle of Armageddon will be fought. Our eyes gazed innocently upon a location that may well be the end of life as we know it, and bring about the beginning of the next life.
With that sobering thought in our minds, we made a final turn and could see a rather large tunnel looming ahead. This was the border of Nazareth. The tour guide reminded us of what Nathanael said when the Disciple Philip tried to convince him that Jesus of Nazareth might be the Messiah, “nothing good comes out of Nazareth.” Khalil agreed that nothing good comes out of Nazareth, because everything good stays in Nazareth.
As we emerged from the tunnel we found ourselves winding through the hilly roads of the city. The bus took us up and around and we emerged at Mount Precipice. Walking up the gently curved path, leading us higher and higher, flanked on both sides by various conifers and shrubs, it seemed a quiet and peaceful place, until Father Volodymyr Steliac reached down to an unassuming dry bush and lifted up a thorny branch. Just looking at it, made our hearts grow cold, as we realized this was what was used to create Christ’s “Crown of thorns”.
We continued up the path with a new realization and appreciation of just where we were. On our right side was the city of Nazareth, unassuming homes peppered the hillsides, before us opened up the vast Jezreel Valley. As we all stood, gazing over the precipice and pondering all that lay beneath us, His Eminence stated that as he walked up this path and gazed at Nazareth on his right, he imagined Christ, as a young boy climbing this mountain while playing with his friends. Perhaps he often climbed to the top and sat gazing down on that very same valley, as we were today.
The mountain is also believed to be the location, when a much older Jesus met with a very different experience.
From the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 4, we witness when Christ gets up to read at the Synagogue and upon reading, announced that he was the Messiah the world was waiting for, and the people rebuked him.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 18-21)
Instead of rejoicing, the people got upset. In fact, they got very upset.
“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4: 28-30)
We looked down in to the valley and realized we were standing on the very spot where the crowd wished to throw Jesus off the mountain to his death.
As the horror of that fact brought chills, they were quickly replaced by goosebumps as we turned and gazed to our left, and there standing proud and solid, was Mount Tabor, where Christ revealed his divinity to his Disciples, by appearing in the middle of the prophets Moses and Elijah. Moses had died, and Elijah had been taken up alive to Heaven upon a fiery chariot. This showed Sts. Peter, John and James, that Christ was the God of both the living and the dead. Here we stood, tired, with red eyes, thirsty and hot, and before us we envisioned the Transfiguration of our Lord and Savior. Just as the Apostles were in awe, so were we.
If that was not enough, we turned a bit to our right and there, just in the nook of some unassuming hills stood the city of Nain, where Christ resurrected the widow’s son, where death crashed in to life, and life came out victorious.
Sitting now in the beautiful Legacy Hotel, overlooking the city, I am still amazed that I am really here. I gazed upon the setting sun off the balcony, to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer. Listening to the wailing and sad voice of the muezzins from various minarets, saddened me. Instead of bringing joy, they brought sorrow..that Christ revealed himself here, in the city of Nazareth, and the city knows him not.
As I sit here typing, the door to the balcony is open, and while the honking cars still persist, the birdsong has been replaced with barking dogs…and the persistent Call to Prayer.
Listening to the lonely wails echoing off the walls of my hotel room, I was re-energized and revitalized, as I jumped out of my chair and ran onto the balcony to witness that all hope is not lost. As 6 PM (11 AM EST) hit, and the prayers from the minarets had been going on for a lengthy period of time, I heard the sound of hope. Bells. Bells began to ring, louder and louder and overcame the sounds of the Adhan. It was the battle of the voices, and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation won hands down.
My first day in the Holy Land is winding down, and I cannot wait for tomorrow’s adventure. How does one sleep knowing they are in the Land where Christ walked, played, taught and lived?