The Orthodox Church has always recognized that places and objects are made holy by their association with holy people. Thus, the relics of saints are venerated and pilgrimages are made to sacred shrines for the spiritual benefit that the faithful can receive from them.
When Fr. Nicholas, Subdeacon Jerome, and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month, we became part of a 2,000-year tradition of those who have traveled to the land made holy by the earthly life of Our Lord, seeking this spiritual benefit.
In Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Mt. Tabor and Jerusalem, the pilgrim is at first overwhelmed by how much the Biblical stories come alive and at how small the geographic area is where the story of our salvation unfolded. We can so easily see our Lord’s extended family (Mary and Joseph; Joachim and Anna; Elizabeth and Zecharia; John the Baptist; James) and his close friends (the holy Apostles; Mary and Martha and Lazarus) walking these narrow stone-paved streets, shopping in these markets, and fishing in the Lake Genessaret. These were the saints who, after witnessing Jesus’ life and Resurrection, formed the Church and began the work of carrying the light of Christ to all the world.
But pilgrims soon become aware of the many layers of holiness in this holy land, of the countless other saints who, by their presence, prayers, charity and suffering through the centuries, added their sanctity to an already blessed land.
St. Nicholas was a pilgrim to the Holy Land in the years 312-15. On his way there, traveling by sea, the young priest Nicholas saved the ship and its passengers and crew through his prayers during a violent storm. After venerating the holy places (pointed out by the local Christians), Nicholas felt a strong desire to remain here and dedicate himself to a life of solitude in a cave in the nearby desert.. But in his prayers, Nicholas heard the voice of God calling him back to Asia Minor where he was needed. Shortly after his return, he was made Bishop of Myra. St. Nicholas’ sojourn in the Holy Land is marked at the Church of St. Nicholas in Beit Jala (near Bethlehem) where his cave cell is preserved in the crypt of the church and where some of his relics – which had been taken to Bari, Italy and returned in recent years – can be venerated. We give thanks to God for the presence of St. Nicholas, who is revered throughout the world, in this holy land.
St. Helena was one of the most important of the “second layer” saints who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was she who, as mother of the newly crowned Roman Emperor, used her influence to discover and honor the holy places. Since the local Christians (5th and 6th generation descendants of those who had known Our Lord and the Apostles) had kept alive the memory of where the important events had occurred, it remained for the Empress to destroy the pagan emblems which had been used to cover some of the sites (such as the statue of Venus over the site of the Resurrection) and to build churches for Christian worship.
How fortunate for the world that St. Helena was converted to the Christian faith and that her son, St. Constantine, freed the Christians from persecution and execution. Since St. Helena’s time (d. 330) – despite periodic destruction by enemies and earthquakes, rebuilding, invasions and rule by hostile people – Christians have been able to worship in the churches at the sites of the Nativity, the Shepherd’s Field, the cave of the Wise Men, the Ascension, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. St. Helena also discovered the remains of the Holy Cross, identified through a miracle. We give thanks to God for the life and work of this great saint.
Another early pilgrim to the Holy Land was St. Jerome, who came in 384 to venerate the holy places. With two of his spiritual children, Ss. Paula and her daughter, Eustochium of Rome, he formed a double monastery and lived in a cell near the birthplace of Our Lord. St. Jerome expressed his love for the place of the Nativity in these words; “All the places are holy and venerable, where Christ was born, where He was crucified, where He rose and where as victor He ascended into heaven; but this place is fittingly more venerable…Here a poor little child is born, an infant is laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” Providing hospitality was a main focus of Jerome’s monastery and it was here that his monumental translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) was completed. St. Jerome ended his life (in the year 420) in this holy place and was buried in the Church of the Nativity near his cell. His relics were later transferred to Rome, where he had begun his life of service to the Church.
In the next century, Theodosius came from Cappadocia to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, first visiting St. Simeon Stylites for advice on dedicating his life to God. After venerating the holy places in Jerusalem, Theodosius entered a monastery in Bethlehem, but soon removed himself to a cell in the cave revered as the place where the Magi had rested after seeing the Christ Child and where they learned in a dream not to return to Herod. In this holy place (now near Beit Sahour), Theodosius devoted himself to prayer, fasting, and holy tears. After numerous disciples gathered round him, seeking his spiritual guidance, Theodosius had to build a monastery large enough to accommodate them all. Many had come from far away and the community was made up of Christians who spoke several different languages. Theodosius built several churches where the monks could worship daily in their own language – Greek, Armenian, Georgian, or Slavic – coming together to receive communion. St. Theodosius served as a faithful guide for his monks until his earthly life ended at age 105. He was buried in his cave cell, having added his blessing to this land through his life of sanctity.
The many “layers” of holiness in the Holy Land have continued through the centuries. In 1888, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia accompanied her husband, Grand Duke Sergei to Palestine for the consecration of the golden-domed church at the Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. It was here that Elizabeth, who was a Protestant of German background, was moved to become Orthodox, to become a member of the Church which she had grown to love and to recognize as the continuation of the original Church. On her return to Russia, Elizabeth devoted herself more determinedly to the works of charity which were natural to her. After the Grand Duke was assassinated by a terrorist bomb in 1905, she established a monastery and, with the aid of the nuns under her direction, provided medical care and food for many people in a difficult time. Elizabeth and a companion, the nun Barbara, were murdered with the rest of the Russian royal family in 1918, and their bodies were secreted away, eventually being sent for burial in the beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalene. Today, their relics can be venerated as saints in this church.
A new chapter has begun in the Holy Land. Life for Christians in this place where the Church originated has once again become extremely difficult. Caught between Jews and Muslims amid hostilities, oppression and violence, many Christians are choosing to leave for a safer life elsewhere. May the saints of all the centuries in the Holy Land intercede for these besieged people, and may God give us wisdom and strength to help them to maintain a Christian presence in the land he made holy.