Pilgrimage

EASTER DIARY FROM THE HOLY LAND
Following the Footsteps of God-Man
On the Stone of Anointing, next to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, I pray for a long time, deeply. Tears run down my face, of love, of joy, of grace. I smile. I can fit into a rosary bead. In Golgotha, I put my hand into the hole where the Holy Cross was raised and find a pebble. I still keep it and I’ll take it to my last journey. In Cana of Galilee I touch the stone dishes in which Christ turned water into wine. In Small Galilee, I stand in the place where the Doubting confessed faith. Near the Jaffa Gate, I wait for the Holy Fire, reaching me through many hands. I pull it near my beard, but it doesn’t ignite. Only my heart is on fire

By: Nebojša Jevrić
Photo: N. Jevrić and NR Archive


We fly towards the Holy Land. Brother Jovan, pilgrim, asks me:
”Tell me, brother Nebojša, you’re from Montenegro, what’s with Miraš’s church down there?”
I answer loudly, so that half of the plane could hear me:
”It’s sad that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church doesn’t have a single sanctity. But they’re about to take care of it these days. Miraš went to Slovenia to buy Tito’s leg, which was amputated and preserved in formalin. He’ll bring it to Cetinje, so they can bow before it. It’s only that the Slovenians don’t want to decrease the price. Jevrem Brković, based on his national pension, had to take a bank loan.”
The plane is full of pilgrims and those preparing to become pilgrims. We have father Vladislav with us, my spiritual father from Bijelo Polje. There’s also Milja, carrying two children, one is nine months and the other two years old. Literally carrying them. There’s Maja, who sings like Svetlana Stević, there are Nemanja, Dejan… They’re all laughing. Looking forward to their journey to the Holy Land. Thirty wooden crosses, three meters tall and two wide are in the cargo area. We’ll carry them on Good Friday.

2.
Tel Aviv. While waiting at the passport control, I watch around the enormous airport. A beautiful girl in a uniform caught my eye. I stare at her. She comes to me. Oh, God, a temptation already on the first step!
She approaches me, asks me to come with her, takes me to an investigator’s office and leaves me with him. Obviously a professional, probably from Russia, he asks everything. Takes pictures. Fingerprints.
”I’m a writer, I want to write about Jerusalem.”
He watches me suspiciously. Finally, I take out my wallet and show him how much the future pilgrim Jevra has with him.
This was the crucial argument.
I can go to Jerusalem! Cash, mate!
Brothers Danko and Zvonko, civil engineers, made the journey to Jerusalem possible for the sinful poet and war reporter.

3.
Through the Jaffa Gate we enter Jerusalem. The city was demolished seventeen times and restored eighteen. It survived thirty wars. This is the navel of the world. We were accommodated in the ”Petra” Hostel, immediately next to the Jerusalem walls. We can choose between a six-bed room and a mattress on the roof. I go up to the roof and wait for dawn. There is a wonderful view of Jerusalem from there. A hundred meters from ”Petra” is the Church of Holy Sepulchre. In the distance, the roof of the Al Aqsa mosque shines in the sun. After Mecca and Medina, it is the third holiest site of the Muslims. Somewhere out there is also the Wailing Wall.
Sleepy, I go down to the Church of Holy Sepulchre.
The Stone of Anointing is immediately next to its entrance. It is where Jesus was anointed with a hundred liters of myrrh and aloe. He had five hundred wounds on his body. Pilgrims from all over the world come here to say their prayers. They bring pieces of clothes of their ill ones to take the myrrh on them. As if all the sorrow suddenly left me. Tears are running down my face, not those of sadness, but those of love. I smile.
The Aedicule consists of two parts: the Chapel of Angels and Tomb of Jesus. There’s also the stone on which the White Angel, depicted in the most beautiful Serbian fresco, greeted the Maries. You can’t stay long in the Aedicule. So I go out, climb the stairs towards Golgotha (The Place of the Skull) and light candles. I place my hand in the hole in which the Holy Cross was raised and find a pebble. I still keep it with me.

4.
On Saturday we went to the Mount of Olives, the place of Christ’s Ascension. Christ wanted to ascend from there, not from Jerusalem, which condemned him to death. In forty days he appeared eleven times and six hundred people saw him.
We visit the Greek Ascension. It has the famous fresco, especially important for us Serbs: the scene of bombing the Archangels in Prizren, Zočište and Devič. Monk Achilleos gave us a wonderful, anti-ecumenical sermon.
We continue to Small Galilee. This is where the Lord, on the seventh day since his resurrection, appeared to his disciples: ”Come, Thomas, put your finger and hand into the wound in my side.” And the doubtful believed.
The summer residence of the Patriarch of Jerusalem is here. We sit in the shade and eat humus and bun for lunch. Maja, Jovan, Nemanja and Dejan sing: ”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner!”
From the place where the Lord climbed on a donkey, we set off with palms and small crosses in our hands, and follow the Patriarch down to the small church of Nativity of the Holy Virgin, in the old city of Jerusalem. Some are carrying large palm branches, some small crosses made by skillful hands from palm twigs.
The next day, on Palm Sunday, we attend a liturgy in the Russian church, were the famous icon of Annunciation is kept.
As every previous day, I go again to the Stone of Anointing. In deep prayer, I remember my sins and pray for forgiveness.

5.
Monday. We go to the cave where St. John the Baptist, with his mother, St. Elizabeth, were hiding. St. Elizabeth was also buried there. Running from the pursuers sent by Herod, the slaughterer of infants, she prayed before the rock and the rock opened. There’s the spring they drank water from and many palms, which fruit they ate, now called St. John’s Bread.
We are in the Monastery of the Cross, a triune tree, with Lot’s Church. Lot planted three seeds, one by another. Cedar, boxwood and cypress. The united into one tree. The tree couldn’t be processed, so it was thrown into the Cedron Stream. Thirty years later, the cross on which Christ was crucified was made from that same tree. It was discovered by Empress Jelena in a cave dug in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Until the fifteenth century, all pilgrims were given a piece of the Holy Cross, but it never decreased.
On Holy Tuesday, we first go the Monastery of St. George, then to the cave of St. Elijah, fed by a raven. There are also the untouched relics of St. John the Romanian. His hands, legs and shoes are still whole.
From there we set off to the Mount of Temptations, where the devil tempted Jesus for forty days with pleasure, self-love and power. He talked him into jumping from a rock, but Jesus knew that he would soon take another direction.
From the desert we go the Jordan River to renew the vows of baptism. In white robes, which we will keep to be buried in them, the priest puts our heads into the water.
We then visit the Monastery of St. Gerasimos of Jordan, the one who tamed the lion.

6.
Holy Wednesday. We set off to our longest journey, to the Mount of Tabor.
We climb towards the site of Transfiguration on foot.
Tired, before entering the church, I lay on the ground. The smell of the soil in Tabor will remain in me forever. This is where Jesus took out Peter, James and John and transfigured in front of them. ”His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. A bright cloud enveloped them and a voice came out of it, saying: ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him.’
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them: ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”

7.
We are in Nazareth, in the place where Archangel Gabriel announced to the Holy Virgin. Houses here used to be built above caves. Jesus spent most of his earthly life here, mostly in his stepfather’s carpenter shop. This is where he said the famous words that ”no one is a prophet in his own land”.
Fifty thousand Orthodox Christians live in Nazareth today. We go to fill our plastic bottles at Mary’s Spring, where the Holy Virgin came to fetch water. I give Serbian dinar paper bills to the bottle seller. He jumps with joy. He’s never held them in his hands.
We are then in the Cana of Galilee, where the Lord turned water into wine at a wedding. It was the first miracle of Christ. Two of six stone dishes were preserved. Earlier pilgrims put wine in them to be consecrated, but it’s not allowed anymore.
The Church of the Twelve Apostles, at the Sea of Galilee. The lake, 204 meters below sea level, is rich with fresh water and fish. This is where Jesus invited fishermen Andrew and Simon, called Peter, to come with him and become fishermen of human souls. James and John joined them. With these four, he placed the foundations of the Church, the organization of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Peacocks are freely wandering around the Church of the Twelve Apostles. I light candles for people dear to me. While others bathe in the Sea of Galilee, I pray for a long time. I can feel my prayer becoming deep and full of joy. In Belgrade, I’m known as an ”aggressive taciturn person”, but here I can’t stop smiling and feeling joy while saying Christ’s prayer.
The River of Fire fresco is on the western wall. Wonderful.
On Maundy Thursday, we attend a liturgy and take Holy Communion in a Russian church. We then go to the Last Supper room and the place where the 50th Psalm was written and first liturgy served. The Last Supper room is also called the Cenacle. St. Sava paid solid gold to purchase it back from non-believers and return it to Christians.
The procession of the cross is on Good Friday. Many people are in the streets of Jerusalem, but only Serbs carry crosses. From the dungeon, through Via Dolores, then down to the cave of Empress Jelena, where the cross was discovered. She ordered the cave to be excavated and all three crosses were discovered in them. Serbs gathered there, singing and praying. On the Golgotha as well. Brother Jovan in Serbian folk costume attracts everyone’s attention. Good is this Friday.
We are preparing for Holy Saturday, for the midnight liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

8.
Holy Saturday. The liturgy and the coming down of the Holy Fire has always been the most supreme religious event of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thousands of believers come every year to Jerusalem because of it. Until the twelfth century, the Latin Church accepted the authenticity of the miracle, but then Pope Gregory IX decided to dispute it and ban Latin believers to participate in the Service.
The Holy Fire spreads through the Church interior in the shape of a blue-whitish flash. It illuminates parts of the church and spontaneously ignites some of the oil lamps and candles of pilgrims. The inextinguishable oil lamp in the Holy Tomb was first lit in the year 326, when the Tomb of Christ was discovered, and has not been extinguished since, for seventeen centuries. Patriarch Diodoros the 1st used to attend the Miracle of the Holy Fire every year until his death in December 2000. Sixty-three years in a row.
”An uncertain Light emanates from the center of the stone on which Jesus’ body lay. The Light emerges from the stone like fog raises from a lake. It seems as if the stone is covered with a wet cloud, only made of light. The Light ascends and forms a flaming pillar, so that I can light candles on it. When I accept the flame on my candles, I go out and give the Fire first to the Armenian and then the Coptic Patriarch. Then I share it with all other people present in the temple.”
In the year 1579, Turkish authorities forbade the Greek Patriarch and Orthodox believers to enter the Church of Resurrection and attend the traditional Miracle of the Holy Fire. The Patriarch stood on the left side of the Church gate and prayed near a pillar. Suddenly the pillar broke and the Holy Fire began emerging from it. The Patriarch immediately lit his candle and shared the Fire with the believers.
I stand near the Jaffa Gate and wait for the Holy Fire, going from hand to hand. I light the candles and bring the flame towards my beard. It doesn’t ignite.

9.
Holy Communion. We rested a little and started off to Bethlehem. The city of breads. From there, we go to the Shepherds’ Field, where Jesus was born. A star with fourteen rays, marks Jesus’ place of birth.
Half way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is the Monastery of St. Theodosius. There’s the Cave of the Sages, where the relics of St. Theodosius and Sts. Cosmas and Damian are buried. The sages bowed to Jesus in Bethlehem and spent the night there on their way back. The Lord’s angel spoke to them and told them not to return to Herod, but to take a different road to continue their journey. The coal self-ignited to St. Theodosius there, so he raised a monastery.

10.
When St. Sava visited the Holy Land, he received the Three-Handed Virgin icon and prior’s scepter as a gift from a monk in the monastery of St. Sava the Sanctified. The icon was painted by holy apostle Luke, on a board from the Last Supper table. Besides that icon, Sava also received the Milk-Giver and two icons of Peter and Paul. St. Sava the Sanctified predicted that a guest of aristocratic origin will come to the monastery from a distant land, with the same name as him: Sava. They will recognize him because a well fixed prior’s scepter will fall before him. His will was that the stated sanctities shall be given to the guest. St. John of Damascus made an addition to the bequest: the same guest shall also be given the Three-Handed Virgin. And so it was. The scepter fell three times before St. Sava of Serbia and the Three-Handed was given as a gift.
Serbian monks were here for a hundred and thirty years.
On our way back, we load the wooden crosses into the plane again. Each of us will take it as a gift to a church in Serbia and Srpska.

***

Buns with Chickpeas
A pilgrim lunch is prepared in the ”Petra” Hostel, former Russian army barracks. A thin bun spread with chickpeas humus. That is all we will eat during our stay in the Holy Land. We eat only once a day, but I don’t feel hunger.

***

Smoking
While I was preparing for Jerusalem, I thought smoking will be my biggest problem. I smoked three packs a day and took a full suitcase of cigarettes. After passing through the gates of Jerusalem, the place of worship, I just forgot about cigarettes. I don’t know how. A miracle. The deadly sin departed me without a single nicotine crisis.

 


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