Today had two major events on the agenda; the blessing of the Jordan River by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and visiting the Church of the Nativity.
On our way to the Jordan, we stopped to view the Monastery of Hedzova, dedicated to the Annunciation. The parents of the Theotokos, Saints Joachim and Anna, stopped in this area to pray to God for a child. Nearby caves also allowed the Prophet Elijah to hide for 3 years from the wicked queen Jezebel and King Ahab. The desert in this region was unbelievably beautiful and wild.
I had a hard time putting into words in my personal journal the experience of the Patriarchal blessing of the water. Christians from all over the world joined together for this event. The Patriarch of Jerusalem served a small service (the 9th hour) in the monastery of St John the Baptist, which is at the top of the roadway. For decades, it has been used only for this day; but it recently got permission to become a functioning monastery again. After this service, the clergy and increasing crowds of people joined together in a procession down the roadway (approximately a half mile) to the Baptismal site at the Jordan. The clergy gathered at a makeshift altar and font to serve the Great Vespers service for Epiphany and bless the crowds with holy water. At the conclusion, the Patriarch then processed down to the river bank to bless the river, and then the river was opened up to the crowds of people. Many had the specific ‘baptismal’ garment required to go in to the river, and there were various degrees of ‘baptisms’ taking place. We as Orthodox believe in only one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but there are other traditions that renew baptismal vows many times. Father Panagiotis had the wonderful opportunity to serve as vested clergy in the services and accompany the Patriarch in the procession! The crowds (5000-7000 people) were oppressive at times, rude at times, and joyous at times. Seeing so many people from different walks of life come fight for positions near the Patriarch, to weep with excitement at being sprinkled with holy water, and to dance with joy after bathing in the river, was truly an experience to remember. The love I saw in these faces, fierce love for their faith and their Church, was inspiring. As I said before, it was really difficult to describe the energy present in this morning.
After we all made it back to the bus, we drove to Bethlehem for the remainder of the day. We tried to visit the church of the Shepherd’s Field, but unfortunately it was closed. It was hard to imagine the area as a field in the wilderness, since it’s fully a city environment now.
Final stop of the day was the Church of the Nativity of Christ. It’s an enormous church, in the 3-aisle basilica style, with many visible stages of design throughout the ages. It was one of the only churches built by St Helen in 328 that was not destroyed by the Persian army – this was because the large icon at the front door of the Nativity depicted the Magi (3 wise men), who were Persian. The church is owned and operated by the Greek Orthodox, and the center aisle and altar are magnificent and ornately designed. There is also a famous icon of the Virgin Mary of Bethlehem here.
The Armenian church is allowed to use the left aisle and altar at certain times during the year. (The Armenians are not in Communion with the majority of Orthodox churches, as they do not believe in the full human nature of Christ) However, they celebrate Christmas and Epiphany on the same day, so they were singing their vespers service for the feast while we were waiting in line to view the Grotto where Christ was born. Their chanting was beautiful, but they were also serving Liturgy in the Grotto, which resulted in some of our group being pushed through quickly without much time to reflect. In the Grotto, the spot on the floor where Christ was born is marked with a silver star – it was originally gold, and was stolen, which was the cause of the Crimean war. Nearby the star is the manger, an indented section of the stone floor. Many in our group were very moved by this special place!
We were able to do some shopping after leaving the church, at a shop with incredible olive wood carvings and incredible old icons. We all called it an early evening to prepare for the Liturgy of Epiphany tomorrow.