It was a beautiful and solemn procession at four in the morning to walk the icon of the Theotokos, the Holy Mother of God, from the monastery next to the Holy Sepulchre all the way down the via Delorosa to reach the empty tomb of the Virgin Mary at the bottom of the hill below the Russian Orthodox Convent at the Garden of Gethsemane.
According to the old calendar, the Dormition (Assumption ) of the Virgin Mary falls upon the New Calendar day of August 28th. Thus, as is customary in the Holy Land, three days prior to this solemn celebration, the icon is brought to the Tomb of the Holy Mother of God with multitudes of bishops, priests, pilgrims and local Palestinian Christians.
How sad, these restrictions of needing a permit to get into Jerusalem are getting worse than ever. How do you explain to the Israeli Authorities the ancient unbroken Christian traditions that should be carried out for pure witness and faith? I mean, my Muslim and Jewish colleagues did not even put me in the conversation this week. They are hosting meetings and speaking about the Holiday Season in Israel and Palestine but the discussion only includes the meaning of Ramadan and the Jewish holidays. The first thing in my mind is what about my ancient Christian traditions and the fact that some Christians are still here and trace their roots to the holy apostles and are experiencing holy days every day? I cannot understand being omitted of the discussion when we are making huge efforts to peacefully survive in the land of our Lord’s birth, crucifixion and resurrection.
The incredible reminder of the high price one pays to witness for Christ in the Holy Land is reflected with the new Martyr Archimandrite Philoumenos (Hasapis), 1913- 1979 who was glorified by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in August 2008. He was tortured by Israeli settlers at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Jacob’s Well in Nablus where Christ met the Samaritan woman, St. Photini. For the first time I noticed a small relic of St. Philoumenos after the midnight liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre. This is a holy relic added to the many others in the same room where a small piece of the Life Giving Cross is also viewed. I venerated the entire incorrupt body of St. Philoumenos in Nablus which I finally visited this month for the first time in thirty years. I sincerely thank Andrew who came to teach English language camp classes in Taybeh and inspired me to appreciate the holy places nearby.
In the Holy Land, some of the Orthodox Christians are trying to maintain a very strict period of fasting and penance in honor of the Holy Mother of God. People from all over the world came to walk in the procession and to commemorate the passing from this earth of the Virgin Mary. After a few hours of walking by the light of dawn we reached the magnificent church of the Theotokos and walked down the sacred marble stairwell which felt like a burning furnace because people light candles on the left and on the right all the way from the top to the bottom of the stairs leaving a very narrow middle path to walk down. As faithful people descend down the stairs to the crypt, they pass up the tombs of St.’s Joachim and Anna on the right, and the tomb of St. Joseph the Betrothed on the left.
Although burning hot, the light from these hundreds of candles is an incredible sight before you reach the actual tomb which is encased in Plexiglas and the front is covered with icons and tapestries. Tradition states that centuries ago, a third of the tomb was removed and taken to Constantinople. The original rock of the tomb can be seen on the side walls.
At this point most people are just simply sweating and not smelling very nice. As soon as we venerate the empty tomb and the icon of the Holy Mother of God which will be returned to the monastery within a week in another special celebration, it’s an amazing fight to get out from the crowd and reach the street level again. Glory be to God for all things because some people simply cry as they venerate. And unfortunately others are lamenting that they don’t have the freedom to worship in Jerusalem. Can anyone help Israel understand that the right to worship should be a basic human right.
About Maria Khoury
Maria C. Khoury
Palestine Christian Writer, Blogger at St. George Greek Orthodox Church
Maria (Kouremenou) Khoury is the author of Orthodox Christian children’s books including Christina Goes to the Holy Land, walking the footsteps of Christ. She is a graduate of Hellenic College (1982), Harvard University (1985) and Boston University (1992) with a doctor of education degree. Born in Tripoli, Greece, she was raised in Denver, Colorado. On Dec 31, 2009 she was included on the top 4 Human Rights Champions list by DC Human Rights Examiner including the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Hilary Clinton.
Maria is the author of Witness in the Holy Land (distributed by www.HolyCrossBookstore.com), a publication reflecting personal experiences living under military occupation with her husband the former Mayor of Taybeh, David Canaan Khoury and three children Elena, Canaan, and Constantine. Her articles have been published world-wide in numerous newspapers and magazines and have been translated to various languages bringing awareness of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.
Maria Khoury has been the Taybeh Oktoberfest organizer since 2005. She divides her time between her homes in Boston and Taybeh, travels throughout the world promoting the Christina Books and making presentations about the dwindling Christian community in Palestine.She encourages people to stay at the new Taybeh Golden Hotel and experience rural life in Palestine.