By Eleftheria Louca | Photography by Sotiris Georghiou
I heard about a trip taking place to visit Jerusalem and I thought, ‘sure, why not? It’s another place to cross off the bucket list and it’ll be great to visit some of the holy and historical sites I’ve heard so much about’. So off I went, for a trip with some friends, to visit another place in the world. Little did I know what was awaiting me, within the walls of the Holy Land.
Organised by the Church of St Luke and the Holy Trinity in Birmingham, a total of 49 Orthodox youth gathered from around the UK and further afield to take the trip of a lifetime. Some came as second time visitors, some came as first timers wanting to deepen their faith and others came simply as a journey to another place with friends. Whatever their motivations to go to the Holy Land, all would agree that they left in unison with a newfound light from God, an irreplaceable network of friends and a deepened sense of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian youth today. Accompanied by Father Christos from St Luke’s and Father Bartholomew from the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, this trip to Jerusalem was a journey of a lifetime.
The pilgrimage was organised by the great Kyria Olga from London, well known for her pilgrimages. However, this was her first trip with such a large group of young people, yet she did a tremendous job, ensuring each day was filled with as many visits as possible to enrich our experiences. Accompanying us on our journey, we had the honour of being guided around the holy sites by Their Eminences, Archbishop Theophanes of Gerasa and Archbishop Aristoboulos of Madaba as well as being lucky enough to hold an appointment with His Beatitude, Patriarch Theophilos III.
As well as visiting the Holy places of Jesus’ life and passion, we also branched out further afield to visit some of the early monasteries and churches dedicated to Saints, old and new.
Considered as one of the holiest places in our faith, the Jordan river is where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist and represents the beginning of his ministry. We were blessed enough to witness Father Christos carry out part of the service of the Epiphany which is usually celebrated on January 6th every year. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
The Church of Resurrection and the Holy Sepulchre
The first stop upon arrival – The Holy Sepulchre. Inside the Church of Resurrection, this is arguably the holiest of holy sites for us as it is the place where Jesus spent his final hours, sacrificing Himself and giving up His Spirit for us, mankind. The Holy Sepulchre complex is built around multiple touchpoints, most famously Jesus’ crucifixion (Golgotha) and burial. Upon entering the building, a communal sense of awe is felt within all. On the one hand, bustling tourists and cameras everywhere make it seem unreal, can this really be a holy place of worship with so much hustle and bustle? On the other hand, all you have to do is look up and take in the beams of light to feel His presence and to truly know the meaning of ‘pilgrimage’. As an Orthodox Christian, it was humbling to just be there. A feeling of unworthiness overwhelms as we stand and take in the realisation that we are visiting the location that our entire faith is built upon.
A highlight for many was the visit to Jacob’s Well Monastery where we met Father Justinian (Ioustinos) and heard his story. This well was where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink and offered her “living water” and Father Justinian is the keeper of this site after the martyrdom of Saint Philoumenos in 1979. We heard first hand of the struggles that Father Justinian has undergone to rebuild the church and his message of blind faith touched us all and inspired us to seek this within our own lives. You can read more about his story here: The Holy Well in the West Bank – The Story of Father Ioustinos
Of course, a trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without visiting the famous Dead Sea! Earning its name from the high levels of salt found in the waters, the Dead Sea is unable to house any living things and so no plants or animals are found nearby. Instead, the high mineral content of the water means that the mud found there has great health benefits. The group enjoyed a float and mud-mask to take in their experiences before heading back home after an extraordinary week.
Of all the unforgettable experiences I was lucky enough to experience, perhaps the most substantial of all was the purity of meeting fellow Orthodox brothers and sisters. The fact that a group of people, who had previously been strangers, can now share a bond that only each other could understand. We would meet most evenings in the hotel to read the Small Compline service before bed. Each of us would read a part and we would stand by, in the ubiquity of God, sharing the presence of His light in us all. Other times, we would come together in hymn and – being there before Pentecost – would sing the mighty Christos Anesti on the coach and in churches that we visited. These moments cannot be forgotten or replaced and it is these moments that will stay with us all. Through the guidance of Christ, we can continue to hold within ourselves the strength to pray for our fellow brothers and sisters and to continue to explore our beautiful faith with the world. I give thanks to God that he blessed me with the opportunity to have this experience and pray for others to share this one day too.
Do you want to go on a trip like this?
The trip will take place from Saturday 23rd May 2020 to Saturday 30th May 2020 and will be open to anyone from the ages of 18 – 40 years old. The total cost of the trip will be £1000 which includes flights, accommodation, coach travel and breakfast and evening meal.
Contact GOYGB for details, places are filling up fast.