Late this summer, 31 pilgrims from the St. James Church of Watertown, MA, made a 12-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem—embarking on a spiritual journey to explore the foundations of their faith. Departing on August 21, the pilgrims walked the lands of the Bible and supported the Armenian Christian population in the Holy Land. The group, led by pastor the Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian, consisted of several families traveling together and pilgrims of all ages.
The pilgrims started each day in the Holy Land by reflecting on scripture and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. With Jerusalem as their base, they made day trips to visit holy sites central to their Armenian Christian faith.
In the Footsteps of Christ
The pilgrims journeyed to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Christ, where they participated in the Divine Liturgy and received Holy Communion. In the Holy Grotto of the Nativity the pilgrims kneeled before the silver star that marks the place where Christ was born in Bethlehem.
While reading the relevant scriptures, they toured the Shepherd’s Field where the angels announced the joyous news of Christ’s birth, and also explored the Armenian section of the Church of the Nativity complex. Refreshments were provided by the Armenian monks who are the caretakers of the Armenian presence in Bethlehem.
The stories of the Bible were brought to life as the pilgrims visited Nazareth, and the Church of the Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel visited Mary. Taking turns, the pilgrims recited the Scripture readings, recounting the story of the Annunciation as well as visiting the site of Joseph the carpenter’s workshop.
At the Sea of Galilee, where the disciples became “fishers of men,” the pilgrims took a boat ride to the middle of the sea. The captain turned off the motor and after taking in the tranquillity of the waters, the story of Christ calming the seas and the wind and walking on water was read and meditated upon.
Later, the pilgrims took a winding bus ride with hairpin curves up to the very top of Mt. Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration, to meditate and sing the Lord’s Prayer (Hayr Mer) and other hymns, led by Fr. Arakel at the beautiful Catholic Church built in the 12th century under the mosaics and murals depicting the Holy Transfiguration.
A highlight for many pilgrims was the breathtakingly beautiful Church of the Beatitudes and surrounding grounds, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Here as well, pilgrims read the Bible and had a few moments of silence to contemplate the Beatitudes.
At the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, Fr. Arakel performed the Blessing of the Water Service using five crosses from Jerusalem. He then presented the blessed crosses to each of the five young pilgrims as remembrances of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In one of the most moving experiences, the pilgrims left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. to walk through the Old City of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, to participate in the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Fr. Arakel, at the empty Tomb of Christ. Pilgrims participated in the badarak by singing, serving at the altar, and receiving Holy Communion at one of the most holy sites in the Christian faith; they described it as spiritually uplifting, moving, inspiring, fulfilling and emotionally overwhelming.
The focal point of the pilgrimage was to witness the celebration of the Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God. On Saturday afternoon, the pilgrims joined His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch Jerusalem, as well as clergy and seminarians in a procession to the church where Mary was buried. The impressive procession then descended 30 steps to the altar and tomb of Mary. After a break for dinner hosted by the Armenian Patriarchate in the Garden of Gethsemane, the group was invited to attend the evening vigil service. The group then woke up early the next morning to attend Divine Liturgy and celebrate the Feast. Many said they were honored to be in the Holy Land to witness the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Assumption.
Armenian Presence in the Holy Land
The pilgrims visited the Armenian Patriarchate and were welcomed by Patriarch Nourhan, who spoke to them about the importance of preserving the Armenian presence in the Holy Land.
The group was then privileged to visit the chapel of St. Toros within the Sts. James monastery, to see where the Armenian manuscripts are kept. They had an opportunity to see a beautiful illuminated gospel dating from the 13th century. Some went on an excursion to Tel Aviv to do some sightseeing and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, and they also visited St. Nicholas Armenian Church in old Jaffa.
On the last day, some of the pilgrims were tattooed with the traditional cross, marking them as hadjis who had gone to the Holy Land as pilgrims. Later that evening, they gathered for a farewell dinner at the Bulghourji restaurant in the Armenian quarter of the Old City. They returned home with fulfilled and happy hearts, touched by their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
View photos of the pilgrimage here.