Watertown Pilgrims Visit Holy Land

WATERTOWN and JERUSALEM — On August 21, 31 pilgrims from St. James Armenian Church in Watertown made a 12-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem to embark on a spiritual journey to explore the foundations of their faith, walk the lands of the Bible and to support the Armenian Christian population in the Holy Land. The group, led by pastor Fr. Arakel Aljalian, consisted of several families traveling together and pilgrims of all ages.

Each morning, the pilgrims started their day in the Holy Land by reflecting on scripture and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. With Jerusalem as their base, the pilgrims made day trips to visit Holy sites central to their Armenian Christian Faith.

Commencing with the birth 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. The pilgrims toured the Armenian section of the Church of the Nativity complex, and the Shepherd’s field where the Angels announced the joyous news of Christ’s birth, and read Scriptures highlighting the story of the nativity. 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 at her home. Taking turns, the pilgrims recited the Scripture readings, recounting the story of the Annunciation as well as visiting the site of Joseph’s carpenter’s workshop.

At the Sea of Galilee, the pilgrims took a boat ride to the middle of the Sea. The captain turned off the motor and after taking in the tranquility of the waters, the story of Christ calming the seas and the wind and walking on water was read and meditated on.

Following the path of the Lord in His ministry, the pilgrims took a winding bus ride with hairpin curves up to the very top of Mt. Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, to meditate and sing the Lord’s Prayer (Hayr Mer) and other hymns, led by Aljalian 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 beautiful Church of the Beatitudes and surrounding grounds, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Here as well, pilgrims read the scriptures and had a few moments of silence to contemplate the words of the Beatitudes.

At the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Aljalian 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 a gift of remembrance 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 and witness Divine Liturgy (Badarak), celebrated by Aljalian, at the empty Tomb of Christ. Pilgrims described this unique experience to 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 as spiritually uplifting, moving, inspiring, fulfilling and emotionally overwhelming.

The focal point of the pilgrimage was to witness the feast of the celebration of the Assumption of Holy Mary. On Saturday afternoon, the pilgrims joined the Patriarch, clergy and seminarians in a procession to the church where Mary was buried. The impressive procession then descended over 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 Assumption of Holy Mary.

The pilgrims visited the Armenian Patriarchate and were welcomed by His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, who spoke to them about the importance of preserving the Armenian presence in the Holy Land.

The group was then given a unique privilege to visit the chapel of St. Toros within the St. James monastery to see where the Armenian manuscripts are kept. They had the opportunity to see a beautiful illuminated Gospel dating from the 13th century. There was also an opportunity for an added 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 got the traditional hadji tattooå as a symbol of our pilgrimage. Later that evening, they gathered for our farewell dinner at 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.