One of the many amazing things about this land is the huge variety of landscapes, the huge variation of topography in an area that is, after all, the size of Wales. Yesterday I was in a desert environment. Today it was more like an alpine hillside.
Below Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, is the village of Ein Karem. This beautiful place surrounded by hills covered with pine and cypress woods is the traditional place of the birth of St John the Baptist, the home of his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah and, consequently, the place where the Visitation between Our Lady and Elizabeth took place, the home of the Benedictus and the Magnificat.
Most pilgrim groups will visit the village and walk the short distance to the Church of St John the Baptist. It is a lovely spot. Just as at the Pater Noster Church on the Mount of Olives with its celebration of the Lord’s Prayer, the walls here are covered with the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, translated into numerous languages. Here, in the grotto, can be seen the place where John, the Forerunner was born, the miraculous child.
The more energetic groups and those with a little more time will then walk past Mary’s Spring, where the Virgin took a drink of water on her way to meet her cousin and up the steep hill to the Church of the Visitation. It is a lovely spot and from there you are given wonderful views across the village and the valley. It certainly confirms what St Luke says in his Gospel
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. (Luke 1.39)
Above the Church of the Visitation pilgrims can see another church with golden onion domes. But it appears inaccessible. This is in fact the Gorny Convent, a Russian Orthodox Monastery founded in 1886 as part of the Jerusalem Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. The name ‘gorny’ comes from the Russian for mountainous and is a reference to that verse from St Luke.
To get to the monastery you have to go to the Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital where I saw the Chagall Windows. The monastery is below the hospital and it is a short walk from the hospital to the entrance. You have to ring the bell at the gate and then you are admitted.
On entering what you see is more of a village than what you expect from a convent. When I arrived nuns were sweeping paths and stairs, harvesting the olives and going about their duties. The place is spotless, the gardens beautifully kept and the dwellings like a series of dachas. It really is a holy village.
There are in fact three churches to visit. The most noticeable and the principal is the Cathedral which is dedicated to the all the Russian saints. Construction was started before the Russian Revolution but was only completed in 2007. It is beautiful inside with some exquisite icons. I was fortunate enough to arrive during Vespers which the nuns were singing in ethereal tones. The Mother Abbess Georgia sat in her ‘throne’ with huge dignity.
Down the hillside from the Cathedral are two chapels. One, the Chapel of Our Lady of Kazan, a reference to a particular miraculous icon of Our Lady kept in the church, is simply beautiful. The iconostasis (photos are not permitted) is white and gilt with a feast of icons around the walls. The second is the Chapel of St John the Forerunner. This links to the Church of the Visitation which it abuts. One of the stories about the place is that when the Slaughter of the Innocents was to take place Elizabeth fled with her child to find a place of safety.
Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God,receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them. (Protoevangelium of James)
The chapel is in fact a cave. The Roman Catholic church next door celebrates the same act of deliverance of the child who was to be the Janus figure of the church. I always think of John in this way. Like Janus he looks both ways, back to the Old Testament, he being the last prophet, and forward to the New Testament, he being the first saint. He is the bridge, the link, which spans what could be a divide.
But the most moving thing was to see depicted in mosaics two embraces, two kisses. Luke tells us
Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. (Luke 1.40)
We see that meeting depicted in many places, the two women embracing, the young and the old, the barren and the virgin, the woman of the old and tired covenant and the woman of the new and vigorous, yet both carrying children who are God’s gift. As the psalmist puts it
Mercy and truth are met together,
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (Psalm 85.10)
But what was particularly lovely was to see a second kiss, a second embrace. Zechariah and Elizabeth are shown to be in the same embrace. This couple so kissed by God that what they thought was not possible now share in the reality of miracle. As Zechariah found his voice he sang in praise of God a song which the church echoes each morning
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1.78-79)
It was true for them, it is true for us. God kisses us into new life, embraces us, loves us; our darkness fades and the dawn breaks. Whatever barrenness we face the Lord is with us.
kiss me into new life,
end the night
and bring me into the dawn
of your new day.