Orthodox America

  A Liturgical Pilgrimage to Pascha

by Archpriest Peter Perekrestov

   In the mid-17th century, Patriarch Nikon of Russia was inspired to build the New Jerusalem Monastery. It was his desire that there should exist in Russia an image of Paradise, of the Kingdom of Heaven And so, in a monastery complex -- in a place of prayer and spiritual labors, where the sole aim is to bring man closer to the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven -- Patriarch Nikon recreated not only the Church of the Resurrection, but all of the holy sites of Palestine: the Mt of Olives, Golgotha, the Jordan River, Bethlehem, Nazareth... in the hope that these sites would contain the grace of the New Jerusalem, i.e., the Kingdom of Heaven.

      This was not some fanciful idea. The Orthodox Church has always recognized the power of images. In Orthodox iconography an image mystically and realistically contains the presence of the prototype. It has been suggested that, by extension, a church or other holy site can also serve as an image and retain the grace of its prototype. When, after the fall of Byzantium, Moscow became the Third Rome, the de facto center of world Orthodoxy, many churches in Russia were built on the model of Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople, seen to be an image of the Universal Church. It was this same basic concept that inspired Patriarch Nikon in founding the New Jerusalem Monastery.

      When I read about Patriarch Nikon's vision of the New Jerusalem to be experienced here on earth, I thought of how the Church uses images, remembrances and symbols to bring the Kingdom of God closer to us, and of the importance to Christians of Jerusalem and the Holy Land as points of reference. But before we embark upon my liturgical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a few words should be said about liturgical time. 

When we enter into the realm of worship, we enter into another world. Our fallen world is full of constrictions and limitations. We are limited by distance, by space, by our bodies and by time. But the world of worship surmounts all these barriers. In worship we unite with God, Who has no limitations. Through prayer we overcome distance, space and time. Through prayer we eau instantly enter into communion with a holy desert dweller of the eighth century, or with a deceased ancestor of ours. The Orthodox Church also teaches us that in worship, past and future are regarded as directly present. In other words, in worship time ceases to exist in the form of past, present and future and is changed into a mystical life experience in which both the past and future are experienced mystically, as something living and present before our eyes. In view of this, the events of history, are to be understood not as historical occurrences of the past, but as happening mystically and as events even today. This means that during our Orthodox services, we, the worshippers, not only historically remember the life of our Saviour, of the Mother of God and of the saints, but we actually partake of those lives and the events surrounding them. This is amazing! If we realize this, our whole perception of worship begins to change, and instead of being passive observers during our services, we become, in a very real way, actual participants and partakers of the most holy, most important events of Christ's life, of the life of the Theotokos and of the saints. Did you ever notice in what tense the Church speaks in so many of her prayers or hymns? For example, the Nativity of our Lord, His Passion, His Resurrection    all are expressed not in the past, but as events which take place today. The adverb "today" is used very often: At Nativity we sing, "Today the Virgin gives birth to the Creator of all..."; on Good Friday we hear, "Today He hangs on the wood..."; on Great and Holy Saturday the Church tells us, "Today Hades bemoaning cries..." and on Pascha we joyously chant ,"Today salvation has come to the world: let us sing unto Him who rose from the grave..." And if these events are taking place today, now, it means that we can be part of them. And Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever and is outside the categories of space and time, comes today to us in worship, just as He came to His contemporaries. This is incredible! Saint Gregory the Theologian, in one of the hymns on the Feast of our Lord's Nativity, says, "I behold a strange and wonderful mystery." The incarnation of our Lord is a mystery, but so is the fact that we can be participants of it. The Holy New Martyr Fr. Sergei Mechev, in one of his sermons, announces to his flock, "We are now entering the manger." He says this not figuratively, but in a very real way. This understanding of liturgical time is a prerequisite for us, if we are to make a liturgical pilgrimage.

      It may be worth noting here that our church life is never static, it is always dynamic. If we are passive observers, if we do not see the essence behind the form, and if our heart is not willing to make an effort, then church life really does seem boring, constrictive and formal. But if we are able lo make an effort, to warm our hearts and to immerse ourselves in the spiritual depth, meaning and other-worldness that the Church offers, our spiritual life will become alive, interesting, challenging and, what is most important, salvific. We will be in a state of movement. The Russian word, podvig -- which is often translated as "spiritual exploit" but really does not have an adequate English counterpart -- comes from the verb dvigats, "to move." To move where? Towards the Kingdom of God. The prototype of our Lord's Pascha, the Jewish Passover, was the move from Egypt to the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom. Our Passover, Pascha, is also movement: from slavery to sin and the passions, to freedom; from the human to the Divine; from earth to heaven; from temporal life to eternal life. The dynamics of church life are very evident during our worship. There is almost constant movement from the altar to the ambo, to the central part of the church. The faithful move in, venerate icons, move their hands, heads and bodies. In a sense, a pilgrimage is also movement -- from one holy site to another; from one holy event and remembrance to another, and, finally, from one spiritual state to, hopefully, a higher one. Let us begin. 

      Through the Divine services of the Orthodox Church we make a pilgrimage through space and time. Because we have no limitations of time, there does not have to be a chronological order. We may travel from Christ's Tomb to a Roman catacomb and then on to San Francisco to witness the ascetical feats of Saint John. But today we are interested in the Holy Land. And since our topic is liturgical pilgrimage let us limit ourselves to one service, the most important in the cycle of worship -- the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is the center of our spiritual life. It is through the Liturgy that we are taken from Christ's Incarnation not only to His Second Coming, but also to the joy of eternal blessedness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

      Our first stop will be Bethlehem. Here, beyond the view of the masses, the King of kings was born. As we enter a church sometime before the beginning of Liturgy, we find the Royal Doors and curtain closed. Behind the icon screen, beyond the view of the faithful, the prothesis is taking place in silence. At this time the priest is preparing everything necessary for the Liturgy He takes the first bread (prosphoron) and cuts out a cube, which is called the Lamb. The Lamb is removed from the rest of the bread, as Christ, the Lamb, was removed from the womb of the His Most Holy Mother, the Ever-Virgin Mary. We are at the manger witnessing this great mystery. And as we ponder, we momentarily move to another site, to Golgotha outside of Jerusalem, for we know, we foresee that the Lamb, our Saviour, will die for us on the Cross and His side will be pierced by a soldier. It is at this time the priest pierces the Lamb, the bread cube, with a liturgical spear. When Christ's side was pierced, what came out? Blood and water. And so wine and water are poured into the chalice in preparation for the Liturgy.

      Christ is our Sun, the center of our existence. In order to better appreciate the light, we are reminded of darker times. The Liturgy of the Faithful therefore begins with the chanting of a number of Old Testament psalms. Then the tonality changes as we hear "O Only Begotten Son..." We enter the era of the New Testament.

      Our second slop on our liturgical pilgrimage is the Jordan River, the Judean desert and the Sea of Galilee. As the choir sings the Beatitudes, the priest takes the Gospel from the Holy Table, and, preceded by an acolyte with a candle, comes out of the altar and in front of the Royal doors exclaims: "Wisdom, aright." Here we first see the acolyte with a candle -we see, as it were, Saint John the Forerunner and Prophet preparing the way for the Saviour. It is Saint John who baptizes Christ in the Jordan River, when the Holy Trinity is so clearly revealed to us. Our Lord then spends forty days in the Judean desert and, at age thirty, begins to preach. The Gospel, the Word of God, is held high by the priest. It is also at this time that we ask for help on our pilgrimage. We ask that God grant us holy angels, to serve with us.

      After the Small Entry, the daily Epistle and Gospel readings are read. These take us all over the Holy Land, a different holy site every week: Cana, the Jerusalem temple, the pool of Siloam, Mount Tabor, Nain, Jericho, Bethany...

      The Litany of the Catechumens, when catechumens are supposed to leave the church proper, besides its concrete purpose of separating the non-faithful from the faithful, has a mystical aspect. It symbolizes the separation of the "sheep from the ,goats," the wheat from the chaff, i.e. the Dread Judgment. The future, the end, becomes the present.

      The Great Entry. We are now following our Lord to the Cross. This route takes us from the Garden of Gethsemane, through the streets of Jerusalem, out the Judgment gates and to the Cross on Golgotha. Our Saviour is judged, mocked and tortured and, finally, crucified on the Cross for the salvation ,of man. During the Great Entry the priest carries the Holy Vessels out of the deacon's door and through the Royal Doors and puts them on the Holy Table. He is carrying, as Joseph did, the lifeless body of Christ to the Tomb. While doing this, the priest silently reads, "Noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure Body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb." The priest covers the Holy Vessels with the large veil.

      The Liturgical pilgrimage continues. Let me remind you once again, that in worship chronology is of no essence Even though we have already visited Gethsemane and the way of the Cross, they are so important that we return to them. The Eucharistic Canon. This is when the priest, the faithful and the Angelic Powers take part in the Mystery which is incomprehensible to the human mind -- when bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ. As we become present in body, soul and mind at our Lord's Passion, His death on the Cross, His burial and, ultimately, His Resurrection, we find ourselves at so many holy sites: Gethsemane again, the Upper Room, Golgotha, the Tomb of Christ. We are in awe and truly have [ayed all earthly cares aside. In the Upper Room the Holy Spirit descended on all those gathered there. Take! Eat! This is My body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins .... Drink of it, all of you! This is My Blood of the New Testament... We pray for the Holy Spirit to come down upon us and upon the Holy Gifts that are offered. We have taken part in Christ's bloodless sacrifice, which has been offered on behalf of all and for all, and we especially remember the Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed and Glorious Lady Thootokos and Ever-Virgin Mary and then, the saints of the day. This takes us to Nazareth, the High Place, to Cana, where the Mother of God was present at the wedding with Her Son. This also takes us outside of Jerusalem, to places where the given saints of the day lived, confessed their faith, shed their blood, helped their neighbour, served the Church, perfected the spiritual life. But we return to Jerusalem.

      Our next stop is the Upper Room, where the Mystical Supper took place and where the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. The Lord's Prayer has just been sung and the curtain is closed. "Holy things are for the holy." The priest is now like one of the Apostles. He is present at thc Mystical Supper in the Upper Room. And the Teacher, Christ Himself, offers His Body and His Blood, i.e. Himself, to His disciple. In the Orthodox Church, we do not call this Supper the "Last Supper," as in the Western Church. It was not the last supper. It is the eternal supper. It continues to this day, The disciples of Christ are gathered. Christ Himself is present, and it is He Who gives His Gifts to us, just as it was He, Who gave His Gifts to the Apostles on Great and Holy Thursday. The priest prays:" Attend, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, out of Thy holy dwelling-place, from the throne of Thy Kingdom; and come to sanctify us, O Thou Who sittest on high with the Father, and art here invisibly present with us. And by Thy mighty hand impart unto us Thy most pure Body and precious Blood, and through us to all the people." Saint John of Kronstadt asks: "What is the Liturgy?" And he answers: "It is the Divine Supper, the Marriage of the Lamb during which the Lamb of God unites with the faithful.." We, the pilgrims, line up before the Upper Room to partake of the Mystical Supper. The Chalice is brought out of the Altar:. "With fear of God and faith draw nigh]" And we are present in the Upper Room. We are reminded, though, that Judas was also present, but with faith and love we approach the Source of immortality.

      We draw close to the end of our liturgical pilgrimage. The Chalice is brought back into the altar with the words "Shine! Shine! O New Jerusalem..," "O Christ! Great and most holy Pascha," and all the particles that were removed from the prosphora for the living and departed faithful are immersed into the Chalice, into the Blood of Christ that washes away our sins, and then the priest, holding the Chalice and making the sign of the Cross with it, exclaims: "Now and ever and unto the ages of ages." We are on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Valley of Cedron which faces the Golden Gates through which Christ will come the second time. The Mother of God and the Apostles are gazing up with us as our Lord blesses them and us and ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. In a way we are sad, but He has promised us the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth -- the Holy Spirit. 

     This liturgical pilgrimage is repeated on different levels and in different cycles daily, weekly and yearly. Through it we relive the history of mankind, beginning from the creation of the world (beginning of Vespers, Psalm 103) to the present and beyond, to the Kingdom of Heaven. Every service of the Orthodox Church, every period of the Orthodox liturgical year, every commemoration of the Orthodox Church invite us on a pilgrimage of our soul. Just as we made a liturgical pilgrimage via the Divine Liturgy, we can make a liturgical pilgrimage during the period of the upcoming Great Lent. We will move from the Temple of Jerusalem, where the Publican and Pharisee prayed, to Nicaea, where the Orthodox Faith was victoriously upheld; from Mt. Sinai and the instructor of piety, Saint John of the Ladder, to Mt. Athos and Saint Gregory of Palamas; from the desert and Saint Mary of Egypt to Crete and the weeping of Saint Andrew. The liturgical pilgrimage becomes especially intense during Passion Week as we follow Christ from Bethany to Jerusalem to the Tomb, where we meet the Angel, the Myrrhbearing Women, the Apostles --and finally recognize the Risen Lord. A pilgrimage is not an excursion though. It demands something from us in return. When we make a pilgrimage, we not only remember, relive and take part, we change. When we are at the manger, our hearts become simpler and kinder and we are humbled; when we visit the desert we confront loneliness and the unseen warfare and seek comfort in God; when we are in Nicaea, we burn with zeal for the faith and we must confess the Faith, pure and unadulterated; when we are at the Cross we crucify our pride and our passions in a very real and concrete way; as we' are taken from the Cross we are dead to this world. And when we do these things and finally end up at the Tomb, our life really comes alive in Christ, it resurrects. The evil one, at least for a time and to a certain degree has been trampled, and we find true peace, joy, hope and victory. Christ IS risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!


Archpriest Lev Lebedev, "The Moscow of Patriarchs,' Moscow 1995.

-- "Notes on Pastoral Theology" (manuscript), Kursk 1989

Konstaninos Kalokyris, "Byzantine Iconography and Liturgical' Time," A paper read at the XIII International Congress ot Byzantine Studies in Oxford, 1966.

Archbishop Benjamin (Fedchenko), "Heaven on Earth” California 1978

Priest Sergei Mechev, "Sermons," Nadezhda No 17, Basel-Moscow 1993.

Fr. Peter, a graduate of Holy Trinity Seminary, is a priest at the "Joy of All Who Sorrow" Cathedral in San Francisco, and editor of Russky Pastyr. The article is from a talk he delivered at a conference in Moss Beach, CA, March 1, 1997.

Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society