Eastern Easter!

May 5th (2013) is Easter (Pascha) according to the calendar used by Eastern Orthodox Churches. May 4th into the 5th was the Easter celebration St George Antiochian Orthodox Church. And I was there. As with my other experiences, the start time was only kinda important. A few people even showed up two hours in; total time was three hours if you can believe that.

At first it was just one guy chanting, the same way Orthodox worship usually begins. Several of the references escaped me but I caught the name Habakkuk, reference to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and Jonah. I guess maybe this was following a central theme of righteous Old Testament folks? Or it could have been explanation of the prophecy and precursors leading up to Jesus- like how this prophet said he would come and that person was saved from death in a similar way. Christian traditions are really reflexive sometimes, making comparisons from one biblical personage to another. I often hear Jesus referred to as a second and almost opposite Adam. Adam arrived and brought sin into the world. Jesus arrived and took it away.

Anyways, back to Pascha. The church was darkened by the extinguishing of the lit candles and all the small glowy electric lights embedded in the icons up front. Then we waited in the dark. It was exciting and I tried to guess what this darkness might be referencing. Was this how the apostles felt after Jesus died? Left in total darkness alone? We don’t know what’s going to happen next, just as the disciples didn’t know. The story of Jesus’ discovery by the women at the tomb happened in the early morning. It probably was still dark then. And there’s also the literal darkness that swept over the land at the moment of Jesus’ death. Dark often represents uncertainty and the unknown. Nobody had a clue that Jesus was anything but plain old dead. Until he came back.

At last something happened; the priest invited us all to take candles and get light from the one large candle he brought forth from the enclosed area around the altar. Remember what I said about the high formality, low uptightness? Well, the candles weren’t out and someone had to go get them. No big deal. I love the comfort level at this place. Almost like they’re saying yeah it’s church but it’s just church. It’s important and all, but you’re allowed to calm down if there’s a snag.

So we went on, candles lit, and walked in a procession right out the front door. We made a little circle walking around the area in front of the church. When the wind wasn’t blowing our candles out it was very pretty. At the door of the church we stopped. There was song and lines to recite and repeat. Finally there was this exchange in which the priest pounded on the church door asking to be let in repeatedly. Someone who stayed inside asked repeatedly who was at the door so that the priest had to name Jesus The Lord and we could all go inside.

Once inside the lights were all on and we ditched the candles in a box. There was more chanting, reciting and singing. This one song in particular we sing over and over again. I wouldn’t be surprised if we sang it a hundred times. I’m not joking, we sang it alot.

Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling down death by death, And on those in the tombs bestowww-iiing life.

Also repeated each time in Arabic which I was actually pretty good at by the end. We sang and prayed and repeated. We said the Lord’s Prayer quite a few times and in several languages. A church I used to attend often said it in Urdu and I do like hearing it in other languages. We also frequently did a prayer I would have called the Glory Be in my Catholic days. Not sure what they call it here. Eventually it was clear they were setting up to share communion. I know I’m not on the list to receive it so I was going to remain in my seat. Then someone who’d greeted me at the start of the night told me I’d be ok coming forward to get a blessing, which I did. This same guy was extremely helpful at the start of this whole long repetitive adventure by having loaned me a book of the parts of the service. It also had the words to my new favorite song about Christ trampling death. So I’m really happy he came up to me.

After communion and wrapping up, we all filled into the adjoining hall to eat food and chat. There were lots of hard boiled eggs, but lots of other good food too. I imagine it’s especially nice for those members of the Orthodox Church who have been fasting both meat and dairy for weeks now. I had some talk with a few of the members of the church who I hadn’t seen my first time. In general everyone was especially friendly and I liked my second visit despite the whole three hours long thing. I may go back next year for Easter. It’s nice that it really doesn’t interfere with my parents’ celebration of Easter.

Church #29, St George’s Antiochian Orthodox

Date: 3/17/13

Church name/type: St George church, Antiochian Orthodox (liturgy in English)

Pastor: Father Gregory-Francis Des Marais

Style of worship: The liturgy was a unique mix of formal and casual, which I will describe more below.

Overall Impression: Really interesting

So this is only my second Eastern Orthodox church, and I am still unsure of myself regarding the denomination. I was nervous to stand at the wrong time or insult their traditions somehow. But this place weirdly did NOT meet my expectations for formality. Any Eastern Orthodox Church has a number of formal elements in their service (which is called Divine Liturgy)- however this one seemed to have an added later of casual in the mix. People wore jeans. They trickled in late to very late without anyone acting like it was odd. In many churches, the parent of a noisy child will feel the need to practically run out the door with their kid to assure comparative silence in the church itself. Someone had an unhappy kid and she was simply walked out slowly. So the casual vibe was nice.

The church is very small and box shaped. I was among the first to arrive, but because Matins precedes Liturgy by about an hour, there was some chanting in progress. Because of this constant goings-on, Orthodox Christians don’t have that chatty time where people welcome you seeing you are new. I think that’s ok if one can know to expect it. I didn’t have a prayer book or guide to follow along, but the entire thing was in English with the exception of “Kyrie Eleison” which is two words, so you know…go English!

The homily was about the church season and this Sunday. For most Western Christians, Lent started several weeks ago. For Orthodox Christians it has just started and its called Great Lent. One week previous to Sunday was the call for fasting of meat. This Sunday starts the fasting of cheese and dairy. This Sunday is called CheeseFare Sunday. So now until Easter (Orthodox Easter is May 4th) many in the Orthodox Church will eat only veggies. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, a fast is not considered a mandate, with sin as penalty for skipping it. Part of the sermon reflected on Matthew’s account of the words of Jesus on the topic of fasting. Jesus said when we fast we ought to not look sad, because that’s something Pharisees do to make themselves look holy. Fasting should be none of anyone else’s business; it’s between us and God. We were also reminded that fasting has to have actual meaning to us beyond just declining certain foods, or else it becomes an empty gesture. St Basil called an empty fast the “devil’s fast”. Furthermore, as I pointed out just one post ago, we should not let the money savings from fasting go to waste. Take whatever money you saved by avoiding meat and dairy and donate it to a food bank. I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear this point made in the homily. I hope it gets made a bunch more times in a bunch more churches.

So, near the end of the liturgy was communion. Being unsure, I didn’t go up for this. Somebody did bring me a piece of bread though. I ate it because I figured it would be rude not to. Also I figured they’d know best if I was allowed to have it or not. I’ve since learned that the bread I ate most likely wasn’t the body but plain bread that is to be shared in friendship with anybody, so I would be perfectly allowed to eat it.

Afterwards I was invited by the priest to get some coffee in the adjoining hall. I settled for juice. One man talked to me and asked my name but no one else really did. Many people in this church spoke a second (probably their first) language so maybe they were hesitant to converse with me in English. I waited around for the priest and wound up talking to him for like an hour about Orthodoxy. He was really able to give me some great info on differences between the East and West- that is the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. He has a Catholic background as I do, and this kinda made it that much easier to describe things to me.

For example, the leader of the Orthodox Church is called the Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the lead patriarch among a bunch of patriarchs. This differs from the lead bishop of the Western churches who goes by the title Pope, because the Pope is seen as being on a level above other bishops.

Another thing we talked about was the circumstances leading up to the East/West schism- this of course being the first splitting of the early church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. There were a few reasons for the split and one of them was the Filioque. It translates to and the Son. So, the early Christian churches had conferences called councils every now and then to decide doctrine or fix canon or agree to call someone a heretic or whatever. There was a big inclusive one at Nicea at which the bishops wrote out The Creed. Many refer to it as The Nicean Creed. It is a statement of believe that starts out:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…

Then there’s this one spot about the Holy Spirit:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son

This last little bit, and the Son, was not added until later. It was added by a relatively exclusive council- far fewer bishops were in attendance and I think possibly none from the East were there. This led the Eastern churches to suspect Filioque was snuck in for nefarious purposes, (back in the day, heresy was a nefarious purpose) and they made a big deal out of it. Eventually the church became divided into a Western half led by a Pope and an Eastern half led by a Patriarch. The official split date is 1054, but it was actually dragged out over centuries. I have trouble imagining a bunch of dudes getting all riled up about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son or not. Then again, in some ways this was a theological excuse for a political move. Anyway I’m getting more knowledgeable about church history and that’s exciting.

Question: Whats up with the icon of Mary drawn surrounded by a red pepper? Or maybe it’s a red picnic blanket? This icon was at both Orthodox churches on my list so far.

Link: Someone stopped at my post on St Sophia’s to post this link. I thought you might enjoy it.
12 Things About Orthodoxy

Church #20, St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church

Date: 10/7/11 and 10/14/2

Church name/type: St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church

Format summary: As I remember it here are all the parts- choir music (in Greek), prayers from father, entrance with the big glitzy bible, readings, more prayer and choir responses, lots of words regarding the bread and wine, people file up to take bread and wine, more prayer and song by the choir, sermon and announcements.

Overall Impression: Half Greek to me!

Incredibly interesting and compelling. I have gone twice now and I’m sorely tempted to go twice more. I could spend a long time trying to understand all the parts of the divine liturgy on my own. I did fairly well with the Greek by following along in the book that sits in all the seat backs. It has spots for when to sit or stand, so each time we did that I found my place again. Also the choir sings ‘Kyrie Eleison’ about two or three dozen times which means ‘Lord have mercy’- another good means of keeping my spot. My Catholic background helped me out with the format. I recognized certain parts such as the Nicene Creed. And my choir days gave me bits of Greek.

The first thing I noticed was the atmosphere. The church is absolutely stunning inside. There are murals (called icons) covering the walls; painted with brilliant colors and glittering like gold in some spots. The choir is clearly restricted to one corner of the room, yet the acoustics make it sound as though music radiates from the walls and ceiling. I pictured angels hovering invisibly in every corner serenading us. Everyone was dressed in nice dressy clothes. This is the first church where I’ve found that perfectly natural as a side-effect of the fact this place feels really special, almost another world. I am a big fan of the whole ‘a church is not a building it’s people’ but I was strongly drawn to the beauty of St Sophia’s. I guess in part that shows my Catholic roots. Catholicism has a strong tendency toward quiet reverence and symbolism and beauty in many aspects of worship.

As I said it was not too difficult to follow along in a cursory way. I’d have to go a few more times to get in depth on all the parts. An aspect that was rather unexpected was the width of separation between the bible readings and the sermon. Readings come almost at the very beginning whereas the sermon was at the end. The sermons were in English (thank goodness!) and they were good, but probably made more sense to one in context of being a regular orthodox church attendee. The 7th was about fasting and taking communion. Apparently there is some history of tradition that communion be taken only three times a year. Father Pat advocated that we move closer to receiving the gifts every Sunday. I sat out communion at this church. I believe I was correct in doing so according to the internal rules. I did get to watch and it was another new thing to see. The people were served wine on a spoon (one spoon for everyone) then received a chunk of bread to eat at their seats. At the end of liturgy, the extra bread was handed out as a snack. This was not one of the gifts/body of Christ; I asked if I’d be allowed to eat it and was told to go ahead. I don’t know if that means it was somehow unblessed after the fact or was never blessed in the first place. Either way I understood that in Orthodoxy as in the Catholic church, they believe the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood.

I probably won’t be joining the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’d have to learn Greek or some other new language to get the most out of it. I’m not up for that based on my schedule these days. But it was kinda cool. Now I will have a bit of an easier time with the next Eastern Orthodox place whenever it comes up.

Daily history lesson: The Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church (or Rome split from them) in 1054 in what’s known as the East West Schism. Eastern Orthodox consider themselves the true church still following in the apostolic tradition. This makes the third church type I have visited that make this claim.