Sunday, May 27, 2007

Strange Without Heresy

Today all nations in the City of David beheld wonders, when the Holy Spirit descended in fiery tongues, as the God-inspired Luke spake; for he said, "The disciples of Christ being gathered together, there was a sound as of a mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they began to speak strange doctrines and strange teachings with diverse tongues, to the Holy Trinity." – First Sticheron on Psalm 130 at Kneeling Vespers, on the evening of Pentecost

In recent years, I have attended the annual Shakespeare Free For All at DC's Carter Barron Amphitheatre. For two weeks every summer, the Shakespeare Theatre Company presents one of the bard's plays for free in order to share Shakespeare with the masses – and to publicize its upcoming season. This year's production sets the witty verbal combat of Love's Labor's Lost in India of the 1960s, where young people from the West flocked in search of enlightenment, just as the Beatles did. I saw it last Thursday with a few friends from my old parish. (If you live in the DC area you still have a week to see it!)

At the beginning of Act V, the curate Nathaniel compliments the pedantic Holofernes, "I praise God for you, sir: your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy." I liked the sound of this description and tried it on to see how it might fit me (or my blog). I quickly decided the "without opinion" bit would trip me up, but I made a note to look up the passage when I got home. I still felt an affinity for the phrase, "strange without heresy," and I filed it away for further consideration. I did not expect to be reminded of it again so soon.

My first experience of Byzantine worship was sixteen years ago tonight, when I tagged along with my colleague Pat and his friend Mark to Kneeling Vespers at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In the Byzantine tradition, kneeling is forbidden from Pascha through Pentecost. At the first service where kneeling is again permitted, Vespers on the evening of Pentecost, we break our fifty-day fast from kneeling in a big way (much like we break the Lenten fast at 3 AM after the Pascha Liturgy)! The distinctive feature that gives the service its popular name is a series of three prayers – the first two long, and the third twice as long – said by the priest while he and everyone present kneel. (Sixteen years ago the practice involved full prostrations, but, at least in our archdiocese, this has been mitigated to simple kneeling. I miss the prostrations!)

Up until the kneeling prayers, the service follows the normal order of Vespers: Psalm 104; the Great Litany; Psalms 141, 142, 130, and 117; the hymn Phos Hilaron; and the Prokeimenon. The deacon censes the church during Ps. 141, and then at some point towards the end of Ps. 142 or the beginning of Ps. 130 the chanter begins to chant stichera between the psalm verses. A sticheron is a short thematic hymn that varies according to the church calendar. The stichera at Kneeling Vespers, which are repeated from Lauds earlier in the day, all concern the Holy Spirit, whose descent we celebrate at Pentecost (see Acts 2). The first sticheron ended with the provocative sentence, "And they began to speak strange doctrines and strange teachings with diverse tongues, to the Holy Trinity." Some translations enhance the strangeness even further by translating "diverse tongues" as "strange words."

For the conventionally minded – e.g., most of the Pharisees – it is hard to conceive of a teaching that could be "strange without heresy." It is practically familiarity that defines orthodoxy for this school of thought. This is what we see in today's Gospel reading (John 7:37-52). When the people respond to Jesus' strange teaching about the Holy Spirit, "This is really the prophet," the Pharisees reply, "Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee." This dismissive attitude towards Galileans might also help to explain the amazement of the international Jewish visitors to Jerusalem, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?" No one expected yokels from the backwater of Galilee to be multilingual!

But it is less the Galilean origin of Jesus and his apostles than the strangeness of their teaching that fascinates the crowds and upsets the Pharisees. Jesus' talk of living water and his hints of a coming Comforter were bad enough, but at Pentecost his disciples got even stranger, proclaiming, "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified"; and, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." As the sticheron says, they were speaking of the Holy Trinity. In the Russian tradition, for this reason, today is often called Trinity Sunday, and the icon of the feast is that of Rublev's Trinity.

Too often Christianity, including Orthodoxy, can slip into Pharasaical conventionalism. It is natural for us to want to hold at bay whatever is strange and to take comfort in the familiar. But Orthodoxy counters this human tendency with its constant use of paradox to renew the strangeness of the too-familiar. For instance, the second sticheron tonight, in a different translation than we used, describes the Spirit as "Life and Giver of Life, Light and Bestower of Light, Goodness itself and Source of Goodness."

Today at Holy Cross we chrismated another catechumen. At a celebration afterwards, Khouria Frederica pointed out that until a few centuries ago light was always associated with fire, and therefore it had an element of risk and danger about it. The Holy Spirit's association with light, therefore, was also an association with fire and unpredictability ("The wind blows where it wills" – John 3:8). Not a flashlight, but a torch! The third and final sticheron from Kneeling Vespers concludes by summing up the experience of Pentecost: "A strange report, a strange sight, a fire divided for the distribution of gifts." This is no religion of play-it-safe conventionalism, but one of strangeness.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Relics to Kazan

Yesterday, an Italian noblewoman gave a fragment of Our Lady’s robe, along with relics of six other saints, to the Russian Orthodox Church in the city of Kazan, in the heart of Russia. His Eminence Anastasi, Archbishop of Kazan and Tatarstan, received the relics from the Marquise Immacolata Solaro del Borgo, 77, a member of Rome's historically powerful Colonna family, in a cermony at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. The well attended ceremony was broadcast live throughout the country on Russia's main television channel, NTV.

The relics will eventually be housed in a new pilgrimage center along with the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which was returned to Russia by Pope John Paul II in 2004.

The full article in English appears on Inside the Vatican. A short article in Russian with numerous photos appears on the website of the Kazan Diocese.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Busy Weekend with Bishop Thomas, part 2

The bishop's next stop was at my parish, Holy Cross, in order to ordain a deacon and a subdeacon for St. Patrick's, the new Western Rite Orthodox mission in Warrenton, VA. (I previously wrote about the chrismation of the members of St. Patrick's here. This story about the chrismation later appeared on Bishop Thomas's own web page, with better photos than mine.)

I arrived 15 minutes before 6 PM, when the Liturgy was scheduled to begin, only to find a service already in progress. I stepped into the church just in time to see the bishop ordain Subdeacon Dayton and wondered if I had already missed half the service. I later learned that an unannounced Vespers service had begun at 5, followed by the subdiaconal ordination. (During my short time in the Antiochian Archdiocese, I have formed the impression that any event involving a bishop will come together at the last minute – or come apart, as suggested by one priest whom I will not name.) The actual Liturgy, during which Subdeacon Patrick was ordained to the diaconate, did start at 6.

I will let my blurry photos tell the story with just a bit of explanation. In the first picture, we see Bishop Thomas preaching, while the future deacon stands before the icon of Christ with a white towel over his head.

Since Vespers had already been sung, it was now Monday, liturgically. (The Orthodox liturgical day begins with Vespers, the evening office, following the ancient Jewish reckoning of time.) The Gospel, according to the weekday lectionary, was from John 8. The bishop reiterated Jesus' teaching that the devil is the father of lies, and those who tell lies are children of the devil. Some people will try to justify their lies by claiming they are just little lies, but that just makes them little children of the devil, rather than big children of the devil!

Subdeacon Patrick stood there like that in front of Christ from the beginning of the service through the Anaphora, except for a brief time during which he moved to the other side of the iconostasis and stood before the Theotokos. The ordination took place after the Anaphora and before the administration of Communion. Here the bishop lays his hand on the head of the ordinand.

After the service, the bishop brought out the newly ordained deacon and subdeacon and presented them to the assembly. Some of the women from St. Patrick's (gathered in a circle on the right side of the photo) then sang a beautiful setting of "St. Patrick's Breastplate," composed by the deacon's wife.

Then the bishop promptly put his new ordinands to work, Deacon Patrick holding the cross for veneration and Subdeacon Dayton holding the basket of antidoron.

Update: More photos available from Reader Michael Bishop.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A Busy Weekend with Bishop Thomas, part 1

The Right Rev'd Thomas, Bishop of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic, was in the Baltimore-Washington area for the weekend. Charleston and Oakland are in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively, and the diocese also includes parishes in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. It does not, however, include Washington, DC, which, along with New York City, is under the direct oversight of Metropolitan Philip. But the metropolitan asked Bishop Thomas to make this visitation on his behalf.

The occasion of the visitation was the dedication of a new church. St. Gregory the Great, the local Western Rite Orthodox Mission, at long last acquired its own building last year. It had begun its existence meeting in the chapel at the old Church of Saints Peter and Paul. But when that parish moved to its current location in Potomac, St. Gregory's found new quarters at Eldbrooke United Methodist Church, near Tenleytown, meeting first in the basement and later in the upper room at Eldbrooke. When Bp. Thomas visited St. Gregory's last year he challenged them to find a building of their own, but he did not dream they would meet the challenge so promptly! With the help of a couple from St. Sophia's who knew the local real estate market, they found a row house in the Columbia Heights neighborhood that was already in use as a church.

It took some effort to convert the church, whose previous owners were the Seventh Day Pentecostal Church of the Living God. (The "before" pictures showed drums at the front of the church and orange walls in the basement.) The Orthodox congregation began worshiping in their new church in November. In January the basement flooded, requiring another round of repairs and improvements. Now, after six months in use, the church was finally ready to be blessed.

The festivities began with Solemn Vespers on Saturday evening. The church was full for this service, and those present included the other two local Antiochian priests, from Ss. Peter and Paul and St. George's, respectively, as well as the bishop. Also present were former members and long-time friends of the parish. The service started with the Solemn Reception of a Bishop and the proceeded with Vespers. Western Rite Vespers is virtually identical to Evensong in the Anglican tradition – the biggest difference I noticed was that they remained standing for the Psalms instead of sitting. Immediately following Vespers, the bishop formally elevated the pastor of St. Gregory's, Fr. Nicholas, to the rank of archpriest.

The service was followed by dinner, downstairs in the parish hall. I sat at the table with the couple who had helped parishioners to acquire the church. On this occasion, they also gave the parish a beautiful new icon as a gift – the image known in the East as Our Lady of the Passion and in the West as Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

I returned on Sunday. Morning Prayer followed the traditional Anglican form. Fr. Nicholas was flanked by deacon and subdeacon, as is customary for the solemn form of a service, but the bishop was not visible. Following Morning Prayer, we all filed outside, the clergy and acolytes assembling on the porch and everyone else in the front yard.

The bishop was vested with his dark red epitrachelion (stole) and omophorion (the short, wide bishop's stole, perhaps equivalent to the Western pallium) over his riassa (cassock). We sang the Asperges as an antiphon, and the clergy sang Psalm 51 as the bishop sprinkled the exterior of the church with holy water. Then we began singing the Litany of Saints and all processed into the church, where the blessing and sprinkling continued. As we took our seats, the clergy and acolytes processed around the nave three times, while the bishop sprinkled the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. We concluded the blessing with Psalms 120-122.

This was followed by the Liturgy of St. Gregory – the medieval form of the Western Mass. The opening hymn was "Hail Thee, Festival Day," and the ordinary was chanted to the setting Missa de Angelis. In his sermon, Bp. Thomas revealed that he had listened to us singing Morning Prayer from upstairs while watching people walk past the church. He noticed one lady who looked at the church as she walked by, apparently wondering who we were. While the neighbors are no doubt relieved that they are no longer awakened every Saturday morning by drums and loudspeakers, they don't know who we are. Since the parish had answered his last challenge, he issued a new one – to reach out to the neighborhood, invite people in, and make sure they know who worships here. The Mass concluded with the pontifical blessing, which was followed by the singing of the Marian antiphon Regina Coeli and the closing hymn, "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!"

Mass was followed by a festive coffee hour. Then everyone returned to the church for a group photo. I was appointed as photographer and was handed two cameras in addition to my own. As I was lining up the shot and waiting for everyone to hold still and smile, the bishop left his place in the line-up and walked toward me. He took the camera from me and told me to act like I was taking my place for the photo. No one seemed to notice until he asked if everyone was ready! He said he had never done that before but had always wanted to. Everyone was duly amused, but also a bit relieved when Bp. Thomas returned to his place for the group pictures.

(I know my pictures are blurry. The ones for part 2 will be even worse! As soon as they come out with those newfangled cameras that compensate for camera movement at a reasonable price, I need to get one.)

Update: More pictures are available on the diocesan website.