Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Road Trip to Western Pennsylvania

I concluded my first week as an Orthodox Christian with a trip to the Pittsburgh area. The main reason for the trip was the fall meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was to be held at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I have been an active member of the ESBVM for nearly a decade, and I usually attend the semi-annual meetings. I even gave presentations at the 2003 and 2006 fall meetings.

I drove up a day early to visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City while I was in the area. I had originally planned to visit this monastery the previous week as part of my preparation for chrismation, but I just could not fit it into a week that was already packed with activity. Their limited guest facilities were already full when I scheduled my visit, so I spent Thursday and Friday nights at the nearby Beaver Valley Motel. I arrived after midnight. After a short night's sleep, I went to my car and found the battery dead. (My dome light has not been working, so I turned on the map light when I was unloading the car and forgot to turn it off.) Fortunately, I always carry jumper cables, and the man working the desk at the hotel gave me a jump, so I lost less than ten minutes.

When I arrived at the monastery, Matins, which had begun at 7:30, was already in progress. I remained in the narthex, which was larger than the nave and separated from it only by a pew on either side of the entrance. After they completed the Six Psalms, one of the nuns came out to greet me and invite me to sit in the back pew. Matins continued with the kathisma, the assigned section of the Psalter, which is often skipped or truncated in parish worship but not in monasteries. This was followed by the canon, a long hymn that has come to substitute for the Biblical canticles at Matins in some Orthodox traditions. The canon was interrrupted by two readings of spiritual advice from the writings of an elder. Matins was followed by the Divine Liturgy. Even though everything was in English, I had refrained from joining in the singing at Matins. In the Liturgy I couldn't not sing, but I kept it soft since I was at least an octave below all the other voices.

After the Liturgy, Mother Barbara, the guestmistress, introduced herself. Then I joined the priest who had celebrated the Liturgy, Fr. John, in the dining room with one of the nuns, who made us coffee and toast. Fr. John, who was originally from northern Indiana, is now the priest of the local parish, St. Elias. After breakfast I spent the morning in the library reading a book I found on the shelf there, Liturgy and Architecture, by the French Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer. At lunch I sat next to the abbess, Mother Christophora, at the head of the table. Unlike monasteries I had visited previously, where everyone eats in silence while one monk reads, here we conversed as we ate. Even though it was Friday, a fasting day, the food was quite good. After buying a few things in the gift shop and reading some more Bouyer, I returned to the dining room to make a cup of tea. As I was drinking it, one of the sisters brought me a piece of apple pie, which was delicious. I took my dirty dishes to the kitchen and found a nun and another guest shelling chestnuts. When they both wondered if they would finish the job before they had to run off and do other jobs, I said, "Give me a knife!" We finished early, and I returned to the library to resume reading.

On Friday it is their custom to follow Vespers with an Akathist, during which they intercede for youth whose names have been submitted in prayer requests. This day they sang an Akathist to St. Paraskeva in honor of her upcoming feast day. I was given a stack of slips of paper with the names of young people, which I read quietly as the Akathist was sung. After an un-eventful night at the motel, I returned in the morning for the first hour of Matins, and then headed for Pittsburgh.

The topic of the ESBVM meeting was Marian apparitions, in honor of this being the 90th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal. The meeting began with the viewing of a new DVD on the apparitions and message of Fatima. After lunch, we heard from three speakers: Fr. Brian J. Welding, a Roman Catholic priest, spoke about criteria for Vatican-approved apparitions; Fr. Gregory Jensen, a Greek Orthodox priest, spoke about apparitions in the Orthodox tradition; and the Rev. Dr. Judith Marie Gentle, an Episcopal priest, spoke on the significance of the Fatima apparitions and messages. Their talks were followed by a too-short question-and-answer period, during which most of the written questions submitted seemed to be for Fr. Gregory to answer. This was the best-attended ESBVM meeting I have seen, with a lot of Pittsburgh locals, including a number of college students, and a group that came all the way from Wisconsin, in addition the the regulars.

After the meeting, I spent the rest of the day with Mother Judith and Virginia Kimball, an Orthodox theologian. After coffee, we went to Vespers at St. George Cathedral, Oakland, a cathedral of the Antiochian Diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic (my own diocese). Oakland is a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and St. George Cathedral is only a mile from St. Nicholas, the Greek cathedral where the ESBVM met. The iconography at St. George's is extensive and beautiful. The side walls feature icons of saints in roundels, surrounded and connected by vines. The lead chanter was one of the students we had met earlier in the day at the ESBVM meeting, a student of engineering at the nearby University of Pittsburgh and a friend of Fr. Gregory. We concluded the day with dinner at the Holiday Inn where the ESBVM's International Congress will be held next year.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chrismation Completion

I am now officially a member of the Orthodox Church! Here are a few of the photos taken by Jim, the parish webmaster. In the first picture, I stand with my fellow catechumen and his sponsor at the back of the church. It looks like our eyes are closed, but we're looking down at the service books in our hands. Our sponsors are holding our candles.

In the second picture we have moved to the front of the church. We made our confessions earlier in the week, but absolution was withheld until now. Here, Fr. Gregory absolves me of my sins.

Next came the actual Chrismation (anointing), followed by the Ablution (washing) and Tonsure (haircut). Finally, my sponsor placed my cross around my neck. In this next picture, with the Chrismation rite completed, Fr. Gregory presents the newly illumined Simeon and Joseph as the congregation sings, "God Grant You Many Years."

On the Byzantine calendar, this was the Feast of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. (Do you see the resemblance?)

On the Western calendar, it was the Feast of Our Lady of Victories, which commemorates the victory of the Catholic alliance over the Turks on this date in 1571 at Lepanto. The victory was credited to the intercession of the Virgin Mary after the Pope ordered everyone in Rome to pray the Rosary to implore her prayers.

In his homily, however, Fr. Gregory did not mention Sergius and Bacchus or the Mother of God. Instead, he spoke about our patron saints, Simeon the God-receiver and Joseph of Arimathea. They are like bookends of the Gospel, one appearing at the beginning of Christ's life (Luke 2:25-35) and the other at the end (Luke 23:50-53).

In accordance with custom, the newly illumined were the first to receive Communion. We will continue to hold our candles at Liturgy and be first in line for Communion for a period of 40 days. Here, my sponsor looks on as I receive for the first time.

In recent weeks many of my friends have recounted how many years I have been on this road. I attended my first Byzantine service 16 years ago, and I have been visiting Holy Cross semi-regularly for more than 8 years. Some of my Orthodox friends have been waiting a long time for this day, though I think we all knew it would come eventually. But I kept two of my friends waiting too long. I attended their chrismations, but they reposed too soon to see mine. I lit a candle for Geoffrey and Roxane, and it burned all morning by the Crucifixion icon, the customary location in the church for commemoration of the departed. I would like to think they were both present in spirit to witness the completion of this journey on which they each accompanied me for many miles.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Mystery of Holy Chrismation

On Sunday at 9 AM, the action will begin at the back of the church, just inside the door. After breathing on the catechumens and making the sign of the Cross on them, the priest will lay his hand on the heads of the catechumens and recite the Prayers at the Reception of the Catechumens:

In thy Name, O Lord God of truth, and in the Name of thine Only-begotten Son, and of thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon thy servants, N1. and N2., who have been found worthy to flee unto thy holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of thy wings. Remove far from them their former delusion, and fill them with the faith, hope and love which are in thee; that they may know that thou art the only true God, with thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and thy Holy Spirit. Enable them to walk in all thy commandments, and to fulfil those things, which are well pleasing unto thee; for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them. Inscribe them in thy Book of Life, and unite them to the flock of thine inheritance. And may thy holy Name be glorified in them, together with that of thy beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and of thy life-giving Spirit. Let thine eyes ever regard them with mercy, and let thine ears attend unto the voice of his hands, and in all their generation; that they may render praise unto thee, may sing, worship and glorify thy great and exalted Name always, all the days of their life. For all the Powers of Heaven sing praises unto thee, and thine is the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
This prayer will be followed by the Scrutiny. The priest will ask the catechumens if they believe in the teachings and sacraments of the Church and promise to obey her clergy, and they will respond in the affirmative.

Next comes the Exorcism. The priest will say two prayers of exorcism (listed in most books as the Third Exorcism and a Fourth Prayer − we skip the first two exorcisms). The priest then breathes on each catechumen again, saying thrice, "Expel from him every evil and impure spirit which hideth and maketh its lair in his heart." He will then expand on this:

The spirit of error, the spirit of guile, the spirit of idolatry and of every concupiscence; the spirit of deceit and of every uncleanness, which operateth through the prompting of the Devil. And make him a reason-endowed sheep in the holy flock of thy Christ, an honorable member of thy Church, a consecrated vessel, a child of the light, and an heir of thy kingdom; that having lived in accordance with thy commandments, and preserved inviolate the seal, and kept his garment undefiled, he may receive the blessedness of the Saints in thy kingdom. Through the grace, and bounties, and love towards mankind of thine Only-begotten Son, with whom thou art blessed, together with thy most holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
The catechumens will then turn and face the back of the church, and the priest will then ask them thrice, "Dost thou renounce Satan, and all his Angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride?" (Response: I do.) He will then ask them thrice, "Hast thou renounced Satan?" (I have.) He will then instruct them, "Breathe and spit upon him." The catechumens then turn and face the front of the church, and the priest asks them three more questions, thrice each: "Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?" (I do.) "Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?" (I have.) "Dost thou believe in him?" (I believe in him as King and God.) Then the catechumens recite the Nicene Creed. The priest asks them again thrice, "Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?" (I have.) He then instructs them, "Bow down before him." (I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in Essence and undivided.) The priest concludes, "Blessed is God, who willeth that all men should be saved, and should come to the knowledge of the truth: now and ever, and unto ages of ages."

After this, the priest, deacon, catechumens, and sponsors move to the front of the church, where the first order of business is the Absolution. The catechumens made their confessions earlier in the week, but their absolution was delayed until now. They kneel before the book of the Gospels as the priest prays for them once again. Then they stand and make this declaration:

This true faith of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Church, which I now voluntarily confess and unfeignedly hold, I will firmly maintain and confess whole and in its fullness and integrity, until my last breath, God being my helper; and will teach it and proclaim it, so far as in me lieth; and will strive to fulfill its obligations cheerfully and with joy, preserving my heart in purity and virtue. And in confirmation of this, my true and sincere profession of faith, I now kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.
The catechumens then kiss the Gospel book and the Cross, after which they kneel again, and the priest proncounces the absolution.

Then it is finally time for the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation. The priest says a prayer for the catechumens, and then he anoints them with Holy Chrism, making the sign of the Cross on the brow, the eyes, the nostrils, the lips, the ears, the breast, the hands, the feet, and between the shoulders. With each anointing, he says, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit," and the congregation responds, "Seal."

The priest then says a prayer for the illumination of the newly chrismated. And then this prayer:
He who hath put on thee, O Christ, our God, boweth also his head with us, unto thee. Keep him ever a warrior invincible in every attack of those who assail him and us; and make us all victors, even unto the end, through thy crown incorruptible. For thine it is to show mercy and to save us, and unto thee do we send up glory together with thine everlasting Father, and with thine all-holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
At the Ablution, the priest dips a sponge in water, sprinkles the newly illumined with water, and then washes off the Chrism. Next comes the Tonsure. After saying a prayer, the priest cuts the hair of the newly illumined using a small pair of scissors. With the Chrismation concluded, the congregation sings to the newly illumined, "God Grant You Many Years."

Monday, October 1, 2007

Chrismation Preparation

With my chrismation less than a week away, a post to prepare my friends who will attend is overdue.

Schedule for the day
8:30 First and Third Hours
9:00 Chrismation
9:30 Divine Liturgy
11:30 Coffee Hour
1:30 Party

Don't feel obligated to show up at 8:30 for the hours − the church will be mostly empty at that point and gradually fill up over the course of the following hour. But you'll want to be there before 9:00 − otherwise you might miss my exorcism!

Some things to keep in mind: Wear comfortable shoes, since you'll be on your feet much of the time. Most people will stand for the entire morning except during the sermon, when most of us sit on the floor (which is covered with oriental rugs). There are chairs along the sides, and you shouldn't have any trouble getting one if you're there by 9:00. Don't hesitate to sit down if you need to, even if most others are standing. Dress is conservative but not formal, ranging from very casual to semi-formal (a few men wear ties, but most do not). Also, since the service is so long, people wander in and out as necessary − one of the advantages of not having pews is that we're not stuck in one place all morning.

The action is not always at the front of the church. For example, the chrismation service will actually begin at the back of the church, then we'll move to the front. At the Great Entrance, people will clear a path for the procession through the congregation, and during Communion we clear two paths for those who are lining up to receive. So be prepared to go with the flow and move when necessary.

One unique feature of our Liturgy, which you won't see in most Orthodox churches, is that we take the Kiss of Peace literally. The standard exchange is as follows: The first person says, "Christ is in our midst," and the second responds, "He is and ever shall be." Then they kiss three times, cheek to cheek, starting with the right cheeks. Physical contact can be minimal − air kisses are not uncommon. If you would rather refrain, after you give the response just stick out your hand instead of leaning forward and most people will get the idea. This part of the Liturgy lasts about 10 seconds − just long enough to greet two people.

Immediately after the Liturgy, while the servers recite the Post-Communion Prayers, we line up to venerate the cross and receive a piece of antidoron (blessed bread). Non-Orthodox visitors are welcome to participate but not obligated. When you reach the front of the line Fr. Gregory will hold up his brass hand cross, you kiss the cross, then kiss his right hand, then move to make way for the next person in line. One of the servers will be standing nearby with a big wicker basket full of small pieces of bread. You may take a piece − or more if you're hungry. (If you don't want to kiss the cross, you can take a piece of antidoron anyway − or have someone bring you a piece.) Most people will leave immediately after this and head downstairs to coffee hour, but some stay and line up to be anointed for healing. When you reach the front of the line this time, hold out your hands, and Fr. Gregory will anoint your forehead and hands with oil as he says a prayer for healing, then he will hold up his right hand for you to kiss.

Photography is not a problem − bring your camera if you're so inclined.

You might find the Parish Visitor's Information helpful. And if this will be your first Orthodox service, you might want to read 12 Things I Wish I'd Known . . .

I'm sure I forgot something important − I usually do − so I might update this post later in the week.

The address of the church
Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church
105 N. Camp Meade Road
Linthicum Heights, MD 21090

Holy Cross is located just outside the Baltimore Beltway. A few hundred yards beyond the Beltway, you'll see parked cars lined up along the side of Camp Meade Road. Just pull off the road and get in line, and you're parked. The church is at the intersection, where there is a traffic light.

The party will be at my sponsor's home in Laurel, which is just off I-95. For those coming from the DC area, it's not too far out of the way on your return trip.

Finally, some friends who would like to attend do not have cars − one in Arlington and another in the District. If you need a ride or can offer someone a ride, please e-mail me by Friday evening.