Monday, April 25, 2011

Pascha in our Parish - Come and See part III

If you are not Orthodox and you haven't read this post, you should probably read it before this one.  It gives the explanation for what you will see in pictures in this post.  Thanks to Cindy Ralston for the beautiful pictures, which, though absolutely wonderful, still do not do justice to actually being there -- come and see!

The Resurrection Service begins.  Father Andrew brings out the Paschal candle to light the darkness (note the Royal Doors are closed).

"Come ye, take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night....."

The congregation gathers at the front doors in anticipation.

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"  Note the open doors -- the tomb has been rent!  Throughout Bright Week, both the Royal Doors and the Deacon doors will remain open at all times signifying the empty tomb.

The little entrance....

Venerating the Gospel book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Divine Liturgy of Holy Pascha -- a/k/a "Come and See, part II"

Wow.  Just wow.  Demonstrative pictures are included in this post, but as with the previous post, there is no way at all to describe the Divine Liturgy of Holy Pascha to someone who has never seen one.  It's funny, because it is in a lot of ways the same observation we've had about the Orthodox Church all along, just writ a bit larger.  Pascha is a lot like the first Lutheran Easter we ever celebrated, only different.  Different in scope and different in style, but at the same time very similar.  What follows is our explanation, but by all means -- come and see!  Words do not describe this.  You have to experience it.  You'll just have to wait until next year (the good news is those of you who are not Orthodox can come to "Orthodox Easter" next year with a clean conscience -- it will be a different week from "Western Easter").

We began attending our first Lutheran parish during the Epiphany in 2001.  We got Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week and the first half of the Easter Vigil out of the way before we were confirmed.  I can say that what struck us then was the rhythm of the Church year, how we went from kind of cruising along easily during Epiphany, to being very somber and quiet and dark during Lent, to turning everything up full volume for Easter.  The Lutheran Church had a sense of keeping things in their proper perspective.  Great Lent, Holy Week and Holy Pascha in the Orthodox Church is like that.  Only different.

In Orthodoxy, Great Lent is treated as a time of quiet and dark reflection as well.  But Sundays during Lent are not considered part of Lent, though they are not yet Pascha either.  The fast isn't lifted for the weekend services, but the darkness, prostrations and typical mourning, penitential feel are removed.  And yet, there is still a sense of anticipation.  The biggest difference is Holy Week itself.  In Orthodoxy, Holy Week is a time of mourning, lamentation, knowledge of one's own sin, repentance, etc.  But there is also a prefigurement -- Palm Sunday is always preceded by and in remembrance of Lazarus Saturday (if I'm not mistaken, Lutherans have the story of Lazarus earlier in Lent).  We have in Lazarus a picture of what is coming at Pascha.  So Holy Week doesn't have the sense of foreboding it does in the Western liturgy, though it is certainly penitential and somber.  Christ's death during Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is already prefigured by the preceding resurrection of Lazarus, so we have a bit more of a sense of what is coming than was our experience in the Western liturgy.

Pascha itself is very much like a good Lutheran Easter mass, only different.  One thing we loved about Easter in the Lutheran Church is that on Good Friday, we left the Church in total darkness, with the altar stripped and the crosses veiled -- a reminder that Christ was in the tomb.  Yet we were left with a reminder that the tomb had been rent -- the "strepitus," which was a loud noise at the very end of the Liturgy.  On Holy Saturday evening, when we celebrated the Easter Vigil (which like Holy Pascha is quite a bit longer than a normal Lutheran mass), the entire parish began inside the same room, lights darkened, and candles were lit from the Paschal candle.  Then, the congregation processed outside the Church with lit candles (I think I'm remembering this correctly -- it's been over 5 years since we had this particular service).  Then the entire congregation processed back inside loudly singing a resurrection hymn -- "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" is the one that sticks out to me as I remember this.  As the congregation moved into the nave, the lights were brought up to announce the resurrection.  It was utterly beautiful and extremely powerful. 

In the Orthodox Church, on the evening of Holy Saturday as we begin the Paschal celebration, we begin inside the nave with the Rush Service followed by the Resurrection Service.  At the beginning of the Resurrection Service, the lights are all off and the parish candles which usually illumine the nave even during Great Lent remaining unlit.  Then the priest comes to the ambon holding a lit Paschal candle and announces "come ye, take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night.  Come, glorify the Christ, risen from the dead."  Each lights his candle from the Paschal candle and spreads the light around the room until the entire parish is lit only by the vast array of candles.  The entire congregation then processes outside and around the Church grounds, ending at the parish doors.  The Gospel is read at the door of the parish, which is unlit and dark, and then following the Gospel reading, the priest knocks on the door of the parish saying "lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in."  The reply comes from inside, "Who is the King of glory," at which the priest says "the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war."  This continues three times until the third time, when the priest responds "the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory," and the doors to the parish are opened and light comes pouring out.  The choir follows the priest in singing "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!"  When the congregation reaches the inside of the nave, all of the lights are on, candles lit and the parish is very much "alive."  If Great Lent is the Church at a quiet, elevator volume, Pascha is the Church on full blast.

After this, Orthros continues, and then the Divine Liturgy begins.  Not much is different about it from a typical Orthodox Liturgy.  Except it is SOOOO different.  The tone of the service, the feel of the Liturgy -- everything is louder, brighter, happier, bouncier.  Not that Great Lent is sad, or depressing -- it's not.  In fact, Great Lent is extremely hopeful.  But Pascha is something else entirely.  It's the Church without benefit of a volume knob.  But it's not noise -- it's joy!

Two things were confirmed for us as we sat in Church for Holy Pascha.  First, this is what we've been missing -- we did in fact find in this parish essentially that which we first found 10 years ago in another communion, in another state.  Second, we were right to become Orthodox.  It's like the Lutheran Church we were raised in.  Only different.  I looked at my wife during the early part of the Divine Liturgy, and she just smiled and nodded.  We're home.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Great and Holy Saturday -- Lamentations and Procession of the Bier

If there is anything that a person relatively new to Orthodoxy can say to someone who is not Orthodox that is almost guaranteed to irritate the non-Orthodox, it is "I can't really describe it for you -- you have to come and see." The fact that this is a true statement doesn't help much. It is something to which most non-Orthodox cannot fully relate.

Such it is with Holy Saturday services (celebrated on the eve of Holy Friday by anticipation). It had been explained to me what would happen (and I will explain it to you), but words simply are inadequate to describe this service. First, a funeral bier is decorated with flowers by the children in the congregation. The bier is then set up in the middle of the nave, front and center of the solea. Then there is the Service of the Taking Down from the Cross, where Christ's corpus, having been nailed (yes, nailed) to the cross the evening prior, is now taken down off the cross. The corpus is wrapped in burial cloths and taken behind the altar, and the Epitaphios (a cloth icon of the burial of Christ) is placed on the bier. The now-empty cross is set up behind the bier and (in our case) to the right.

The Service of the Lamentations begins Friday evening. I had been told what would happen, so nothing particularly was a surprise except for the great beauty and reverence of this Service. The Canon is chanted, and the Lamentations are sung, but the really amazing part was when the bier was picked up and elevated as with any other funeral procession, the entire parish lit candles and the Priest led the bier, followed by the choir and congregation, on a procession around the parish grounds singing the Trisagion hymn:

Holy God
Holy Mighty
Holy Immortal
have mercy on us

Then, when we arrived again at the parish entrance, the bier was elevated, and each and every member of the parish re-entered the parish by walking in under the bier and Epitaphios. We enter the Church through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, and this act symbolizes that it is our grave -- our death -- which Christ has now entered.

Even with this level of detail, words cannot describe, and frankly what I've written above does not do justice to, what we experienced. The Lamentations themselves are simply beautiful. Likewise the Canon. As my friend and Chrismation sponsor told me before the service, "anyone who leaves this service not understanding why we hold the Mother of God in such high esteem doesn't have a soul." The weight of my own sin, the price that was paid for that sin, the great love that was demonstrated by the act of laying down His own life that by His death, Hades might swallow a man and choke on God Almighty -- and yet the words above are insufficient to explain. It must be experienced.

Following the Service of the Lamentations, members of the parish stayed behind for an all night vigil. So in addition to watching the beauty of the Service of the Lamentations, I was able to participate (in a small way) in the reading of the entire Psalter and most of the four Gospels. We got more than halfway through the Gospel According to Saint John before it was time for the Vesperal Divine Liturgy this morning. Like the Apostles before me, I fell asleep and missed a fair amount of the readings. But that's one of the beautiful things about the Church -- she was praying even as I was unable in my weakness to do so myself. Sitting in the darkened Church, with the Psalter and the Gospels being read and only candles to light the room was quite peaceful. Silence and stillness, broken only by the Word of God. Again, something that words cannot describe -- this too must be experienced.

Everyone is telling me that if I thought last night was beautiful, tonight will be even better. We therefore anticipate all the more Christ's Holy Resurrection.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Great and Holy Saturday

"Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that He may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as He sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to Him: Thou hast lain down, Thou hast slept as a lion; who shall awaken Thee, O King? But of Thine own free will do Thou rise up, who willingly dost give Thyself for us. O Lord, glory to Thee."

"Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation in the hollow of His hand; a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to Thy dispensation, whereby Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath, Thy most holy Resurrection from the dead."

Great and Holy Friday

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.

Great and Holy Thursday

When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, the impious Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and to the lawless judges he betrayed You, the Righteous Judge. Behold, this man because of avarice hanged himself. Flee from the insatiable desire which dared such things against the Master! O Lord Who deals righteously with all, glory to You!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Great and Holy Wednesday

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins perceived thy divinity and received the rank of the ointment-bearing women; and with mourning she brought myrrh to thee before thy burial. She said: “Woe is me, for I am surrounded with a gloomy and moonless night, full of lustful passion. Accept the fountains of my tears, for thou gatherest into clouds the water of the sea. Incline to the groaning of my heart, for in thine inexpressible self-abasement thou hast bowed the heavens. I will kiss thy most pure feet and wipe them with the locks of my hair, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself in fear. Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the depth of thy judgments, O Savior of my soul? In thy boundless mercy despise me not, thy handmaid.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Great and Holy Tuesday

Behold! The bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is he whom He shall find watching; but unworthy is he whom He shall find careless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul.  Be not overcome with sleep, lest thou be given over to death and shut outside the kingdom.  But arise and cry: "Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God!" Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Great and Holy Monday

I see thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein.  O Giver of Light, make radiant the vesture of my soul, and save me!

-- Exapostilarion for the Service of the Bridegroom

Palm Sunday

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion, You did confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with the palms of victory, we cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!

-- Troparion for Palm Sunday

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lazarus Saturday

By Your word, O Word of God, Lazarus now leaps out of death, having returned to this life. Therefore the peoples honor You with their branches, O Mighty One; for You shall destroy Hades utterly by Your own death.

By means of Lazarus has Christ already plundered you, O death. Where is your victory, O Hades? For the lament of Bethany is handed over now to you. Let us all wave against it our branches of victory.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thank God for Lutherans!

Please don't take this as me being snide, or some kind of bad joke -- I could not be more sincere about this post.  It was 10 years ago today that my wife and I were received into the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, myself by Holy Baptism and confirmation and my wife by confirmation.  Some recollections of that day are fuzzy, but others are crystal clear.  The young twin girls who were confirmed with us seemed like little kids then (they are now beautiful young ladies, both in college, and their baby sister who was about the age of our oldest daughter then is a teenager).  At the altar rail beside them, we felt like Gulliver must have felt with the Lilliputians.  Our Pastor -- who has quite a mischievous sense of humor -- poured a small amount of water on my head for "in the name of the Father, and of the Son....." but gave me quite an extra dose of the Holy Spirit right down the back of my shirt.  Then joked about it afterward.  While Lutherans, like Orthodox, tend to eschew subjective feelings as untrustworthy, the feeling at our first communion that the heavens had been opened was overwhelming.

We also have a lot of good memories since then.  When I hear a good Lutheran hymn, I still hear a certain parishioner's voice booming above the choir.  When I read a good Lutheran sermon, I still hear in my head our first Pastor's unmistakable preaching cadence.  When I read someone making a profound point dealing with Law and Gospel or sin and grace or Sacraments and liturgy or (especially) feminism in the Church, I hear our Deaconess' voice.  It was in the Lutheran Church that I learned to love liturgy, Church history, the value of good hymnody, good preaching and the Sacramental life. 
I also learned more theology over cigars and Scotch or beer on the porch than I ever learned in a Church building.  Having a Pastor who is both a spiritual Father and a good friend is an asset I probably took for granted at the time, but appreciate very much in hindsight.  I acquired an appreciation for the depth of human sin and the incredible gift of grace by living out the Sacramental life as a Lutheran.  I learned to live as a beggar before God, despite God's rich gifts to me and to never take those gifts for granted as if they were deserved or earned. 

We were childless back then -- we have three children now, all baptized in the Lutheran Church, by three different Pastors.  The first half of our 10 years as Lutherans was wonderful, rich, and comforting.  And while the second half of our Lutheran journey was quite a bit more of a struggle, we made a lot of good friends and were shepherded by a wonderful (by then, WELS) Pastor who cared deeply for us and our family.  We worshiped in a community center before building a parish building, and so in addition to our appreciation for sacred space and giving our best to God, we also learned that God is present wherever two or three are gathered in His name, and wherever that may occur.  While in the end we decided to leave that same parish, it was not for lack of love, support and friendship by everyone who occupied the building, all of whom we still consider friends today.

It is interesting what one remembers and how powerful the senses are.  Orthodoxy is not Lutheranism, nor will it ever be.  Yet the first time Stephanie and I attended an Orthodox Church, the aroma when we walked into the nave hit me hard.  When we left, my wife had lots of good things to say -- "I like that it's not about us," "their liturgy is beautiful," etc.  The only thing I could think to say was "I like that it smells like a Church."  That sounds ridiculous, but what I meant was "it smells like that first Lutheran Church."  I'm quite certain that's a coincidence of no particular import, but for the record, it still does.  So it was that in the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we also were reminded that the Church worships with all five senses.  That may be one small reason we feel so at home there.  Another, for the record, is the "feel" of the parish -- going to midweek prayer services, feast day liturgies and the like I am reminded of the same weekly "rhythm" at that first LCMS parish we attended 10 years ago.  Yet another is the strong piety and sense of sacred space -- the sense that something awe-inspiring and transcendent is going on in this special place where God's people are gathered. Small tightly knit parishes in humble buildings filled with faithful Christians maintaining the liturgical traditions of the Church are certainly not necessary, but they are a blessing beyond words.  We left one to be closer to family.  After 5 years we finally found another.

I still owe a great debt of gratitude to too many Lutherans to enumerate here.  To all of our former Pastors, parishioners, friends and acquaintances, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. 
We have been blessed beyond our wildest imagination because of you.  And to those we have let down or disappointed, please forgive us.  It's probably cliche to say "we wouldn't be Orthodox if it weren't for all the good things you taught us."  It might even sound like a backhanded compliment (it isn't intended to be).  But the simple truth is we wouldn't be Christian if it weren't for all the good things you taught us.  One more dose of pietistic self-righteous nonsense would have ran us out of the Church, and I doubt we'd have ever returned.  For that, we are ever grateful.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saint Mary of Egypt

She began her life as a young woman who followed the passions of the body, running away from her parents at age twelve for Alexandria. There she lived as a harlot for seventeen years, refusing money from the men that she copulated with, instead living by begging and spinning flax.

One day, however, she met a group of young men heading toward the sea to sail to Jerusalem for the veneration of the Holy Cross. Mary went along for the ride, seducing the men as they traveled for the fun of it. But when the group reached Jerusalem and actually went towards the church, Mary was prohibited from entering by an unseen force. After three such attempts, she remained outside on the church patio, where she looked up and saw an icon of the Theotokos. She began to weep and prayed with all her might that the Theotokos might allow her to see the True Cross; afterwards, she promised, she would renounce her worldly desires and go wherever the Theotokos may lead her.

After this heart-felt conversion at the doors of the church, she fled into the desert to live as an ascetic. She survived for years on only three loaves of bread and thereafter on scarce herbs of the land. For another seventeen years, Mary was tormented by "wild beasts—mad desires and passions." After these years of temptation, however, she overcame the passions and was led by the Theotokos in all things.

Following 47 years in solitude, she met the priest St. Zosima in the desert, who pleaded with her to tell him of her life. She recounted her story with great humility while also demonstrating her gift of clairvoyance; she knew who Zosima was and his life story despite never having met him before. Finally, she asked Zosima to meet her again the following year at sunset on Holy Thursday by the banks of the Jordan.

Zosima did exactly this, though he began to doubt his experience as the sun began to go that night. Then Mary appeared on the opposite side of the Jordan; crossing herself, she miraculously walked across the water and met Zosima. When he attempted to bow, she rebuked him, saying that as a priest he was far superior, and furthermore, he was holding the Holy Mysteries. Mary then received communion and walked back across the Jordan after giving Zosima instructions about his monastery and that he should return to where they first met exactly a year later. When he did so, he found Mary's body with a message written on the sand asking him for burial and revealing that she had died immediately after receiving the Holy Mysteries the year before (and thus had been miraculously transported to the spot where she now lay). So Zosima, amazed, began to dig, but soon tired; then a lion approached and began to help him, that is, after Zosima had recovered from his fear of the creature. Thus St. Mary of Egypt was buried. Zosima returned to the monastery, told all he had seen, and improved the faults of the monks and abbot there. He died at almost a hundred years old in the same monastery.

Later, the story of Mary's life was written down by St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (cf. "External links").

The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read during Great Lent along with the Great Canon of St. Andrew.

From Orthodox Wiki:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We Orthodox take sin seriously.....

......really we do......

I only point it out because I've heard some folks say otherwise.  Please note that the following is edited for brevity -- this could go on for quite a while if I posted all of it:

I have wasted my whole life with harlots and publicans.
Will I be able to repent of my many sins even when I grow old?
I cry to You, the Creator of all and Healer of the sick:
“Before I utterly perish, save me O Lord!”

I cry to Thee, O Lord; I say: “You are my hope, my portion in the land of
the living.”

Weighed down with indifference, I wallow in sin.
Pierced by the devil’s darts, I have defiled Your image in me.
Yet You convert the heedless and save the sinful.
Before I utterly perish, save me O Lord!

            Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low!

I have become a stumbling block.
Born of earth, I have remained attached to earthly things.
Wed to Your commandments, I transgressed them and defiled my bed.
Yet do not despise the creature whom You formed of earth,
but before I utterly perish, save me O Lord!

            Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!

Obsessed with the flesh, I have murdered my soul.
I have become the demons’ toy, the slave of lusts.
In Your compassion, spare me! Put the demons to flight!
Before I utterly perish, save me O Lord!

Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks to Your name!

More than all men I have willfully sinned,
and this has left me helpless and forsaken.
As the enemy of my own soul, I have carnal thoughts that darken it.
O Light of those in darkness, Guide of all who go astray:
“Before I utterly perish, save me O Lord!”

The righteous will surround me; for You will deal bountifully with me.

-- from the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, 5th Sunday in Lent

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Father Alexander Schmemann on the meaning of communion

But then the first and essential fruit of all Christian life and spirituality, so manifest in the Saints, is the feeling and the awareness not of any "worthiness," but of un-worthiness.  The closer one is to God the more conscious he becomes of the ontological unworthiness of all creatures before God, of the totally free gift of God.  Such genuine spirituality is absolutely incompatible with any idea of "merit," of anything that could make us, in itself and by itself, "worthy" of that gift.  For, as St. Paul writes: "...while we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Why one will hardly die for a righteous man . . . .  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us . . ."  (Rom. 5:6-8).  To "measure" that gift with our merits and worthiness is the beginning of that spiritual pride which is the very essence of sin.

-- from "Great Lent:  Journey to Pascha"