Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Taking the plunge

Sunday was our first opportunity to go to church with the bishop present. It wasn't a full hierarchical liturgy, but there was something truly wonderful about the whole experience. We've been attending another small parish about 45 minutes away (everything from here is about 45 minutes away) on occasional Sundays to be a) not the youngest people b) not the only family with small children and c) not the only converts. Though I'm not sure how well we do on the last front, we're definitely in good with the other two! Lots of little kids very close to AJ and Christine's ages and lots of younger couples, older couples, a monastic.  It's a good parish.

Sunday the bishop was going to be at church. I've been to one other hierarchical liturgy before, but never as someone who could be called a regular attender, catechumen, or any other official category in Orthodoxy. Observer, maybe; but nothing deeper or more profound than an outsider looking in at all of the proceedings. When we arrived he was already vested and performing the necessary prayers and services for the proskomedia. If I hadn't known what he looked like, I would have assumed there was a visiting priest. Though there were a few extra tidbits to the service, the whole experience was like having a loving friend, father, or close relative serving alongside the normal priest and presiding over the service. Something truly Christlike and incarnational even with long purple robes and a crown. There was no pretense, no extra fanfare. For a very nervous newbie, this was the type of service to see.

When he went around to our table he simply shook hands with us, blessed our girls, and simply congratulated us on being catechumens. What I want to focus on is the way he loved on our little girls. Placing his wooden panagia on the heads of our daughters, blessing them and praying over them with such tenderness that I still choke up. A true shepherd and father of the flock of Christ. I felt truly blessed to be able to spend just a few minutes of time with him. I felt this must be what it was like when parents brought their children to Our Lord so that He could bless them. The joy and (dare I say) relief that they felt when He picked them up and poured His love onto them.

Thank you, your grace, for the love you showed our girls. Thank you for the love your showed our family. Pray for us as we pray for you.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Getting back to roots

 At our parish we celebrate the (truncated) Liturgy of St. James during Lent. I had always heard that this was the great-granddaddy of all liturgical experiences. Six hours. Only performed once a year. True dedication required; layabouts need not apply type liturgy. Though that may be true to some, I think I'm really going to miss it when we hit the Paschal season. After four weeks, I'm starting to get used to it, and I find I truly appreciate every element--including the length (though it doesn't take us six hours, partly because we don't do six twenty minute litanies).  Following are some highlights and reflections. (All excerpts found at Schaff's Anti-Nicene Fathers v. 7)

Prayer of the commencement.  
Text: O beneficent King eternal, and Creator of the universe, receive Thy Church, coming unto Thee through Thy Christ: fulfill to each what is profitable; lead all to perfection, and make us perfectly worthy of the grace of Thy sanctification, gathering us together within Thy holy Church, which Thou hast purchased by the precious blood of Thy only-begotten Son, and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, with whom Thou art blessed and glorified, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and ever, and to all eternity. Amen.
Reflection: Here, gathered around the icon in the narthex we gather and hear not just our destination (Blessed is the Kingdom), but we hear what we were created to be and how God accomplished it. I'm always struck by the list of petitions: receive, fulfill, lead, make, gather. If anyone accuses me of a works-based faith again, I'll have to give them a copy of this liturgy to read. It is God's divine action that accomplished/accomplishes our salvation, and He alone makes us capable of participating with Him.

Text: God, who didst accept the gifts of Abel, the sacrifice of Noah and of Abram, the incense of 
538Aaron and of Zacharias, accept also from the hand of us sinners this incense for an odour of a sweet smell, and for remission of our sins, and those of all Thy people; for blessed art Thou, and glory becomes Thee, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever.
       Reflection: I love that this liturgy is steeped in Old Testament imagery, especially that of sacrifice. We come to God offering a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving which is represented in so many things, and here at the beginning of the work we ask God to accept our offering as He did to the righteous patriarchs and priests of the past. The special blessing on the incense catches me particularly, because it can be such a stumbling block to converts that to hear it placed in context is truly eye opening. This incense is simply a visual/nasal representations of the truth of our prayers and praises rising to God. May He find them pleasing.

      Text: Cherubic Hymn.  
Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:—  
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  

Reflection: I have mentioned before how much I love the Cherubic Hymn. This version is slightly longer, but the basic element still remains strong even in its newest formation: We are about to receive Christ, forget everything else and focus. We, here and now, are taking part in the worship of the angels! This gives me goosebumps, especially as the gifts process and the incense forms a cloud around the clergy and the gifts. Very moving.

Text: Priest: 
Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
         People: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow                     
Reflection: the words from the Gospel about the Theotokos and her response to Gabriel's message about the incarnation and her role played therein. I was surprised by this the first time I heard it, and I don't know that I really appreciated that it was being "misapplied" to the Priests, until I realized that this is the role of all of us: to bring God with us wherever we go. It is the Priests who are the icons of Christ, and we are also the icons of Christ. We are living temples of the Holy Spirit, and He will/does come and overshadow us. When we pray this for the priests, we are encouraging them to perform the task they have been preparing to do, because it is the Holy Spirit himself who will make this liturgy possible and pleasing to God.

Text: Going on from glory to glory, we praise Thee, the Saviour of our souls. Glory to Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit now and ever, and to all eternity. We praise Thee, the Saviour of our souls.
Reflection: These are the last words that the congregation says in our parish. As the priest dismisses us, we return by committing ourselves to the work of salvation, having been strengthened by the Eucharist, we go into the world to pursue holiness and union with God. A hard challenge to be sure, but it's so encouraging during this particular time of year to know that, for centuries, the Church has sought its strength from the Sacraments, understanding that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that enables us to continue living out the Gospel--from glory to glory.