Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lord’s Day of the Ikons, a ramble

Palm Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and the first day of Spring (in the northern hemisphere), how often can all three significant days fall on the same calendar date? Being Greek Orthodox, I had actually forgotten that today is Palm Sunday for the majority of Christians in the world, Roman Catholics and liturgical Protestants, until I was out driving to a visit a friend yesterday afternoon. The weather was glorious. I had the sun roof open and the windows rolled down in my car, I had my sun glasses on, and was listening to my favorite Egyptian pop music on the CD player. The wind was blowing my white hair around, and I was just happy that we were enjoying—finally!—a warm, sunny day after many weeks of wind and rain. Then I thought to myself, ‘Hey! Tomorrow is Palm Sunday!’ even though I knew that for me it would be a different kind of service the next morning.

That morning is here. It’s back to a dull gray sky, but so far, no rain. Perhaps we will all be spared getting soaked in our processions—my Catholic and Protestant brethren in their Palm Sunday best, carrying their palms, and us Orthodox holding aloft our favorite ikons as we go round the temple chanting of ‘the mercies of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,’ and ending our walk in the plaza to hear the proclamation of Orthodoxy, ‘this is the faith that upholds the universe.’ Then, there are all the others, you know, the brethren who don’t go to church, who are indifferent, who don’t even know what is going on next door or right under their noses, because they don’t look. No processions for them, just another day. Perhaps they don’t even know it’s the Lord’s day. No, I’m sure the nature lovers among them will have noticed that it’s the first day of Spring, and take a stroll outside.

Last night we went to take in the evening service at a small ‘Old Calendarist’ Greek Orthodox temple in my neighborhood, less than a mile away. There were perhaps fifteen people in the service, reading prayers and chanting some hymns. We knew we were not going to be on time, and the service was already closer to the end than to the beginning, but we hadn’t been to this church before and wanted to go there and meet the people and priests, and that we did. Fr Constantine and Fr Photios. It’s good to know that there is an Orthodox temple so nearby. The temple of which I am a member is sixty blocks away, about four miles, but of course that’s not really very far when you have a car. The evening service at this little neighborhood temple felt like we were in a small country church, and indeed we were. For these people, the Orthodox Church is a tiny remnant of ‘genuine’ Christians.

Going to that service, I remembered my first-ever experience of Orthodox worship in a small country church in rural Alberta, Canada. That temple was a small, wooden building without electricity or modern heating. Other than the oil lamps and candles, the only source of light was a large, ancient chandelier with real candles that had to be lit by hand by lowering it on its pulley, and then hoisting it back up again. The ikonostasis looked like it was made of criss-cross garden trellis panels painted white and hung with locally painted, pastel colored ikons. A pot-bellied stove against one wall was the only source of heat. The service we attended back then, over forty years ago, was during the day time and in the middle of summer, so I never had the opportunity to experience the temple in the winter and at night. There were about as many worshipers in that country church as there were in the local one.

I thought about the difference, for there was one that I could sense. Though people and priests are very friendly in the neighborhood temple, there was a feeling of poverty and isolation. Their building is a converted Protestant structure, adapted to Orthodox worship. It’s surrounded by a chain-link fence and there’s a wrought-iron, closed, double-leaf gate at the end of the walk to the temple doors. We entered the compound by walking through the driveway entrance. Family homes surround the temple on all sides, but I doubt very much that any of the neighbors belong to it. To them, it’s probably just a strange church of a strange religion that they don’t understand or care about. To those inside the temple, the surrounding neighborhood, like the rest of the world, is just peopled by unbelievers.

The tiny church in rural Alberta, a golden yellow-painted building, sits among a cluster of farmers’ homes and outbuildings, surrounded by fields. Though everything felt rustic to me that first time I was ever in an Orthodox service, the people were gentle and the young priest served them in beautiful simplicity, and there was no sense of poverty or isolation, despite the remote location. This church and community is in the countryside a few hours northeast of Edmonton, in an area settled over a century ago by people from Bukovina. Rustic and humble, yes, poor and isolated, no. It was a place where I experienced for the first time the sunshine of true universal community, where everyone was friends with everyone else, and everyone in that small congregation knew that they were at one with all the believers in the whole world. It was definitely a ‘kairos’ moment, timeless.

Well, the world can’t have changed that much in forty years, or can it have? One cannot expect a small city temple to have the same feel or meaning as one in the countryside, where all the neighbors ‘go’ to the same church, or can we? I think back on my historical studies, specifically my study of the Slavic people, my literal ancestors. They had been worshiping nature gods for hundreds of years. Some worshiped nothing at all. Little groups of Greeks went in among them, in Moravia for example, and set themselves up in a strange ‘neighborhood.’ Little by little the newcomers came to know the locals. Little by little, invited by the Greeks, these ‘outsiders’ joined, became insiders, almost organically.

Why do you think this was? Could it be that those Greeks looked at the world around them, a world that was very dark, where lurked all manner of witchery, where obscenity was looked on as a way to ‘commune’ with the gods, and did not see an enemy, but a dark world that just needed to receive the light? Did they see themselves as a besieged outpost of maybe the last true Christians in the neighborhood, or as a vanguard of the King of kings, His ambassadors to ‘a people that walked in darkness’ but who were destined for light? It seems to me that those early Greeks living in Slavic lands saw their surroundings as already His, already belonging to Him. Their job was simply to let the natives know.

I started writing this ramble before I left for the Divine Liturgy, and I finished the last few paragraphs now that I’m back. I went to that temple of which I am a member. The weather turned rainy, and I could feel myself getting a bit of a chill and my breathing was labored. ‘It’s been a busy week,’ I thought to myself after partaking of the Holy Mysteries and offering thanks afterwards in the narthex, ‘I think I’ll go home and not wait for the procession.’ Even though it’s Lent, I know when I can cut myself some slack, exercise ‘ikonomía’ as it were, to preserve my health, or for any good reason. ‘The Son of Man is master, even of the Sabbath,’ says Christ, who grants to His followers the rights of natural born citizens in His Kingdom.

The Sunday of Orthodoxy, today, and other brothers celebrating the Lord’s entrance in Jerusalem riding on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey. The liturgy of Saint Basil, that perfect gem of ancient liturgical worship, ours to treasure on the road to Pascha, every Sunday till then. All over the world, and even in my neighborhood, ikon-bearers will be, or are, or have already been out in procession carrying their ikons in what must look like a very strange parade to the unsaved or the merely uninterested. ‘It’s those Greeks again!’ I overheard one year from the mouth of a stranger, walking with his friend through the ranks of us pious ikonodules as we circumambulated the temple, city police having blocked the streets to prevent car traffic, but not passers-by or passers-through on foot.

And I ponder, and ask myself, what are we here for, and what are we going to do with these ikons?

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