Enter in

One of the great joys of my life so far occurred the other night/morning as I looked at my mom’s and grandma’s face while they watched the Paschal procession. “Radiant and peaceful” is an understatement. Afterwards, the next day, they tried to explain it to family members and realized what my sister and I had been saying: There are no words.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how much I “missed” the Paschal services and the journey through Holy Week. My priest rightly pointed out that there was no need to “miss” it because the season continues. We constantly celebrate the Resurrection throughout the 40 days of Pascha and then again on every Sunday.

Then yesterday, the wonderful Fr. Stephen explored this further at his blog:

To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” or to think of liturgy as mere remembrance, is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.

Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.

This stands in sharp contrast to St. Paul’s statement in Hebrews: “Faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things…

By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.

Orthodoxy stands in stark contrast to Western Christianity in so many ways, but one way is its understanding of time and the Kingdom of God. As Fr. Stephen says, we live in a one-storey universe. God is not remote and distant, but here and now in a way that we don’t understand. When we worship in the Liturgy every Sunday, we believe and feel in a real way, that we are entering into something ongoing. We become participants in worship that the angels are engaging in, that the saints are engaging in, have engaged in, will engage in. He is present everywhere and fills all things. He is the Beginning and the End. And He is with us and in us. The work of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to see this.

In a strange and beautiful way, that Kingdom of God seeps through into our reality. The more we become like Christ, the more conscious of it we become and the more real our dwelling there in our being.

When I worshiped during Holy Week, Pascha and every other time, I didn’t so much believe in something that happened or have faith that something will happen. I am not looking back historically or hoping for something in the future. I was not “in-between” two worlds, but rather the Kingdom oozed through into mine. 

I believe that is what my mom and grandma saw. I don’t need to “miss it,” though I believe I can long to find it again. But it is not so distant, not so removed. It is where I belong.

On missing Holy Week

I’m having a tough time disengaging from my Paschal party and the preceding Holy Week journey.

Even right now, during Bright Week for pity’s sake, I am listening to the Lamentations of Holy Week because I just love it so much. I miss the singing, the reflection, the knowledge of all that seemed lost then was found in Christ’s redemptive work.

I miss the mourning. I miss the soulful singing as we wait and watch. I miss the sadness turning into joy. I miss hearing the birds awake as we left the little parish hall at 4 a.m. Sunday. I miss my brothers and sisters, whom I rarely see but with whom I have shared this great Thing now two years in a row. I miss hearing Subdeacon Eusebius’ voice reading the Scriptures. I miss watching Elena direct the choir with such joy. I miss seeing Fr. Stacey grin from ear to ear as he blesses the parishioners with showers of holy water. I miss singing alongside my sister. I miss the darkness with candlelight peaking through as we leave the church for the procession.

I miss it all. I love it all, what it brings to me, what it does to me and where it takes me. I love that when I leave on Pascha, I feel like a bright, new penny. I love that throughout Bright Week I don’t worry about what I’m eating, then laugh when I notice that I’m not worrying about what I’m eating. I love that all I want to do is be back at Church and NO one at work can make that happen.

But I love that this Sunday, like every Sunday, we will again celebrate the Resurrection, for every Sunday in Orthodoxy is a mini-Pascha. And this week we’ll get to sing “The Angel Cried.” And Fr. Andrew will say “Christ is Risen” in English, Greek, Slavonic and probably Ukrainian. And we will answer him in English, Greek, Slavonic and probably Ukrainian. The Ethiopians will do that thing that they do when they hear “Christ is Risen” that can’t be translated into words. And I will smile because of the universal-ness of God’s love for us because He came for us, died for us, arose for us and saves us in any language.

I miss Holy Week. I miss Pascha. But I love missing it. And I can’t wait for next year.

Christ is risen, everybody! Christ is Risen!!

Христос воскресе!

Indeed He is Risen!

One week. Twelve services. In the past three days, more than 16 hours standing in the choir.

Black vestments and altar cloths changed to white. Joy from sorrow. From death to life.

This is the Resurrection. Let us be illumined oh you people. The Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.

We began the Paschal service at 11:30 p.m. We ended at 2:30 a.m. But until about 1:30, I had been completely unaware of time. My feet were tired, my back hurt and I was singing my lungs out. However, I was not in the little nave at Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in Canton, Ohio. I was along the shores of the sea. I was watching Jonah spat from the belly of the whale. I was in Babylon, with the three holy youths. I heard Isaiah call out and with great excitement I sang: “the dead shall arise.”

Then, in the darkness, I was at the tomb. I was walking with the myrrh-bearing women. I was mourning with Mary.

But I saw a great light. The earth shook, the lights flickered and the Son of God arose, having trampled down death, having conquered hell and made a way back to the Father for us.

With great joy I sang the favorite hymn of so many Orthodox Christians:

The Angel cried out to the lady full of grace, “Rejoice, O most pure virgin. Again I say, ‘Rejoice!’

Your Son is risen after three days in the tomb. With Himself He has raised all the dead. Rejoice, ye people!”

 Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem! The glory of the Lord has shone on you.

Exult and be glad, O Zion!

Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the resurrection of your Son!

I wept at the chalice, something I have never done before, as I received communion in the bright light of Pascha. I could not believe how great a love our God has for us to have given us this, the gift of His son.

I could not wait for heaven.

Behold, the Bridegroom comes (part II)

At last night’s service, Fr. Andrew talked about the need to be aware for Christ’s coming. I had some unwelcome flashbacks to my childhood in a denomination obsessed with the Rapture, but other than that it was a good thing to hear. But I guess I’ll contrast the Orthodox idea of watchfulness with the modern Evangelical idea of Rapture and all that it brings.

As a child, I often wandered into my parents’ room and watched my mother sleep. I was so worried she’d been Raptured away while I was sleeping and I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to be taken because I never seemed to feel saved. So during many sleepless nights, I trotted upstairs in a panic and watched her snore, figuring, I guess, I could somehow go with her if I was close to her. That fear never left until I became Orthodox. The services of my childhood were fraught with the reminders of how you did not want to be left behind. We watched “The Thief in the Night” and the sight of that electric razor clattering around in the sink still gives me chills to think about. (I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.) We had revival services that talked about it. We read the news with an eye for prophesied goings-on. And then, in the 90’s and early 00’s, Tim LaHaye decided to  puke the Left Behind books on American culture.

This is not the Orthodox understanding of the end of days. And it is not the point of what Fr. Andrew said last night. We are to be watchful. We are not to be slothful. We are to be aware. The services give us the example of the foolish virgins who sleep and the scripture reading puts the whole discussion into context (Matthew 24:36-26:2), But we don’t just talk about one-taken, one-not (and the warning not to try to figure it out). We include the parable of the talents and the sheep/goats. We are to be watchful, not just for the end, but also for when He comes to us daily — in the opportunities to serve Him, to meet Him in those in need.

The Christian walk is not just about avoiding the “Great Tribulation” or getting your “fire insurance.” It is about being ready for Christ and serving Him with our whole hearts and focusing on that. It’s not about being “left behind,” it’s about living in such a way that we are not shut out of the Kingdom.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be overcome with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom. But rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, through the Mother of God, have mercy on us.–Bridegroom Troparion 

Behold the Bridegroom comes

For some odd reason (and I’m still not sure why, but I trust my priest) my parish was not able to pull off a Bridegroom service last evening. So I traveled a bit north and worshiped with my old friends at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. I haven’t worshiped in Greek for awhile, so I wasn’t able to follow along as well as I used to, but regardless of the language, my soul knew what was going on.

For those not Orthodox, the Bridegroom services are the entrance to Holy Week, a series of services (meant for the morning but done in the evening the night before) that remind us of the need to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. For those of us who know we haven’t done all we could throughout Lent, it is both grievous and joyful.

We are reminded that our Lord loves us as the Bridegroom loves His bride. We know He will come for us, that He always comes for us, that He never leaves us in that place of “alone.” We know we are to ready ourselves for Him, but we know too that He loves us anyway and sacrifices it all for us, anyway.

The services also commemorate the last few days of the earthly life of Christ. We read about His confrontations with the Pharisees, the plot against His life is taking shape and we enter into it with Him. The question is, do we enter into it on His side, or on the side of the Pharisees on whom Christ casts the “woes”? Do we enter into it on the side of the Jews, who are disillusioned because they expected an earthly King, not a heavenly Kingdom? Are we Judas, who is willing to trade it all for a little bit of cash?

We have seen Him raise the dead. Just days before He called Lazarus out of the tomb, four-days dead and stinky. We saw His triumphal entry, but should have noted He wasn’t wearing fancy clothes and was riding on a donkey. We waived our palm branches (pussy willows in the Russian tradition) and cried out Hosanna.

But we see this icon, Christ suffering and sad, mourning for us and anticipating His passion. Will we come to Him now? 

Come forth

Today is Lazarus Saturday. I normally find myself in church for the liturgy, but felt that something else was needed today (family time).

My heart, though, is with the crowd gathered at Lazarus’ tomb, waiting in their grief to see what will happen.

We wait here too. We clench our jaws, hold back our tears and watch death unfold all around us. We busy ourselves in our digital worlds. We pack our schedules and fill our lives with so much nonsense, all in an effort to keep death (or at least the realization of death) at at least arms’ length away, further if we can get it.

But it comes anyway. It barrels through our defenses, like a bullet through a paper target. Our loved ones die. Our bodies fall apart. Our friends’ children are molested. Our neighbors are murdered by their spouses. We steal brief moments of joy with our families and our friends, knowing that those moments are not enough to stave off death and suffering.

I have said this before on the blog, and I will say it again. We don’t belong here and we know it. We know we were not designed for death, and so many moments of so many of our days prove this is true. And we hate it. It grieves us.

We stand with Lazarus’ family, now, waiting for our Lord to do something. We know He can and we want to believe He will.

For those who have been struggling pathetically through Great Lent (me), stand there in belief. For those who have been waging great personal battles against suffering, stand there in belief. For those who are nearing the end, stand there in belief. Wait for the victory.

We are also in the tomb with Lazarus. But for those who enter into Christ’s death and resurrection, we shall hear His voice at the end.

Come forth.

Have a blessed Holy Week, everyone!

On Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile, something that occurred to me a few months ago but it has just been sitting in the back of my head, growing like one of those little whirlybird seeds and now it’s a full-grown thought and it has to come out.

In my life as a fundamentalist Baptist, which I’ve been rightly told I’m a bit cranky about (to that I offer an apology for anything said out of anger or that was hurtful), to say women were treated as second class citizens of the church is an understatement. Some women in my church weren’t allowed by their husbands to wear pants, ever. Some didn’t wear makeup or perfume (even deodorant). If a girl got herself pregnant, she went before the church and publicly confessed. The boyfriend was nowhere to be seen. Schools we played in basketball wouldn’t allow the girls to wear shorts. Other schools made our cheerleaders demonstrate their skirts didn’t swish too much (i.e. make boys think bad thoughts) before they were allowed to cheer for games. Recently I stumbled across the work of one pastor affiliated with the churches I attended who wrote that he prayed his daughter married a mean man in order to keep her properly in line. And the past few weeks, I’ve watched so many of my dear sisters and brothers in Christ draw their swords against evil in their midst.

This, my brothers and sisters, is not how it should be. But I think I know why it is.

In the beginning, when the wheels fell off the wagon and everything went all to hell, there were two: Adam and Eve. And you know what happens next: Eve falls for the worst line ever, takes the fruit, gives it to her man and you know the rest. The redemption story starts there and the Holy Triune God intervenes to restore mankind to his rightful place and to help him become what he was always supposed to be.

Fast forward a few millennium, and we reach the place where He intervened more directly, one of the Godhead coming to live with us, to show us the way back to the Father, to die for us and to conquer death. Christ could have hatched in an egg in the desert. He could have just appeared, fully formed as a child or as a man. But He didn’t. He developed as a baby, in the womb of a woman: a gracious, obedient and humble woman who consented to be the first Christian and to have Christ living inside of her.

Fast forward a few millennium, and we now have a place where the Theotokos, the God-bearing woman by whom Christ took human flesh and entered the world, is barely mentioned in a good chunk of American Christendom. In the more rigid and virulently anti-Catholic communities of fundamentalism-some Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.  – she is flat out ignored and shunned. My protestant brothers and sisters ignore the truth of Mary at great spiritual peril to themselves, and at times at great physical peril to the women in their lives.

Luther (a monk, let’s not forget) had a great love for the Mother of Christ. In an explanation of the Magnificat, first spoken at the Annunciation, Luther said, “The true honor of Mary is the honor of God, the praise of God’s grace . . . Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ . . . Mary does not wish that we come to her, but through her to God.”

Calvin (don’t get me started) really didn’t like her, so that’s probably where things went all pear-shaped with regard to her rightful place in Christian hearts. In the super-fine straining out of all things liturgical, all things “Catholic,” all things deemed unnecessary, Mary got tossed.

What that leaves them with is just Eve, the beginning of the story, but not the ending. It leaves them with a seemingly silly creature who could be argued to have spoiled the good thing they had going on. (Forgetting of course that Adam seems equally silly for needing nothing in the way of persuasion). It leaves men in a position of constant vulnerability to the wiles of women, who when given one minute alone will figure out a way to lead the men in their world astray. So men must be protected from them and they must be protected from themselves, and one of the key aims of living a godly Christian life becomes then, not the working out of our salvation as brothers and sisters in Christ, but in making sure women don’t make men think bad thoughts and act inappropriately. If the men do, well, doggone it, it must be the fault of the closest women: the wife for not meeting his “needs”, the child for acting in a flirtatious manner (I kid not), etc.

My dear Protestant brothers and sisters, this should not be. This grieves God our loving Father who offers us the example of Mary as that of the true Christian: who was open to Him, who followed Him and who even now points the way to Him through the example of her obedience.

We know our God is concerned with Rightness, not merely being correct, but in things being True. In the mechanical sense of the word, it means accurately placed as part of a mechanism. Mary’s “true” place, then, is within the context of the church, within our theology, because it shows the accurate depth and breadth of our redemption. It shows the reality of the Incarnation. Mary’s place in Orthodox iconography is always near the altar, pointing literally with her hand to Christ: Here, look at my Son, accept Him, believe in Him rightly and find peace.

Don’t be afraid of her. Embrace her story, love her obedience and know that it is God wants for all of us, both Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.

Oh Most Holy Theotokos (God-bearer), rejoice Oh Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have born the Savior of our souls.