Rejoice, O Bethany

One of my favorite hymns of Holy Week is “Rejoice, O Bethany”:

The sheet music is available from the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America website

In Antiochian Orthodox churches, it is sung during Lazarus Saturday (today) and during a procession on Palm Sunday (tomorrow).

The hymn is actually quite new by Orthodox standards. It was written (in Arabic) at the end of the 19th century by Metropolitan Athanasios Atallah of Homs. Bishop Basil Essey of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America translated it into English.

Holy Father Lazarus, pray to God for us!

 

Rejoice, rejoice, O Bethany!
On this day God came to thee,
And in Him the dead are made alive,
As it is right for He is the Life.

 
When Martha went to receive Him,
Grieving loudly with bitter tears,
She poured out the sorrow of her heart to Him
With great sadness, wailing her lament.

 
She at once cried out unto Him:
“My most compassionate Lord, my Lord,
At the great loss of my brother Lazarus
My heart is broken, help me.”

 
Jesus said to her, “Cease your weeping,
Cease your grieving and sad lament;
For your brother, My most beloved friend, Lazarus,
Very soon will live again.”

 
Then He, the faithful Redeemer,
Made His way unto the tomb,
Where he cried unto him who was buried four days,
Calling him forth, saying “Lazarus, arise.”

 
Come with haste, ye two sisters,
And behold a wondrous thing,
For your brother from the tomb has returned to life.
To the beloved Redeemer now give thanks.

 
To Thee, O Lord of creation,
We kneel down in reverence profound,
For all we who are dead in sin,
In Thee, O Jesus, are made alive.

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A pilgrimage to San Francisco

I was in San Francisco recently, to visit the relics of my patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (the previous link is my blog post about St. John). The relics are located at the Holy Virgin Cathedral at the west side of San Francisco. This is where St. John served as bishop.

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The exterior of the Holy Virgin Cathedral

 

The plaque on the cathedral

The iconography on the church was really beautiful, and my subpar photography skills really don’t do it justice.

The iconostasis

 

The dome
I found the stained glass windows really interesting. These aren’t that common in Orthodox churches.

I arrived early Wednesday morning during Lent, so I was able to take communion in their pre-sanctified Divine Liturgy. I had emailed one of the priests, Father Peter beforehand, introducing myself. He came out at the start of the service, and I suppose I was the only Malaysian-looking person at the church because he recognized me. We had some brief small talk after confession. He seemed pretty excited to hear that the Orthodox church has a presence in a place like Malaysia.

The entire service was in Slavonic. The choir was small, since this was a midweek service, but it sounded wonderful. A little after the start of the service, about 50 schoolkids in matching green blazers trotted in. They were students in the church school that was next door (named after St. John).

The entrance of the church school next door

In the right side of the church, there was an enclosure with a small box. This box contained the relics of St. John. The design of the enclosure was really nice. On the left side was an icon of St. Michael the Archangel (St. John’s birth name was Michael) and the right was an icon of St. John of Tobolsk (the patron saint of St. John of Shanghai). In the middle was a large icon of St. John of Shanghai himself.

The enclosure where the relics of St. John are kept. Visitors were freely allowed to enter.

This is the first time I had encountered a saints’ relics, and so I did not know what I was supposed to do. Luckily, there was a steady stream of visitors, so I ended up just mimicking the people who seemed to know what they were doing. Some people were just standing contemplatively in the enclosure. Others were kissing the glass cover of the coffin, and still others knelt, with their head against the coffin’s wooden side. All sorts of people came to see the relics. A few of them brought rolling luggage bags. I suppose they were either on the way to the airport or had just arrived in San Francisco, and were making a quick stop.

I had a small prayer book containing prayers and the akathist to St John, so when I was alone in the church I said them. I then spent a lot of that afternoon in silence, just gazing at the relics.

At about 3pm, the church school students went back to the church in their matching green blazers. I suppose this was the end of their school day. They said a short liturgical prayer, and then lined up and one-by-one kissed the top of the coffin, while singing the Megalynarion for St. John:

We magnify Thee, our holy Hierarch John, and we honor Thy holy memory, for Thou dost pray for us to Christ our God.

The sound of 50 school children softly, reverently singing this short hymn was moving and beautiful, and I was grateful for the privilege to have seen it.

St. John was dressed in his bishop’s clothing, including a staff in his hands. His face was covered up, but we could see his hands and parts of his feet. Remarkably well preserved, for someone who had died fifty years ago. When a body refuses to decay like this, Orthodox Christian take this as a sign that the person might have been a saint (this was an important plot point in the novel the Brothers Karamazov).

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 This photo was taken by User:TGrain from Wikipedia (Link)

It was really wonderful being able to see the relics in person. St. John is known as “the wonderworker” and for good reason. Throughout his ministry he performed a lot of miracles, as fantastic as those we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. I am really drawn to him, because he feels like a man born in the wrong century-  like a figure from the 1st century church somehow appearing in the 20th. As a protestant I had believed that the church of the apostles had died or faded away, to be revived in the 1500s. But here was the body of a man who performed wonders like Peter and Paul did, and whose life reminds us that this Acts church, the one that Christ commissioned, is alive and still the same today.

Seeing the physical relics- St John himself, his clothes and other belongings- also affirmed to me that the Christian faith is not just about sophisticated theology, abstract ideas, but it is about God making his influence known through real people and real things. The incorrupt body of the Saint is a prefiguring of the Christian promise- that all our bodies will be restored to fullness after we die. May this promise give us the freedom to love others sacrificially, recklessly, without regard for our safety and comfort- just as St John lived, and just as Christ lived before him.

Bearing God: The life and works of St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.S. Damick)

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One of the things I gained as I entered into Orthodox Christianity is a fuller sense of the history of the Christian church. As a Protestant, I considered the 14 centuries between the 1st century church of Acts, and then Luther’s reformation in the 16th century as something of a black hole,where nothing of significance happened. In hindsight, this point of view was absurd.  Christ declared of the church he built, that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it”- how could it just die for 1400 years to be revived by Luther? And to ignore this period of history, the transition between the time of Acts and our time, ignores an age when the Christian faith was spreading like wildfire despite intense persecution, ignores the works and sacrifices of many righteous martyrs, and ignores some of the most profound and influential theological writings.

Bearing God: The life and works of St. Ignatius of Antioch  was written by Father Andrew Stephen Damick, a prominent Orthodox Christian author and an American priest under the Antiochian tradition. For Father Damick, learning of this “lost history” of the Christian church was the impetus for him discovering the Orthodox Christian faith. The epistles written by St. Ignatius of Antioch were especially significant for him, for reasons he explains in great detail in this preview of the book.

St. Ignatius was a prominent figure in the early Christian church in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. He was bishop of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John. Father Damick’s book discusses several letters St. Ignatius wrote to the churches of his time, as he was being taken to Rome to die for his faith (the texts of the letters can be found here). As someone brought up in the faith by Jesus’ disciples, St. Ignatius serves as a bridge between the church of Acts and our church today.

Father Damick writes his book not as a historical or theological treatise, rather, he discusses the letters of St. Ignatius in a pastoral, devotional manner- very focused on what these letters say about how we should live our lives today. The book is a very easy read: I finished the whole thing in a few hours. The source material, the epistles of St. Ignatius, are also very short and easy to understand.

The main themes of St. Ignatius’ letters are that of sacrifice and of community. St. Ignatius was condemned to die in faith, and he wrote these letters when as he was taken from Syria to Rome for his execution. We see how much St. Ignatius is looking forward to his martyrdom, and Father Damick explains masterfully how this ties in to Ignatius’ theology, and how even for us in modern times the attitude and practice of self-sacrifice is essential in our Christian faith.

The letters also explain at length how St. Ignatius saw the church, and how important Christian unity was to him. He writes at length about the role of the bishop, and how important it was for Christians to respect their city’s bishop, and to be united under his leadership. Father Damick emphasizes how the individualism of our day contrasts with St. Ignatius’ description of the 1st-century church.

There have been so many movements in Christianity seeking to re-establish the 1st Century Christian church- and so much ink spent on speculating what that Acts church to be like. St. Ignatius is uniquely positioned in this regard. To best understand how the church of the Apostles worked, it makes sense to consult someone who grew up in the first century, under the direct guidance of the Apostles. We see that the church that emerges from St. Ignatius’ letters it not very different from the Orthodox church today.