A relic of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco

This relic of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco comes from The Dormition of the Theotokos Russian Orthodox Church in Singapore. One of the priests there crossed the border this weekend for a visit, so I got to snag a photo. I believe this is a piece of his priestly garment, and a lock of hair.

Saint John, pray to God for us!

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Small church

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Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP. Source

For most Orthodox Christians living outside traditionally Orthodox countries, the reality of church life is the mission church. These are small communities, perhaps as small as a dozen or so people, some with full-time priests and some without, with shaky finances and a skeleton staff.

For me this took some getting used to I have always been a big city boy. Church was always this enormous, powerful institution with hundreds or thousands of people. The nice thing about being in a large church is that you got to pick what to invest yourself in. There are all sort of groups, classes, ministries, and other activities, and you can just choose whatever you are passionate about.

Life in a small church is very different. Literally four months after I was charismated, my church ended up in need of a chanter. Either I had to do it, or we would have no music at all for our vespers and matins services. The trouble is, I had the shallowest understanding of Byzantine chant, to the point that I did not know what the eight tones are. But with the blessing of the priest, I became the chanter for our tiny church, and quite possibly the worst chanter in all of Orthodoxy! Thankfully, a few months after, someone a lot more competent came along to take over./

But this is the reality of life in a small church. You want an outreach to the poor? Then raise the money. You want there to be food after service? Then cook and bake. You want the church grounds to look nice? Then mow and plant. If you do not do something, it just does not get done. There is no one else who can step up if you do not serve.

There is a stressful, anxious, and draining side to this sort of church life. But it has been incredibly rewarding as well. You learn a lot about obedience, about self-sacrifice, about trusting in others and trusting in God. When your church has a large congregation and a lot of resources, your individual contribution becomes less crucial, so church involvement can become more about self-satisfaction than servanthood. In a small church, strapped for resources,  it doesn’t matter what you are passionate in, or where your comfort zone is. If something needs to get done we have to do your best, and trust and hope that God in his mercy can make something of our meager efforts.

 

 

Pentecost

Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, seven weeks after Easter. Pentecost Sunday is a very important feast in Orthodoxy, and one of the longest services of the year. In one sense, Pentecost marks the beginning of the New Testament church. The Holy Spirit entering the followers of Jesus Christ enabled them to continue his work in the world.

One theme God often works in such a way that requires our participation.  In the creation, Adam participates by naming the animals. In the Exodus, God’s plan to free Israel involves Moses, Aaron and Joshua. And in the New Testament, Jesus does not save the world without our involvement, but rather  sends the Holy Spirit to enable us to finish what he started.

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One interesting feature of the Pentecost icon is this strange figure in the middle surrounded by blackness. He represents “Cosmos”: the world shrouded in darkness. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, the followers of Christ were to set forth into the cosmos and make right all that is broken. This Holy Spirit is a gift not just for our benefit, but for us to bless the whole world.

When tragedy strikes, it is a natural response for people to ask “where is God?”. Why isn’t God intervening when terrible things happen? Pentecost gives us a rather difficult answer. One reason that God does not appear to act in this world is that we Christians have, in our weakness, not been faithful to the charge given us. Lord have mercy!

After the feast, we have a time of fasting, known as the “Fast of the Apostles”. This fast represents our preparation where, upon receiving the Holy Spirit we set forth into the world to continue Jesus’ work of healing and redemption. This Pentecost, may we be reminded of how God does remarkable things through unremarkable people. As goes the Troparion hymn for the day:

Blessed art You O Christ Our God / You have revealed the fishermen as most wise / By sending down upon them the Holy Spirit / Through them You drew the world into Your net / O Lover of Man, Glory to You!

 

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite Christian authors, and his is a very fascinating life story. He was a missionary in Peru, had an illustrious career as an academic theologian, with stints at Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, before giving that up to work at the l’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, a community for people with intellectual disabilities. There, he developed an interest in ancient Christian iconography, which culminated in this book.

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons is a collection of four essays on four famous Russian icons: the Savior of Zvenigorod, Rublev’s Trinity, the Theotokos of Vladimir, and the Pentecost Icon, displayed in order below:

The book contains beautiful glossy removable pages of all four icons, and I think Nouwen intends for the reader to contemplate them while reading the corresponding chapter of the book.

 

Nouwen makes the point that what we receive into our lives visually is as important as what what we receive verbally, through reading or listening:

“But what do we really choose to see? It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videocassettes, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories…

For you who will read these meditations it is important to gaze at the icons with complete attention and to pray with them. Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern church.

Nouwen explains the features of the four icons in expert detail, and ties them into the devotional life of the praying Christian. He does not neglect the historical and liturgical contexts where these icons appear. Despite not being an Orthodox Christian himself, it is clear that Nouwen has taken the time to understand well the eastern Christian perspective on prayer and iconography.

This is a very worthwhile read, especially for the reader unfamiliar with the history and importance of iconography in the early church.  For me, as one emerging from protestant traditions that have suppressed the visual aspect of Christian discipleship in favor of just reading and lecturing, it was incredibly helpful to learn how the Holy Spirit works in us visually. As goes one of the Orthodox communion hymns, oh taste and see how good the Lord is.

 

Reverence

During Holy Eucharist, there is a red cloth that we use to make sure none of the bread or wine spills to the ground when it is administered. It looks something like this:

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Pciture taken from the Mendeleyev Journal

I had the privilege once of helping my priest when he was cleaning the communion cloths. It was quite an experience! First of all, the priest had to wash it himself and by hand, despite the fact that we had a washing machine and dryer at church. Secondly, I had to dig a large hole in the church courtyard where we would pour the soap water after he was done washing, because it was improper for water that had touched the body and blood of Christ to go down the drain.

These traditions may seem to the outsider to be strange and archaic, and all the effort we put in may seem to be a big waste of time. But I appreciated the great degree of reverence that Orthodox practice confers on things that are sacred, even in the washing of communion cloths when nobody is watching. This is a big contrast to churches I have been to in the past, where I have seen breadcrumbs from communion littering the church floor, and being stepped on by the congregation!

I think I appreciate this reverence a lot more because I grew up in a monarchy. My mother told me this story once when a brother of the Sultan was admitted to the hospital she was working at. They had to obtain new yellow bed-sheets just for him (yellow is the color of royalty in Malaysia), and these bed-sheets had to be burned after he was discharged, so no commoner would use them and suffer the tulah. In Malay culture, the tulah is a deadly curse said to come upon someone who handles royal things improperly.

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Due reverence to sacred things is deeply ingrained in both the old and new testaments, and in the tradition of the church.  Two stories come to mind. First, is the story of the anointing of Jesus in John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Second, is the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 3b-7:

Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

This incident is mentioned in the Great Canon of Saint Andrew, a prominent prayer in the Orthodox Lenten liturgy

Merely for touching the Covenant Box to prevent its falling to the ground, Uzzah was struck dead by God. Avoid His anger at such presumption, O my soul, by showing true honor to holy things.

I have noticed that friends who grew up in America tend to struggle greatly with these two passages. For one unused to the idea of reverence, it seems that Judas is right, and that the expensive perfume is better used to feed the poor, and Jesus’ statement you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me seems awfully callous. Similarly, Uzzah’s fate seems incredibly unfair, and God’s punishment in this instance seems very arbitrary.

I understand the modern arguments against monarchy. Republics are built on the idea that all people are created equal, and that leaders should be subject to the people and answer to them, rather than the other way round. Trouble arises however when people try to apply these ideas not to kings of flesh and blood, but to the divine. You are not equal to God, and he is not accountable to you the way that a Prime Minister or a Member of Parliament is.

I am grateful for the many small Orthodox practices that remind me constantly of this reverence. We bow frequently in services, we treat icons of Christ and the saints with incredible care, and we treasure all sacred things, whether they come in the form of holy water, holy oil, or even the communion cloth. This is an important reminder that when we worship we are before a being far greater than we are, that we are a finite thing facing unbounded greatness. The things of God are beyond our comprehension, and since we cannot understand how the grace of God operates in the sacred things, we should treat them with care.

But with this caution, comes hope. For if the divine is  greater than we are, so far beyond our comprehension, then surely the intractable problems of our lives and in our world, unsolvable in our human limitations are not beyond God’s saving work. We have the courage to press on, even when it seems to us that all hope is lost, trusting in the limitless God to overcome our limitations

The Good Friday burial procession

The first Eastern Orthodox service I have ever attended occurs again tonight. On the evening of Good Friday, we commemorate the burial of Jesus’ body (we commemorate the crucifixion itself earlier in the day). The service includes hymns about the crucifixion, and burial of Jesus, and about Joseph of Arimathea, the man who claimed Jesus’ body from Pilate and whose tomb Jesus is buried in.

The highlight of the service is the procession around the church, we carry a bier, a flowery arrangement which is meant to represent Jesus’ body or coffin.

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I would describe the procession as “hauntingly beautiful”. The bier is at the head, with the choir and the rest of the congregation trailing behind. During the procession, we sing the Trisagion, one of the most commonly used prayers in the Orthodox liturgy. It simply goes,

Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal have mercy on us!

This prayer is sang at almost every Orthodox service, but usually set to upbeat music. For the funeral procession, we switch to singing these words in slow, sad music. Listen to it here!

I like that this procession makes us feel like we are mourning the death of Jesus with his first followers. Orthodox Christians believe that it is not possible to know God merely through intellectual understanding, but rather that divine revelation includes the participatory and experiential as well.

Thus our Good Friday does not just include theology of the crucifixion and of atonement (although there is a great deal of that in the services too).  It also places us with the first Christians on the day of Jesus’ burial, and we get to feel a bit of that sadness, anxiety and longing they must have felt, as the executioner’s cross ended the man we hoped would heal our infirmities, rescue us from bondage, relieve our pains.

But as we mourn with these earliest believers, we also get to hope with them. Did he not promise that he would return from the dead after three days? And as the sad, slow Trisagion rings out in the crowd,  I can’t help but wonder what an odd thing it is to sing “Holy Immortal” in a funeral.

 

Christ the Bridegroom

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For most of Holy Week, Orthodox churches display this particular icon of Jesus Christ, known as “The Bridegroom”. The name is taken from the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

My copy of the icon came with an insert that contained a brief explanation of the icon.

As a husband is to his wife so is Jesus Christ to His Church. His Crucifixion is His marital vow and His mockery and beating His wedding feast. The Bridegroom icon shows Christ stripped of His garments and clothed in a scarlet robe to mock Him. He wears a crown of thorns, causing blood to flow from the wounds. A reed is placed in His bound hands as a scepter.

In Christ’s halo are the Greek letters for “I AM,” to remind us that Christ is the All-Powerful God who freely chose to experience pain and death. For the first three days of Holy Week this icon is placed prominently in the Church to remind us of Christ’s great love and great suffering.

This is one of my favorite depictions of Christ. I purchased my copy of this icon immediately after my first Orthodox Holy Week service. The church had a very large copy, close to a meter tall, and it made a very strong impression.

I was struck by this beautiful, sad, juxtaposition of joy and pain. The allusion to marriage is a strong one, and a significant part of this icon’s emotional power. Here is a picture of the crowns worn by the bride and groom in a Greek wedding. Note the similarity to Christ’s crown of thorns:

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This icon’s reference to the parable of the ten virgins is a warning against complacency. We have to prepare ourselves to follow Christ, to love and sacrifice as He did. To neglect this preparation leads to our destruction.

Thus in our Lenten journey, in our marriages, and in our Christian lives, we have to learn to be patient, to set aside our wants and desires, and to suffer deeply for the sake of those we love. What a perfect message to close out the Lenten season!