Tag Archives: Fr Vasili Hillhouse

It’s Greek Festival Time at Holy Transfiguration: Let’s help them pay off their mortgage!

Nave and Iconostasis – Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

This weekend marks one of Anchorage’s great traditions: The Alaska Greek Festival. Held yearly at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, (http://transfiguration.ak.goarch.org/) its members offer food, dancing, and glimpses into their vital spirituality they hold so dear. And…it’s this weekend! (

There’s more than meets the eye in this major event. Holy Transfiguration’s priest, Fr. Vasily Hillhouse shared some thoughts about about its significance. “This is our 23rd Festival! I would say that this is the single most important event of our year in terms of bringing the parish community together. It takes so much work to put on a festival this large, and we continue to learn how to love each other in a sacrificial way – serving and working even when we do not “feel like it”, for the betterment of our brothers and sisters.”
Some of you might have concerns about the O’Malley Road construction. “We have been assured that the road will be open completely and that our attendees will not face any increased delays due to the roadwork”, says Fr. Vasili.
I, along with many of you, have been wondering when Holy Transfiguration’s building project will be finished. “We are nearing the completion of the new church building,” notes Vasili, “though we have had some setbacks with the dome, and may need to continue to raise funds in order to get that taken care of. Our goal for this year is to raise enough money to completely pay off our mortgage on the building! We feel that we can do this, and are so grateful to the Anchorage Community for supporting us year after year. It is in this spirit of gratitude that we look forward to opening our home to our visitors and giving the some wonderful food and good wholesome fun!”
I’ve come to love and appreciate this fine multicultural group of people over the years I’ve been privileged to worship with them, and attend their festival. I plan to be there this weekend to enjoy tasty Greek food, watch the dancing, and hear Fr. Vasili talk about the church and Greek Orthodox faith, in the church, at various times over the weekend.
There is no charge for admission or parking. Festival hours are:

Friday, August 18th, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Saturday, August 19th, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 20th, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

This is a kid-friendly event, so if you have them, bring them. They’ll enjoy the kids doing the Greek dancing for sure.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church
2800 O’Malley Road in Anchorage

Orthodox Advent is almost here

Advent in the various Orthodox traditions is observed somewhat differently and at different times than Western Christianity. One significant difference is that Advent for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox begins Nov. 15, two weeks earlier than non-Orthodox faiths. Orthodox practice is to begin Advent 40 days before Christmas; this period is called the “Nativity Fast,” and comes before the “Nativity Feast” of Christmas.

Another significant difference is that the focus of Orthodox Advent is the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity focuses on the first and second coming of Christ. Also, Orthodox ecclesiastical years begin Sept. 1, while in the West, the religious year for Christians begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.

The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the fast of Great Lent and follows the Orthodox principle of fasting to prepare the body physically and spiritually for the coming feast. The practices of fasting include simplifying life, curbing appetite, controlling desires, and intensifying prayer.

Thanksgiving comes during this period and I wondered how Orthodox Christians handle it.

“Because we are American, and Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and a special time of gathering friends and family for thanking God for all our blessings, we have a pastoral allowance to stop our fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the usual turkey and all the sides,” said Lesa Morrison, a member of St. John Orthodox Cathedral. “We do try to still remember that we are in Advent, and to not stuff ourselves completely.”

“During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all,” says Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. “We are able to do this,” he continues, “because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God’s presence at every moment.

“This is the point of prayer and fasting, and it is why Advent for the Orthodox Christians is a time of increased spiritual discipline — it helps keeps us centered in the midst of the craziness of the season.”

Echoing those thoughts, the Rev. Mark Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral says, “The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a ‘holiday season’ is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year’s Eve.

“However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a ‘holy day’ to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God’s great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making.”

Nearly all congregations in the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) will commence the Nativity Fast on Nov. 28, and end it on Jan. 6, celebrating the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 7 according to Bishop David Mahaffey.

“The reason is the Julian Calendar’s timing being 13 days behind the Western/Gregorian Calendar,” he says.

This presents some difficulties for Alaska Orthodox, Mahaffey states. “In general, in our country, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of family and company gatherings in celebration of the coming (what the word Advent actually means) of Christ. In Orthodoxy, periods prior to such a feast as Christmas are meant to be contemplative and inner-focusing on the significance of what is going to be observed. It is hard to do that when one is feasting and going to parties at the office or neighbors, or with family. This is why it is very difficult for the Orthodox Christian to keep true to his conviction of faith and still maintain good relations with those around him who are not observing the Advent season as he/she desires. This has led to a false dichotomy in which those on the Julian Calendar call Dec. 25 a secular holiday and Jan. 7 a religious one.”

Many Christians can learn much from Orthodox practices and observances. For me, it is pleasing to look at this early entry to Advent as an important antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas.

Thanksgiving Blessing time is here for Anchorage and Mat-su

The local community really rallies to provide Thanksgiving meals for those without the ability or financial resources to obtain them.

“Food Bank of Alaska and the volunteer Thanksgiving Blessing leadership teams in Anchorage and the Valley are preparing to provide groceries for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 10,000 families this year,” says Karla Jutzi of the Food Bank. “A small army of volunteers will be handing out food at six locations in the Valley and six in Anchorage. Last year we served over 9,200 families.”

More than 1,000 Alaskans will prepare and distribute turkey and all the fixings  to the 10,000 families Karla mentioned at two Thanksgiving Blessing events in Anchorage and the Mat-su region: from 10 a.m. to  4 p.m. Nov. 19, at six locations in the Valley, and at six locations in Anchorage and Eagle River from 3 to 8 p.m. (at most locations) on Nov. 21. The locations for pickup of the turkey and fixins’ are zip code dependent, so recipients should know that first.

For the past month, local food distribution programs such as Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, New Hope, St. Francis House, Salvation Army and others, have placed fliers with this information in food boxes they distribute. Call 211 with questions about hours and locations. You can also find detailed information available at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website or my site, Church Visits.

Reflections on Orthodox Easter

Easter celebrations for this year are now past. I started the week observing Palm Sunday at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Yakima, Washington. I was truly treated as a guest. The week ended with Pascha (pah-ska) services early Sunday morning. Attending similar services at Holy Transformation Greek Orthodox Church and St. John Orthodox Cathedral, I sought to witness the joy experienced by those of the Orthodox faith at this peak experience of their church year. (Unfortunately, timing precluded my attending an Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) service.)

I believe Orthodox Lenten practices, termed Great Lent, are more intense than most of their counterparts in Western Christianity. Adherence to feasting and fasting is markedly different than in Catholicism and other Lent-observing traditions in Western Christianity.

Fasting, prescribed during the Orthodox church year, is most obvious during Great Lent. Originating early in the Christian church, fasting continued practices the Jews had previously followed.

In the Orthodox tradition, fasting means not eating certain foods, during specific days, or periods. Abstaining from other practices, such as marital relations or entertainment, may also be an implicit part of fasts. The focus is on clearing the mind and drawing closer to God, a practice rooted in antiquity. During the first week of Great Lent total fasting is observed weekly, Monday through Wednesday.

“From the second through the sixth weeks of Lent, the general rules for fasting are practiced,” explains the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. “Meat, animal prod­ucts (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard), fish (meaning fish with backbones), olive oil and wine (all alcoholic drinks) are not consumed during the weekdays of Great Lent. Octopus and shell-fish are allowed, as is vegetable oil. On weekends, ol­ive oil and wine are permitted.” According to the Orthodox Church in America, “The Great Feasts (major feasts) of the Orthodox Church are the major celebrations throughout the liturgical year. While various saints and events are celebrated with significance on the local level, the entire Church celebrates together thirteen feasts above all the rest, Pascha and the Twelve Great Feasts.” (The term “feasts” here designates major celebrations during the church year, not a meal.)

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church was the site of my first Pascha. At 11:30 p.m. Saturday, I found the Vigil of Holy and Great Pascha underway with prayers and singing. Around midnight the Orthros of the Resurrection began in darkness. A candle flame, lit by the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, went from person to person until the entire congregation held lit candles. Clergy, celebrants, and congregation processed outside with banners, icons, candles, and the Gospel, and gathered in the courtyard. After the Gospel reading and singing, Hillhouse pounded on the church door with a mallet demanding entrance. A shouted conversation, based on Psalm 24 took place with a challenging interlocutor inside asking, “Who is the King of Glory.” Vasili responded with “The Lord, strong and mighty.” At St. John Orthodox, the service started at 4 a.m. We proceeded out of the church around 4:15 a.m. led by the Rev. Marc Dunaway who passed the flame for all candles. Instead of gathering in front of the cathedral, all proceeded around the church, returning to stand in front of the now closed doors. Similar singing and readings occurred except Dunaway pounded on the church door with a heavy brass cross. He too had a similar dialogue with an interlocutor inside before we were admitted back into the church.

Once back in the church the service continued with the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, including a reading of his famous homilyduring which all stand. Both services, replete with choirs and cantors interspersing choral and congregational music with the spoken liturgy, lasted several hours. The music was beautiful, and shouts of “Christ is Risen,” “He is risen indeed,” echoed joyfully through both churches. At Holy Transfiguration, Hillhouse handed out the traditional red eggs at the conclusion of the Eucharist. At St. John, Dunaway generously blessed participants and Pascha baskets with splashes of holy water at the conclusion of the service.

Newfound friends, Chris and Allison Lineer asked me to sit with them during the St. John service, allowing me to ask questions as I followed the liturgy with liturgy guides. Several other new friends, John and Lesa Morrison, invited me to a post-Pascha breakfast at their nearby home along with three other younger friends. I was introduced to tasty Pascha foods like kulich, traditional Russian bread, spread with Pascha cheese, hot-cross buns, red eggs and other breakfast fare. We sang the Resurrection troparion, a hymn of the day with words relating to the church calendar day it’s sung upon, before the blessing over the food before eating.

For the Orthodox, the week after Pascha is called Bright Week. Reflecting on Bright Week, Lesa Morrison said, “Bright week means to me: a special week of intense enjoyment of the gift of the Resurrection. It seems to stay more in the forefront of my mind during this week than at other times. Bright Monday always literally and figuratively seems brighter than any other day of the year. It truly seems the sun shines brighter during this week. It is also a time of peace and rest after all the intenseness of Lent, Holy Week, and all the services/celebrations of Pascha.”

“After the exuberant blowout festivity of Pascha, it really is impossible to just shut it off and plunk back into ‘the World’ mode,” John Morrison said. “The cognitive and emotional dissonance would simply be too great. My human weakness will eventually prevail and Satan will continue with his campaign of ceaseless distraction. But at least in Bright Week and the remainder of the Paschal season, the veil between our dark world and the bright realm of heaven seems thinner, and the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ more closely felt.”

By the time I got home Sunday morning, I’d been awake 26 hours and attended two Pascha services. But, exhausted as I was, I too felt the joy and meaning of Pascha, and still feel it. Pascha is truly a memorable and important time of year joyfully celebrated by Orthodox Christians genuine in their beliefs.

More Pascha links, references, and music are posted on my website, churchvisits.com.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Orthodox forgiveness flows as Western Christianity’s Holy Week approaches

Last Sunday I attended Forgiveness Sunday services at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church and St. John Orthodox Cathedral, both churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Each service was conducted with pastoral admonitions to members about the importance of asking forgiveness of each other for the sins and slights committed toward the other. Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration said he needed his congregation’s forgiveness to continue in his role as their pastor. At St. John Orthodox, as the Rev. Marc Dunaway gave instructions for the forgiveness services, he said, “I know I need it.”

Both pastors shared insights about observing Lent in proper ways to stay focused on their spiritual journey to Pascha. The journey is aided by the Great Fast. Wesley Smith, in “First Things,” writes “The Great Fast is one of those times when we must journey alone. Yes, it helps to know in times of weakness that we are simultaneously sharing the same struggle with three hundred million others. The arduous Lenten disciplines of the Great Fast help us, again in the words of (Archimandrite Vassilios) Papavassiliou, ‘turn back to Paradise to the Life of Eden’ so that ‘like Moses, we too may see God.’”

At the conclusion of special forgiveness liturgies, congregants positioned themselves, as at St. John Orthodox, in two circles, one inside another and facing each other. Then each person would ask forgiveness of the person facing them, and be forgiven by that person. In turn, the other person would ask for forgiveness, and the other would then forgive. There were many hugs, handshakes, tears and reconciliation during this process as the circles progressed in opposite directions so that everyone had an opportunity to ask for and receive forgiveness. I’ve never seen anything like it during my many years of visiting churches.

During the forgiveness liturgies themselves, there were several occasions where congregants bowed and prostrated themselves on the floor, especially at St. John Orthodox during The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. The prayer, in part, recited by all, says, “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant. O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”

It’s relatively common to hear pastors, during my church visits, say they need their congregation’s prayers. What’s uncommon is to hear pastors ask for their forgiveness. The words of an old Roger Miller song come to mind as I write this. “It’s my belief pride is the chief cause in the decline in the number of husbands and wives.” Likewise, I think pride is the reason we hear so few calls from the clergy for forgiveness, and fear from congregants to ask for forgiveness personally. C.S. Lewis succinctly observed, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Repentance and forgiveness are common themes in the Old Testament. As an example, Zechariah 1:3 says, “Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.” As I watched both of these services, this text kept running through my mind. I think I understand the great emphasis Orthodox Christians place on forgiveness, as they enter Great Lent. It is a meditation on the work of Christian salvation, and the one who brought the great gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. I appreciate the sincerity and friendliness of the Orthodox traditions I witnessed last Sunday and wish them Godspeed as they transit Great Lent.

In most Christian traditions outside of Orthodoxy, liturgical churches traditionally observed Lent with periods of fasting, meditation, soul searching, giving up things, church services, Lenten sermons, and looking forward to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. For those churches, this coming week will be an important time as Holy Weeks starts with Palm Sunday tomorrow, ending with Easter celebrations a week hence.

Many evangelical Christian churches ignore Lent, for the most part, fast-forwarding toward Easter morning. That’s like skipping forward to the end of a good book to see how it all comes out in the end. Too often Christians see Easter as a great time for the kids with Easter egg hunts, beautiful outfits, thrilling sermons, music, and great dinners at home. In fact, the National Retail Federation forecasts Easter spending this year will total $17.3 billion, our fourth-largest spending holiday.

Other Christian traditions may not observe Easter at all, claiming it is idolatrous to observe it, or that it has pagan roots. Some say they observe it every worship day, but I’ve noticed many of their observances do not tend to bear out that statement.

In a Lenten homily at Calvary Episcopal Church, in Memphis, Tennessee in 2000, Barbara Brown Taylor, a writer, teacher, and biblical scholar, observed, “I actually know people who come to church on Good Friday and who don’t come back on Easter. Easter is too pretty, they say. Easter is too cleaned-up. It is where they hope to live one day, in the land of milk and honey, but right now Good Friday is a better match for their souls, with its ruthless truth about the stench of death and the high price of love. It isn’t that they don’t care about what happens on Sunday. They do. They just don’t believe that God is saving all the good news until then.”

The Lenten trek for Orthodox has just started, while the journey toward Easter is almost over for non-Orthodox believers. Whichever journey you’re taking, may God’s blessings be with you.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Monday marks start of Orthodox Lent

It’s been more than a month since Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent at many local churches. Easter will be celebrated March 27, yet Orthodox churches won’t start observing Great Lent until March 14. Orthodox Easter, Pascha (Pah-ska), is celebrated May 1, more than a month later than other Christian faiths. Why so late?

Blame it on Julius Caesar and the astronomically based Julian calendar. Some Orthodox follow the Gregorian calendar for certain portions of the church year such as Christmas. Others follow the Julian calendar for the entire year. A detailed discussion of the calendar and connected issues would consume this and subsequent columns. The three strains of Orthodox in Alaska: Antiochian, Greek and OCA (formerly Russian Orthodox), all use the Julian calendar for Lent and Pascha (Easter).

Part of Orthodox tradition is the use of fasts and feasts to mark their passage through the church year and their lives. This is not something most other Christian groups normally do.

In many other faith traditions, Lent starts Ash Wednesday; but not Orthodox. Preceding Lent, all three Orthodox groups practice a beautiful tradition you’ll rarely see elsewhere: Forgiveness Sunday. All Orthodox churches in Alaska precede Great Lent tomorrow with Forgiveness Sunday services. These services are usually conducted at the close of vespers recalling humankind’s original sin.

Describing this concluding portion of the service, Orthodox writer Wesley J. Smith, writing in “First Things,” says, “At the service’s end, our first Lenten act is to ask from and offer forgiveness to everyone present — not collectively, but individually from person, to person, to person. This is one of the most powerful moments of the Church year. One by one, each parishioner bows or prostrates, first before the priest, and then each other, asking, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ Each responds with a bow or prostration, asking also for forgiveness and assuring, ‘God forgives.’ Each then exchanges the kiss of peace. The service is a healing balm. It is hard to bear grudges when all have shared such an intimate mutual humbling. Indeed, Forgiveness Vespers is emotionally intense, tears often flow and hugs of true reconciliation are common.”

The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox, shared that members approach each other on Forgiveness Sunday with formal greetings like “please forgive me.” A typical response is “God forgive us both” with prostration or bowing.

The week before Forgiveness Sunday is known as Cheesefare Week. Fasting, a Great Lent tradition, is already under way. Dairy and eggs are permitted, but not meat. This modified diet helps believers transition into Lenten fasting. Until the Easter resurrection celebration, Pascha, they fast. Fasting is a means to facilitate focus on spiritual things, and not celebrating one’s body. For most, no meat is allowed during Lent. Monday, Lent starts with no animal products. For Greek Orthodox, it’s vegan with just a couple of days declared as fish days. No wine or oil is allowed on weekdays, just weekends.

“When a Roman Catholic fasts (as well as many Protestants), he is making a ‘sacrifice’ for the cause of Lent,” says OCA Bishop David Mahaffey, explaining how Orthodox conceptions of fasting differ from those in other Christian churches “So you find people who stop eating chocolate, or stop drinking pop or wine; they are ‘giving it up for Lent’ in honor of our Lord’s sacrifice for us. In Orthodoxy, we understand that the human will and its related passions are a hard thing to control. Therefore, for us, it is not ‘giving up’ anything, it is redirecting our will to respond to our guided control and a ‘resisting’ of pleasures our passions want to enjoy. So the real prohibition is not only foods, it is entertainment, movies, dances, television, and other forms of enjoyment that typically allow our passions to rise and seek pleasure.”

Most Orthodox Christians are used to fasts, and regularly practice what are known as Eucharistic fasts.

“The Eucharistic fast refers to the brief time (usually Sunday mornings) that an Orthodox Christian observes a total fast from all food and drink in preparation to receive Holy Communion,” says the Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. “The idea behind this is that on the day that I will receive Holy Communion, the Bread of Eternal Life, or the ‘medicine of immortality,’ as St. Ignatius called it — on this day I will not eat anything simply for the sustenance of this earthly body until I have first received the Body and Blood of Christ. We fast in reverence and preparation for this Communion.” Both the Eucharist fast and the Lent fast can be modified, if necessary, as needed for children, the elderly, and those suffering illness, Dunaway says.

Great Lent is observed with various services throughout the 40-plus days until Pascha. Local Orthodox churches holding Forgiveness Sunday services include: St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral (after Divine Liturgy at about noon); St. Tikhon Orthodox Church (Lenten vespers, 6 p.m.); Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church (after 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy) and St. John Orthodox Cathedral (after 6:15 p.m. vespers)

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.