Tag Archives: Orthodox

Orthodox Advent Underway – Fr Vasili Hillhouse Reflects on this Journey

November 15, most Orthodox Christians began their Advent journey to the Feast of the Nativity. In contrast, Western Christianity begins its Advent journey on December 2 this year.  A nativity fast is observed by Orthodox, but is less severe than that of Lent. I’ve asked several pastors in our community to share their reflections about  Advent. Fr Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, has graciously agreed to take the lead this year with his thoughts about Advent.

Advent: Preparing to Receive the King of Glory
Fr. Vasili Hillhouse

In this season of Advent, which is our preparation before the Feast of the Nativity of
Christ, it is helpful for us to take the time to consider what we are truly preparing to
celebrate in the first place. If you are reading this, I would imagine that you have already
decided that what you will be celebrating has little to do with the rampant consumerism
that can taint this time of year. I would imagine that you, as a reader of a religion blog,
are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. So what do we know about this Child and
the reason for His coming into the world? This Child is the Son and Word of God – the
very same Word of God Who was revealed in the Old Testament. This is the same Divine
Logos Who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and who wrestled with Jacob. This
Second Person of the Holy Trinity was revealed in the Old Testament without flesh,
without human nature; He appeared sometimes as an angel and other times as fire. He
Who’s voice was heard by the righteous prophets now comes to earth, clothed in flesh.
This child is the very same God; the very same Divine Logos Who is begotten of the
Father before all time. There never was a time when He did not exist, but He was always
with the Father, eternally begotten of Him and sharing His one essence, together with the
Holy Spirit. This Child that we are preparing to behold – so defenseless, and so dependent
on others to care for Him – is the same Person Who was transfigured in Divine glory on
Mt Tabor. When we speak of “the baby Jesus,” This is Who we are referring to: The
eternal and divine Logos of God, and it is His birth into this world that we will celebrate
on Christmas.
If the Twelve Days of Christmas (originally the days between the birth of Christ and
Epiphany) has been given to us in order to celebrate the birth of Christ, then the forty
days of Advent that come before it are meant to prepare us to celebrate properly. Think of
it this way, if it was announced that a king was coming to your house for dinner in a
month’s time, wouldn’t you begin right away with all of the preparations to receive such
a guest? And wouldn’t you even complain that one month was not enough time to do all
that would need to be done? Well, on Christmas, in a spiritual manner of speaking, we
will be receiving a king – the King of Glory. How much more should we prepare the
room of our heart to receive the Master of All? This is what Advent is: a time to prepare
the “cave” or “manger” of our heart to receive the Savior. To do this we abstain from
certain foods, while increasing our prayer life and almsgiving – not because God needs it
– but because we do! These practices are pleasing to God, when they are done in His
Name, and collectively they purify our hearts of self-centeredness, pride, and all the other
things that separate us from Him. So I wish you all a good and profitable Advent! May
the King of Glory, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and Son of God, make each of
us worthy to receive Him into our heart and celebrate His birth in a manner that is worthy of His Glory. Amen.

Alaska Greek Festival –

One of my favorite times of year comes next weekend.  The Alaska Greek Festival arrives at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church just east on O’Malley Road after the Lake Otis intersection.   Detailed information is found here: http://akgreekfestival.com/

2018 Festival Hours

Friday, August 17th, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Saturday, August 18th, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 19th, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

This festival has annually raised money to complete their beautiful church, and has successfully done so for many years.  Their dedicated members pitch in and cook the food, pour the beverages, and serve the desserts.  The food is traditional Greek and most tasty indeed.  After you’ve eaten, sit back and enjoy the Greek music and dancing.  It is a memorable event you can bring the whole family to enjoy.

Take time to enjoy a tour of the church and lecture provided by their engaging priest, Fr. Vasili Hillhouse.  He’ll describe the splendor of the iconography employed to deepen their member’s religious experience.  No matter how many times I’ve heard him speak, I always hear something new. While in the church, look in their gift shop for items found nowhere else in Anchorage. I’ve found books of great interest. Their awesome parish cookbook full of Greek recipes is also for sale within.

I’ll be at the festival. Say hello if you spot me!

Blessings

Chris

 

Eagle River Institute Starts Today – August 1, 2018

St John Orthodox Cathedral – Sanctuary

St John Orthodox Cathedral’s Eagle River Institute (ERI) is slated to start today at 3:30 p.m.  During this wonderful annual event, scholars from across the U.S. present on topics selected by Fr. Marc Dunaway. I’ve attended a number of their institutes over the years and can only say what a spiritual blessing they’ve been.

This year’s theme is Holiness Among the Ordinary.

One track will address “Marriage as a Path to Theosis”. The presenter is Fr Philip LeMasters who is a professor of religion at McMurry University, Abilene, TX.

The other track addresses “Lay People in the Ancient Church: Women and Men”. The presenter is Dr. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, professor of religious studies, Brown University.

A detailed brochure with presentation times and fees is available at the link below.  This is not to be missed.

https://stjohnalaska.org/files/ERI%20Brochures/ERI_Brochure_2018.pdf

 

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

Eagle River Institute 2017 – Science & Faith is Key Topic – Plan to attend!

St John Orthodox Cathedral – Eagle River

St. John Orthodox Cathedral has announced their Eagle River Institute topic for this year: Orthodoxy and Science.

I’m very excited about this topic as it offers a unique experience for local Christians and other seekers to delve into the topic of religion and science. In over 17 years of visiting various churches in Anchorage, I’ve yet to hear any clergy dealing with this topic.  In light of this, I asked Fr. Marc Dunaway, Archpriest of St. John Orthodox Cathedral why this topic was chosen for this year.  “We want to address issues that are especially on the minds of the young people,” Fr. Marc replied. “We cannot ignore the recent statistics showing the increased departure of the millennial generation from the Christian Faith. Issues about Science and Faith are certainly very important.”

Fr. Marc is right as millennial’s have expressed dissatisfaction about churches sweeping science and faith issues under the rug. Much has been written about this recently. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group presented research findings a few years back in his masterful book, “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith.”

The Institute will be held August 1-5 at St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River.   A pair of highly qualified presenters will conduct four track sessions each, starting at 3:30 p.m. each of the five days, ending at 9:30 p.m. A dinner and vespers break separates each of the two-hour sessions.

Peter Bouteneff, PhD, a professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, will be presenting on “Early Christian Tradition and Genesis 1-3.”  Gayle Woloshak, PhD, professor of radiation oncology at Northwestern University and adjunct professor of Religion at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago and at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The speakers will alternate between afternoon and evening sessions.

For complete information and an detailed brochure use this link: http://stjohnalaska.org/institute.html.

As a side-note, I recently discovered that Hank Hanegraaff, president of Christian Research Institute, and known as the Bible Answer Man, recently converted to Orthodoxy. His given reasons for leaving evangelicalism include watching pastors who act more like entrepreneurs focused on branding. Hanegraaff said, “Where the pastor is like an entrepreneur, branding, formulaically getting people into seats — that became troubling to me and I decided I was going to explore,” he said.

I’m looking forward to this exploration of science and faith through the eyes of Orthodoxy. It’s worth the small fee. Over the years, I’ve become enjoyed the warm and dedicated spiritual connection this particular Orthodox community offers.

 

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.

Remembering Father Norman H.V. Elliott

As the hearse pulled away from All Saints Episcopal Church Sept. 19, I finally realized I’d no longer be seeing my friend the Rev. Norman Elliott; I’d seen him for the last time. His service was attended by a wide range of friends and family. All Saints Rector David Terwilliger, the Rev. Katherine Hunt of Christ Church Episcopal, the Rev. Susan Halvorson,  a Providence Alaska Medical Center chaplain, and Bishop Mark Lattime led the service with Catholic Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz in attendance on the platform. The entire service, which included the Eucharist, was a wondrous blend of music, liturgy and reminiscences.

During his homily, Terwilliger talked of Elliott’s passing on the morning of Sept. 9. For this column, he recounted that time to me: “I went into pray the prayers of the Ministration at the Time of Death,” he said. “The title of the rite sounds more solemn than it is in form — at least to my mind.

The words are words of comfort and mercy but given under the sober petition for God’s grace for the dying and for their spirit to be received into heaven. Like Roman Catholics, Episcopalians are instructed to call a priest for the dying and the prayers are meant to commit the dying person into God’s hands. Often, Episcopalians call these prayers at the time of death ‘Last Rites.'”

The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)
The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

With Halvorson at his side, Terwilliger continued: He “announced to Norm that I was there to ‘pray the Litany’ and Norm motioned with his hand, touched his fingers to his forehead as if to say — I took it to mean — ‘OK, let’s do it.'” During the litany, Terwilliger observed, “Father Elliott became very peaceful, calm and relaxed, which up to that point he had not been; due to coughing and physical discomfort.” Elliott passed within minutes.

For more than 26 years after his retirement in 1990, Elliott had been visiting patients at Providence. Stories of those visits are the stuff of legend. The Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary’s, recalling one humorous moment, said, “Once a man called me to tell me he had just been admitted to the hospital, and I rushed right over. Upon entering his hospital room, I went right up to the bedside to pray. I said, ‘I’m so pleased that I made it here before Father Elliott. That might be a historic first.’ ‘Ah, you only beat me by 30 seconds,’ he said, appearing in the doorway behind me.”

The Rev. Scott Medlock of St. Patrick’s Parish calls him “a living saint” who, when his son was seriously injured in a plane crash in which another person died, was attended by Elliott on a daily basis. His presence in hospitals will be missed by patients and staff.

Elliott joined many Alaskans in marriage. Julie Fate Sullivan, wife of Sen. Dan Sullivan, shared the heartwarming story of her parents and Elliott. “In 1954, my mother – Mary Jane Evans, a Koyukon Athabaskan from the Yukon River village of Rampart, and my father, Hugh Fate, a cowboy from Eastern Oregon who had worked the first oil rig in Umiat in 1950 – fell deeply in love. They wanted to get married, and according to my Mom, that was the time in our country when some clergy didn’t encourage ‘mixed-marriages.’ Father Elliott was not one of those clergy.”

“When my parents asked him to officiate their wedding, he welcomed them with open arms. At their first meeting, Father Elliott saw the deep love, respect and substance between them, and he blessed their union. My dad always says from that moment on, he knew Father Elliott was a “truly and deeply caring” individual, and they became friends after that.

“Father Elliott married my parents 62 years ago, on Oct. 29, 1954 at the little log cabin church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. They are still married today. Forty years later in August 1994, Dan and I were married at the same church in Fairbanks, with the same wonderful Father Norman Elliott as the priest who blessed our union.

“We were so honored to have him officiate. He was always considered a hero in our family because of the kind way he accepted my parents so long ago. In typical Father Elliott style, I remember some good-natured ribbing between Dan and Father Elliott – Dan was on active duty and wore his Marine Corps uniform at the wedding, and with Father Elliott being a WWII Army veteran, they had a lot of fun interservice rivalry joking going around.”

Elliott was ecumenical to the core. He treasured his friendship with recently deceased Archbishop Francis Hurley. His story of the two waters, recounted in a previous column, was one symbol of that all-embracing character.

Art Goldberg, Congregation Beth Sholom member, recounts how Father Elliott offered them the use of All Saints as a meeting place for about a year. Previously, the congregation had met in Goldberg’s parents’ home. Father Elliott felt the Jewish community needed to be represented in Anchorage and helped make that possible until they could build their own synagogue. Goldberg said, “Father Elliott was one of those people who helped the religious community in Anchorage.”

The same attitude extended to Russian Orthodox congregations. The Rev. Nicholas-Molodyko Harris, a retired Russian Orthodox (now simply Orthodox) priest, told me of being sent to Anchorage in September 1967 for the purpose of organizing a mission to develop into a parish.

That mission ultimately became Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1994. He tells of meeting Elliott in 1967. Having no suitable place to hold their first diocesan assembly in 1968, he asked Elliott if it would be possible to hold it at All Saints. Elliott said, “Of course!” The assembly was presided over by Bishop Theodosius, the Orthodox bishop of Alaska, who later became the Orthodox Church of America’s Metropolitan.

Harris and his wife Matushka Anastasia continued their friendship with Elliott during the remainder of his life.

Harris remembered Elliott’s tremendous love for his wife Stella, saying “She was comical with a sense of humor. They blended together.” He offered a tribute to Elliott saying, “In being a clergy brother of Father Elliott, he was an inspiration to me in the love and caring to everyone he met. His legacy is that he was never absent from someone who was ill as long as it was in his power, especially at Providence Hospital.”

At the funeral, lines were read from Elliott’s favorite poet, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a WWI British army chaplain. Later, retired Juneau Episcopal priest, the Rev. Mark Boesser a former Virginia Theological Seminary classmate of Elliott’s, shared with me the commendation that accompanied  the awarding of the Military Cross to Studdert Kennedy:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front-line trenches which he constantly visited.”

Those lines remind me so strongly of the Rev. Norman H.V. Elliott too: friend, husband, father, pastor, and humanitarian. The stories of marriages, funerals, connecting and reconnecting with God, and hospital memories will continue to be shared. There are so many.

You will be missed dear friend.

Does worship’s relevance trump reverence?

My earliest experiences of church worship, as a child, impressed upon me that something special was happening. People sat quietly, mostly without talking, awaiting the start of the service. Out of sight, the elders, in a circle, prayed God would bless this worship. An organ softly played hymns to prepare the congregation for worship.

Finally, the strains of “Holy, Holy, Holy” were rendered by the choir, while the congregation bowed heads in prayer and the elders quietly took their places on the podium, kneeling in reverence with a brief invocation for God to unite with our service of worship. My family, and most other members of that church, dressed in our best clothing in honor of our God and king.

Recently, while worshiping with members of Orthodox churches in Anchorage, I was similarly struck by their reverence for their church, each other and the act of worshiping God. Orthodox services are long and consist primarily of choral and chanted liturgies. For those who are able, standing is the norm, except during the homily. Order, decorum, and reverence are evident throughout the service. It’s respectfully quiet. Children are with their parents, and behave respectfully and quietly. I don’t know how their parents do it, but infants rarely interrupt the services I’ve attended. (Parents will take young children out if necessary so they will not interrupt the flow of the service.)

While I’m not Orthodox, as a Christian I also believe in many of the same things Orthodox adherents do and respect them for their beliefs. Reverence, daily worship, spiritual songs, and prayers in the home are part of the life they live in the Orthodox faith, and these extend into their worship services.

During the past decade or two, I’ve noticed a trend away from reverence in many churches, houses of worship, even in some of the Protestant churches I thought would never accept this type of change.

In many evangelical and Protestant churches, as I enter the worship sanctuary, a din of noisy talking, laughing and people bouncing from one to another prevails; this may last 10-15 minutes before services. As services begin in many contemporary churches, they often do so with a wall of music where people are, for the most part, told (not asked), to stand. The music often is a show or display of raw musical talent with sound levels from 95-120 decibels. This can continue for half an hour or more until one or more persons from the ministerial team make their appearance, often to warm up the crowd with announcements, offerings and more music. Finally, a sermon is delivered, replete with altar call in many evangelical churches.

Only once, in my many years of visiting churches here, have I heard a church address the issue of congregational behavior, particularly that of maintaining reverence. Otherwise, I’ve never heard a single pastor talk about the purpose of worship, with the exception of an exceptional experience of “slow Mass” taught by the Rev. Leo Walsh, formerly of St. Benedict’s Parish.

During a two-and-a-half-hour midweek service last fall, Walsh described what happens in a church from the moment the narthex (entryway) is entered. While not a regular service, he underscored the Catholic practice of the Eucharistic Mass being the focus of their belief. Walsh’s talk gave the 35 or so attendees a historical perspective on every aspect of a Catholic Mass. It’s too bad other churches, regardless of denomination, don’t follow this practice; I found it most educational.

A major discussion among church leaders today centers around reverence versus cultural relevance. In a piercing commentary on this subject, “Worship: Relevancy vs. Reverence,” writer Adelina Ghilea says, “It is not our responsibility to make God relevant to our societies and cultures. The church exists because Christ is to be worshipped. I cannot accept with any sympathy the idea that we go to church to soothe ourselves and calm our spirits; that we go to church to feel better. Worship has become too much about us, and is so many times far from being focused on God’s holiness. Somehow, now that we have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, we no longer perceive His holiness the same way. We almost think God is less holy (or at least we act like it).”

The purpose of worship is to glorify God. Over the two millennia since the founding of Christianity this has been done by communion or Eucharist (Acts 20:7), prayers to God (1 Corinthians 14:15–16), singing songs to God’s glory (Ephesians 5:19), collecting offerings (1 Corinthians 16:2), reading Scripture (Colossians 4:16), and proclaiming the word of God (Acts 20:7).

Most denominations have manuals and statements about reverence, especially in church. For example, the Assemblies of God statement reads, “Behavior in the sanctuary should always be respectful and reverent towards God. Those who have not been taught such reverence sometimes treat it as a place to play, run, shout, and socialize. Not only during worship services and altar prayer time, but also when the sanctuary is nearly empty, all should respect and reverence the place where God meets with His church community.”

Many of my visits to Assembly churches have shown me this standard is not always upheld. Despite similar statements from many denominations, their adherents rarely seem to have been taught its significance.

Christ cleansed the temple twice before he was crucified. He clearly said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” I’m afraid many Christian faith bodies have succumbed to giving their constituents what they want instead of what God commands. The account of Moses and the burning bush tells of God instructing Moses to remove his shoes because the ground on which he stood was “holy ground.” This was a lesson by God to Moses of reverence.

Despite the casual way in which worship is often practiced today, all Christians might reconsider, in every way, what reverence in worship really means. Are we dressed to meet God? Are our songs really praising God? Are our prayers from the heart? Do our offerings represent our truest gifts to God? Have we taken the message (or sermon or homily) to heart? Do we understand and apply the partaking of communion or Eucharist? The heart of these practices could well bear fruit in enhanced reverence.

Eagle River Institute is a great way to learn more about Orthodox Christianity

Each summer since 1995, St. John Orthodox Cathedral has conducted the “Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies” which draws extraordinary Orthodox clergy and scholars to Alaska to speak on a variety of Orthodox topics. I’ve enjoyed attending these seminars for several years. They’ve provided me, as a scholar and historian, with a better historical and theological understanding of Christianity in general, and the ancient Orthodox faith more specifically.

One example is one of last year’s speakers, Syrian-born Rev. George Shaloub, who articulated how Muslims and Christians coexisted then and could now — a dialogue many of us need to understand. I wrote about an interview I conducted with him in a column last year, “Does your churchgoing give you a settled faith?

A busy schedule this year only allowed me to attend the Thursday sessions, and Friday’s final question-and-answer session. The sessions I attended would have been of interest to a broad range of individuals exploring current religious issues.

This year’s presenters were a pair of scholars and professors from Fordham University. Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, and co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham. George Demacopoulos is the Father John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, and shares co-directorship of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center with Aristotle.

The title of their presentations was “Orthodoxy and Culture: Past, Present, and Future.” Demacopoulos dug into Byzantine Christianity, asceticism and monasticism, tradition without fundamentalism, and war and violence in early and Byzantine Christianity. Papanikolaou explored the purposes of religion and Orthodoxy, spiritual practices, Christian secularism, war, violence and virtue.

Eagle River Institute is always held at the beginning of August, a two-week fasting period preparing for the Celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ (last week), and the Dormition of the Theotokos, falling asleep of Mary (this week). At dinner breaks, spare cuisine in line with Orthodox fasting practices was served — a great introduction to a key Orthodox belief. Orthodoxy is more rigorous with schedules of fasting than any other Christian religion I’ve observed. Feasts such as these are preceded by fasts.

Demacopoulos, in his session on “War and Violence in the Early Church,” noted the Orthodox church has been ambivalent about war and violence over its 2,000-year history. Prior to the conversion of Constantine (approximately in 313) it tended toward nonviolence but became more accepting of war and violence. Killing during war required canonical penance — often with 20 or more years transpiring before Eucharist was allowed to be taken. According to St. Ambrose, a 4th century  bishop of Milan, clerics must not be involved in armed combat, but as the Roman empire had become Christianized, it had duties to uphold with regard to maintaining the empire and the inhabitants thereof.

Taking an audience question about whether the U.S. was a Christian nation, Demacopoulos emphasized we weren’t a Christian nation and we don’t wage war to protect a Christian nation. The founding fathers, he said, were deists, not Christians, and wanted to avoid the governmental systems that promoted religious persecution and caused waves of immigrants to flee Europe and populate America. Demacopoulos stressed the current position of the Orthodox Church as, “our church prays for peace.”

Telly, as Aristotle Papanikolaou is known, addressed “War, Violence, and Virtue” in his session. He alluded to St. Maximus and his “Peace of Virtue.” Maximus (580-662) wrote and taught extensively. Well known for his work, “400 Chapters on Love,” he had a profound effect on the post-Byzantine empire. Papanikolaou noted Maximus said “self-love and self-loathing” get in the way of virtue. Saying there is no “just war” theory in Orthodox, he further noted that the effects of violence on the poor were tragic.

Many of Papanikolaou’s thoughts on virtue are contained in his scholarly essay, “Learning How to Love: Saint Maximus on Virtue.” I particularly liked his statement, “In the writings of St Maximus the Confessor, communion with God, which is an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification.”

The question and answer session was dominated by war and violence questions. Several participants talked about growing up with violence in the family, child trauma, war experiences, addictions, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Both speakers noted the church can offer victims of trauma community, hope and therapy choices.

Both speakers urged the practice of asceticism: Self-denial for the sake of the kingdom. They say it equals faith formation. Typical Orthodox aesthetic practices are prayer, fasting, and repentance. They said our entire life should be one of faith formation. The war and violence and question and answer sessions had a deep impact on those present.

“The speakers at this year’s ERI — one a professor of theology, the other of church history — succeeded admirably in obliterating any impression of Eastern Orthodoxy as less intellectually rigorous than its Western counterparts,” said St. John parishioner John Morrison. “Their presentations were provocative in the best sense of the word; thought-provoking and challenging us to more critically examine what we thought we knew about church history, and giving us a swift kick out of the comfort zone of our faith. At the same time, I kept my own sense of balance and perspective by remembering that Orthodoxy does not believe in papal infallibility, nor the infallibility of the saints … much less the infallibility of professors!”

These sessions were a blessing to me. Though I’m not Orthodox, I’ve come to love and appreciate this fine community of Christians who daily show that their ancient traditions have relevance for life here and now. Due to global connectivity, we are now privy to the toll war and violence inflicts on individuals. Orthodox faith has some great answers.

Previous ERI speaker presentations are available and this year’s audio presentations will be posted shortly at ancientfaith.com/podcasts/everydaytheology.

The Alaska Greek Festival is almost here

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church holds its annual Alaska Greek Festival Aug. 19-21. Find more at akgreekfestival.com. This wonderful festival is used to raise money to build and maintain their beautiful new church. The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse will give daily tours and explanations of their faith, iconography, and worship meanings, and there will be food, wine and dancing for all who attend.

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.