Tag Archives: St John Orthodox

REMINDER: Eagle River Institute Starts Tomorrow

Tomorrow’s the day St. John Orthodox starts it’s 2017 Eagle River Institute (ERI).

Kickoff lecture at 3:30 p.m. is by Peter Bouteneff, PhD. His topic will be:

From the Old Testament to the Fathers: The Journey of the Creation Accounts

The 7:30 p.m. lecture will be by Gayle Woloshak, PhD. Her topic will be

Religion and Science: Interface

If you value a dive into Orthodox thought, and practice of spirituality, I highly recommend you enjoy this opportunity. I’ve come to value Orthodox thought and their unique expressions of ancient spirituality. I sincerely believe each of us, regardless of our personal spiritual persuasion, can benefit from the thoughts and practices of other religions.  ERI is no exception.  I’ve discovered many enriching details about the Christian faith through my friendship with Orthodox, of which there are three major branches in Alaska: Greek Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, and Orthodox Church of America (formerly known here as Russian Orthodox).

My detailed write-up about this year’s ERI, published two weeks ago, is here:

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

I’ll be there and hope to see you too!

Chris Thompson
Church Visits
churchvisits.com
churchvisits@gmail.com

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.

 

Ashes Signal Lent’s Beginning Tomorrow

It’s difficult for me to believe that Lent commences tomorrow. Part of that difficulty is wrapped up in my lack of understanding of how quickly the church year whizzes by. My evangelical upbringing did not honor the church year, as observed in so many mainline, orthodox, and Catholic churches. That, of course, extended to Lent.

Over time, I’ve become very involved in observing the various waypoints of the church year, discovering the various ways many Lent observing faith traditions journey through Lent. In the process Lent, Advent, and other similar traditions provide comfort and spiritual centering for my life. Over time these various faith traditions have sunk in and nourish my soul.

Ash Wednesday is one of those waypoints.  In this age-old simple ritual of accepting ashes on my forehead, and being reminded by the ash imposing clergy of my mortality with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, I’m annually reminded that, as the old spiritual says, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”

Orthodox Lent has already with Forgiveness Sunday services last Sunday. I’ve observed this healing practice at St. John Orthodox – Eagle River, and Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox – Anchorage.  What a wonderful healing practice which should be emulated by many more churches.

Often, Lent observing Christians are asked about what they are giving up for Lent, with somewhat humorous tongue-in-cheek replies.  In fact, the annual Twitter Lent Tracker for 2017 (see https://www.openbible.info/labs/lent-tracker/2017) indicates the top 10 Lenten give-ups seem to have little to do with drawing closer to God at this season.

Rank What Number of Tweets
1. social networking 1,076
2. twitter 933
3. alcohol 771
4. chocolate 664
5. chips 554
6. sweets 321
7. fast food 319
8. school 298
9. soda 295
10. swearing 288

Lifeway Research started its own poll Lenten poll this year and discovered these were the top ways Christians said they would be observing Lent: Fast from a favorite food or beverage (57%), Attend church services (57%), Pray more (39%), Give to others (38%), Fast from a bad habit (35%), Fast from a favorite activity (23%). (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/what-to-give-up-for-lent-2017-twitter-top-100-ideas.html)

I’m impressed with people who resolve to do something for others or take up a useful habit during Lent. The Christianity Today article, noted above, stated “LifeWay found that nearly 3 in 10 evangelical believers (28%) now observe the Lenten season before Easter, while Catholics remain most likely to do so (61%).”  To me that is a startling but growing number.

Another Orthodox practice that impresses me is their rigorous fasting during Lent, primarily to keep their heads and bodies clean and clear to fully participate in the joys and sorrows of what the Lenten season brings.

If you do not observe Lent or haven’t been exposed to its practices and significance, I urge you give it a try starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow.

Lenten blessings to each of you.

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.

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.

Visiting Anchorage? There’s a plethora of worship services to sample and savor in our diverse city

Alaska receives more than 1 million visitors each summer. If you are a person of faith, you can locate many worship options in our community. All major religions are represented. Our churches meet in places ranging from beautiful cathedrals to school facilities and shopping malls. There are many ways to locate interesting churches here. In this column I’m sharing a few of these ways and offering pointers for enriching your stay in our beautiful city.

Finding a Church:

The internet is usually the easiest way to find a church. Leaning toward a particular denomination? Search for the denomination and Anchorage. You will find many choices. Be cautious about selecting churches where the pastor and church’s pictures are the main pictures shown. Unfortunately, some of those church pastors and members seem to be prouder of themselves and the church building, than of their  members’ hard work exercising their faith in the community. Conversely, pictures of church members at worship, play and community service speak volumes compared to sermons or grand church buildings.

Beware of church websites showing only pictures of the splendors of Alaska’s mountains, lakes, rivers and other vistas. From my extensive church visiting experience, many of these churches have forgotten their mission. Some churches mistakenly believe Facebook is their new webpage. If you encounter one of those listings, move on, as they’re out of touch with the purpose of social media; it’s not intended to replace church websites; both are important.

The Matters of Faith page in Alaska Dispatch News, on which you find this article, contains notices of various church offerings, often not just those pertaining to the Christian faith. You may be able to find a special event or service of note by perusing the listings of this community service. I’ve often found a service there of which I’d not been aware.

On my blog, churchvisits.com I’ve posted a list of 10 local churches I consider to be safe choices for first-time visitors seeking warm, welcoming worship services. In that list, I evaluate various service aspects to help you choose a great church. During many years of visiting churches, I’ve looked for and evaluated churches by four distinct criteria. First, I look for a warm and friendly greeting. Next, I quickly determine if this church was hospitable or not. Was the sermon delivered in a “listenable” manner and did I learn some new truth from it? Finally, was the music a big show or entertainment, or did it appropriately support the sermon theme? Too often, many modern churches present 30-45 minutes of earsplitting, high-decibel music that jangle eardrums and senses. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Alaska’s Orthodox  churches pleasingly incorporate music and liturgy for the entirety of their service.

Churches worthy of visits for outstanding features

All of the churches listed below have an unusual feature or two worth going out of the way for. Check with the church office to inquire if they’re accessible for viewing outside of worship hours; many also have explanatory pamphlets.

Holy Family Cathedral

This downtown Roman Catholic cathedral was the site of a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1989 during his trip to Anchorage. They recently installed six beautiful stained glass windows made in Bavaria in 1889 and rescued from a shuttered church. An instant local treasure, they’re a tribute to congregation and clergy desiring to place beautiful reminders of the Gospel story into their worship space. Newly restored Stations of the Cross are also now in place.

First Presbyterian Church

The modern architecture of this downtown church houses a fantastic wall of stained glass. Composed of dalle, or slab glass panels, this wall of light and color is filled with spiritual themes; a wonder to behold.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Sited among the high-rises of downtown, this small church houses beautiful stained glass panels on three of the four sanctuary walls. Sen. Ted Stevens lay in repose here before his funeral.

Resurrection Chapel – Holy Spirit Center

This upper Hillside Catholic chapel offers 180-degree views of the mountains to the west and north of Anchorage. The view of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, is breathtaking here.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Sweeping vistas of the Chugach and Kenai mountains are offered from their east and south facing sanctuary windows. A wonderful Bach-type organ in the sanctuary is used on Sundays.

St. John United Methodist Church

The Rev. David Fison at United Methodist carved two totems, representing several Christian traditions, during his pastorate in Southeast Alaska. One, a replica erected outside, depicts the Christmas story. The other, also in replica outside, depicts the Easter story, while the original, more than 20 feet tall, is inside the sanctuary of this lower Hillside church.

United Methodist Church of Chugiak

If you’d like to see Denali through a church window, there’s no better place to see it than in this church. With floor to ceiling glass facing Denali, it’s a delightful way to worship God, bringing nature right into the church.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church – Eklutna

A short drive north of Anchorage is the small Alaska Native village of Eklutna where you’ll find an old log Russian Orthodox Church, a graveyard with traditional native spirit houses, and a new Orthodox church. Guided tours are available, and donations are requested for maintenance and upkeep.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This Russian style cathedral contains beautiful iconography and is a delight to visit.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

Housing a diverse congregation, this new basilica style church contains icons that are a part of this ancient faith. If you are here during August, the congregation’s  Alaska Greek Festival, with music, food, and dancing, is not to be missed.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral – Eagle River

Located in a quiet area north of Anchorage, this striking Antiochian Orthodox cathedral is a beautiful site for pictures externally, and internally a feast for the eyes of architecture and icons. While there, look for the small chapel, St. Sergius of Radonezh Chapel, a short hike away from the main cathedral.

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.

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.

For Orthodox Christians, Holy Week just approaches

Easter, as celebrated by Western Christianity, concluded almost a month ago. Yet Holy Week for Orthodox Christianity, which has up until now been observing Great Lent with fasting, prayer, and reflection, commences Sunday. Orthodox churches use a Julian, rather than Gregorian, calendar, which is what accounts for this time difference. Pascha, the Orthodox term for Easter, is preceded by Holy Week, a time of great solemnity ultimately ending with great rejoicing. Orthodox Christians observe “The Twelve Great Feasts” but Pascha (Easter) is in a class by itself and called the “Feast of Feasts.”

Orthodox services are celebrated in worship spaces adorned with icons and they adhere closely to a liturgy, with clergy speaking or chanting, augmented by choirs or cantors, and worshippers following a written text — and sometimes reading along. I find myself moved by the visual richness of the setting and simple beauty of the texts.

Holy Week services among the various branches of Orthodoxy share similar themes, though these may be expressed differently.

For Alaska’s three branches of Orthodoxy, Lazarus Saturday (the day this column appears in print) commemorates Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, prefiguring his own resurrection, the focal point of Pascha celebrations a week later. It serves as a transitional point for Holy Week observances as Great Lent concludes with the Lazarus service on Friday evening. Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey says of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday that “between the end of the Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, we are given this ‘oasis of hope’ in between, so that we are renewed in the strength and joy of the coming Feast of Feasts.”

“While Great Lent itself concludes on Friday,” notes the Rev. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox, “the season of fasting continues through the weekend and Holy Week up to Pascha. The fast even intensifies on Holy Friday and Holy Saturday.”

These days are followed by Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday, which celebrates Jesus’ Last Supper. The service for Holy Thursday is “‘The 12 Passion Gospels,’ a matins service with the added Gospel readings and hymnography for the events of the crucifixion,” says the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, “a type of watching in the Garden of Gethsemane with the Lord, as he awaits his arrest, trial, and Passion. The church is dark and candlelit. It is very solemn and beautiful…one of my favorite services of the year.”

Great and Holy Friday at St. John Orthodox Cathedral is observed with four services throughout the day; matins, royal hours and great vespers, continuing with an all-night vigil where the faithful keep vigil in the church reading Psalms. The service is referred to as a “Lamentations” service at Holy Transfiguration, and parishioners chant burial hymns for Christ in a beautiful nighttime candlelit setting. All present process with the tomb of Christ outside, wending their way around the church.

On Holy Saturday, vespers and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil are observed with readings from the Psalms, and the singing of resurrection hymns. In Alaska Orthodox churches may hold this service in the morning or the afternoon. “Of all the beautiful services of Holy Week, the one I love most is Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday,” observes St. John Orthodox member Mary Alice Cook. “The Great Entrance, in which the priests carry the bread and wine to the altar, is preceded by the singing of a hymn based on words from the prophet Habakkuk: ‘Let all the earth keep silence before him.’ After the hymn, the Entrance is made in total silence, and as I watch and think of our Lord’s great love for us, even unto death, I realize that words can never express our understanding, let alone our gratitude. All we can do is simply bow down and worship him.”

Of course, Pascha is the peak event of the entire church year. “Holy Saturday night is the service of the Resurrection,” notes Hillhouse. “The Myrrhbearers had gone to the tomb ‘while it was still dark,’ or at ‘deep dawn’ reads one translation. So we do not wait for the sunrise, as most western Christians do — we proclaim the Resurrection just as soon as we can — and when you have been preparing by fasting for 46 days, Midnight cannot come soon enough!”

Orthodox (formerly Russian Orthodox) and Greek Orthodox congregations begin their Pascha services just before midnight while St. John Orthodox (Antiochian) begins its celebration at 4 a.m. Allison Lineer, a member at St. John, describes Pascha services this way: “The Saturday a.m. service is lovely. It is the Orthodox funeral service for our Lord. But Easter morning always makes me think of the dead rising from their dark tombs as we walk around the church each one carrying a candle in the darkness outside. We congregate around the door of the church and Father Marc bangs on the door with a cross. It is the cross that opens the door of heaven to us. When the doors open we triumphantly enter singing. All the lights are on, the bells are ringing and it reminds us of the resurrection to come!”

There is much joy with the arrival of Pascha. I’ve seen it on the faces and heard it in the voices of adherents. I asked the Rev. Michael Oleksa if this was due to the Great Lent fasts. “I’m sure the preparation effects this experience. But the ‘overwhelming joy’ cannot be induced or provoked. It just unexpectedly comes, suddenly and without warning,” he says. “I have spoken about this to Orthodox congregations across the country and they all affirm this is a common experience, but we almost never talk about it, perhaps because while it is highly communal and liturgical, it is at the same time, totally personal. And when a person has it, they are often embarrassed by it. ‘Am I OK?’ A believer can linger in this moment, but the celebrant cannot. If the clergy did, the service might come to a stop! It can be embarrassing if this happens during the Gospel reading! And yet, all Orthodox seem to know this charismatic moment, very much the opposite of the typical Pentecostal sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

With the arrival of Pascha, the significant fasts of Great Lent end, ritual red eggs are given and eaten, and baskets with choice foods are consumed. I invite you to seek out an Orthodox friend, or just personally experience Holy Week and Pascha as a life-giving moment.

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.