Monday, September 20, 2010
The church’s annual Greek Food Festival would feed eight thousand on this September weekend. No small feat for a local church. The primary draw for the diverse crowd is, of course, the Greek cuisine. But then there are the dancing, the traditional costumes and the music. All of this will inevitably trigger the proclamation of an involuntary “Opa!” from the regulars, which, according to the urban dictionary is “a word that Greek people use for no apparent reason at all.”
I’ll take issue with the urban dictionary. I heard it (Opa!) countless times on Saturday night, and while my Greek is marginal I believe I got the idea. I might say, “Bravo!” Or “terrific!” Or “cool!” Or “well done!” Or “good job!” Or “sweet!” Or “I’ll drink to that!” But on this night, folks who wished to shout their approval over there at the Greek Orthodox Church (of the Annunciation) cried, “Opa!” with enthusiasm and a smile. Generally accompanied by applause.
The pastries lived up to their billing: the Baklava flakey and crunchy, drenched in honey, crunched almonds and walnuts and the essence of orange. Then the light bread, tsoureki. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
The band featured a mandolin and a vocalist who resembled Aphrodite. Swaying with graceful hands that moved with the flow of her melodies, she convinced us that love had appeared on stage. She opened for the dancers, who in synch with the singer’s ancestral refrains and cadence held hands and twirled and kicked and stomped with elegance and glee in costumes straight from the Old Country. Inspired by Zorba, they entertained as we clapped, first a group of young adults, followed by several other troops each younger than the last until the kindergarten class stole the show. By then, “Opa!” came from all over the big house; men and women, old and young, Greek and non-Greek, including me.
After the big finish and an invitation to shop for pastries and gifts and books, we were invited to tour the grand worship center. This was not accidental. It is a church on the move; proud of her heritage and eager to invite us to be a part.
I have visited Athens and Sparta and Corinth and the little coastal villages of the Peloponnese. We have toured Orthodox Churches in Istanbul, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and St. Catherine’s in the Sinai. We studied the icons; including a priceless collection of the oldest in the world at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. We’ve been told about those first thousand years of church history when most Christians were illiterate. There was no ready access to the written word. Believers may hear the Scriptures read, often in a language they did not speak. But most relied on the stories as they were passed from generation to generation in verse and poetry and the art of imagery. The Orthodox captured those scenes in sacred art. Icons. The church would tell the story on the walls; in a space that reflected the architect’s best effort to represent the world to come. Enter and you will gasp. Wonder and awe. A taste of heaven on earth.
That was the surprise for us as we entered the sanctuary, surrounded by art in bright gold and blues and reds and yellows and purple. It felt sacred. We took our place in the center of the room and our docent introduced us to the recorded voice of the local priest. He would guide us through as she pointed to each appropriate scene with a green laser light.
Reverend Father Jon Magoulias led us then on a tour of church history, taking us from this place of worship all the way back to Rome, even Jerusalem, and the first Apostles. This is the True Church, he affirmed, and what we experience in this room today goes back to the start, the Day of Pentecost when the disciples were energized as promised, by the Holy Spirit. A thousand years after inauguration day, Rome clearly became a little too creative with doctrines like Purgatory, the nature of the Eucharist and the primacy of the Pope (in Rome), Father Jon told us. Rome had a problem, too: with the Icons of the East. (They called it idolatry.) Hence, the Great Schism of 1054 CE. That year, Rome’s Bishop (The Pope) excommunicated Constantinople’s Bishop who simultaneously returned the favor. East and West would be forever alien. But, Father Jon assured us: the East had the upper hand in the debate and lays legitimate claim to the moniker – True Church. The timeline documents this.
A visual walk though the intricate scenes surrounding the sanctuary resembled a Walk Through the Bible course, with emphasis on the Gospels and the life of Jesus. A kid like me, who has grown accustomed to church in the industrial sections of town, with multi-purpose rooms as worship center, sat wide-eyed in the Byzantine presence of such intentionality and irrepressible reverence.
Father Jon identified the Seven Sacraments recognized throughout the two thousand year history of the Orthodox Church. It seemed like a big number, seeing as the church I grew up in recognized only Two, and did not really like to use the term “Sacrament.” We preferred the term “Ordinance” knowing that people just might confuse our doctrine with that of the High Church. Of the Seven, the one that got my attention was the Sacrament of “Confession.” Outside, we had a little discussion. Did this mean that the Orthodox confess their sins to the Priest like Roman Catholics? I was assigned to go back inside and ask.
A very nice lady, a Docent type, seemed pleased to entertain a substantive question from an uninitiated. She led me back towards the Altar and explained that yes, at least twice per year, she made her confession. She said it with such hardiness, that I got the impression that this meant a great deal to her. But they do not confess to the Priest. She showed me where she stands, at the front of the church, before the Icon of Jesus. “I confess to Jesus,” she said. “The Priest stands here.” She pointed to the spot adjacent to her. He listens. And observes. “And when it is over, he confers the forgiveness of Christ.” She almost seemed relieved in the telling. Like maybe it made a difference in her life.
As I reflected on the Icons and the history and the concept of True Church and reverence and holiness and the wonder of God reaching out to us poor sinners, I mused over what I would to in the company of a godly Priest in a robe before an Icon of Jesus confessing my own sin.
What would I say?
It didn’t take long for a contemptible list to form. I speculated. Would I edit? Would I hedge? Would I weep? Would I shudder? How forthright would I be?
And if I did all that, and the Priest, in the name of Jesus, conferred that grace of forgiveness out loud right there in the sanctuary, would it help?
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010