My First Orthodox Liturgy, Pascha 1997

Ten years. “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” It’s actually *25* years since my first Eastern liturgy, too – Theophany 1982. [I don’t know about you, but I find myself constantly confusing Theophany and Transfiguration, maybe because they both start with T and involve ‘theophanies.’ Theophany is January, “Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord.” Transfiguration is August, Light on Mt. Tabor…Hiroshima too.] At that time I was a novice with a Roman Catholic (Latin) religious order in New Jersey. (For those of you keeping score at home, I was 18.) One of the priests in my order who “had bi-ritual faculties,” ie, was permitted to officiate in both Latin and Eastern Rites, was staffing an Eastern Catholic parish in Pennsylvania. (I’ll leave them anonymous to protect the guilty… as you’ll see in a moment.) For a change of pace, someone decided we dozen or so novices would mark Theophany in PA. (Epiphany for us was on one of the nearby Sundays.) That parish also hosted students from the local Latin parochial school that morning, so the priest, who normally served in another language (I remember thinking “Ruthenian,” but mustn’t it have been Slavonic?), served in English. I have vague memories of him chanting, and an iconostasis, but nothing else from the church. We didn’t even receive communion; I don’t know why. I remember him commemorating “our holy and ecumenical pontiff John Paul [II] the Pope of Rome,” and thinking, Wait a minute, the Orthodox have an Ecumenical Something, wouldn’t they be upset?! Afterward we toured the Byzantine parochial school – they weren’t off for Theophany – and from a sign in a classroom I learned that Jesus in that language is Izusu (sp?) – as in Slava Izusu Christu, Glory to Jesus Christ! (Glory Forever!) – which unfortunately became amusing/troubling to me when Isuzu (sic) cars became better known in America in succeeding years! Then the parish cook-ladies had us for lunch. Tragically, one of them was ill, and over the next few days an incredible gastrointestinal virus went through our whole novitiate, providing the strongest memory of my first in-person exposure to Eastern Christianity.

But 15 years later, it went a little better(!). By then I was a Quaker, and engaged in graduate-level Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, on the state line due east of Indianapolis. I had just mostly completed an M.A. in Peace Studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana (in the county just east of South Bend), so ESR’s own Peace Studies program employed me as a graduate assistant. One of my jobs was to help coordinate and publicize a weekly quasi-academic peace colloquium. Earlham College, to which ESR belonged, had a staff member who had converted from Quakerism (an Englishman yet!) to Orthodoxy, and was a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and he offered to present “An Orthodox Perspective on Peace,” or something like that. Actually, this was my introduction to Orthodox America’s “jurisdictions,” too. For the sake of the publicity, I asked if Orthodox in the title should or could be modified by some adjective, since I’d only ever heard it after words like Greek or Russian or such, and thought just Orthodox hanging there all by its lonesome might not be clear to folks, and Orthodox Christian might not convey it either – this was eastern Indiana, after all, not central PA (a/k/a “Pan-Slavnia”)! But he told me he didn’t want to complicate things by bringing “jurisdictions” into the discussion – and that’s how I learned ethnic adjective = jurisdiction! (Why I didn’t think of Eastern Orthodox, I may never know!) Just to tie-up this loose end, he focused on Patristics, and so was in fact ‘pre-jurisdictional.’ Anyway, he and I continued the conversation via email, but at the time I had no personal interest in Orthodoxy, ‘merely intellectual.’ Come late Lent – Orthodox Lent – Catholic and Protestant Easter had been a few weeks earlier – he invited me to Pascha at his parish, St. Paul’s (OCA) in relatively-nearby Dayton, Ohio, pastored by Fr. Ted Bobosh, author of Come and See, a good booklet that researches converts’ impressions of Orthodoxy, helpful both for converts/prospects and those born Orthodox.

When we arrived – my friend, his young children, and I – something was already going on. (One consolation was that no matter how late things were in Dayton that Saturday night, they were an hour earlier for us, since Indiana wasn’t doing Daylight Saving Time!) It seemed the parish was using a converted house or something like that (not their present facility). Many children went downstairs to nap or do other things. I remember no iconostasis – it seemed this was the living room of the house – so I could see everything going on in the Altar. Everything or almost everything was in English. There were many chairs in the room, all occupied, SRO. I knew Orthodox did the Sign of the Cross differently than the Latins I’d grown up with, and after a slow beginning – I was still a Silent Meeting Quaker and theoretically averse to prescribed things in religion, nevermind gestures – I joined in with its frequent repetitions throughout the services. I may have also chimed in with the more repetitive sung responses – they had a choir and congregational singing, both excellent. You hear a whole lot of words in the Orthodox services, even sung, but I had read to just let them all roll over you the first time, and it was OK. Pascha was several services in succession, lasting several hours. We processed around the block at one point singing the Paschal Troparion, a very catchy, fun melody (which I can’t now locate online) which one wanted to sing faster and faster! Individuals read the Prologue from the Gospel of St. John in several languages besides English, including Latin, Greek, maybe Japanese and Ethiopian(?) since they had parishioners from those countries, and probably a couple others. I also knew about antidoron, the blessed bread given out instead of or in addition to Communion, but I was still very self-conscious about it, being non-Orthodox! And while everyone else, male and female, kissed Fr. Ted in jubilant greeting after the services, I just shook his hand! Everyone greeted each other with “Christ is Risen!” and responded “Indeed He is Risen!,” but again the “Unprogrammed” Quaker [it’s used as a semi-official designation], I resisted joining in that! Then there was a social in the basement, with parishioners’ Easter baskets including things they’d given up for the Great Fast (including beer), first blessed by Father.

Pascha is probably the best time to visit an Orthodox parish if you have the time and energy, although if you’re just looking to be impressed, the rest of the year might seem anticlimactic until it becomes more part of your life. I still wish the Pascha Season, 40 or 50 days, was longer, both for theological and emotional reasons (I really love this Paschal Troparion [page 1 of this PDF], my favorite Orthodox piece of music!). Christmas, too! Oh well….

I’ve only made it to Pascha one other time because of my health, 5 years ago as it happens, by which time I was seriously considering converting. This was at St. Herman of Alaska (OCA) in Delaware County, just west of Philadelphia. Actually this was a more ‘whole’ experience, taking-in Lamentations Matins* on Great Friday night, Pascha late Saturday night, and Bright Monday morning Liturgy. I didn’t know quite what to make of the Lamentations then, but Pascha again was extremely festive, the choir and congregation sang great, I learned this infectious Carpatho-Russian folk-chant setting of the Paschal Troparion (MP3 – it sounds ‘prettier’ sung by women!), and folks were very welcoming (some of whom have gone on to launch a mission in the next county over). The only reason I didn’t join St. Herman’s is that I felt I should join a parish closer to me, in case I needed to be visited at home.

(*–If you missed it last night, the Lamentation Matins texts [PDF] are chock full of references and allusions to God’s Energies, Light, power, incorruption, etc. It was great even just reading/praying it at home, since my health prevented me from attending.)


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