Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ex oriente lux

(More photos at Flickr.)

St. Ignatios of Antioch Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Augusta, GA. Some 60 miles away, just across the border. I've been here a few times in the past few years (taking a group of students to experience the diversity and catholicity of the Church), and didn't want to leave SC without attending Divine Liturgy. So this morning I hopped into Z's car (mine is in the shop over the weekend having the air worked on. Thanks Z!), picked Peter up in Aiken, and drove into Augusta a few minutes before Orthros (morning prayer) came to an end and the Divine Liturgy started.

I have to say it again: I absolutely adore the Eastern liturgy. There is a sense of transcendence, of mystery, of being lifted up out of oneself as one worships the One True God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the focus is entirely on God, on worship, on participating, in our own limited, imperfect way, in the Eternal Liturgy of Heaven. The entire liturgy is sung, true spiritual worship being offered to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. In this little church, the entire congregation sings the appropriate parts, and there seems to be a natural, effortless dialogue between the priest, the deacon, the cantor and the people. Would that this kind of participation would catch on more in the Western liturgy! It is the one thing that has always struck me about the various Eastern liturgies that I've had the privilege to participate in. I always encourage folks to check out their nearest Eastern parish -- not just to celebrate the diversity of the Catholic Church -- but also to get a sense of just how beautiful and transforming liturgy can be.

Today is also the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the Holy Myrrhbearer, Equal to the Apostles. Unlike in (modern) Western tradition, Sunday doesn't completely eclipse the saint on the calendar, and she was honored throughout the service.

Chatting with parishioners after the service over donuts and coffee, I was shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden death, just over a year ago, of Fr. Daniel Munn, who was pastor at St. Ignatios. I still remember his kind spirit the few times we interacted, and the beautiful explanation he gave of the architecture of an Eastern church, the first time a group of us visited St. Ignatios. One of the things he used to joke about: "I always invite my Latin priest friends to come to the Divine Liturgy and get a sense of what the Liturgy of Heaven will be like!" (I was reminded of this remark in a conversation today.) Another passing remark of his that stuck in my head -- and I wish I'd been able at some point to converse more with him about this -- in talking about the Renaissance he said, "Oh they should have left that dead culture remain dead!" (Referring to classical [pagan] Greek and Rome). Requiescat in Pace. Here's a homily from the St. Ignatios website that was preached at his funeral service.

St. Ignatios (I remember Fr. Dan explaining this on our first visit) is not simply an ethnic parish, but has a large number of adult converts to Eastern Catholicism, and, I suspect, this is partly the reason for the vibrancy of this small community. For instance, see the discussion in this interview with Orthodox theologian Frederica Matthews-Green on the zeal converts bring to ethnic Orthodox parishes. I suspect this is true of any ethnic-immigrant church community in the West today.
Orthodoxy is fastest-growing in terms of percentage growth, but not in terms of numbers, I believe. The growth is undeniably due to conversions. In the jurisdiction (not denomination) that I belong to, the Archdiocese of Antioch (middle-eastern background, headquarters in Damascus on the “street called Straight”), the clergy are now 78% converts. This influx of educated, enthusiastic converts, lay as well as clergy, are bringing revival to the church. Historically, the church represented home-away-from-home for new immigrants, where they could speak the familiar language and eat familiar foods. I can sure understand that, when I picture living as an immigrant in Asia; the church attended by other Americans would be such a haven. But there is the danger that the church, obliged to fill so many roles, becomes a cultural emblem rather than truly a church. Praise God, I don’t see revised, “updated,” fashionable theology in Orthodox churches, but I sure do see nominalism (I don’t mean philosophical nominalism, of course, but practicing the faith in a nominal way). When I travel and speak in Orthodox churches, longtime church members often tell me, “You converts are teaching us about our own faith, things we never knew.” So there is renewal in Orthodoxy, though not at the numbers “fastest-growing” might suggest.
Do explore the St. Ignatios website and the links there -- a wealth of information -- including some pdf files on the Byzantine liturgy. (From where, I learn that there is now a Melkite community in the Charleston area.)

I get particular pleasure when the Melkite Trisagion is chanted. Given the Arabic roots of Melkite liturgy, the Trisagion is in English (the vernacular. In the East, the liturgy was always celebrated in the language of the people), Greek and Arabic. Here's the text:
+Holy God! Holy Mighty One! Holy Immortal One! Have mercy on us. (three times)
+Quddouson (Qudooson) Allâh! Quddouson ul-qawee! Quddouson ulladhee la yamout! Irhamna. (three times)
+Agios O Theos! Agios Eeskhiros! Agios Athanatos! Eleison imas! (three times)
Apart from it just being in Arabic (y'all know how I love languages, and Arabic is a fascinating one!) I always smile when I think of the way the word "Allah" is treated in our culture (just think of Team America, for instance), forgetting that it means nothing other than God, and that our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been using it in their prayer and worship for centuries. Here's a link to a YouTube file with a selection of Melkite chant in Arabic.

[And here's a link to a previous post, from Palm Sunday this year, about the Malnkara Orthodox service I attend in Bombay which also includes a link to a YouTube video with clips from the service.]

Finally, a few more photos from today's visit. More are up at Flickr.



(Apparently this cross has a relic of the True Cross in its base!)

1 comment:

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Beautiful pictures - I'm so glad you were able to go.