Should Orthodox Christians Get Their Icons Blessed?

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It is no secret that icons are an important part of Orthodox faith and worship, covering the walls and ceilings and iconostases of our parishes, and most Orthodox Christians have at least a few icons at home. It also is no secret that the Orthodox Church practices blessings throughout the Church year—we start with the blessing of the waters at Theophany, and then we take that water and bless all sorts of other things, like our homes, each other, fruit, and even our cars.

In the past few centuries, it has become increasingly common to have icons blessed by a priest or bishop, either having them sprinkled with holy water or anointing them with Holy Chrism. Some pious believers will even refuse to display an icon in their homes until it is blessed, and I have even seen Russian icons come in the packaging “pre-blessed”! I’ve been told by a few Greek and Antiochian friends that icons may be taken behind the iconostasis and kept there for 40 days to bless them. For so many people, this is a special event, and a comfort.

It is as if the icon goes from profane to holy through the act of blessing. Last year, Fr. Steven Bigham addressed this issue head-on in the Orthodox Arts Journal, and I’ve seen the article making its rounds the past few weeks. Titled “Does the Blessing of Icons Agree with or Contradict the Tradition of the Orthodox Church?,” Fr. Steven’s article addresses the issue clearly and fully, sweeping history for a clear and definitive answer. The article begins with this paragraph:

Orthodox Christians routinely have their icons blessed by a priest or bishop. Bishops often anoint them with Holy Chrism. There are even special services for blessing different kinds of icons: of Christ, of the Mother of God, of feasts, etc. Most people would never imagine putting an unblessed icon in their houses; it would be a kind of sacrilege, but once the icon is blessed — whatever its subject, taste, canonicity, etc. — many think that what was a simple picture before the blessing becomes an icon after, because of the blessing. It becomes at least a “better” icon. Being only a “profane” image before, it becomes “holy” after, because it has been blessed. Very few Orthodox would question this practice which they feel is legitimate, traditional, and totally in agreement with Church Tradition. I hope to show that despite the widespread habit of blessing icons, this practice is not in agreement with Church Tradition, and that it is in fact contrary to it and based on a theology of the icons that is foreign to Orthodoxy.

The strongest argument seems to be the historical evidence. Put simply, Fr. Steven argues, there is no written evidence of icon blessings in the Orthodox Church until the 17th century. It does not exist.

Bolstering his case, Fr. Steven quotes a long section of the Second Council of Nicea. At one point, Nicea II explicitly argues that blessing icons is unnecessary:

[M]any of the sacred things which we have at our disposal do not need a prayer of sanctification, since their name itself says that they are all-sacred and full of grace…. When we signify an icon with a name, we transfer the honor to the prototype; by embracing it and offering to it the veneration of honor, we share in the sanctification.

He also addresses St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, who commented, “The holy icons do not need any special prayer or any application of myron (or chrism),” going on to strongly claim that introducing icon blessing into the Orthodox Church was due to Roman Catholic influence. “Do you see that the prayer which is read over holy pictures is a Papal affair, and not Orthodox: and that it is a modern affair, and not an ancient one?”

The skinny: icons are blessed already because of the figures depicted, and confirmed by the name of the saints on the images. Once an image is distorted or abolished, it returns to its former state of being simply wood and paint, and we dispose of them by reverently burning them. At the end of his article, rather than create another issue for people to argue about or fuss with their bishop or priest over, he suggests a workable solution to this innovative practice would be to replace the icon blessing with an icon dedication ceremony.

Read the whole thing here.

This post was originally run at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy.

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Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.

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A fruitful vine: Wedding prayers part 2

Remember, O Lord our God, Your servant and Your handmaiden, and bless them. Give to them fruit of the womb, fair children, concord of soul and body…

If you’ve never given pause to the sheer amount of references to sex and children in the Orthodox wedding, this post will provide no statistical references or word counts. Rather, I want to ponder the preponderance of sexual references made throughout the celebration of the sacrament. In front of God, your family, your priest, and your sponsors, bride and bridegroom are encouraged to embrace the marriage bed and to add their names to the prolific breeders of Christian history.

It’s not a surprise to many of us that the ideal in Orthodoxy is the Monastic life. It’s compared to the life of angels, it’s the life our Savior, His Forerunner, many of the Apostles and great saints of our history chose to follow in search of Salvation. St. Paul is clear, though, that only slightly below the celibate life is the life of chaste marriage–a word and concept far too often ignored and misunderstood in modern culture and misapplied in Christian circles.

Chastity is not synonymous with celibacy. Chastity is related to purity and used often in the refining of precious metals. When the impurities have been finally done away with and the pure metal shines, it is called “chaste”. When our time of refinement is over, we will be presented chaste and undefiled before the Father as a pure and spotless holy bride. Within marriage, Chastity and sexuality go hand-in-hand with godliness and purity.

The prayer of the Orthodox wedding again and again is that the couple will be blessed with chastity in their marriage–that they will be able to maintain a pure and holy wedding bed which produces godly offspring as a blessing from the Lord. Chastity, then, is more than just avoiding sex from time-to-time (as we are instructed to do), but is about avoiding all sins which would corrupt the icon of the Trinity that marriage is described as throughout the New Testament. There is nothing so holy as a pure marriage bed, and nothing so defiled as a corrupted marriage bed. Within the confines of our Orthodox understanding of marriage and sex is this standard everywhere upheld: the marriage bed is honorable and undefiled; but the converse would imply that a defiled marriage bed is dishonorable and a place not of sanctity but of sin and corruption.

Our Lord tells us in the Gospels that bad trees produce bad fruit, and that good fruit is not picked from briers. Our marriages–and all that they entail–are the same way. Our piety and devotion, our sanctity and love will produce (Lord willing) children who grow in their devotion and love for the Lord and become His saints. Our bitterness, anger, fornication, and lust will also impact these children of our marriage bed; and it is this bitter fruit that we pray against when we ask during the marriage ceremony that the bed be chaste and undefiled and that we be blessed as a fruitful vine.

May God so richly bless our marriages that we seek purity and devotion, love and submission to one another and to Him. In this blessing we will become a fertile and well-tended garden for their salvation to be planted, watered, and grow.

Page Divider for Author Bios

Caleb (Edward) Shoemaker is a teacher of Latin and Bible in Upstate New York. He has a degree in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Theological Institute in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is kept busy raising four beautiful children with his wife Amelia. Check out their Etsy shop Embroidered Ameilia specializing in Pascha blanket patterns for the American Orthodox.

Orthodoxy in America

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Orthodoxy came to America in four waves. The first wave was by missionary activity in Alaska, a land that belonged to Russia at the time. Russians began trading with natives for fur in the 18th century, and a very successful fur trading company was established on Kodiak Island—the Russian-American Company—along with a school for the indigenous people. Over time, under influence of the fur traders and with quite a bit of intermarrying, many natives converted to the Orthodox faith.

With a slew of Orthodox converts and no priest to care for them or administer the sacraments, the fur traders appealed to the Russian Holy Synod of Bishops to send a priest. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, decided that it would be better to establish a genuine mission to the local peoples, not merely send a stopgap priest.

In September 1794, a small group of monks arrived on Kodiak Island to spread the Gospel to the natives. And though it was very successful, it was not an easy mission. The monks were upset with the way the Russians behaved, and how they treated the native population. Often, the natives’ greatest advocates and protectors were the missionaries.

Over the years, a number of monks, priests, and bishops came to Alaska to minister to the Russians and natives, traveling land and sea to bring the Gospel to the people. In the process, many saints were shown forth in the Americas, including protomartyr of All-America, St. Juvenaly of Iliamna, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Tikhon of Moscow, St. Innocent of Alaska and Moscow, and St. Peter the Aleut.

Today, there is a notable Alaskan expression of Orthodoxy that took root and grew over the last 200 years. It was the Orthodox who taught the natives how to read, and translated the Scriptures and services into the native languages. It was through this mission that Orthodoxy first came to America, and various historical situations and missionary endeavors led the Russian mission to expand to the United States and Canada.

The second wave of Orthodoxy coming to America was through immigration. Massive immigration of Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians, Albanians and others entered America through Ellis Island and other ports. Greeks especially came in several heavy waves of immigration—there’s a saying, wherever there is a seaport, there you will find Greeks!

Many times, the first things these immigrant groups did was form a “society of ________ (ethnicity)” and that society would rent or build a church, and try to get a pastor from their home country (who spoke their language) to come to America. There are many cases where multi-ethnic communities existed, and perhaps a Bulgarian priest might serve an Antiochian and Greek dominated parish, or something similar. It was an interesting and exciting time of new beginnings.

Indeed, Greek, Arab, and Slavic immigrants established the first congregation in the lower 48 states in New Orleans, Louisiana. Prior to their establishment as a congregation, they had a society that even raised up a militia to fight for the Confederate States in the American Civil War. This church—Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church—still exists, and has grown to be a large community today.

This period also saw the heirs of the Alaskan mission spread their reach to Canada and the lower 48 states. By 1900, the Holy Synod in Russia established the Diocese of the Aleutians and North America, with St. Tikhon of Moscow at the helm. St. Tikhon traveled from coast to coast tirelessly working to care for his growing flock, dedicating and consecrating churches for more recent Russian immigrants.

Soon, there were so many ethnicities represented in this country with largely disconnected and overlapping jurisdictions. Squabbles among the clergy, and trouble brewing back in the Old Countries—think Communism in Russia or Hitler’s invasion of Greece, for examples—led to increasing ethnic separations, or even splits within ethnic jurisdictions (the Russians, in particular, had a bitter split).

The third and fourth waves of Orthodox expansion in the Americas were by conversion. The third wave began when Fr. Alexis Toth, an Eastern Rite Roman Catholic priest, ran into conflict with the local Roman Catholic bishop who was trying to suppress Eastern Rite practices and other Roman Catholic ethnic groups. Livid from an unsatisfactory meeting with the local bishop, Fr. Alexis began to re-evaluate the nature of the Church and the claims of Rome, and eventually concluded that he needed to jump ship to the Orthodox Catholic Church.

In March 1892, he and 361 Eastern Rite Catholics were received into the Russian Orthodox Church. He began to evangelize other Eastern Rite Catholics, explaining why the Orthodox Church was the true ark of salvation. By the time of his death in 1909, approximately 20,000 so-called Uniates had come into the Russian Orthodox Church, and by 1916 an estimated 100,000 had entered. Many of these parishes are still operational today as Orthodox churches. We now honor Fr. Alexis as St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.

The fourth wave of growth has been slow and steady over the last generation. Evangelicals, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and non-Christians alike are discovering the Orthodox Church, especially as many parishes have now embraced the English language, and the average parishioner has assimilated into the fabric of America (usually while holding onto his ethnic identity). People are discovering that this ancient, unchanged faith is surprisingly relevant to their lives today, and embracing it wholeheartedly.

One of the more interesting stories of this fourth wave was when 2,000 evangelicals came into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in 1987. The short of it is that a group of Campus Crusade for Christ ministers were seeking to be true to the ideals of the early Church in their ministries, and through investigation, over time, their ministries and faith began to resemble that of the early Church (and consequently, the Orthodox Church). Despite having doors slammed in their faces by several Orthodox hierarchs, they found a warm reception in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. They were received en masse, and since then have integrated nicely into this Arab-Syrian jurisdiction, bringing a new enthusiasm and refreshment into American Orthodoxy.

Skipping over a great deal of history and grossly oversimplifying, these four waves did not successfully create a single Orthodox administration in this country. As the churches here grew, new churches were established, and more cohesive structures connecting the various churches developed—usually along ethnic lines. This is why a phone book may have “Russian Orthodox,” “Greek Orthodox,” or “Albanian Orthodox” entries.

In 1970, many of the Russian churches (both from the original mission and from immigration) desired a uniquely American-run administration, independent of Russia. It was hoped that all of the other groups of Orthodox people would be excited about this idea of “The Orthodox Church in America” and all join together in a single infrastructure. A few Romanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian churches shared this idea, but many Orthodox in America were not thrilled with what is now known as the OCA. After squabbles in the 1920s and 1940s within the Russian churches, the creation of the OCA deepened the existing schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)—a schism that has since been healed, thank God. (There are a few intramural arguments about the timing and canonical propriety of Moscow creating the OCA, but that discussion is for another time and place.)

To this day, there is a multiplicity of “jurisdictions” in this country, with many overlaps and unfortunate situations out of line with canonical norms. Still, we remain a single Church, a genuine expression of the universal Body of Christ, united in our sacraments and faith, and guided by the one Holy Spirit.

Administrative unity is on the horizon now. Over the years, several groups have been established to work toward this end; most recently the Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America was established to determine the way forward, and bind our many people, ethnicities, and clergy together more tightly—and over time, to correct any canonical irregularities that may exist.

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Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.

The Iconostasis

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One of the central and most notable features of nearly every Orthodox church is the iconostasis (all, save the Western Rite parishes). “Iconostasis”—simply “iconostas” among Slavs—means nothing more than “icon stand,” and it separates the nave from the sanctuary and altar. It may consist of icons set up on two easels in a mission church, or be as large as a gigantic wall with dozens of icons and three doorways.

The iconstasis developed over time, but it is not without precedent in antiquity. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that certain groups of ancient Jews decorated their synagogues with icons depicting biblical figures and events, and in at least one archaeological excavation, there is a full wall of icons separating the gathering room from a sort of Torah shrine.

Around the 5th century, it became customary in eastern churches to construct a templon between the nave and altar. In the west, a similar development occurred with a “rood screen.” Over time, these elements came to be adorned with icons, and eventually became what we know as the iconostasis. There are many variations in these icon stands, but the general set-up is guided by Church rubrics, and so several features are fairly common. (And despite many years of separation from the mainstream Chalcedonian Orthodox Church, even some of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox” churches, especially the Coptic Orthodox, have embraced the iconostasis.)

Beyond the basics, liturgically, the iconostasis is equipped with three important entrances: two “deacon” doors, and one central entrance. Anyone with a blessing from the bishop (or by proxy, the priest) can enter the deacon doors, but only ordained clergy (bishop, priest, or deacon) may enter the central doors. In churches where there are several deacons, these doors are used frequently in services, and it’s hard not to imagine the workings of a cuckoo clock! These deacon doors are typically adorned with icons of deacons or archangels (and are sometimes called “angel doors” due to the icons of Archangels Michael and Gabriel).

The middle entrance usually consists of two doors, sometimes called the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and a curtain. This doorway is used exclusively by clergy for liturgical purposes. These two doors are frequently adorned with icons of the four evangelists (Gospel writers) or of the Annunciation, displaying the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Since these are the gates through which the life-giving flesh and blood of God will enter the nave of the Church to be given to the people, it is fitting that the Virgin Mary is depicted on these gates (or similarly, it is fitting that sometimes the Gospel writers who brought us the message of God incarnate are depicted).

Directly above the Beautiful Gates (or Royal Doors), you may see an icon of the Mystical Supper (Last Supper), or perhaps Christ enthroned, and very likely a large cross.

The central doors are always flanked by an icon of Christ to the right, and the Virgin Mary and with the Christ child to the left. Next comes the patron saint or patronal feast of the parish—in Byzantine parishes, the patronal icon goes next to the Virgin Mary, but in Slavic parishes, the patronal icon is next to Christ. Often—though not always—St. John the Baptist is depicted to the right, either next to Christ or after the patron saint. Other well-loved saints, such as St. George or St. Nicholas, may be depicted on other panels.

Depending on the size of the iconostasis, you may see one or more rows of icons above the first tier of icons. These rows may depict the major feasts of the Church (based around Christ’s and the Virgin Mary’s lives), the twelve apostles (sometimes St. Matthias is replaced by St. Paul), and/or Old Testament patriarchs and prophets.

Though not part of the iconostasis, when looking at the iconostasis you may be struck by a large iconographic representation behind the altar. In Byzantine parishes, this is almost always an icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ, known as the Panagia (all-holy). She usually has her arms open wide, and Christ is making a blessing, or may have his arms open wide, too. These open arms symbolize that she is “wider than the heavens” having “contained the uncontainable one” in her womb—and some see the open arms as an invitation of love to the world.

Slavic parishes sometimes depict the Resurrection of Christ, the Mystical (Last) Supper, or Christ enthroned in heaven and surrounded by angels in this space instead.

In a very real sense, the iconostasis and curtain separate the nave from the sanctuary—the common area from the Holy of Holies. But unlike the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple, this Holy of Holies is accessible. We can see it, and in fact, the icons draw our eyes toward it. And at the apex of every Liturgy, God enters the Holy of Holies in his body and his blood, and then condescends to come to us through the Beautiful Gates. And finally, he gives himself to us.

This is the true faith that established the universe!

Page Divider for Author Bios

Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.

Upon Those in the Tombs Bestowing Life

IMG_3086I entered Orthodoxy a mere five years after my brother and only sibling died. Will was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was seventeen years old. My faith and my parents’ marriage had been ripped apart, and the Orthodox Church was a place of restoration and healing for me.

One Sunday early in our time as inquirers, liturgy was almost over, and I was packing up my daughter’s diaper bag and looking forward to coffee hour. To my surprise, my priest announced that we would have memorial prayers to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a church member. The family members of the deceased walked to the front of the church, and a short prayer service began. I only caught bits and pieces: give rest to the soul of thy departed servant in a place of brightness, for thou art the resurrection and the life. Then everyone sang:

Memory Eternal

Memory Eternal

May his memory be eternal.

I was floored that a church would remember, talk about, sing about, and pray for the dead! It seemed to me that everyone had forgotten that Will died. His death felt like a taboo subject, even in the church I’d previously attended. Yet that morning at St. Ignatius, I was moved to see a church that loves and remembers those who have passed on. I found out at coffee hour that there is even a special food called kolyva that Orthodox Christians prepare to remember the dead and that “Memory Eternal” is the typical Orthodox response when someone dies.

On the way home that day, all I could think was, Memory Eternal, Will. May your memory be eternal.

It is the belief in “kairos time” that propels Orthodox Christians to remember – and pray for – the dead. That holy time-out-of-time means that, with each liturgy we celebrate, the curtain between heaven and earth falls back, joining us with those who have gone before us, the angels, and the heavenly realm. God’s uncontrolled, nonlinear time also allows us to pray for the dead. I remember my priest once saying that he still prays for his deceased father, and maybe somehow those prayers touch his father’s life when he was on earth. People’s present prayers affecting someone in the past sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, but believing in kairos time means we allow God and his workings to be a mystery, to go beyond our human understandings.

At our first Pascha (Orthodox Easter), our daughter Madeleine was five weeks old. At 10:00 PM, we nestled her into her carrier, draped a blanket over her to keep out the cold, and headed for church, hoping to get there early before the liturgy began at 11:00 PM.

When we got there, the nave looked drastically different. White magnolias draped the icons and the cross. The overhead lights were dimmed, making the candles’ fire illuminate the faces of believers – saints and modern believers alike – with greater intensity than usual. Long rows of seats lined either side of the church, facing toward the center rather than the iconostasis. We found two seats and placed the baby carrier on the floor between us. On each seat was a white candle in a plastic cup to catch the wax.

The liturgy began as the priest chanted, “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages” as usual. After several prayers, the lights were turned completely off. The priests and deacons lit the candles at the end of each row, and the light passed through the church from person to person. A song began: Come ye, take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night. Come, glorify the Christ, risen from the dead.

In the gleaming haze, I could almost see the angels folding in among us, and hear the saints singing along. Once the light made its way around the church, the priests, deacons, and acolytes processed outside and the people filed out behind them, continuing to sing. Madeleine was still asleep, so Steven grabbed her carrier and we exited into the crisp night air. We processed in a circle around the church and ended in a large group in front of the doors of the church. We sang the Paschal hymn with brightness: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. As we sang the words, we raised our candles high.

Tears filled my eyes. Will’s face was strong in my mind. Those words, upon those in the tombs bestowing life, landed on that hard place in my heart that remembers Will’s death, and planted there a subtle joy – the joy of knowing that despite my ache for him, Will was indeed alive, and with God.

My priest read the resurrection story from Mark 16, and, to my surprise, then turned and banged loudly on the church doors three times, yelling, Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and ye be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in.

From inside the church came a voice shouting, Who is the King of glory?

The priest responded, The Lord is strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war!

Again, Who is the King of glory?

The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war!

Who is the King of glory?

The priest threw open the doors and shouted triumphantly, The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory!

And we were caught up in the jubilant crowd, entering through the doors, bringing the light of Christ into the darkness and trampling the power of death.

Inside, the lights were now turned up all the way, and once everybody was back to their seats, Father Stephen suddenly ran up and down the center aisle, swinging the censer and shouting, “Christ is risen!”

The people shouted back, “He is risen indeed!”

A deacon repeated the act, shouting in Greek that time: “Christos Anesti!

Alithos Anesti!

Another deacon took a turn, speaking Arabic: “Al-Masseh Quam!

Haqqan Qam!

To everyone’s delight, Father Gordon, an older priest, ran the aisle, his face alight, “Christos Anesti!

The air was full of a wild excitement, a haphazard thrill of joy. Every candle was raised, every voice rejoiced, every eye gleamed with light and tears. It felt like we were Jesus’ actual disciples, in awe at his risen state. Rejoice for Will, too, a voice seemed to whisper to me.

Someone sitting near us noticed Madeleine, still asleep in her carrier, and said, “Wake that baby up! It’s her first Pascha!”

Now I wish I had. That was the night I began falling in love with Orthodoxy.

Page Divider for Author Bios

Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer, educator, Orthodox Christian, and third culture kid. After growing up as a Protestant missionary kid, Karissa converted to Eastern Orthodoxy ten years ago. She writes about faith, doubt, family, cross-cultural experiences on her blog and other places. She lives with her husband and two children in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Start

imageI was not raised in the Christian faith. My mother can take an online quiz and it tells her that she is “a believer.” And to this day, I have no idea what my father believes about religion in general. As a child, I read the nativity story on Christmas as we sat around with extended family. This only happened a few times. And other than that, my early childhood was pretty devoid of religion. I recall dabbling in Fellowship of Christian Athletes when my club wrestling coach discovered Christ and became a born again evangelical. Dabbled. That can pretty much describe my late teens to mid-twenties; in and out of “Christianity”, atheism, agnosticism, and back to Christianity. I lived a fairly drunken haze. Spent most of my time at concerts and at friend’s parties, trying my hardest to not grow up. My then-girlfriend belonged to an Assemblies of God church and had attempted to break up with me because ‘we were unequally yoked.’ Being the intellectual I was, I used scripture to inform her that it was me that had to break up with her for that reason. After much deliberation, suffice it to say, we ended up getting married.

imageI had made a conscious decision at this point in my life that yes, I did believe in Christ, and yes, I did consider myself a Christian. I can remember my future in-laws inviting me over to discuss marrying their daughter. They had asked me to describe my relationship with Christ. I sat silently for a while, and the only thing I could muster at the time was to say that it was personal. They took this to mean that it was private and I didn’t want to talk about it. Looking back on it, I could have answered in a better way, but I honestly don’t think I understood my relationship with Christ. I probably still don’t either.

So we were married. We couldn’t agree on a church to attend; my wife having issues with the church she was raised in, me having no idea what I was truly desiring in a church. We had church-hopped to a few local churches, visiting a few times. We finally settled on what would later in its life become an Acts 29 church in a town an hour away. The people were nice. The sermons were nice. The open communion-at-will was nice. It was simply nice. We stopped attending the church when the pastor told me via email that he would not baptise me because we lived an hour away and were not really part of their church because we couldn’t attend any of their ‘missional communities.’ My mother liked to joke that this all sounded like a cult. And you know what? I kind of agree, on some levels. Eventually, we tired of a Christianity based off emotionally driven highs. My wife likes to say that as a kid, her church was a place to get drunk off the Holy Spirit. Which is why she always went back during the week. We wanted more. Something that we could grasp at all times. And at home.

So, how did I become Orthodox? We were friends with a married couple who was going to the Orthodox church in town. They were going originally to prove somebody wrong about the Church, only to decide for themselves that, yes, this was The True Church. The husband told me once that Protestantism teaches you what you have to do to go Heaven and that’s it; Orthodoxy gives you all the tools to succeed. They’d all talk to us when we would go over for parties, or they’d come over for parties, or we’d eat dinner. Pretty much we’d all sit around in the dining room, listening to one person tell us about Orthodoxy. I was also reading a lot of Russian literature. I like to joke that it was Anna Karenina that finally sealed the deal for me. The footnotes told of so much beauty in the tradition and Tradition of the Russian Orthodox culture that I wanted icons right then and there. I had also stumbled on the Death to the World website and quickly grew to love the articles they had published. It was through them that I started to learn about many of the early Fathers and martyrs of the Church and started to develop relationships with certain saints. Our friends became catechumens and we had become more and more interested in going too. But we always made an excuse. Usually because we were really just too lazy. And perhaps a little scarred. My wife was pregnant with our first child and gosh, 10am was just too early. Even after our son was born, we still missed the Chrismation of our friends for these reasons. But, FINALLY, we went to a service. We walked in and were taken back by the incense and the icons. The priest came out and introduced himself (only then did it hit him that he knew me as a child). We felt at home. It was beautiful. The people were wonderful. The choir was glorious. I could go on and on. But I’ll save you all. Just going to that first service took us more than a year, but as my wife and I drove home, we turned to each other, and almost instantaneously, we both proclaimed that yes, that was home. That was what we had been searching for. My wife will tell you now, that the Church is sobering. And I cannot agree more

An original version of this post was published on the Death to the World website. Thanks to them for also playing a part in my conversion.

Page Divider for Author BiosJared Hall is a convert to Orthodoxy and a struggling sinner. He is married to a wonderful, natural-minded, woman and together with their two toddler boys, they are trying to make sense of this world. For this reason he chose St Brendan as his patron. He is a blue collar libertarian and passionate about birth rights, raising backyard chickens, a good scotch, and great conversations. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

 

Deer in the Headlights Baptist Visits an Orthodox Church

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When one first enters an Orthodox church, it may be a scary or intimidating experience. There is often confusion about what everyone is doing, when and why they’re going around kissing things, and what a visitor should do or how to behave. “And did those people really just kiss the hand of that man in the Matrix outfit? Yes, I’m pretty sure that just happened.”

So let’s demystify this a bit with a story. In this imaginary Sunday morning experience we meet George, a lifetime Orthodox Christian, and Sally, a recent inquirer.  Not every detail of this story is replicated in every place, but rather this story is told to give you a sense of what one might see.

George arrived for liturgy, and greeted a few friends on his way in. Fr. Sergius, a semi-retired priest who serves the parish in a limited capacity, was just coming through the doorway, too. He greeted Fr. Sergius by saying, “Father, bless!” and then swept his right hand to the ground, bending at the waist. While he was doing that, Fr. Sergius made the sign of the cross over him, and said, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!” while George placed his right hand, palm up and open, into the palm of his left hand, and Fr. Sergius placed his own hand into George’s hands, while George kissed it. George followed this pious custom out of reverence for the Lord and respect for hands that were tools in the hands of God—hands used in the great task of bringing the incarnate Son of God to the people of God through ordinary bread and wine. These hands were holy, for they have handled the holiest things on earth.

Sally watched all this from a few steps behind George.

After this greeting, George entered the foyer and venerated several icons. Sally observed awkwardly from the side, noting that George crossed himself twice, bending over and touching the ground, standing up to kiss the icon, and then crossing and bowing one more time, touching the floor with one hand. When George venerated a second icon, Sally watched closely, and saw that George was kissing the hand of the figure on the icon, rather than the face.

Next, George walked over to some boxes of candles and what appeared to Sally to be a sand-filled litter box. George dropped a few dollars in a bin, and took several candles. Sally wasn’t really sure what to do, so she just awkwardly smiled at a few elderly ladies in head coverings eyeing her, then quickly looked away.

George walked into the nave—the main part of the church, where the congregation stands—and made his way to the front. Sally entered right behind him, but lingered along the rear wall. He stood for a few brief moments in front of several icons, apparently praying, and repeated the triple crossing and bowing kissing thing, and occasionally would light the candles he had, cross himself yet again, and place the candles on these interesting-looking gold or bronze stands.

Eventually, George made his way to a place in the congregation to stand. Like many other Orthodox parishes in America and around the world, this church had pews, and he took a place, but he did not sit.

Something then occurred to Sally—there were chanters up front and off to the side, and a priest was swinging a thing full of incense and muttering some barely audible words. It appeared to her that the service was already in progress, but people were still milling about, kissing icons and lighting candles.

Much of the service was a blur for Sally. There were a lot of hymns, a lot of “Lord have mercys,” and a number of strange words, like “Theotokos.” Some of the service was in a language she didn’t recognize—perhaps she even heard several languages, she could not be completely sure.

There were distinctly familiar moments, such as Scripture readings—but even such moments felt unusual to her, since they were chanted instead of simply read. And what was with all the crossings? She must have seen the sign of the cross made a thousand times around her.

There was a sermon in the middle of the service. Everyone sat down, and there were even a few people in flip-flops who just plopped down on the floor along walls and in corners. The sermon was nice, but it felt strange to her. No pulpit, no detailed verse-by-verse exposition, and certainly no emotional altar call. Perhaps most striking was that the sermon clocked in at 15 to 20 minutes or so (who’s counting?) instead of the 45 minutes or more she was used to at her old church.

After the sermon, there was a great deal of commotion up front, behind a strange wall with a lot of icons on it, while a choir in a balcony above sang a cappella hymns. She found it a little jarring when the priest chanted for something or other to depart—over and over he said a strange word about some people and told them to depart. Yet, she never saw anyone depart (except for people with fussy babies, but this didn’t appear to have any correlation with the command to depart!).

After that, more litanies were sung, and the priest prayed a lot of prayers. George appeared to be at home, crossing himself and bowing his head slightly just about every time the choir sang “Lord have mercy.”

At one point, Sally felt really awkward when a long line of people came out from behind the icon wall…a few kids, a couple assistants, and the priests literally paraded down the north side of the nave carrying a cross, some disc-like things, incense, a chalice, some cloths, and other mystifying items. And as they rounded the corner at the back, she realized she was in the way, and stumbled her way to the opposite side of the center aisle. The entourage rounded another corner and headed down the main aisle toward the altar, praying for various names of people.

The rest of the service was pretty much a blur to Sally. She occasionally glanced at George, but he seemed right at home, crossing himself and occasionally singing along to “Amens.” The service felt long, and sometimes she got tired from standing, so she would  rest in a pew set along the back wall.

The one moment that stood out to Sally was toward the end of the service, when it was time for communion.

The priest announced, “Holy things are for the holy!” and the choir responded, “Only one is holy, only one is the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father!” Then a minor rustling began as men, women, children, and the elderly alike began lining up in the center aisle with most crossing their arms against their chests, while a few carried small children. Up front, it looked as if the priest was spoon feeding each person from a golden chalice, but it was difficult to see from the back of the nave. Whatever was happening, it looked pretty special to Sally.

As people moved past the priest, they took a few pieces of bread from a bowl and returned to their places in the building. One stranger greeted Sally with a piece of bread and said to her, “Christ is in our midst!” She sheepishly replied, “Thank you,” and took the bread.

After the service was over and the priest made a few announcements, Sally was more-or-less swept away into a river of people going down to the front of the Church and speaking with the priest. People were kissing a cross and the priest’s hand, and then receiving more pieces of bread from a bowl held by a young child. Sally was greeted warmly by the priest and invited to stay for coffee hour afterward. Still processing everything that she just witnessed, Sally thanked him, and made her way toward the door.

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Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.