Before we begin what is the question at the end.
I 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:
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!”
Another deacon took a turn, speaking Arabic: “Al-Masseh Quam!”
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.
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.
This is a guest post.
Growing up, I had a pretty rough childhood. Around age 7, my mother and father began a long, heated and very bitter divorce. At first I was too young to realize what was going on behind the scenes with my parents, but I began to catch on very quickly to the anger, hatred and hurt between them, especially from my mom. In time, my father moved out.
As a child I do not remember ever seeing my parents kiss or show any kind of love or affection for each other in front of us. They always seemed somehow distant from each other. The only displays of love I saw were from my mother, who was a stay-at-home mom, always cooking, cleaning, gardening, mowing, then catering to my father once he came home from work. My father never seemed to want much to do with my sister, brother and I. He seemed to take my mother for granted, expecting her to do everything, including taking care of us. I have very few memories of my father ever doing anything with us kids or around the house.
As I’ve said, their marriage degraded and fell apart. Eventually, to get away from my father, we moved to a small town an hour away, then to a house in the country. I attended the local Roman Catholic school, but after a short time, my mom sent my siblings and I back to our old school, which was also a Roman Catholic school so that we could be with our friends again, back to where we felt safe, felt at home. It is here, at this Catholic school where my story really begins.
Growing up, my mother raised my siblings and me first and foremost to love and respect God. She felt that God was very important; so much so that she volunteered a certain amount of time at the Catholic school to help make up for the rest of our tuition so that we could continue to attend. If you’ve ever been to a Catholic school, you know that every day starts with Mass. The younger kids sit up front and the older towards the back. Every day is started with remembrance and worship of God. My love for God, His Saints, the services, and Church history started here – a result of this school and its daily services, prayers and teachings.
Although my spiritual foundations were being laid and nurtured at this school, my soul was also being put through a great trial. During the long divorce, I developed a great anger within myself. I was angry at my parents and at God. Why was such anger, pain and confusion descending upon me? Why can’t things go back to the way they were, when they were relatively worry free?
When I was around 8 or 9, I began to feel a voice within me every time I attended Mass. One day after school was out I went into the church just to sit in the peaceful and prayerful silence. I would do this sometimes before walking home. While sitting in a pew towards the front, I was particularly transfixed on the crucifix that hung over the altar. I sat there in prayerful silence, talking to God within my heart, reaching out to Him with my whole being, and that Voice stirred again within my soul. The voice, although not in literal words, was discernible by my spirit, clear as day. I began to cry, asking God to help me, to help my mom and my siblings, and that I’m so tired of being angry and sad. I told Him that I wanted a dad, that I hurt so much from all the hell I have endured and having seen my mother endure for us, trying to protect us from all the bad things my father was doing to us. Looking up at that crucifix, with Jesus Christ arms outstretched on the Tree, I heard this voice within me, louder than the loudest crack of thunder and yet more peaceful and quiet than the stillest whisper on the calmest day: “I WILL BE YOUR FATHER. DO NOT BE AFRAID. I LOVE YOU AND WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU. YOU WILL ALWAYS HAVE A FATHER. I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU.”
And surely enough, I have always been blessed to have not just one, but MANY father figures in my life, all of whom taught me, guided me, loved me. Whether it be the man my mom met a few years afterwards who took up the direct role of father figure, or the local parish priest that guided me to Orthodoxy and fanned the flames of love and faith within me, or the various other men who loved me and took care of me and my family in some capacity during my life. I have always had a father. Many fathers! And it is with uttermost thankfulness, love and joy that I thank our Heavenly Father, from Whom “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). It is therefore why I can pray, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed by Thy Name…”
-Your Brother in Christ
This is an essay written by guest author and our good friend, Austin Albers.
While the West’s commitment to the historical authenticity of Christ’s “Last Supper” is commendable, it should be noted that God’s only command to eat unleavened bread was given for the seven days of Passover (Exodus 12:15) – an Old Covenant type that was fulfilled in Christ. Moreover, unleavened bread is referred to as the bread of “affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3) – that is, it served as a reminder to the Israelites of their bondage and haste when they fled Egypt. This Old Covenant was powerless to bring God’s people life; it served only as our “custodian” until Christ came (Galatians 3:23-26, RSV).
Christ has fulfilled the Law and now abides in us. This has strong
symbolic ties to leaven. Bread is made from lifeless flour mixed with water. Leaven, also known as yeast, is actually a living plant-like organism. Once the yeast enters, it spreads throughout the lump, yet it does so invisibly and without changing the shape or texture of the dough. The symbolism is rich! The old lump of lifeless, bland-tasting dough has now become saturated with living yeast, giving it life and flavor. Leaven can be seen as kind of fulfillment of unleavened bread even as Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
Many Western Christians are quick to point out that leaven is commonly used in the Scripture referring to sin. Therefore, they assume, the host bread for the spotless body of Christ should be without stain or reference to sin. Now, it is true that the Apostle Paul used leaven in reference to sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), but the Scriptures also used leaven in reference to the Kingdom of God: “Another parable He spoke to them: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened’” (Matthew 13:33; cf. Luke 13:20). From this we can see that leaven is not inherently evil, as a metaphor or anything else (as the disciples, at one point, wrongfully thought; see Matthew 16:6-12), but is a powerful image used in many situations; its meaning dependent on the context.
To summarize, the unleavened, Old Covenant bread of affliction is not an appropriate Communion host for our risen Lord, who is Life and saturates our dead souls with life, even as leaven saturates and brings life to bread.
Being given the task of picking one’s heavenly intercessor is without question one of the most beautiful aspects of conversion to the Holy Orthodox faith. For some it can be extremely difficult and then for others, to put it plainly, quite easy. As for me, it was by the cooperation of two saints, over a long period of time, that I received with a loving embrace my patron saint. How does one pick, when the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) continually intercedes for our souls?
For months I would read from the synaxarion, the Greek Orthodox Daily readings online application and from Holy Scripture. I was stressed by the notion of the Great and Holy Saturday approaching and not yet having a set patron saint. This caused great unrest for me. During this time I had a minimal amount of Orthodox literature and spiritual texts. But the one book I did have, which had been given to me by my spiritual father, was The Art of Prayer. It is a compilation of writings primarily from Sts Theophan the Recluse and Ignatiev Brianchannov. I subsequently immersed myself in the writings of St. Theophan, reading all of his books, my favourite being his Spiritual Psalter, a compilation of 150 prayers from St. Ephraim the Syrian. I loved him so much and I asked his intercessions to reveal to me who my patron saint should be, thinking it would be him. And he most certainly did reveal to me who my patron should be, thanks be to God! The aforementioned saint whose writings St. Theophan adored.
The more and more I read the spiritual psalter, I developed a love for St. Ephraim. He struggled with the very sins I drown in every day. It was as if I met my best friend through the introduction of St. Theophan the Recluse who I lovingly call “Uncle”.
And what’s even more interesting is that I can say with great thanksgiving and a big grin that God allowed St. Ephraim to be subconsciously revealed to me as a child before I had even heard of the Orthodox Church. But through what means? By a video game I cherished greatly known as “Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones” on Gameboy. The protagonist Ephraim inspired me so much as a kid by his courage and valiance that I vowed to name my first son after him. So, the name stuck with me, through early childhood to adolescence. It finally just clicked: I was supposed to be named after St. Ephraim. God works in really neat ways and he is ever so wondrous in his saints. Oh holy saints of God Ephraim the Syrian and Theophan the Recluse, pray unto to God for us sinners!
P.S. My Godfather’s godfather’s namesake is St. Theophan the Recluse. Pretty neat that he inspired the one who inspired the one who helped receive me into the Church.