People walked into the Church a few minutes early. Many were admiring the intricately carved wood framing and gorgeous iconography on the newly constructed iconostasis. Christ and His mother were in their rightful place along with our patron saint, Mary Magdalene. At the far ends stood two American saints, Herman of Alaska and John of San Francisco. These icons serve as a reminder of the presence of our Lord and His saints who accompany us as we worship God together in this life and the next. It had been a hurried several weeks prior to this Sunday morning in an attempt to get the iconostasis built. As people were filling the seats, a surplus of clergy members was noticed walking around. Some new faces, people visiting from other parishes, and family members also showed up. Looking out the window toward the backyard of the church we could see the top of a large white tent where we would be heading under to eat after the liturgy. All of this was in preparation to greet our newly elected Bishop to the 10th anniversary celebration of the establishment of St. Mary Magdalene— an Orthodox Christian parish in Fenton, MI.
A few minutes before ten o’clock Bishop Alexander walked in wearing a black cassock, a black head covering, and black sandals. The cautious gait of this professor and monk betrayed his age as he silently and carefully moved to the center of the nave where the priests and deacons met him. There is something to be said about the respect given to this experienced holy man who leads our Church as a successor of the Apostles; it’s a feeling I never experienced as a Protestant. We have a shepherd in charge of guarding the truth of the gospel who dedicated his own life to study, prayer, and ascetism and has been called out into the world for our sake. Pretty freaking cool.
The choir began to sing and the beauty of the music grabbed my attention more acutely than usual. We are blessed with one of “prettiest sounding” choirs in the diocese, according to the Bishop, and they proved that to be the truth on this day. At the start of the liturgy, smoke from the incense outlined the sunlight as it shined through the East windows. No matter how many times this happens I always find myself watching how and where the light hits. The architecture of the church is such that on mornings around the equinoxes the rays hit the altar and illumines the vestments of the clergymen surrounding it in prayer.
After the Gospel reading my children needed some attention so I was in and out for the rest of the liturgy. They are getting better though; they sit during the service for longer periods of time and are becoming more comfortable with the movement of worship. I am joyful to see them grow in their understanding of the Church and happy, though admittedly not always, to have them with us during service. It is a learning experience as a convert to be raising “cradle-Orthodox” children but I have lots of encouragement from other parents who have dealt with hyper children.
After the Eucharist I was able to escape from my children for a bit (bless my wife) to sit in front of Bishop Alexander for his homily. Seating was limited so I took a spot on the floor and almost felt like a child as I sat cross-legged while looking up to a teacher who had the class’s full attention. The lesson was elementary, though enlightening, as is any re-presentation of the words of Christ. The bishop’s job is not to wow his audience with some highly intellectualized theology or to excite with dramatic theatrics; the sermon is to be used simply to open up the gospel and epistle readings on that particular Sunday for the congregation to take home with them. What stood out to me most was a simple paraphrase of Christ’s words in the Gospel according to Luke 6:
“You love those who love you? So what? You do good to those who do good to you? So what? You give to those hoping to get something back? So what? Everybody does that.”
This serves as a brilliantly simple reminder to love our enemies—the message given by Jesus Christ which completely altered the course of human history.
After venerating the cross and kissing the hand of His Grace, we walked down to the church hall for our celebration feast. Lamb kebabs, broiled chicken, Greek salad, various desserts, wine and beer were all served to us and after the blessing we sat together as a family to enjoy our meal. Live music was present to serenade us while we ate and afterwards traditional Greek and Slavic dancing ensued. This is not my speed so much, mainly because I am a white American and really have no clue how to dance in front of an audience unless I am slamming into other people while someone wails on a guitar. It was fun though. The mothers danced and soon the priest and deacons joined in along with “Papa” Kosta who sadly has trouble remembering names but still remembers how to throw up kicks like a young man at his wedding. The kids chased each other around with sticks and my daughter fell and bruised her head on the pavement—all part of the festivities. Some people took walks down to the river to sit on the benches for a while. The desire to throw sticks into running water must be inherent in small children. I remember doing it as a kid but I feel my kids are fanatical about it as they came dangerously close to the river’s edge just to toss a couple twigs in the water all the while laughing maniacally.
Sadly the party thins out sooner than desired but perhaps that was a good thing since we had two small children who were ready for naps. The band unplugged for an acoustic set while everyone left pitched in for cleanup. After all the tables and chairs were stacked and the food put away, we gathered the kids and headed for home—tired and full.
We are blessed with the Church. We have plenty as a Church. Now that we are established, we must put forth all our effort to share our blessings and fullness with the community we are a part of. The feast is over for now and so we enter a time of work that our next feast will be as fulfilling, and more so, than the glorious one we just celebrated.