Saturday, April 19, 2008

Members of a family

Young members of the Missoula Greek Orthodox Church Anastacia Stokstad, Sophia Leonard and Gabriella Stokstad light candles in beds of small stones at the door of their church before a service last month. In their church, service-goers light candles when entering the sanctuary and extinguish them when they leave. (Shane McMillan / Montana Kaimin)

Story by Steve Miller April 17, 2008
Montana Kaimin

It’s Wednesday, March 19, 2008. While most Christians prepare to break their Lent obligations in four days, others anticipate another five and a half weeks of intense fasting and a demanding liturgical schedule.

At Missoula’s Church of the Annunciation, I sit with eight other Greek Orthodox Christians after a series of prostrations made during the Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian.

Typically, this is done during the service held each Wednesday night during Lent. Because the church currently awaits a full-time priest, the faithful gather to hold a service with a volunteer prayer leader instead.

For almost a year now, parishioner Peter Stokstad has led such services twice a week during this priestly absence.

As Stokstad discusses the importance of keeping the fast, I’m reminded of a passage from Bishop Kallistos Ware’s “The Lenten Triodion”: “We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family.” Likewise, we have to go through this time as a community in Christ, despite the difficulties in worshipping without a priest.

The Greek Orthodox Church (also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church) dates back to Jesus Christ and his Apostles. In the first centuries A.D., the faith spread by the evangelizing of many Greek-speaking lands in the Roman Empire but wasn’t widely accepted until the Roman Emperor Constantine declared it the official religion of the empire.

Today, the Greek Orthodox Church claims to be the truest expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Although the Greek Orthodox faith remains relatively obscure, even eccentric, in Montana and many parts of the U.S., it is in fact the second largest Christian denomination in the world behind Roman Catholicism, with an estimated 220 million members, mostly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Over a million live in the United States.

As a Greek Orthodox Christian, I’ve heard all the questions – from the thoughtful (“What role do Icons serve in your worship?”) to the not so thoughtful (“So do you believe in Jesus and stuff?”) to the laughable (“How many gods do you have?”) – but I’m always glad to answer each one, seeing it as an opportunity to bear witness to the richness of the Orthodox faith.

Even in my earliest memories, I recall the hymns, icons, incense and ornate clergy vestments, but I never quite knew what to think of them. As I grew older and the church expanded, I became an altar server and started to pay more attention during the service, but it still confused and even bored me at times.

On June 24, 1998, I, along with my two brothers, sister, and father, were accepted into the Orthodox Church through Chrismation – a sacrament of initiation involving anointing with oil. My uncle, Bishop Savas of Troas, who is the Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, performed the ceremony.

There are innumerable ways to describe the Orthodox faith, but neither “trendy” nor “hip” are among them. During an Orthodox service, or Divine Liturgy, there are no four-piece bands playing the latest worship song, fancy slide shows to guide the parishioners, or a minister wearing a headset microphone giving high-fives and healing arthritic hands.

Instead, the choir and clergy sing hymns based on ancient Byzantine chants, candles are lit and icons (stylized images of saints or of sacred events) are venerated with prostrations and kisses. A heavily vested priest goes in and out of the sacred space of the altar to distribute the Holy Communion to those who have prepared through prayer and fasting to receive it. The celebration of the Divine Liturgy itself is a sensory based experience: viewing the icons, smelling the perpetual incense, lighting the candles, hearing the choir, and tasting the Eucharist all call for an active participation in worship.

Outside of the various services, the church calls us to be ever watchful of temptations and sin. This is done through perpetual prayer and rigorous fasting throughout the year, except during the weeks immediately following Christmas and Pascha (our Easter). The Orthodox faith emphasizes that none of these actions mean anything without complete love and trust in God.

This trust is put to the test every year during Great Lent. The Orthodox Church asks the faithful to refrain from meat, poultry, dairy products, fish, wine and olive oil for over 50 days. During the fast, the faithful must deny themselves such comforts in order to rid his mind of earthly distractions and focus on God’s holy and ineffable love. The enduring of physical and mental strain brought on by fasting draws also us closer to the sacrifice and suffering Jesus faced for us.

All things considered, being Orthodox definitely hasn’t been a very easy or pleasant experience at times, especially during Lent. In fact, it has been a constant struggle.

Whether it be not watching TV from 3 to 5 p.m. after school in the fourth grade, going to Lent services after grueling track practices in high school, or even now trying to keep the fast without my parents’ supervision or a full parish to support me as in the past, it has only gotten more difficult.

There have been times when I questioned the guidelines and traditions of the church: Why are there so many services, and why are they so long? Wouldn’t I be just fine it I didn’t go to church? I’ve even reached the point several times when I thought about converting to another faith and refused to have anything to do with the church.

But as much as I tried to fight it, the faith with which I grew up kept calling me.

I remember back to the countless hours I spent standing in church, the numerous bowls of lentil soup, and the weeks attempting to implement what I had learned in Sunday’s sermon into my everyday life. None of these things were painless by any stretch of the imagination, but each of them instilled within me self-control, patience and compassion.

I’m not perfect by any means. All aspects of the faith help me realize this and to not place my trust into wholly myself or any other person, but God alone.

Although Great Lent may be quite trying at times, the outcome is more than worth it: Pascha. At the end of a 56-day fasting period, the faithful gather in the church at 11:30 p.m. on Holy Saturday. The only light comes from the candles held by each attendee.

Near midnight, the church empties and makes a procession around the church. After three times around and confused stares from various on-lookers, the priest stops by the entrance and proclaims, “Christ is Risen!” three times while knocking the door. At the third knock, the doors open to reveal a fully lit church, with the faithful answering, “Indeed He is Risen.”

For the next two hours, the priest continually circles the church, saying, “Christ is Risen” in Greek, Russian, and even Serbian to which the assembly answers back, “Indeed He is Risen” in the appropriate tongue. Afterwards the priests blesses the baskets, and the basement of the church turns into the celebration of the year: mouth watering lamb, feta cheese, spanakopeta and red wine are just some of the rich delicacies offered after the long fast.

Pascha serves as the earthly pinnacle of the joyful union between God and the Orthodox Community. After being accustomed to this, it’s hard to turn away.

Once Stokstad concludes, I stand at the back of the church by a single candle. His wife, Maria Stokstad, tells me that the candle remains perpetually lit as a prayer offering for the finding of a new priest. She says that they aren’t closer to finding a permanent priest, but, as the wax melts before the flame, I’m reminded that this faith isn’t just for Sunday recreation but a way of life.

With Pascha arriving on April 27 this year, the destination of the Lent journey remains far away at the moment. Priest or no priest, however, the Church of the Annunciation remains anchored in the belief that through such tests and trials, God helps along the way, and that He will never forsake those who love Him.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that - it helped a little more! Can't wait for Pascha!!