April 23, 2012

Religious Experience: St. Michael’s Orthodox Church

By James El-Mallakh–

The people walking into St. George’s chapel approach a pedestal and kiss an icon of the Life-Giving Spring of the Mother of God. This is a depiction of Mary holding the baby Jesus, blessing him while surrounded by two angels.

Kissing the icon is done on bright Friday, the Friday after Easter. Easter for the Orthodox Church comes on different days than the Roman Catholic Church. The congregation stands around the chapel and the service is commenced when Father Alexis starts to sing.

He turns away from the alter to face the congregation and holds up a white candle, or paschal candle. He makes the sign of the cross to the congregation and starts to sing. The candle represents Christ as the light of the world. The paschal candle is only used during Pascha, Easter in the Orthodox Church, and the 40 days following it.

Shortly after Father Alexis sings the passages, the Deacon sets out from behind the carved wooden altar holding a censer. He swings it back and forth before the icon of Mary then of Jesus. According to Father Alexis, incense is a way of honoring something in the church, as well as a way to transmit prayer to God.

The wooden archway serves as a barrier to the altar. Deacon Kyrill (left) swings incense at the icons of Mary and Jesus. Father Alexis stand behind him.

Before long, the small chapel is filled with a thin haze of smoke from the censer, as the Deacon has set about to bless the members of the congregation with the censer, swinging it at them. The smell of the incense is strong, its a very deep, pungent, woody smell.

The light at the beginning of the Vespers service remains low but everything seems illuminated because of how much color there is, especially gold leaf within the illustrations. There is detail everywhere in the chapel, and, according to Roy Fuller, the assistant professor in humanities in religious studies, “it kind of overwhelms the senses but that’s the point; the orthodox believe that the senses are a part of how we can relate to God.”

This is done through sight, smell and especially through sound. The singing in the service is especially impressive; the members of the choir and Father Alexis are well rehearsed. Nothing is spoken and everything is sung.

One of the most impressive choral parts is the ison, which is one low note with a melody on top of it. They are singing Biblical passages, sung in another language, the ison is mesmerizing, almost haunting. It has a full sound even though only two are singing.

To sing in multiple languages is common in Orthodoxy. When the ison is finished, Father Alexis shouts “Christ is risen” and the congregation responds “Truly, he is risen” in six different languages.

A congregation member kisses an icon of the Life-Giving Spring of the Mother of God.

“I saw Paraskevi and she’s Romanian so I made sure I said, ‘Hristos a înviat’(Christ is risen) and she said, ‘adevărat a înviat’(indeed he is risen),” said Father Alexis in an interview at the end of the service. He explains that during larger masses, he will say this in up to 12 languages:

“On Pascha night, I just say really as many as I can think of and it’s kind of fun, actually.”

In the Orthodox Church, Easter this year came on April 15.

The evening service is called Vespers and it’s held in the small chapel that’s a part of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church on Hikes Lane, one of two Orthodox churches in Louisville.

Orthodox Christians believe in essentially all the same things as Roman Catholics, and they are the second largest group of Christians in the world, though they are a small minority in the United States.

Fuller says that the split between Catholics and Orthodox in Christianity happened in 1054 A.D. due to a disagreement over the authority of the pope. The east and west sides of Eurasia had grown culturally different over time and in the western portion, churches obeyed the pope but in the east, churches were governed by patriarchs of different regions. When the two cultures could not agree on a final authority figure, “the pope, through some of his emissaries, paid a trip to Constantinople and they essentially excommunicated all the east.”

Along with the dispute of the authority of the pope, there was a debate over whether the Eucharist, or the mass, should be leavened or unleavened.

The Roman Catholics also changed the Nicean creed, which the east had a problem with.

“As far as eastern Christians were concerned they said, ‘well that matters. They changed the creed.’ It sort of suggested that the spirit was, you might say, lower,” said Fuller.

As the service comes to an end, Father Alexis holds a copy of a heavily adorned Bible and members of the congregation kiss the book, then his hand. They do this to receive blessing. A cross is normally used in place of the Bible, but during bright week, a Bible is used.

The entire service, though small, is highly devoted to the rituals in cycles through, one after the other. It’s obvious that they have done this many times before.

“It’s a beautiful service to end the day with,” said Mark Jacobs, a member of the congregation, “and it prepares you for the next day.”

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Photos: Eric Voet/The Louisville Cardinal

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