On Sunday I attended Holy Trinity Orthodox church near Parma. I had visited the church last month, when I spotted its five onion domes on my way back home from Cleveland. Finding the side door open, I had marveled at the beauty of its iconographic murals, which cover the walls and ceiling. I resolved to return and experience worship in such a temple after Orthodox Pascha, which was the 27th (our calendars are way off this year).
While the main celebration of the Resurrection was Saturday night, there was, curiously, a vespers service Sunday morning. I arrived early, again admiring the exquisite beauty of the place and lighting some beeswax candles before the icons in the back of the church, which began to fill with people, who greeted one another with “Christ is risen!”, and the response “Indeed He is risen!” The altar was open to view, the Royal Doors and the Deacon’s Doors, usually closed except during liturgy, were wide open, as they will be during all of Bright Week. A white-bearded and fully vested priest entered the sanctuary and began incensing the altar, then the icons on the iconostasis, then the congregation. A very fine choir began singing, in English, the sweet Slavic liturgical tones, and the music seemed to carry me like a soulful river. It was overwhelming; the visual beauty of the icons of Christ, His Holy Mother, and the angels and saints filling the eyes, the ears soaking in the glorious polyphony, the scent of incense filling the church. It was if all the senses were gathered into a single focus, suffused in the Beauty that is God.
The priest, Fr. Vladimir, began his homily by noting that all earthly beauty is transitory, that the flowers blooming just outside the church will fade, that autumn’s colors fade to death, that all is passing. But Christ’s Resurrection, which he called the “miracle of miracles” reveals to us the possibility of Eternal Beauty. He then walked over to the icon of the Holy Trinity on the iconostasis, a rendering of St Andrei Rublev’s famous composition. With real theological depth he taught from the icon, explaining how it sketches the inner life of the Trinity, contemplating the incarnation and the passion to come. He then moved over to the mural of the Resurrection next to the iconostasis and continued teaching from this icon.
As an iconophile, I greatly appreciated this catechesis from two of the great icons in the canon.
One of the translations of the word “Orthodoxy” is “right glory”, and this is as fitting a term for what I witnessed Sunday morning as any. I couldn’t help but compare this with the nuptial Mass I had attended the week before in Virginia, when I witnessed my old pal Kirk Kramer’s wedding. It was done in the old Latin rite, and in contrast to the sensory exuberance of the Byzantine rite, the Latin Mass was a study in restraint, with long silences and a sense of stillness pervading. If the Orthodox liturgy is ecstatic, the traditional Roman rite is contemplative. It is a wonder that two such different and beautiful approaches to worship grew from a single source.
As it was Sunday, I knew that attending an Orthodox vespers service did not meet my “Sunday obligation”. Byzantine Catholics are not “bound by sin” to attend Sunday liturgy (though they are expected to), as they are not bound by sin to abstain from meat on Fridays or fast on fast days (though they are expected to). As I have never officially requested a change of rite, I am still technically a Latin Catholic. And while I am convinced that God was pleased with my worship at Holy Trinity, there is enough of the Latin legalist lurking in my soul that I thought I’d better cover all the bases. Besides, I hadn’t received the Eucharist.
There are only two evening Masses offered on Sundays in our area. I went to the earlier one, at St. Michael’s in Canton, which is known locally as “the boat”: it is a huge steel, brick and glass building meant to suggest Noah’s Ark. While “the Church as Ark” image has a long and venerable theological pedigree, the translation of this notion into architecture is most unfortunate. It is an odd and hulking structure.
The interior of the building is a bright and spacious oval shaped auditorium. A thin band of abstract stained glass panels encircles the space, and the only other adornment is a modern-looking crucifix off to the side of the altar, and further off, a matching statue of Mary and the Christ child.
The music was supplied by a band consisting of bass, drums, electric guitar and keyboards, played by middlish guys in casual attire. They were not the stereotype, folks who have learned 5 chords on a cheap guitar and go into the liturgical business; they were actually quite skillful musicians. The music for the most part was soft rock, except the Gloria, which had a boogie woogie beat, and the recessional, which sounded like “Hang on Sloopy”.
The young priest did not stray from the rubrics, and in his (too long) homily gave every indication of believing in the Catholic Faith as it is traditionally understood. Not so the composers of the songs and the intercessions, who refused to use masculine pronouns in reference to God, which leads to some awkward expressions: “That we as God’s people may work to build God’s kingdom by proclaiming God’s word; let us pray to the Lord”. Too, the intercessions included buzzwords like “diversity” and “inclusive”.
As I left “the boat”, humming “Hang on, Sloopy” I couldn’t help but contrast this liturgical experience with both the Orthodox vespers and the traditional Latin Mass. Both the Byzantine and the Roman liturgies were timeless: except for the electric light and the microphones, I could have been worshipping a hundred years ago, or a thousand. The rock Mass could not have taken place fifty years ago, and fifty years from now it will be hopelessly outdated. I can only assume that those responsible for such liturgies mean well, but it is a wrongheaded endeavor: the Divine Liturgy ought to escort us into Eternity, into the Kingdom, into Fr. Vladimir’s “miracle of miracles”. Whether in the restraint of the Roman rite or the holy excess of Byzantine worship the mystical reality of the Church is tangible. In the rock Mass only the timebound human is evident, and it requires real faith to affirm that anything greater is present.
Experiencing such a contrast did nothing to help my confusion about the recent “clarification” by Rome that the Church “subsists” only in the Catholic Church. St. Michael’s rock Mass, according to this logic, participates in the subsisting Church, but Holy Trinity’s worship, where heaven is made manifest, does not.
I grant that the Orthodox Churches, lacking juridical unity with the See of Peter, are organizationally flawed. But the Church is primarily a mystical reality, and in that worshipping body of the baptized Christians of Holy Trinity church, where the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacred mysteries- the sacraments- are celebrated, in that place saturated by Beauty, the Church was gloriously revealed.