By Dr. Constantina Michalos
HOUSTON, TX – Each year on Good Friday, the provost of my university carries a cross on his shoulder from our campus to the co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart 2 ½ miles away.
Accompanied by university and community faithful, the procession stops periodically while priests read prayers to memorialize the stations of the Cross.The scene is so
powerfully moving that even the local media covers this event.A friend of mine, a Baptist, mentioned that he’d heard the story on the radio.And then he shrugged,
a grin on his face. “I don’t get it.What’s the point?Why all the drama?”
And so it begins – the periodic defense of Catholicism and, by extension, Orthodoxy.
I taught at a Baptist university for 16 years.As the only Orthodox Christian on campus, I enjoyed a privileged perspective of sorts. The boldness of the questions surprised me at first.Especially since they came from students.“Are you even Christian?” was a common query.“Have you met Jesus?”“Are you saved?”
One student told me I was going to hell because I wasn’t born again.“Well,” I said.“You may very well be right.I may go to hell. But not because you said so!” That audacity never impressed me.Actually, I found it presumptuous, condescending, and insulting.Now let me tell you how I really feel. I know that Orthodox Christians fly under the radar.That’s probably why no one knows who we are.But I like it that way.There’s a quiet authority to a faith that has persisted for 2000 years. That simply is.
We prayed all the time at my old school.Out loud.Long, meandering prayers.I joked once to a colleague who, for too many years, did not accept my Christian bona fides,
that I was good with a brief but cogent Kyrie Eleison or an even simpler Protos o Theos.They deferred to St. Paul, eliding over the “red letter” words of Jesus and quoting Paul as if he were “the Way, the Truth, the Life.”Every meeting, every convocation, every everything began with a Gospel reading.And they all stayed seated.I was the only one standing –in the back of the room so that I wasn’t conspicuous.Another colleague, a sociology professor who is also an ordained pastor, asked me why I was standing. “Why are you sitting for God’s Word?” I countered.He must have said something to the president because, shortly thereafter, everyone was instructed to remain standing for the Gospel reading.
That’s a long way from “Sophia Orthi,” but it’s a step in the right direction.
I have attended Baptist Sunday services and have noticed a profound difference between that worship experience and ours.My Baptist friend accompanied me to
Annunciation Cathedral once and declared that the liturgy was boring.“How can you do the same thing over and over again.Same songs, same script.”The point of the liturgy is to prayerfully prepare to receive communion.The “same songs, same script” scenario preserves 2000 years of tradition and unites Orthodox Christians throughout the world. We are all praying the same prayers for the same purpose.He was unmoved.But I had observed that communion was not central to the Baptist service.“So why do you go to church?” I asked. “For the message.”
“The sermon?” I asked.“Exactly.”Good luck with that, I thought.God bless our priests at Annunciation, but their sermons are pretty pedantic. I listen, and I probably learn something, but that’s not why I’m there.
There are spiritual, theological, historical, educational, and emotional reasons for everything that transpires during the liturgy.But they all point to Communion.
My friend, on the other hand, waits for some special Communion Sunday to receive.I was there on one such Sunday.Communion was distributed by laymen in little cups that resembled those creamers that sit on coffee shop tables throughout the country.A disc the size of a dime was sealed across the top – the wafer, I guess.God forgive me, I wondered if they got a special deal, buying in bulk from Sam’s or Costco.There was no special prayer.Everyone just opened the container and drank the grape juice. I wondered what to do with my container after I was done.I couldn’t just throw it away.It was, after all, communion.It may not have resembled our communion, but it had the same spiritual significance for these congregants as ours does for us.Nonetheless, I saw discarded containers in waste baskets as I left.I put mine on a table.Someone else could throw it away. I wouldn’t be the one.
I thought back to what my friend had said about “the message.”Going to church to hear the pastor’s inspired interpretation of scripture.This was a Black church, and the
energy level was uplifting.I cannot imagine a call and response setting in an Orthodox church.It’s too spontaneous, too unhistorical.Except in the Black church, this worship
style is rooted in slave history.Forced by law to remain illiterate, slaves learned scripture by repeating what they heard from the preacher.There is something to be said for an unrehearsed response to God’s word.The depth of feeling, the sincerity – you have to really listen to let loose with an Amen in that setting.In our church, we know when to say Amen because we’ve memorized those places in the liturgy where it is indicated.For goodness sake, it’s printed in the Liturgical Guide. How many times do you hear an unscripted Amen in your church?How often do you rock to the hymns?Again, our tradition does not include such unrestrained expressions of faith, but they are expressions of faith nonetheless.
My friend is fond of dismissing our sacramental tradition.“You don’t need a priest to get you to heaven.You can do it yourself.”He failed to see the irony of his remark.
Our priests administer the sacraments; his pastor interprets scripture.Both bring us closer to our God.We may not shout out our thanksgiving, but we are all eternally grateful.
He is a historian, yet he discounts the traditions and Traditions of the early church.“Wow!This is some gaudy stuff,” he observed as he entered Annunciation. He didn’t get the symbolism of the candles, the lessons of the iconography, the connection of mystery and morality plays, those traveling salvation shows of the Middle Ages, to the liturgy. But as a child of the ‘60s, he thought the incense was cool.He does not understand how we can teach both theology and philosophy at St. Thomas, as if philosophy is some pagan enterprise that contradicts theological truths.He does not get that faith and reason are not incompatible, that reason allows us to approach the unfathomable, but only with faith can we comprehend it.
So after a 23-year friendship, 16 years with the Baptists, seven with the Catholics, and a lifetime with the Orthodox, what have I learned? Patience. Not my strong suit, but a trait I must cultivate if these conversations are going to continue.Curiosity.The desire to learn more about my own faith as well as others. Tolerance. To understand and respect difference and to hope for the same in others.Humor.The only way to get through these conversations and stay friends.
For Easter Sunday, we were together this year – the Americans, as we called the Western church when I was a kid, got it right. My friend and his family came for dinner.We had a lovely time.Did not discuss matters of faith.Focused on politics instead.
Christos Anesti. Alithos Anesti.