Yesterday I visited Saint Sophia, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC. I had never been but went with a friend who was born in Greece and hoped to light candles in loving memory of a Great Aunt who had died a few days ago at the age of 104. She was the family matriarch and the reason my friends parents lived in the US for a decade or so.
When we arrived at the Cathedral the doors were locked. By the grace of God we wandered around the grounds and met a parishioner who led us to “the man with the keys.” After explaining the impetus for the visit the man with the keys said, “Follow me” and took us inside the church.
After my friend lit three tapers we knelt in the empty Cathedral to pray. But we were not alone. The Pantocrator gazed down at us through his enormous icon in the dome directly over our heads. St. Matthew, St. John the theologian, St. Mark and Saint Luke, Solomon, St. Paul, Lazarus and the 71 other icons surrounding us were all singing their silent language of praise proclaiming the greatest story the world has ever known… Christos Anesti! Tears flowed.
Later in the day a different kind of image spoke, evoking more tears. While watching an interview on the news program 60 Minutes a Syrian refugee told the story of selling his house in order to buy risky passage across the sea (to the Greek Islands) for his family because “in my country brother does not even love brother anymore.”
The tears flooding my head yesterday, some from a visit to Saint Sophia and some from watching the evening news, could not have been more dissonant – Alleluia! Christos Anesti! and “in my country brother does not even love brother anymore.” In the midst of these two experiences my own life’s troubles seemed insignificant.
When reading about the iconography at St. Sophia I learned that the Russian branch of the Orthodox church was born out of the experience of worship. That in 987 A.D., Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev and all of Russia had sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths and that when the envoys returned, the news that they brought to Vladimir was that the beauty of worship of the Orthodox in Constantinople exceeded that of the Jews, the Muslims and the Roman Catholics in Germany. As Saint Sophia’s website confesses, “It has seemed to many that the peculiar gift of the Orthodox peoples – and especially of Byzantium and Russia – is this power of perceiving the beauty of the spiritual world, and expressing this beauty in their worship…. We go to church to hear and do and see what we do not hear and do and see in the secular world.”
We go to church to hear and do and see what we do not hear and do and see in the secular world…
It seems to me, ironically, that our church was born not out of worship but out of Jesus, who compelled his followers to go into the world and hear and do and see what they did not hear and see and do in the temple! “Woe to you… you tithe mint and dill and cumin but neglect the weightier matters of the law… the justice and mercy of God!”
So now I’m thinking of my mother, God bless her soul, and Augustine: Will the twain ( a word my mom liked and used often) ever meet… The City of God and the City of this World? Shall we go to church to hear and see and do what we do not hear and see and do in the secular world or shall we go to the world to hear and see and do what do not in the church? And even more… bringing the issue down to scale – what about my little worries? Do they even rate?
When I left St. Sophia’s yesterday I listened as the man with the keys talked with my friend about Greece and being Greek… about how when someone dies – especially a matriarch or patriarch – a whole world is swept away, forever. Two thousand years ago the mother and father of our faith died such that the old world could be swept away and a new world begin. Maranthana come, and sweep away.
Happy Monday, part II, belated.