Christ is born, glorify him!
I got a phone call from my priest a week after Thanksgiving with a proposed Nativity schedule of Royal Hours with Divine Liturgy Friday morning, with Matins and Divine Liturgy Saturday evening. I gently suggested in return that it would be good to verify that the Divine Liturgy he was suggesting for Friday morning wasn’t the one we weren’t supposed to have Friday morning, since Nativity fell on a Sunday this year. More importantly, however, I asked him, why would we not want to have our festal liturgy the morning of, the one time in six years when our usual reasons for not doing so aren’t applicable?
This reasoning apparently made sense, because when the December calendar for the parish was published, the Nativity weekend included Royal Hours Friday morning, Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, Vespers Saturday evening, and Matins and Liturgy Sunday morning.
Then, the Friday before last, I asked him, hey, if I can guarantee the presence of bread and wine, would you be up for doing Litya/Artoklasia the next couple of Saturdays, given that they are festal observances where it would be appropriate? Yes, he said, and so I baked the five loaves both Saturdays and donated a bottle of Greek ecclesiastical wine I still had in the house.
For the Vespers and the Liturgy for Nativity, I even did something I don’t normally do for purposes of voice saving, the Old Testament and Epistle readings. My cardinal rule with those is — thank you, John Boyer — “If you think you’re going too slow, slow down,” and it’s really tempting in a space with no resonance whatsoever to speed up, but I didn’t. Saturday evening, even with only three of the Old Testament readings, my — shall we say — unhurried ekphonesis plus Litya and Artoklasia and all of the extra stuff for Nativity meant that Vespers clocked in at an hour and forty-five minutes, easily the longest Vespers service that has ever been served at All Saints. It was probably about nine hours of singing all told, from Friday through Sunday morning. Next year, with Christmas falling on a Monday, I may suggest that we just do a real All-Night Vigil (Small Compline, Great Vespers, Matins, Divine Liturgy), but I suspect that will go over like a lead balloon.
Anyway, as soon as we got home after church on Sunday we had to start in on the goose. Cooking plus company meant that it was about 10:45pm before we actually got around to any gift unwrapping.
I’ll note that I find the whole discussion about whether or not churches should close on Christmas when it falls on Sunday a little odd. To the extent that Christmas (or Easter, for that matter) are components of a liturgical year that has been largely abandoned, why should Christmas be given any special treatment one way or the other? 25 December is less “Jesus’ birthday” than it is the first day of the twelve day liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, which really is something a bit different, coming as it does after a penitential fasting season and coming right before Epiphany/Theophany. I suppose Christmas really does primarily function as a family holiday without that context, so it may as well be one. Jesus may certainly be the reason for the season, but the expression of that season is based in an ecclesiastical setting, and if you don’t have that setting (and/or if your first criterion is whether or not service times are “kid friendly”, which I’ve heard as a reason for why Midnight Mass in Catholic circles is downplayed these days), what’s all the fuss about whether or not the churches are open? Can you keep the Christ in Christmas without also keeping the Mass in it, at least and have it mean the same thing? If we’re taking the liturgical celebration of the Incarnation of Christ with all of its beautiful and glorious imagery and theology and reversals of human wisdom and so on and having to recast it as Jesus’ birthday party in order for it to make any sense in our current world, then is it really Christmas, or is it basically a cultural winter holiday with distant Christian roots where it would be nice if we emphasized them more?
On the “kid-friendly” point — my recollection is that I didn’t sleep much Christmas Eve as a little kid because of the anticipation of Christmas morning. So if your kid is going to be up all night with a lot of nervous energy to begin with, it seems to me an All-Night Vigil starting at 10pm Christmas Eve and going until 5am is perfect. You’ll all be getting home right about the time the kid was going to be up anyway, so what’s the problem?
A commenter recently weighed in on one of my postings on church architecture that Christ chose to be born in a lowly cave, so I’ll use that as the pivot from Christmas to my next set of thoughts.
St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Riverside, CA has gotten a fair amount of attention lately over their new church building. It is worth pointing out, however, that not all of the attention has been positive. There’s a good amount here worth thinking about, and I’ve been part of the discussion about building at my own parish for the last six years, so here goes.
A good twelve years or so ago, when I was attending St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Factoria, one of Bellevue’s commercial districts, they were embarking on a capital campaign to tear down the old nave and build a new one. The priest talked about the vision, what it would cost, and what the timeline was.
A woman raised her hand. “I have a question,” she said. “What if we waited? There are so many needs, in terms of supporting missions and giving to the poor. Why can’t we say, ‘We’re going to do that first,’ and put off building until we’ve done more in those areas?”
The priest was clearly expecting the question. “Well,” he said, “a couple of years ago we went through the exercise of asking, where do we think God is calling us to be as a parish in ten years? We looked at the ministries we support, how we’re going to continue supporting them, how we expect them to grow, and the other ministries we want to be able to support, and it was clear to us that in order to do these things, our current facilities were inadequate. So, that’s why the plan is to build.” The woman who asked the question clearly wasn’t buying the answer, but at least there was an answer.
Now, in my time in Episcopal circles, one thing you could never fault them on was process. Results — well, there they could be a little shakier. St. Margaret’s built a new church, most certainly — but they fell noticeably short of the ten year goal, from everything I’ve seen since I moved away in 2003. They lost people while they were building, the priest who married us left under some very unpleasant circumstances which caused more people to leave, and the series of interim leaders who followed meant that more people left because of uncertainty about where the parish was going. Bottom line is, the priest gave a good answer to a good question, that there was a plan and they were following it, and this plan will allow a both/and approach, but it still turned out to be the wrong thing to do, and right now the parish is drowning in debt (at least, that’s the picture I get from the website devoted to their debt reduction initiative).
I’ve written about this before, but one thing I experienced in Greece was that the poor congregate around churches. They hang out by the entrance of the narthex, some will sit quietly with hands up, some will hustle you, some will have something to try to sell, but the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t go into an urban church without having to interact with those whom Christ told you to feed and clothe on your way in. This is a good thing; their presence convicts you and hopefully prompts you to do something about it. We’re isolated from that experience in suburban churches, and to our own detriment.
At All Saints, we’re not a suburban church, we’re more of an exurban church. We’re in the middle of nowhere — no nice way to put it. There’s no way to get there if you don’t have a car — we’re in unincorporated county, so the closest bus stop is two and a half miles away, and trying to ride a bicycle or walk on these roads would be insane. We’re at the intersection of rural roads that are such that, even if I lived across the street, I’d still drive. We had a visiting priest tell us once, “Your remote location is a gift — it means you aren’t bothered by the concerns of being in a city like drug dealers and gangs and things like that.” This was some time after my return from Greece, and the first thing that went through my head was that this priest had sorely missed the point. The Church and the church building are not supposed to isolate us from the people we’re serving; they are supposed to help us serve them better. Right?
In Orthodox Christianity, as I understand it, the building is supposed to serve a number of functions — iconographic, practical, liturgical, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems like the conversations we have to have about building are required to assume that those functions have little to no bearing on what you’re actually going to be able to build, because we’re not actually building Orthodox churches in an Orthodox context — we’re building Orthodox shells in a Protestant context. What do I mean by that? Well, St. Irene Church in Athens does not have a fellowship hall, it does not have a set of Sunday school classrooms, it does not have a gym. It has offices for the priest; beyond that, it’s a church. By contrast, in the setting we have in this country, we’re supposed to have all of these other auxiliary services, and the fact is that they’re often the tail that wags the dog. At All Saints, we built a shoebox that looks like an office building first. It was envisioned as being the classroom wing of a three-wing facility that included a church; we built that first because the conventional wisdom was — so I’m told — “People come to church for church, but they stay for everything else a church does. This building allows us to do some of those other things while getting by as a church.” I had a conversation a week ago or so about another Orthodox building project where they’re building the hall first — the priest has evidently said that there’s simply no advantage in starting out by building the church, precisely because it’s the part everybody wants. Without that carrot to dangle, there will be no incentive to finish the project. So, we’re marginalizing our primary liturgical function because it’s just not practical when everybody is conditioned by the Protestant landscape to expect a buffet of secondary functions.
But, nonetheless, we’ve got a theology of how the church building functions iconographically and liturgically beyond merely the practical concern of needing a room in which to gather. Theoretically, we’re supposed to give the best of what we have to support those functions. We don’t do that to the exclusion of our duty to feed and clothe the poor — that is, to show mercy on our brothers and sisters — rather, it is part and parcel of it. Part of the function of the church building, as I am given to understand it (and as Lotar alludes to), is to be the property of the poor — something they have that is beautiful and divine in the midst of a life of hardship. (Which is why I’m a little less than impressed when I hear about churches that build facilities that they then go out of their way, with things like cardkey lock systems and whatnot, to make sure poor people can’t ever enter.)
Okay, so, fine, that’s the theological theory. All Saints has a complex relationship with those in need. First of all, we’re mostly a lower-middle to lower-class parish, so many of the needy whom the parish serves are its own parishioners. Second, we’re the first church listed in the Yellow Pages, so we tend to be the first called when people are calling churches looking for assistance of some kind. Our priest does what he can; our previous priest had a secular retirement plus the stipend the parish gave him, so he was in something of a position to give out of his own pocket to such people, but such are not the current priest’s circumstances. He tries to have a stock of prepaid debit cards and food on hand to be able to do something when people call; we used to have a relationship with a local homeless mission, and I’m not certain why we don’t anymore. A few years ago there was a discussion about trying to form some kind of an ecumenical effort in Bloomington to do more for the homeless, but the response the priest got from other pastors was, “Sorry, that’s just not going to work in this town.” Something the priest has started doing with catechumens is instructing them to have a bag of food in their cars that they can give to people who approach them on the street, and I think that’s a great step to be taking. Could we do more? Doubtless — who couldn’t? — but the structures aren’t really in place, and All Saints is not in a position to bear the administrative weight. We could hold a soup kitchen at All Saints, but who would come, and how would they get there? You need to do such things in the places where the people are, and that’s something we can’t do under current conditions.
The relationship with building is even more complex. Anything we build will take a capital campaign, and those are scary words for a lot of our people. The hard reality is that even more than St. Margaret’s in 1999, we have very little we’re able to do in our current facility. It doesn’t serve our needs liturgically, iconographically, or practically, beyond simply being four walls and a roof that’s sort of able to house services. At the very least, we can’t really grow without building, but there are parishioners who are adamant that we must grow before we can build. In a smallish community like ours, the big killer of any effort is apathy rather than opposition — opposition is at least engaging in the conversation. Apathy is not even acknowledging that there’s a conversation. Despite efforts over the years to get a conversation going about moving towards the permanent church building, there’s really no popular impetus to do anything. Some people have suggested that it might be better to talk about how we can expand the current space, but it just wasn’t designed in a way that would make that possible and cost-effective. 11 years ago, when they built it, they figured that it would allow them to grow to a point where they would be able to build the rest of it within five years, but neither the location nor the facilities are conducive to growth, and the realities of a college town with no real economic diversity to speak of have left the All Saints demographic in a position where many of them have had to leave Bloomington rather than stay and help grow the community they were part of establishing. Somebody told me a few days ago that the parcel of land in the middle of nowhere was partially justified as being someplace where maybe an archdiocesan retreat center could eventually be built, thus being a source of some income for the parish, but… well, it all takes money, money that people have not been thrilled about parting with for the last 11 years. So, six years ago, our priest said, “Now’s the time, we’re going to do it,” and six years later, we haven’t pounded a single nail. Will we ever? Hard to say. All Saints is an experiment, some say, in seeing if you can successfully plant an Orthodox church someplace in America where there have never been the usual reasons to have one. This is something of a strange way to put it to me; it’s clear that there has been a large community of Greeks in Bloomington since the early 20th century, they just apparently never felt terribly compelled to build a church. In any event, it seems to remain an open question as to whether or not the experiment was truly successful.
So, back to St. Andrew’s. It sounds to me like Lotar is probably a lot like the woman who asked the St. Margaret’s people, back in 1999, do we really have to do this now? Is building our dream church in the suburbs really so pressing a need that we’ve got to spend millions of dollars on it that could be spent on the things Christ actually told us to do? I’m torn, because I understand his point, but I also understand the point of building. Now, that said, he makes some swipes that strike me — as someone admittedly unfamiliar with the situation, particularly in contrast to Lotar — as uncalled for; it’s simply not true that “the whole of world Orthodoxy” does Italianate-style iconography while it’s only crazy American converts that want “Byzantine anachronisms”. What is true is that there are different styles that have been employed over the centuries, it’s somewhat cyclical, and right now there is a revival of the “Byzantine style” going on, not only among American “pseudo-pious” crazies, but certainly in Greece and in Russia as well. In Athens, yes, any church that was built in the nineteenth century is going to have western-looking icons, but anything painted in the last few decades isn’t going to look like that. If his story about the Georgian family is accurate, then that hardly makes it excusable, but I’m left wondering if there might not be more to the story because of how he has otherwise oversimplified some things.
My gut instinct is that there’s no way the Riverside project would have ever been justifiable in Lotar’s eyes; perhaps I’m wrong on that point, but I’m pretty sure that the answer the priest gave the woman at St. Margaret’s in 1999 didn’t turn her into a believer in the project, and from what I’ve encountered in various instances of these kinds of conversations, there are some disagreements that can only end in an angry standoff, with one side or the other bitterly claiming to having not been heard.
That said, reading the piece Lotar links to, I wish the priest had given an answer that was more like the one the Episcopal priest gave twelve years ago — that there’s a plan that is getting us to where we think we need to be in order to do the things we’re supposed to do as a parish, and this building is part of that plan. It’s not that what he says is wrong, exactly — and I can’t speak one way or the other to Lotar’s rebuttal on St. Andrew’s involvement with ministries for the poor — but it does seem easily read as unnecessarily self-justifying. It doesn’t seem to me to have been intended that way, but publicly dismissing those with questions as “small-souled” comes across as awkwardly off-message to say the least. There is a way to answer the concerns that people have in the context of a building project, but marginalizing them isn’t the way to do it. As I say, I get the impression that Lotar’s contempt for the project was probably a given from the get-go (and was probably a function of contempt for the community itself, or at least some segment of it), so maybe there’s no way that the outcome would have been different.
And maybe the thing that is unavoidable is that building projects are divisive. You’re not going to make everybody happy, you’re not going to be able to convince everybody that it needs to be done, you’re even not going to be able to convince everything that it isn’t a huge mistake. Yes, sometimes the naysayers are right; maybe they’re even right more often than we’d like to admit. I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t know if the Riverside church is a huge waste of money by a bunch of anachronistic and silly white people who are willfully skirting their obligations to the poor by building themselves a pretty toybox. I don’t know if All Saints needs to just get used to the idea that Orthodox Christianity in south central Indiana is a solution looking for a problem.
I believe the concerns of somebody like Lotar need to be heard and taken seriously. I also believe that Fr. Josiah is right in that the answer to those concerns is “both/and” — but the question is, how do you articulate the “both/and” such that the the person who believes they need to ask, “What if we waited?” actually believes that they’ve been heard and taken seriously, and so that the “both/and” actually gets realized? That’s a lot harder.
I feel compelled, for reasons I’m not entirely sure I can explain, to close with this passage from the ninth ode of the first canon for the Nativity:
A strange and wonderful mystery I see, the Cave is heaven, the Virgin the Cherubic throne, the Manger the Place in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid. Him we praise and magnify.
Christ is born, glorify him! Merry Christmas!