Monday, January 19, 2009

The Elkridge Blessing (Part 1)

Sometimes mountainbikers happen across their strange woodland rituals--it might be about a dozen people out in the snow, gathered on the bank of a partially frozen creek, speaking in strange tongues and throwing water around . . .

Honestly, I would love to know what the three cyclists who swerved around our little gathering thought we were up to. If only they'd known that half-way around the world hundreds or thousands of groups were doing the very same thing, except that their festivities probably involved a bit more "walrusing"--what the Russians apparently call a polar bear swim.

As I've mentioned before, one of the things I like about living in Elkridge is that we're about a five-minute bike ride from an Orthodox cemetery. More to the point, it's the cemetery that belongs to Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore, which has a good relationship with Holy Cross. Generally if a priest is needed in an emergency when Fr. Gregory is away, Fr. John from Holy Trinity is on call. We also use some of the cemetery space and the picnic facilities.

Picnic facilities? This is really starting to sound weird. Well, the fact is, Orthodox take very seriously the "communion of saints." Death is a real separation, but much less so in light of Christ's "trampling down death by death." We pray for our departed friends and family, and we pray to (somewhat less scandalously, with) the departed saints. It is said that the early Christians often had to worship underground, in the same caves where they buried their dead. So when the Book of Revelation talks about the martyrs under the altar, this would have reflected the usual practice. We are never very far from our dead even now, with regular commemorations and memorials of departed loved ones, various Soul Saturdays throughout the year, and one particularly beautiful tradition in the Russian Church. On Thomas Sunday (a week after Easter), they gather in the cemetery and proclaim the resurrection to the dead who lie there.

So it's not so unusual for Orthodox to combine picnic facilities with cemeteries. They also ideally maintain a chapel in proximity, if the cemetery is not already close to the church, so services like that on Thomas Sunday have somewhere to meet. Someone told me today that Ss. Peter and Paul Chapel, which is on the grounds of this particular cemetery, used to be pretty run-down and used basically once a year. Things have changed quite a bit since then. At one point, when Holy Trinity had two priests, they had a full-fledged Russian language mission, with regular vigils and liturgies. Now, they do the first vigil of the month at the main church downtown, but the other weekly vigils are held in the chapel. There are no regular liturgies there, however. So I can't rely on it as an actual neighborhood parish, but it is nice to participate when I have occasion to do so.

I visited a month or two ago for Saturday vigil (part of it anyway--I had Ian with me, and vigil is quite long). I was back again today for Theophany. That's the Orthodox name for what the West calls Epiphany--the end of the traditional 12 days of Christmas. Now, you fact-checkers are probably already calculating--if it's 12 days after Christmas, we're 13 days too late! Not so, if Christmas was in fact 12 days ago :-) Russian Orthodox still follow the Julian calendar, which was the traditional calendar of the Church down to the Great Schism and continued in both East and West until around the time of the Reformation Pope Gregory endorsed an adjustment to the calendar. Scholars had determined that adding a leap day every four years was gradually pushing the Julian calendar behind the actual solar year. They came up with the idea to skip the leap day every century year but the fourth, and to go back and re-calibrate the calendar according to the new system. This meant deleting some days and then moving forward with the new approach. Protestant nations were slow to adopt the new papal calendar; in the British Empire, it didn't take until a few decades before the American Revolution. Orthodox nations didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 20th c., and even then there was difference of opinion over its use for Church events. To this day, the Russian Church retains the Julian calendar and therefore observes Christmas and Theophany 13 days later than the West (for the next century anyway).

I wanted to attend Theophany in particular for a few reasons. One is that I missed the Theophany service at Holy Cross due to a schedule conflict with Julie. (If there's any advantage to having Orthodox churches on two different calendars, it's that you get two chances to attend the major feast services.) Another is that I knew they'd have Theophany at the chapel, so it would be close by. Most importantly, they do an outdoor water blessing at Theophany, which Holy Cross doesn't do (it would be considerably more difficult logistically), and they bless a waterway that's in very close proximity to where I live.

Now, I need to explain something about the water blessing. Each year at Theophany, every Orthodox church performs the Great Blessing of Waters, at least inside the church building, but often outside as well. Western Epiphany has come to revolve primarily around the Three Wise Men, but in the East, Theophany is about the baptism of Jesus. This is the point of the name, which means "revelation of God." While Jesus's birth was heralded by angels and witnessed by Jewish shepherds and Gentile wise men, it was a more or less secret affair. It was not a public announcement for everyone to consider. But when Jesus reached adulthood and officially began his ministry, he started with being baptized by St. John. At this point, John proclaimed to his followers that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and the Trinity was revealed with the voice of the Father from heaven, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove.

But why baptism? John was baptizing people for repentance, but Jesus was without sin. When John himself balked, Jesus said it was to fulfill all righteousness, which the Orthodox Church interprets to mean that his baptism was part of God's redemptive plan. He brought human nature into the water of repentance, but this was also a moment of redemption for the created world, which also suffers the effects of our fall. The water didn't cleanse him--he cleansed the water! And as water is integral to pretty much everything that lives on this planet, a cleansing of water extends to everything else. When we celebrate Theophany, we call on the Spirit to perform anew this miracle of redeeming the natural world. It works to do it indoors, with a big tub of water, but the connection is much more apparent when the blessing takes place at a natural waterway. In our case, the blessing flows from Rockburn Branch, into the Patapsco River, out to the Chesapeake Bay, and then to the Atlantic Ocean.

I didn't have much clue what to expect when I went. I wasn't able to find out until last night when the service would start, and even then I had no idea how long it would last or exactly when the outdoor blessing would take place. The liturgy started at 10:00 and was on the long side at something like two full hours. Then there was the indoor water blessing, so people could fill up jugs to take home. I kind of liked how this part worked. Perhaps it was by necessity because there's no plumbing into the chapel, but most people came in with jugs of water to dump into the containers for the blessing. Not that water is much of an offering, but still--the idea that we bring our fallen, contaminated water, and God gives it back to us made whole. After the blessing, several people left, while others stayed for a light lunch (which had to be set up, so that took more time). Then we got everything together and 13 of us went off to make our way through the woods, down to the creek. Fr. John said this was the first time they'd done it when the creek was significantly frozen, so it took some time to determine the best spot where we could get at the water. With the walk back up to the chapel, it was after 3:00 by the time I got home.

Taking the outdoor blessing in isolation, you couldn't have asked for a better setting--the woods, the light snow falling and just covering the ground, the iced-over creek, the bite in the air. It was exactly what such an outdoor winter sacrament should be. Though I must say, I was a bit relieved to find that they do not observe the custom of throwing the cross into the water, so those who choose to do so can jump in after it. The rest of the day was good as well, though a bit longer than I was hoping. I didn't really want to spend so much time away from my family, but it was nice that I had a chance to meet some of the parishoners and experience the services in both Slavonic and English. I'd probably be pretty lost if it were all in Slavonic, but between having a decent familiarity with the flow of the service and following enough in English, I usually knew right where we were, without once looking at a service book.

A lot of pictures were taken. I'll watch for them to go up on Holy Trinity's site, or more likely, that of Dn. Michael Bishop, and post a link if anything is available.


  1. I'm sure a lot of Evangelicals would agree with you :-)