This painting was posted on one of my favorite Facebook pages today. The page is written totally in Russian, and there is no English translation, and I found it through an Orthodox friend of mine. They specialize in paintings and photos of Russia. I have developed a deep love for Russia since my childhood, when we lived next door to some Russians – the Ivanoff family. The father of the family shared his heritage with me and showed me all of the wonderful things he was able to save from his family’s escape during the fall of the last Tsar, Nicolas (of Blessed Memory). His tales of Russia stayed with me and as I grew up, I read all I could on Russian history. My husband is what is known as a Volga River Russian, or Germans-from-Russia. Their history is actually German; their ancestors having been transplanted to Russia from Germany by the Tsarina, Catherine the Great. When she arrived in Russia from Germany, she wanted to bring Russia some modern techniques in building and the trades, so she brought in talented German craftsmen and their families; that is who my husband is descended from. In the USA, Volga Germans, as they are also known, settled together towns across the upper Midwest. There is one large settlement in St. Peter, Kansas, where my husband’s family settled before moving further west in Colorado. Being a sort of culturally boring Brit, I loved and absorbed all things Volga German from my husband’s family and enjoyed learning about all the foods and traditions. When the time came, for me, it felt natural to become absorbed into an Eastern Rite Church. I think we were always headed East, as the Divine Liturgy filled our hearts and we just could not think of worship in any other way. As we have moved northward in the USA, we have drifted into a more northeast-European expression of our Byzantine faith, from Syria to the Ukraine; from Jordan to Romania. It is still Byzantine and the Divine Liturgy is the same; it is just language, tone and custom that changes. And I love that about the Church; so many expressions of the same faith.
In a Byzantine church, you pass through doors like in the first photo, and immediately feel that you have entered something other-worldly. The narthex, or entrance hall, is meant to help you transition from the worldliness of your everyday life and lead you to Christ. Usually, the narthex has icons of the Old Testament prophets all over it, who prepare us for our encounter with Christ. As you enter into the main body of the Church, the nave, this space is symbolic of the body of believers. The walls, the ceiling, all contain icons of saints of past ages. This is to remind us that we are one with all believers of every age, who make up the Body of Christ.
The iconostasis is a screen with icons on it, that separate the nave from the Holy Place, which represents the Throne of God. Heaven and earth are joined by Jesus Christ and that is represented by the iconostasis, filled with images of Christ and those central to the mystery of His coming. The iconostasis above is from the Agia Sophia in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. Behind the Holy Doors, which are at the center of the iconostasis, is the Holy Place, which is the altar. Above and in front of the Holy Doors is usually a large icon of Christ, depicted as the Pantocrator, or Christ the All-Powerful, Who sits at the right hand of the Father. This is to remind us that Christ is the Head of our Church, the One who presides at our worship and through Whom we live. The Pantocrator is placed in an area (and on the ceiling) called the Soleas, which is where the priest stands, offering Holy Communion to the faithful. The Pantocrator icon below is from the Cathedral of St. Seraphim in North Carolina.
The Holy Place is where Christ becomes present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity through the consecration of our priest. In the east particularly, it is common to kiss the hands of a priest when you greet him, as these hands bring us Christ; these hands bless us, baptize us, and welcome us – they are holy hands. Most western, or Latin Rite, priests are not used to that and it can often make them uncomfortable. When we first relocated up here and could not locate a Byzantine parish and attended a Latin Rite parish, we greeted the priest by kissing his hands. He was embarrassed, but told us he felt honored, too, and came to love it. He felt it also reminded him of his obligations and extreme honor of the position he held as parish priest. I believe that we need to keep reminding the priests in our lives how special they are and how lucky we are to have them. In most Byzantine parishes, we are smaller in number and are so lucky to actually know our priests. We have them in our home at least once a year (house blessings) and more often than not, invite them to our homes to share those special moments in our lives. When my husband was ordained a deacon, our home afterwards was filled with priests and other deacons; what an honor it was for us! How exciting to have all those holy men in one place!
This is the alter of the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross in New York. The altar is where Our Lord becomes present to us under the species of bread and wine. For those of us who believe in transubstantiation, this is the pinnacle of our Sunday worship. We look forward to receiving Our Lord each and every week. The Divine Liturgy itself takes us on a journey, as much a part of the journey we take as we step from the parking lot, and into the building of the Church itself. We come from outside and noisiness, chaos and confusion, into the place of God. We enter a quiet, candle-lit, incense-imbued, icon-filled space of tones and prayer and Love from God, present in His people and in His temple. I think one of the things I love most about being Byzantine is that it is different; it is other-worldly; it transports me out of myself and into a space, place, and time that stands apart from whatever is happening outside.
There are no clocks in a casino; have you ever noticed that? There are no windows, either. They want you to loose track of time while you drop your money into their slots and onto their tables. They do not want you remembering the world outside, they want you to become totally absorbed in gambling. I think they learned this from Churches! We don’t have clocks – we have windows, yes, but not usually in a place in a Byzantine church where you can gaze, disjointedly, to the world outside. They are usually to allow light and are way up high, far above eye level. Most Roman churches have stained glass windows, where gazing outdoors is not really possible, either. It is not to hold you prisoner! Being in Church is when you lose yourself in God. There are two Greek words for time: Chronos – that is chronological, or sequential time, and is what we use watches, clocks, and calendars to keep track of. Then there is Kairos, or the appointed time in the purpose of God, which is when God is to act. In eastern Churches, before the Divine Liturgy begins, the Deacon exclaims to the Priest, “Kairos tou poiesai to Kyrio” (“It is time [kairos] for the Lord to act”); indicating that the time of the Liturgy is an intersection with Eternity.
Some days I want to spend my time in pure Kairos, outside the demands and the time frames our lives place upon us. We have to schedule this and schedule that. We keep our children busy with soccer and Little League, we have meetings and workout times to keep. We have laundry to wash (Oooo..that reminds me! Ha-Ha!) and meals to prepare. But sometimes, when I come into this space where I can ponder, muse, and blog, I loose myself in pure Kairos by thinking about and focusing on all things God, and I can loose my sense of the Chronos and completely forget the plans I made today. I enter into a room with icons and reminders of God, I look at the photos of my family, and I loose myself; what a pleasure and what a joy. And it is fulfilling, but I still long for the days when I can loose myself in God, in His time, in His temple. I love the sights, sounds, and smells of faith; I love being imbued with the Kairos of worship, lost in the love of God.