Sunday, April 09, 2017
Palm Sunday Then and Now
Fast forward a few years. I was in college, and met a guy named Jerry Norman. He was a nice guy, and I liked him. We had some dates and I had met his parents for dinner once, but nothing really serious. We were chatting with friends in the cafeteria and something he said made me say to him, "Hey, I thought you were Jewish!" He replied no, he was Lebanese and a Christian. So, I asked, as you do, "Are you Melkite, Maronite or Orthodox?" He replied he was Orthodox and I asked him to take me to church. After more dates and more requests to take me to church, we finally went with his oldest brother, sister in law and two little nephews.
St. George Antiochian Church of Boston had sold their Boston property and had just begun building a new church in West Roxbury, so Holy Cross Greek Seminary was kind enough to let them worship in their gymnasium, which at the time, was also where the Celtics practiced, but that's another story entirely. I was nervous because I hadn't been to an Orthodox church, and I hadn't met the brother and his family. We all piled into the car - Jerry, me, Joey, Maddie, Ricky and Jimmy - drove to Brookline and walked into the gymnasium on Palm Sunday, 1976, 41 years ago today.
There were tons of people chatting, greeting each other with two kisses, lots of English and a little Arabic being spoken. There were two chairs on the stage with two big icons propped on them. It was not a pretty church at all, and my Roman sensibilities valued order, so I found the level milling about and greeting people somewhat jarring. There was a guy on the right side, just below the stage, who was singing something mysterious and moody and very Middle Eastern sounding in a mixture of English, Arabic and Greek. I looked out the doors, and saw a rowdy crowd of people making their way toward the gymnasium, maybe 40 or 50. They came in, chatting and greeting people, and milling around in the back. There were children EVERYWHERE, getting underfoot, running around. It was controlled chaos.
Then the priest came out. I learned later that his name was Fr. George George. He was as wide as he was tall, had a cap of silver ringlets and when he opened his mouth, the most beautiful, silky baritone came out. Then there was a single toot on a pitch pipe behind me, and that rowdy bunch of 50 people began singing in 4 and 6 part harmony. Such beautiful music, music like I had never heard before. Beautiful words set to beautiful music that perfectly fit what was going on at the altar. I didn't understand everything, but it was clearly a dialog back and forth between the priest, the deacon (Fr. Philip) and the choir. There were altar boys, fans, golden vestments... Eventually, it was time for communion, and mothers and fathers brought their little children to communion. I found it very moving.
It was all so beautiful, and strange, yet so familiar. It moved me so deeply. I really was transported that day, in a gymnasium, without all the trappings that Orthodox Churches usually have. The timelessness, the emphasis on awe and mystery fed me in a way that I had never experienced. I didn't know if I was in heaven or on earth, just like St. Vladimir's emissaries. At the end, there was a procession with the little children leading us. Everyone had candles with flowers (mostly forsythia) and palms. We were led by the cross, a gaggle of altar boys, and all the many, many children who were singing something and waving their palms. And then it was over, way too soon. I fell in love that day with the Orthodox faith and I have never fallen out of love with it.
That was 41 years ago today. Since then, there have been 41 Palm Sundays in my life, at St. George's, St. John of Damascus while it was still on Museum Road in Boston, Church of the Redeemer in Los Altos Hills, CA, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, South Bay Mission in Santa Clara, St. Innocent when it was still in Fremont, St. Mary Magdalene in Georgia, and last year at St. Christina's in Fremont. 41 years, 41 processions, joyfully following Christ and proclaiming him to be The One, only to kiss him on the cheek and betray him four days later, 41 Holy Weeks. Am I any different than I was 41 years ago? Certainly, I'm older, and life has not been kind. I weathered every storm and tragedy, holding on for dear life to the Orthodox faith. Older, for sure, maybe a little wiser, but fundamentally, am I different? Am I more like Christ today than I was 41 years ago? Or, am I like a mill horse, endlessly walking around in a circle and never getting anywhere? I fear that is the case. Life keeps happening and requires a response which takes up my energy. A few years ago, Jerry dropped dead suddenly without warning and brought home to me the fact that time is short. I don't have 41 more years in me, maybe 25 or 30, to work on a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ.
41 years is a long time. Orthodoxy is in my bones now. It takes a long time for converts to develop an Orthodox phronema. I tell converts that the process of becoming Orthodox does not end with their baptism and chrismation - that is when the real work begins which will last a lifetime. At the least, I can say that I have persevered, and will continue to persevere till the end.