Palm Sunday with the Orthodox

Wishing you a blessed Palm Sunday.

Today always reminds me of the Palm Sunday experience I had a couple of years ago with our local Orthodox congregation. From the post reflecting on that day:

A couple of years ago I was doing a lot of research on the theology Eastern Orthodox iconography. That research ultimately led to a class I did at my church, the Highland Church of Christ. Some of that material can be found on my sidebar.

As a part of this class I sought the assistance of Fr. LeMasters, the priest of our local Orthodox church, St. Luke's. Accepting my invitation, Fr. LeMasters came to Highland one Wednesday night to kick off our study. I recall someone coming up to me that night at Highland and saying to me in a low voice, "There is a priest in the atrium. Do you know why a priest is here?" Fr. LeMasters had worn his black clerical clothing with his collar. I just smiled and said, "Oh, that must be Fr. LeMasters! He's here to teach our class tonight on Orthodox iconography."

You just don't hear that kind of stuff at a Church of Christ. But, then again, I tend to break the mold when it comes to our fellowship...

In the classes that followed Fr. LeMasters' class I shared what I had learned about Greek iconography. And then, for the final class, we all went to St. Luke's to hear from the official iconographer of the church. That and to see the icons in their natural habitat. It's one thing to talk about icons. But it's something else to see the icons in a Greek Orthodox church, and to see how the Orthodox interact with them liturgically.

As a part of my preparations for the icon class I had started attending services at St. Luke's. It was sort of like field research. And so it was that I found myself at St. Luke's one Sunday for their Palm Sunday service. I say their Palm Sunday service because the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church celebrate Easter on different days. For more on the history behind this difference see this post of mine on the calendrical craziness associated with the dating of Easter. Needless to say, given that most of us celebrate Easter when the Catholics do, I didn't know it was Palm Sunday when I went to St. Luke's that Sunday.

And the funniest thing happened. In the middle of the service Fr. LeMasters held up a cross and walked down the center aisle toward the main entrance. This, in itself, didn't surprise me. Having been to many a Catholic mass I was used to the priest walking up and down the aisle. But Fr. LeMasters didn't walk up and down the isle. He keep walking and walking...right out of the building. And everyone in the church followed after him.

Now, no one told me this was going to happen or what was going on. All I knew was that the priest just walked out of the building holding a cross aloft with the entire congregation following after him. Quite unexpectedly I found myself alone in the sanctuary. Where had they gone? Where were they going? Were they going to come back? Should I follow?

I quickly looked around and saw that the ladies had left their purses behind. So I figured they would be coming back. Consequently, my first impulse was to shout after the departing crowd, "Y'all just have a good walk wherever you are going! I'll stay here and watch all the valuables! And by the way, does this happen every Sunday!?"

But after a moment of befuddlement and confusion, watching the last person file out of the building, I jumped out of my row and hurried up to the end of the line. I caught up with them about 20 feet past the front door.

Ahead, I could see Fr. LeMasters, in full clerical robes, all white and gold and shimmering in the sunlight, holding the cross aloft and making a circuit around the church parking lot. With the entire congregation following. And me as the caboose.

Now, St. Luke's isn't in a very nice part of town. And some pretty rough looking people were out and about in their front lawns or standing around cars. And there were also kids playing here and there with some riding their bikes past the church. I recall Hip Hop music thumping from some car. And of course everyone looks over at us.

I'm sure we were quite a sight! There was the priest, dressed in full liturgical regalia, holding a golden cross aloft, walking through this impoverished neighborhood. And we, in a line, following this most unlikely of Pied Pipers. And looking around I thought, "You know, maybe someone really should go back and watch all the purses..." The juxtaposition between us and the neighborhood was startling. And unforgettable.

Eventually, Fr. LeMasters made a turn and led us back into the building where the service resumed. It was quite a Palm Sunday. And I'm happy to report that no purses were stolen during our walk through the neighborhood.

I never got a chance to ask Fr. LeMasters about the history of the ritual I had experienced that day, the priest leading the church out of the building on Palm Sunday, but the symbolism of that service has stuck with me. I keep coming back to it over and over again in my mind:

The cross of Jesus leading this flock out of the church building and into the neighborhood, into the world...

That's the kind of Christianity I want to be a part of. And the Orthodox that Palm Sunday helped me see it. An image burned in my heart and mind...

I am a priest following the cross of Jesus out of the church and into the world.

Have a blessed Holy Week.

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11 thoughts on “Palm Sunday with the Orthodox”

  1. "That's the kind of Christianity I want to be a part of."
    DITTO, dude!

  2. As one who grew up in the Church of Christ I can recall many church buildings having a Jordan River scene, or just a river scene as some may insist, on the wall of the baptistry. That was the extent of the art found in most of the churches. But, I wonder where the line would be drawn by some between that and an icon.

    While it is obvious that the lack of the visual, not only in the CoC, but also in other similar denominations, is a reaction to the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Anglicans, I do wonder how much of it also involves the mistrust and fear of art itself. After all, most fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals have viewed art, for the most part, as the symptom and evidence of liberal thinking. I see it as a fear that has dried up many souls.

  3. What we ended up doing was getting our "art" elsewhere. We compartmentalized it from our "religion".

  4. Many years ago I (Presbyterian) attended an Easter worship service at a Russian Orthodox church. I don't remember a lot about it, but several things struck me: there were no seats - the congregation stood. The service started on Saturday night, late at night. Just before midnight, we went outside, in a procession much like you describe here for Palm Sunday. I believe the closed church represented the tomb. Then at the stroke of midnight we reentered the church proclaiming "Khristos voskresil!" (Christ is risen!) It was very dramatic. There was no way to be passive about the Easter story - we were participating in it.

    I like the lesson you drew from this Palm Sunday service. I need to follow the cross into the world.

  5. We learn so much when we step outside of our comfort zone. Looking at different streams of faith always strengthens my faith and walk. So often we fear other streams.

  6. Great memories. When we moved to Amarillo in '95, I was immediately introduced to a little Tex-Mex cafe that knocked it out of the park, and I ended up eating 3-4 lunches per work week there for the next four years. In November '98, I received an invitation to join the proprietors and their priest for a groundbreaking ceremony for their new restaurant two blocks away. So I went - the only gringo there - and this same thing happened, the priest leading us on a prayer walk around the property. When that was all over, they broke out the margarita a BIG way...outdoors on a portable table.

  7. First, I just want to say I loved this story. And it reminds me that I really need to attend an Orthodox service soon.

    I've come to terms with my deep love of icons and symbols (and symbols of symbols). My wife and I both grew up in Roman Catholic churches. When I first started attending my local United Church of Christ, I would come home and and tell my (born again/Pentecostal) wife about the service. And she would often remark that it all sounded "very Catholic," which irritated me and left me feeling a little defensive. I didn't want it to be "Catholic."

    As it turns out though . . . it's not "Catholic" enough for me. So much so, that on the weeks when I'm not teaching Sunday School at the UCC . . . you might just find me at one of the local Episcopal churches.

  8. In New York there was a Greek Orthodox church on my corner, and they did a candlelight procession around the block every year--I assumed it was Easter-related, though the dating never matched my calendar (and now I know why). There were usually about 150 people, all ages, singing, and then there was some observance at the door of the church, while the congregants listened outside. Then they resumed singing and slowly reentered the church. Magnificent, soulful, mysterious.

  9. at our church in vermont, we used to spend easter sunday walking up the hill behind the church carrying a cross. we'd stop about 6 times and sing, pray, read scripture. when we got to the top we'd leave the cross behind and walk a bit further before having our last 'station' of the service. i always found this to be a really moving ritual and important that we were outside of the church building in the community on easter sunday.

  10. Whilst driving on I-95 today, I was excited to see a billboard advertising and exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven: "Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons and Treasures":

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