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.