It took five years to hand-carve the screen that stretches across the front of St. John Damascus, and it shows. Besides its wrought wood, the screen displays a host of icons, their angular lines depicting saints, angels, the Virgin Mary, and Christ; each image written upon a background of lustrous gold. Candles, hung or mounted or planted in sand, burn before the icons. Screened doors partially obscured the view into the sanctuary; throughout the liturgy, the doors were opened, shut, and sometimes -- as during the Communion -- backed by a purple curtain, which secreted the priest from sight.
The Communion provided a moment of silence, unbroken by sung or chanted prayer from choir, priest, or deacon. " Bless the Lord, O my Soul!" rang out the choir in their singsong chant as they began the First Antiphon, the harmonies full of major-interval buoyancy. " Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy ." The buoyancy endured through the Second Antiphon, which praised Christ for "trampling down death by death," then slowed and mellowed for the Third, which recounted the Beatitudes. Numerous other prayers -- some mournful in tone, some solemn, some joyful -- continued the praise of God and His saints, and the imploring of His mercy and aid in matters both general and particular.
When the deacon chanted his petitions, he stood with his back to the people, bearing one end of his stole aloft in his right hand. After each petition, he bowed and made the sign of the cross with the stole. (The stole, like his vestments and those of the priest, were satiny purple, trimmed and patterned with gold, and did not drape his form so much as they surrounded it.) At times, he wielded a thurifer hung with bells, each puff of incense attended by a chorus of muted jingling. Everything was incensed -- icons, altar, priest, and congregation -- and the smoke rose into the sunlit dome.
For the Gospel reading, Hieromonk Jonah processed into the midst of the people, surrounded by candle- and cross-bearers, and by two men carrying what looked like sunbursts on staves. The golden sunbursts bore the images of Seraphim -- six-winged angels who hymn God "with the thrice-holy cry." As Father read, the bearers inclined the sunbursts toward him, the Seraphim attending to the Word.
Before receiving Communion, both priest and people ceased their chant and song to declare, "I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou are truly the Christ...who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray thee: have mercy upon me... May the communion of Thy holy mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body."
The congregation filed forward. They paused to bow and kiss the icon of Saint Gregory as it rested on its stand and then approached the priest. He stood, holding the chalice with one hand and a tiny spoon with the other, while two servers kept a red cloth suspended below the chalice. The choir repeated "Receive the body of Christ/Taste the fountain of immortality" as Father dipped his spoon and distributed Communion to adult and child and toddler. He bent as necessary and held the base of the chalice to the Communicants' lips so that they might kiss it.
After the dismissal, Father Alexander led the faithful in a final remembrance of the dead, especially the recently departed. Again he incensed the image of the crucified Christ, commemorating the dead to His mercy in tones that rose in pitch and intensity as the jingle of the bells on the thurifer magnified into a clamor.
Visiting Hieromonk Jonah's sermon came at the end of the liturgy. "Last week, we celebrated Orthodoxy Sunday," he began. "What we celebrated, really, was the sanctification of matter. That Jesus actually came and took flesh. He became exactly what we are that He might make us what He is." This Sunday was the feast of St. Gregory Palamas. "One of the things that has always been crucial in the Church is this balance between an intellectual understanding and authentic spiritual experience...that has been identical from the apostles down to our day. St. Gregory was one who entered into that." Though schooled in philosophy, he fought against "this kind of reduction of everything to rational categories, even theology: 'If you can't name it or put it into words, it doesn't exist.'" Gregory "practiced inner stillness.... In the Gospel, Jesus would withdraw and pray. 'Be still and know that I am God.'"
What happens when we die?
"We go into the presence of God," says Hieromonk Jonah. "Heaven and hell are not places. Rather, it's the state of being in the presence of God. If you like it, it's heaven, and if you don't like it, it's hell. The fires of hell are the burning love of God, which we hate [if we don't love God back]. I read somewhere that in the West, the understanding of hell is far more influenced by Dante than it is by the teachings of the Church."
Denomination: The Orthodox Church in America
Founded locally: 1975
Senior pastor: Father Alexander Federoff
Congregation size: 100
Sunday school enrollment: 30
Annual budget: around $120,000
Weekly giving: around $2300
Singles program: no
Diversity: people of all backgrounds, including Slavic, Greek, Arabic, and Georgian
Sunday worship: 9 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 2 hours