A pedestal stood in the vestibule of the Wyle Chapel at Torrey Pines Christian Church, its sandy surface studded with candles. Another pedestal stood at the entrance to the church proper, this one bearing two icons: the Infant Christ and His mother; and Saint Anthony the Great, bearing a scroll that read: “I no longer fear God, but I love him.”
The chapel is currently home to St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church, and a raft of pamphlets greeted the curious visitor. One proclaimed the Orthodox Church as “America’s best-kept secret.” Several made the case for the Orthodox Church as “the original Christian Church founded by Jesus Christ.” And one offered a good-natured attempt at explaining the liturgy’s peculiar character. It did a fine job of anticipating the newcomer’s reaction to the gentle riot of sensory stimuli: the icons up front, each with its own hanging wrought-brass candelabra; the ornate golden vestments on the priest, deacons, and even acolytes; the combined smells and bells of the jingling censer; and most of all, the nearly incessant song from the small choir up front. (“About 75 percent of the service is congregational singing,” according to the pamphlet.) The harmonies were cheerful; the words, full of repetition: pleas for mercy, exclamations of praise, the repeated “Blessed are the”s of the Beatitudes.
The Gospel — also chanted — told the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, only to be told, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Only when she persists, saying, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” does Jesus relent, saying, “O, woman, great is your faith!”
“This was one of the hardest Gospels for me to hear as a child,” said Father John Kent Reimann in his homily, “and even as a young adult. As an Evangelical Christian, as much as I loved and venerated the Scriptures, this Gospel grated against my ear. I love Jesus, and I saw Jesus as love in the flesh. Then I heard these words, and I was going, ‘I don’t get it. It sounds very strict, very harsh, very racist, almost.’ But thank you, God, I’m in the Orthodox Church now. I don’t have the understanding of Scripture by my own interpretation. The Holy Scriptures were written by the faithful in the church; they were written for the faithful, and they are best understood by the faithful. That’s why we lean on the Holy Fathers and even Mothers of the Church for their understanding and interpretation.” In particular, Reimann leaned on Blessed Theophylact, who argued that the reason for Christ’s hesitancy was “so her faith would be made known as a witness.” “He knew her heart,” said Reimann. “The proper attitude is to come, not demanding, but as this woman — humble...and our God embraces us.”
Reimann preached and prayed down amid the people, chanted quietly up at the altar, and processed the elements of the Eucharist from one end of the church to the other. But for all the bowing and kissing and processing and incense, there was a great emphasis on the immaterial. (God was addressed as the King Invisible, and the final blessing invoked the Bodiless Powers of Heaven.) Even as the Liturgy of the Eucharist took center stage, Reimann prayed, “No one who is bound with the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach...or serve thee.” And the song sung during the Eucharist itself made reference to the life after this: “Receive the Body of Christ. Taste the fountain of immortality.”
Before the conclusion of the liturgy, Reimann (along with his daughter) offered a lengthy prayer for the dead, remembering especially his father-in-law. The sound was once again upbeat, asking for the man’s soul “a place of brightness, a place of repose.” Then, at the end, the tone shifted: it went minor, mournful. As the censer jingled for the last time, the choir’s words rose toward heaven; long, drawn-out syllables, repeating a single petition: “May his memory be eternal.”
What happens when we die?
“As Orthodox,” said Reimann, “we believe we encounter the uncreated light of God. For those of us who love and trust God, it is a joy, like being in a dark forest and coming upon a fire — you want to draw near to its warmth and light. For those who do not want God, who deny God, who hate God, God’s light, to them — because God seeks to be with everyone — to them, it seems like a terror, like flicking on the lights after you’ve had them off for a long time. In our understanding, that’s a foretaste of the judgment — when Christ judges us, He confirms what’s already in our heart.”
St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church
Denomination: Antiochian Orthodox
Address: 8320 La Jolla Scenic Drive North, La Jolla, 858-458-0992
Founded locally: 1995
Senior pastor: John Kent Reimann
Congregation size: about 125 families
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: about 40
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: Fellowship of St. John
Dress: semiformal to formal
Sunday worship: 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: two hours