He looks like a regular young guy — maybe late 20s or early 30s. Head shaved to mask a receding hairline, a black goatee to offset the baldness, the gold rim of his glasses glinting beneath his dark brows. A regular guy, except maybe for his robe. Though it has the sheen of satin, it does not drape or hang; it holds its shape, stiffly framing the man beneath. Though mostly creamy white, the robe beams with patterns of yellow gold. (If we were not in church, the fabric would seem ostentatious, guilty of Louis XVI excess.) And over the robe, a stole, equally stiff and resplendent, making an X across his belly. The resulting look is old-fashioned in the extreme, reminding me of nothing so much as the priestly robes worn by long-ago Jewish characters in the Jesus movies. Yet here it is on a Sunday in 2009, on a young guy, in a brick chapel set amid the more ordinary opulence of La Jolla Scenic Drive North.
The man is not a priest, nor even a deacon. Rather, he is one of at least eight more regular men assisting in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is being celebrated by St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. Eight men, all in similar robes of white and gold, except for the priest, who is even more enrobed and golden than his fellows. For much of the liturgy, we behold his back as he stands facing the altar, the tabernacle, and the cross, facing east along with the congregation. On his back is affixed a sort of medallion in the shape of a cross; in the center of the cross, a painted circle depicting the resurrected Christ.
Christ appears again on a large icon to the right of the Sanctuary stairs. Across from Him, an icon of Mary, His mother, referred to by the Orthodox as Theotokos — God-bearer. Throughout the liturgy on this Sunday of the Last Judgment, the icons are reverenced — the priest turning and bowing and making the sign of the cross as the choir sings in its thrilling, cheerful harmonies: “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us!” Later, he will swing a pot of incense toward each icon, then expertly yank back on the jingling chain so that a puff of smoke pushes out toward the image before rising to heaven. And he will do the same for both altar and congregation.
During the homily, he offers a word of explanation. “We are created in the image of God. That’s why, when we cense the holy icons…we cense you…. What we do to one another is passed along to Christ. When we venerate the icon, that loving act is passed along to Christ. When we greet one another, that act is passed along to Christ, because we are in His spiritual image…. My dear children, think of the transformation: everything we do to one another, we do to Christ! God will judge us on our mercy and love!”
In some ultimate sense, this is why all these people are here. This is why that young man with the goatee and glasses has put on those extraordinary robes. They are thinking of the judgment; they are thinking of mercy and love. And they are thinking of the transformation, of Christ dwelling in their midst even as they long to dwell with Him in heaven. The priest quotes from a hymn, sung the previous night at Vespers. “‘Woe to you, O my darkened soul. Your light is stained by depravity and laziness. Your folly makes you shun all thought of death. How can you flee the awesome thought of the judgment day?… The time is at hand, O my soul. Turn to the good and loving Savior.’ This is our repentance — beg Him to forgive your malice and weakness as you cry to Him in faith: ‘I have sinned against you, O Lord, but I know Your love for all mankind. O Good Shepherd, call me to the joy of Your lasting presence.’ ”
Why Do We Go to Church?
Do you go to church on Sunday? If you don’t, do you ever wonder why those who do, do? If you do, could you answer those who don’t if they asked the question?
Since I began writing about San Diego County church services professionally a little over three years ago, I have begun to notice churches — lots of them. Not just the churches like Our Lady of Angels, situated by the side of the freeway, sending high their spires and signs to catch the eyes of passersby. Not just the monster megachurches like Horizon Christian Fellowship or Journey, places that might be taken for high school campuses or big-box stores. But also storefront churches like Abundant Grace Christian Center, tucked into strip malls or amid rows of one-story shops. Modest standalone churches like the Christian Compassion Center, low-slung and unobtrusive, blending in with the houses they serve. Old-style neighborhood churches like Christ Lutheran in Pacific Beach, adorned and exalted by the pride of past generations. Even start-up churches like the Chapel — advertising their services on roadside signs and with banners in front of school auditoriums. So many churches — a lot of us must be going. But why?
“We’ve confused going to church with being the church,” a North County megachurch pastor once preached to his massive congregation. He then went on to remind them that Christianity was not being practiced there, on Sunday morning, with all the faithful gathered together. It was practiced, he said, in their small-group communities, where soul could minister to soul on a personal level. He even went so far as to compare himself to the entertainment — not because what he was saying was frivolous, but because his status as preacher was not the point of things. I sat in the congregation and wondered, Is this man trying to talk himself out of a job?