Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection: News and Announcements
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September 5, 2013

Sacraments define the parishioners beliefs and practices, not arguments with atheists.

by McKinley Cobb and Samuel Tran

15 February 2013

Unorthodox Community

What is remarkable about the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection is not its stately chandelier, nor its collection of historical artifacts and relics, nor even its impressive array of icons lining the walls. What makes this church truly remarkable? The people do. Orthodox as the Cathedral may be, its community is incredibly unorthodox.

No matter the age, no matter the ethnicity, all find a warm welcome. Genuine hospitality defines the congregation, itself a diverse mix of Russians, Georgians, Romanians, Greeks, Armenians, and Americans. Such a gathering can hardly be found in other Orthodox churches today, let alone the universal Church. Yet, here community thrives, tucked away in a corner of Manhattans East Village, a well-kept secret.

For most American Protestants, mystery shrouds the Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christians recognize the importance of Mary as Theotokos Mother of God, believe in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, and revere the icons of saints departed. Many Protestants view these practices with suspicion. Ironically, however, what deters these Protestants often draws parishioners and potential converts to Orthodoxy. One American convert, once a Protestant himself, cites the liturgy and rich tradition as reasons for his conversion. When he lacks motivation to worship, the liturgy reminds and compels him to respond. For the Orthodox, devotion to Christ and the Church need not be emotional, simply intentional. Mysterious as its practices may be, Orthodoxy partakes and inherits not simply the Christian tradition, but the Jewish tradition as well. The richness of Orthodox tradition manifests itself most in the architecture and layout of churches. Like other Orthodox places of worship, the Cathedral is often referred to as the Temple. The space inside divides into three sections, each corresponding to a portion of the Hebrew Temple. The iconostasis or icon screen, painted with holy figures in the golds, blues, and reds of the Byzantine style, separates the congregation from the altar and the clergy. Like the Tabernacle, the presence of God rests on the altar. Thus, all parishioners stand for the majority of the service in reverence. Worship means approaching the divine presence, confessing ones sin, and celebrating Christs death and resurrection in the presence of the saints. The saints, pictured in the icons surrounding the congregants, serve as reminders of God, for they represent His image in humanity.

Every part of the church intentionally reminds visitors of the great community of believers in all times and in all places worshipping the Lord together. Most parishioners identify the Eucharist as the time when they feel closest to God. In the Orthodox Church, a great deal of emphasis lies in preparing to receive Holy Communion. Non- Orthodox Christians, for instance, cannot receive the bread and wine. The cathedrals archdeacon, Father Michael Suvak, says that those who want Communion Sunday morning Should have attended not only the previous nights service, but also confessed beforehand. Thus, some partake in the Eucharist only about twice a year. After a Saturday night with a few drinks you cant take Communion like that, you know? one Romanian parishioner, Octavian, explains. It is a sacred experience and cannot be taken lightly. For others, like Natasha Ermolaev, professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, God feels nearest during the Eucharist because the sacrament transcends time, blurring heaven and earth in the convergence of past, present, and future.

The Orthodox Church encourages this almost mystical feeling of worship. The emphasis on reason that one would find in a Reformed church simply cannot be found. Father Michael prefers to call the seven sacraments the seven mysteries, because things like transubstantiation have no full explanation. The Orthodox accept the mystery and unknowableness of a holy God. The mysteries connect parishioners to God, but the community does as well. This particular church inherits its vision from patron saint St. Herman. His icon sits towards the front of the church and his image is painted on the vestibule walls beside St. Innocent. St. Herman was a Russian monk who went to Alaska and ministered to the Aleut and Klinquit peoples. He was the first distinctly American missionary, and is therefore a favorite of Father Michael and Father Christopher Calin. They admire his vision for humbly taking the faith to a new people and also appreciate the fact that he is associated with America, not Europe. This vision also inspires the clergy to keep the Cathedral open and welcoming to people of all ethnicities. Father Christopher thinks that the Orthodox Churchs tendency to divide into xenophobic ethnic groups will eventually kill the faith. He grew up in a Romanian community church in Chicago. When the church moved to a different neighborhood, the parishioners sold their homes and moved along with it. He believes that this practice of restricting churches to ethnic communities discourages new members and drives away those who grow up in the faith. The unfamiliarity of the liturgy does not discourage converts; exclusivity does. The first time that Father Christopher ever heard the liturgy in English was at an Orthodox church he visited in high school. When he came to The Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection for the first time, it was falling apart. He dismissed it as another dying ethnic church. As he found himself more and more involved at the cathedral, however, he began to enact his vision for a more inclusive church. The older parishioners were initially suspicious of Father Christopher and the new ethnic groups he welcomed. He was unapologetic. I love you, he said to one elderly Russian lady, But the church is going to outlive you.

The cathedral is now a mixture of Americans and immigrants of many different European ethnicities. Father Christopher stresses the importance of performing the Divine Liturgy in English, so that anyone can understand. But he also believes that the priest ought to acknowledge the ethnic identities of all his parishioners. He thinks that if a woman needs a memorial service for her Georgian mother, the priest should be able to perform it in her language. Depending on who is at a particular service, he tries to deliver a key line or two of the liturgy in whatever language helps individual parishioners feel connected, whether French, Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Georgian, Greek, or Church Slavonic. Father Christopher thinks that all priests should be able to do this. Its not that hard to learn how to say, Peace be unto all in Georgian, he points out. Under Father Christophers vision, the Cathedral has flourished. The sense of community runs throughout the churchs practices, from the liturgy to ministry at large. The cathedral is officially Russian, but it also uses the Romanian wooden semantron for the call to prayer. Parishioners move around to greet each other during the service, and there is always an adult handy to help a struggling child reach up to kiss an icon or light a candle.

After the liturgy, churchgoers descend to the basement for coffee hour. Coffee hour at the cathedral is nothing like the half hour set aside in many Protestant churches for mingling over styrofoam cups of coffee and blueberry muffins. People fill their plates from a buffet line that contains dozens of dishes. There are the usual bagels and sandwiches, but also fish, meats, rice, vegetable dishes, and soups. The church members all pitch in, and the result is a myriad of different ethnic dishes. At the end of the line coffee is available, along with boxed wine and vodka. Then everyone sits down at long rows of tables to eat together. The practice of preparing food together and eating a meal in each others company is wholly community-oriented. It also echoes the immersive aspect of spiritual life at the cathedral. We want to nourish the body as much as the soul, says Father Michael, as he invites newcomers to come back for another service and another meal. The parishioners and clergy at the Cathedral clearly strive to embody the legacy of first century Christianity. From replicating a tabernacle to establishing a community, the church intentionally crafts its worship experience as the inheritance of Old Testament traditions. Lord, have mercy, the choir intones, over and over again. The liturgy reminds worshippers of their place in the story of redemption. The Orthodox acknowledge the separation of mankind from a holy and mysterious God, but at the same time, attempt to bridge that separation by celebrating his mysteries in the form of sacraments and bringing worshippers closer to him through the liturgy. Orthodox Christianity is immersive, sensory, and all encompassing.

Parishioners see the icons, hear the liturgy sung, taste the Eucharist, touch and kiss the cross, and smell the incense. Worship and, by extension, the Gospel restores a bit of what was lost, offers a glimpse of the world beyond. Rather than resorting to reason, a common Protestant staple, the apologetic of the Orthodox lies in the beauty, the mystery, the holiness of the Church. Time and space no longer matter when one enters the Church. In fact, one senses heaven and earth comes together in the service. Sacraments define the parishioners beliefs and practices, not arguments with atheists. The cathedral may distinguish itself from other Orthodox churches in its inclusivity, but it never compromises the Orthodox tradition for the sake of accessibility. The ancient rituals of the Divine liturgy are the core of the Orthodox faith, and parishioners believe that those practices stand for themselves. There is no motivation to simplify or modernize practices in order to evangelize. Faith is in Gods hands. Those at the cathedral just have to make sure that the doors are open.

If you call The Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, the phone will be answered in English, which is unusual for an Orthodox church. But the cathedral is thriving, whereas many Orthodox congregations are in decline. The cathedral has seen incredible growth and fosters a unique sense of community, simply because the congregants and priests refuse to be associated with any single ethnicity. Father Christopher used to put tape over the Russian in Russian Orthodox on the sign outside. The parishioners at the cathedral seem to recognize that church means a community of believers gathering together for worship, not a place for people to cling to old familiarities. They understand the radical message of the Gospel that unites them, the promise of salvation offered to everyone. The church is not yours, Father Christopher explains, Its not an ethnic club with a cross on top.

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