Saturday, 8 September 2012

Exiles feast

Still with a heavy heart, I drove to Carrefour this morning and dithered for an hour as I shopped for other things about buying a new camera. The new improved version of the one I have was not in stock, so what I ended up buying was a slightly smaller Sony W690 with approximately the same specifications as the one I lost. The price was about 20% less than I paid for the HX5 over 18 months ago. I paid more for it than it would have cost me in Cardiff Camera Centre, but to have a lighter more pocketable version of the one I lost, now, and without hunting around all day was worth the extra. After all, today is the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, and I hope there will be something special happening at the Archiprestal Church of St Mary in Vinaròs to require having something more than a camera-phone to hand - we'll see.

A few days ago, I noticed a banner attached to some tall pine trees on the N340, near the town boundary, advertising the presence of a Romanian Orthodox Church the other side of the trees. It wasn't visible or easily accessible from the main road. Driving past the church compound this morning with my window open, I caught the sound of liturgical singing issuing from loudspeakers. Why not? It's a feast day of the Virgin Mary observed as widely in the East as it is in the Latin Church, even if it commemorates an event of which there is no biblical record. It's the ancient church's way of stating dogmatically that the mother of Jesus wasn't a supernatural being, but someone like us, born into a human family, just like her son. It's not about worshipping Mary or regarding her as an extension of the godhead, but celebrating her as one rooted in our common human history, who accepted God's grace in faith and shaped her life by it.

I learned to see it this way as a youthful Anglican student coming into contact with the Russian Orthodox Church when I was nineteen. The Bristol Orthodox pastorate was dedicated in honour of the Nativity of Mary. Some of my earliest ecumenical experiences were in dialogue with Fr Nicholas Behr, the priest there. So with these memories and reflections arising from my unconscious as I heard sacred singing on my way shopping, I resolved to go to the Romanian Church on my way home. I had to park across the main road and dash across in between traffic. 
The brick building isn't very big. Half of it contains the sanctuary, the rest is the nave and a narthex which opens into the grounds, where worshippers may stand during the service on crowded busy days, entering only to greet the icons of Christ and the Mother of God, and receive Holy Communion.

I could still hear singing from the road outside. This time a recording of a man singing an unaccompanied hymn in Romanian - if my memory serves me right this would be an ancient 'Akathist' hymn in honour of the Blessed Virgin - Akathist means 'not sitting', you either stand or kneel. Such hymns are long and require stamina. But that's historic custom. Today it was just background music to what we'd regard as a social event after church. The Orthodox regard this as 'The Liturgy after the Liturgy'. When the communion part of the service finishes, bread, cakes and other food and drink are blessed and shared by the congregation. It varies according to occasion. 

People eat and greet. The priest circulates, though not for small talk. He stops and prays with people. Mothers with newborn babies come and kneel at his feet for thanksgiving prayers after childbirth, and the tiny one is taken into the sanctuary of the church for a blessing. All very informally, normally, life and prayer mingle. I stood inside, on the fringe of the gathering. It wasn't long before a woman presented me with a small plastic cup containing rice soaked in chocolate milk with piece of chocolate on top. Then a man gave me small picnic beaker of wine, then biscuits were offered by small children circulating with trays. No conventional greetings were uttered. The offer of food was its own kind of welcome to a stranger. Just as it was fifty years ago when I first visited Bristol's Orthodox church.

I went into the church to greet the icons, as I learned to do all those years ago. I gave thanks for this community of exiles, living in the most natural the spiritual and social tradition at the heart of their Christianity three thousand kilometres from home. As I left, I felt blessed, moved to tears by this unpretentious communal expression of faith. It reconnected me to experiences and learnings made in my youth which have had untold influence on my life and ministry in all the time I spent living and working among people making themselves a home far away from home.

I walked into town this evening, but apart from the regular Saturday Evening Mass anticipating Sunday, there was no special observance of the Feast of Our Lady's Nativity. Out in a few of the country villages I visited recently, I saw fiestas advertised for today. I really should have planned to go out of town instead of assuming a uniform pattern of celebration. Each community has its own history of observances which stretches back centuries if not millennia, even in an age when secularisation threatens to level everything to dull monochrome uniformity of events.

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