Thursday, January 07, 2010

Orthodox Christmas Eve

Last night was the night before Christmas for our Serbian (and other) Orthodox friends. A number of us from Post were invited to the traditional lighting of the Yule Log at a local church, and actually showed up. For a time, there were more of us in uniform there than locals, especially given the multiple personal security details present, due to the number and status of the personages involved.

(Icon reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, where copyright information is available.)

Having Soldiers outnumber the parishioners seemed a bit odd at the time. (At one point in the not-so-distant past, this parish consisted of over 250 families. It now has 15. War is hell.)

It was a rather nice night, considering the awful weather we've had of late -- not too cold, and no rain or snow. More than that, there was almost no wind. Earlier in the day the wind had been fierce, and frigid.

A small forest of oak saplings had been cut and leaned up against the exterior wall of the church facing the churchyard where the makings of a bonfire were set. Each of those small trees appeared to be about eight to ten feet tall. The local oaks don't lose their dead leaves until the spring, so they were covered in dry, brown, pinnately-lobed oak leaves.

Someone told me he thought they were the "Christmas trees" which were there to be blessed, and would then be taken home to be decorated. I found this quite hard to believe, and suspected he had pulled this out of thin air (or perhaps out of some part of his anatomy....).

Since this was the traditional lighting of the Yule Log, it seemed pretty clear to me that the guy didn't know what he was talking about.

The pastor invited us into his church building, and told us some of its history. It was at least ten degrees colder inside the building than out. But his welcome was heartfelt and warm, and more than made up for the chilly temperature. The interior is small, high-ceilinged and redolent with icons, some of which are quite old.

As we stood there listening to interpreters translate the conversation among the big-wigs and the priest, attendants bustled about the sacred space lighting vigil lamps and readying the thurible (incense pot suspended by three chains replete with tiny bells) for the burning of a splendidly frangrant and sweet frankincense.

Parishioners entered the church to light candles and reverence the icons on the Iconostasis and side walls. Each time as they made the Sign of the Cross in the Orthodox fashion (mirror-image of the Roman fashion) with their right hand, in front of the large icon of the Theotokos ("God-bearer": Blessed Virgin Mary) in the center of the worship space, they would crouch down and touch the floor with that hand.

Once it was completely dark outside, we all went into the churchyard where the parishioners had (finally) assembled. The priest was accompanied by a couple of acolytes in black cassocks who brought with them a book, a bowl, a bundle of long twigs, and a hand cross, in addition to the thurible.

Some parishioners had taken saplings and stationed themselves in a wide circle surrounding the fire burning in the center of the churchyard. It was actually quite impressive -- an impromptu grove of trees where moments before there was only lawn (such as it was).

The priest began the service by intoning something in Serbo-Croatian. The only word I could understand was "Amen" (pronounced 'A-meen'). One of the acolytes added grains of incense, individually, onto the hot coals in the thurible. The priest then took the censer and sang his way around the inside of the circle of trees, incensing each tree and its handler as he went.

He next took the hand cross and the cluster of twigs in one hand, and the bowl of water in the other, and again circled the inside of the 'grove', blessing tree and handler with holy water from the bowl, sprinkled by means of the cluster of twigs.

Finally, after taking up the book and singing a passage from it, he went again into the circle of trees. Taking one from its handler, the priest intoned one last prayer, and we answered "Amen."

He then laid the sapling on the fire, with its leafy crown directly in the flames. The other tree-handlers followed suit, and within seconds there was a huge conflagration, with flames and sparks shooting high into the clear night sky.

Our Serbian-language interpreter, himself an Orthodox believer, told us that parishes in the area vie to see which community can come up with the largest fire.

Moments after the fire started raging, the fireworks, firecrackers, and other incendiary ordnance began going off. It was quite a raucous celebration, set to become even more so, as the traditional grejana rakia (somewhat similar to mulled wine) was brought out.

Since I still had to give my students their final exam in my "Contemporary Moral Issues" college course, SPC C and I took our leave as one M-80 after another exploded and fireworks joyfully shot skyward.

A blessed Orthodox Christmas to you!

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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