Τετάρτη, 7 Ιουνίου 2017

HOLY PENTECOST: THE HOLY AND GREAT COUNCIL COMMENCES


Evagelos Sotiropoulos, Contributor,
HuffPost Religion
The Orthodox Church will celebrate Holy Pentecost tomorrow. Last year, by the Grace of God I had the remarkable and humbling opportunity to be in Crete for this Great Feast and for the Holy and Great Council. I have written a diary-formatted book chronicling the extraordinary events I experienced and wonderful people I met. Below is an excerpt from the Sunday, June 19th entry of Witnessing History: The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.
He called all men into unity; and with one accord we glorify the All-holy Spirit. (From the Kontakion of Holy Pentecost)

PASCHA, THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST, the Feast of Feasts, is a movable celebration in the liturgical calendar of the Church. Two Great Feasts closely connected to it are the Ascension and Pentecost, forty and fifty days following the Resurrection, respectively; this year, Pentecost was celebrated on June 19th. As the ten primates came together at the Cathedral of St. Menas in Heraklion to concelebrate the Divine Liturgy and Vespers (The Kneeling) for Pentecost, and to commence the Holy and Great Council, the date had an added, special significance. June 19th was also the date of the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in 325; this fact was noted by the Ecumenical Patriarch who later posed the question: “Coincidence or divine providence?”
That Sunday for me began before daybreak as my mother and I left the guest house of the Monastery at 5:00 AM for the two-hour journey to Crete’s capital. As we drove and hugged the Sea of Crete’s coastline, it seemed like we saw a historic parish or famous monastery every few kilometers; making our way passed Rethimno we started to see the majestic sunrise. Our picturesque drive infused with the fresh morning air made me marvel at God’s creation. As we neared Heraklion, there was a sense of approaching a momentous event for Christendom. Navigating our way down narrow European-style-streets to reach St. Menas, we were met by cordoned off streets and security personnel. Before the Cathedral came into our view, we were greeted by beautiful Byzantine chanting blaring from speakers that projected Orthodox hymns and prayers for many surrounding city blocks. We arrived early, according to plan, and, like many others, we received our passes to enter the parish. All-around the Cathedral were clergymen finalizing last minute details, media personnel checking their cameras and scoping out the best spot on either side of the red carpet, security staff directing traffic and keeping order, and the many volunteers who were an indispensible part of the Council’s success. One and all were waiting for the primates, together with their delegations, attending dignitaries and faithful, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy for Pentecost.

Entering the Cathedral, we saw a handful of bishops who had arrived early, sitting in seats normally occupied by lay people. It was a rather peculiar, yet humbling sight to see bishops – who would normally be honoured with church bells and a welcoming committee – seated in the church nave. On each chair was a small placard denoting the seating arrangements for each autocephalous church (by seniority – more on this later) or dignitary such as the many senior military leaders who attended dressed in full regalia. As I witnessed on that day, and indeed throughout the week, no detail was left unattended and for this congratulations are in order to all of the organizers and especially officials from the Ecumenical Patriarchate (together with the Church of Crete) who ensured the Holy and Great Council was accorded with the high distinction it deserved.

Shortly after our arrival, His All-Holiness accompanied by His Eminence Archbishop Irenaeus of Crete and others made their way into the parish. As he was being robed with a red and gold coloured Mantiya to preside over the service of Orthros, the Ecumenical Patriarch seemed to have a cautious but resolute appearance: aware of the challenges leading up to the Council, while at the same time attentive to the moment at hand, standing firm against adversaries as an anvil which is smitten. As he climbed the bishop’s throne, the excellent chanting continued and the parish began to be filled with faithful. One by one, the primates began arriving, exchanging bows of love and respect with His All-Holiness before entering the sanctuary through the Beautiful Gate (Royal Doors).
As the majestic Doxology hymn was chanted, rotating between the two groups of chanters, the primates made their way to the solea, preceded by deacons and priests who would assist in the concelebration of the Liturgy. As the Trisagion Hymn (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal) was chanted, the church bells began ringing aloud to all corners of Crete and mystically around the world, the Apolytikion of Pentecost was sung and the formal transition to the Liturgy – which was performed using many different languages – was done with the invocation of Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. It was the first of many times when I wondered with disappointment what could be so important, so fundamental a disagreement that the four absent churches (who had each committed to coming) would not attend the Holy and Great Council, or, at a minimum, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy together in order to highlight the unity of the Orthodox Church. Setting aside my perhaps naïve outlook, the hours spent inside St. Menas in Heraklion reminded me of the description conveyed to Prince Vladimir of Kiev by his followers (after attending the Divine Liturgy in the great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople) who were sent to find the true religion in the tenth-century:

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their worship surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.
Before the Great Entrance, there were readings from Scripture: the Epistle (Acts 2:1-11) described the unity of assembling “with one accord in one place ... and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit,” while the Gospel (John 7:37-52; 8:12) for the feast – read by Grand Archdeacon Andreas Sophianopoulos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate atop the Ambon – described Christ’s promise of Pentecost; His Beatitude Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria then received the Bible from the Archdeacon.

As the altar boys, deacons and priests circled the nave with the holy Paten and holy Chalice, exclaiming May the Lord God remember all of us in His Kingdom always, now and forever and to the ages of ages, Patriarchs Bartholomew and Theodore, as the two most senior primates, received them, and after rea
At this point, the military band and honour guard, waiting outside in the hot Sunday morning, welcomed His Excellency the President of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopios Pavlopoulos, with a thundering rendition of the National Anthem of Greece. His Excellency was escorted to the solea, across the bishop’s throne and beside Archbishop Irenaeus and members of the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Church of Crete. The President, who hosted an official luncheon for the primates following the Divine Liturgy, read the Lord’s Prayer before Holy Communion.
As the chief celebrant, His All-Holiness delivered the homily. In his 1,900-word address, he focused on Orthodoxy’s unity and catholicity, tying the event of Pentecost with the Holy and Great Council in Crete. He spoke about the uniqueness and need of each local Orthodox Church but also of their interdependence, that they cannot exist “independently and absolutely sovereign,” using St. Paul’s words on spiritual gifts from his First Book of the Corinthians as a backdrop: There are many members, yet one body (cf. 1Co 12). His All-Holiness also spoke about the Orthodox Church having “the supreme gift and blessing of possessing the treasure of truth” but lamented that its application “on the practical level ... [is] greatly lacking,” a theme brought up by many delegates many times during the Council’s deliberations. He also pointedly addressed the need to embrace truth and discard falsehood:

For this reason, we Bishops ought to gather together to discuss the matters that are confronting the Orthodox Church at different times and throughout the world, so as to adopt the appropriate measures to protect the faithful from prevailing errors. Especially in our time, there is a very large number of errors in circulation and the arguments used by the deceivers are particularly sophisticated, which means that a coordinated effort on the part of the shepherds of the Orthodox Church is required in order to inform the faithful.
Finally, reaffirming the value of unity, the Ecumenical Patriarch talked about a common faith and “living out our Orthodoxy as an experience of faith and life” guided by the Holy Spirit through the bond of perfection and love revealing each local church as “unbreakably and indivisibly attached to one – to one Church, to one body.”

Soon thereafter, as the Divine Liturgy concluded, Great Vespers (The Kneeling) was celebrated. This is a unique liturgical service, performed only on Pentecost, when everybody – clergy and laity – kneel for the first time in church since Pascha consistent with Apostolic and patristic traditions. As St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain explains in The Rudder for Canon XX of the First Ecumenical Council:

Throughout Pentecost, again, we pray in an upright posture because this period too is a reminder of the resurrection hoped for in the future age, in order that by means of an upright posture we may transfer our mind from the present age to the future.
Once again, the organizers showed their attention to detail by creating custom pillows with the name and island of Crete embroidered on them. They were distributed to the primates, as well as to President Pavlopoulos, who declined the additional comfort and instead kneeled directly on the floor like the rest of the faithful (as to which primate actually used the pillow inside the sanctuary, I do not know). The powerful prayers calling for the descent and presence of the Life-giving Holy Spirit were read by Patriarchs Bartholomew and Theodore, as well as by Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem and Patriarch Daniel of Romania.
The powerful prayers calling for the descent and presence of the Life-giving Holy Spirit being read by Patriarch Daniel of Romania.
It was a most-fitting way to formally commence the Holy and Great Council. As the primates went to their state-sponsored luncheon, delegates and dignitaries made their way outside where tables and chairs had been set-up under the protective covering of white tents to shield them from the summer sun. This was the first of many examples of the world-famous Cretan hospitality, when food and drink were plentifully for all. More importantly, this was the first opportunity for all bishops, as stewards and trustees of the Church – which transcends ethnic and racial lines – to meet and speak with one another. It was the first of many occasions for them to build trust and goodwill and to strengthen brotherly communion, which in many instances can be more valuable and contributes to successful formal dialogue.
It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to see the handful of hierarchs I know or had previously met, as well as to meet new ones, such as His Grace Bishop Innocentios of Burundi and Rwanda. His Grace described to my mother and me the challenging realities of missionary activity in Africa but also the blessed opportunities to proclaim the Gospel, so that all people can come to the knowledge of the truth (cf. 1Ti 2:4). Our conversation with Bishop Innocentios opened the door to a critical theme I would observe throughout the Council: the Orthodox Church is not a relic religion, it is not a museum where people come to see things that once were and it is not a way of life incapable of embracing change. Remaining faithful to Orthodoxy and accepting modernity need not be mutually exclusive but it does require fine-tuning the methods to become the best fishers of men (cf. Mt 4:19) in the 21st-century. His Grace’s words highlighted that in Orthodoxy, there is unity in diversity;  differences do not necessarily mean deviation. As one delegate told me, the Church is like a tree, it may look different from place to place but the root is the same – the nourishing Orthodox Faith.
As our time in Crete’s capital came to an end, we made our way back to Chania, with a stop along the way for some fuel and cold refreshments. As we traversed the same roads back, the sun’s rays glistening from the coastal waters, the stage had been set for a fruitful week. What better way to begin the Holy and Great Council than by rejoicing in the Divine Liturgy and communion of the pure Body and precious Blood of our Lord?
For us in the car, another such celebration was just around the corner as the Sisters of Chrysopigi were holding a vigil at the Monastery’s newer Katholikon, Metamorphosis at Kastro, for the Monday of the Holy Spirit – the same location where one week later, history would be made.