|Icon of SS Peter and Paul|
Bathed in beautiful golden light. Every haloed head staring out at us. Painted images laden with symbolism not grasped by the casual observer. These are icons, the icons adorning the little Albanian Orthodox church in Northeast Philadelphia I visited yesterday with our Confirmands. We watched as the congregation entered, kissing the icons as a sign of veneration. They also kissed the cross, and the chalice after they had communed…a lot of kissing. In the air hung the strong scent of incense. In our ears resonated the plaintive chanting of the a capella choir, singing in English, Albanian and Russian. We tasted the blessed but unconsecrated bread of communion (that is reserved for the faithful, swallowed on little spoons mixed with wine—even the babies partook). Before the Divine Liturgy, Father Nicholas talked with us, explaining the origins of the church and giving us hints of what we would soon experience. We came away with more questions for sure, but also a strong sense of this bedrock faith, from which sprang all of Christianity. The church members could not have been more welcoming, even though we almost outnumbered them. And in this close-knit, largely immigrant group of people, we were reminded that we all, too, were once recent arrivals to these shores, balancing our native cultures and the realities of this vast and daunting new land.
This was the 15th year of our “Exploring Faith Communities” series. We have taken our kids to learn, and worship, at Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. Centering ourselves in the delightful quiet of Quaker meeting. Meditating with Buddhists. Joyfully rocking the house at a North Philly African American church. And while we have traveled widely, we keep coming down to this: the values we share are greater than what divides us. Period.
I grew up Roman Catholic, in a time when we were strictly encouraged NOT to learn about other faiths. After all, we were in the right—why muddy things up with considering alternate viewpoints? But times have changed, and now more than ever, we are citizens of a great big, yet very small world. It is so important to try to understand each other, to care for each other. We seal ourselves off from our fellow man at our peril.
|Our gang at SS Peter and Paul|
And so we find ourselves transported to this beautiful, almost-heavenly landscape, watching and praying as the priest chants, his back to us at the altar. We chafe at first, and then we are told that the priest turns away in order to be one with us, pointing to God. So we surrender to the mysteries of Orthodox worship, and become part of that worship—just as we join our Baptist, our Mennonite, our UCC brothers and sisters. All of us holding lanterns to light each other’s way through the darkness. So blessed to be part of a vast community of faith, whatever shape that faith may take. But all of us knowing that we stand in the presence of our multi-faceted, ever- loving God.