Sunday, April 25, 2004

Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women
This is the second Sunday after Easter in the Byzantine Rite calendar, the epistle, actually from the Acts of the Apostles, telling how the first deacons were chosen by the apostles; the gospel from Mark about 'the noble Joseph' of Arimathea and the three women who, having gone to anoint Christ's dead Body, first learnt of the Resurrection. Some biblical scholars think Mark originally ended where the gospel reading today does - very suddenly with the Greek word for for - gar - in 'for they were afraid'.

Nineteen years ago on this liturgical day I went to my very first Byzantine Rite Divine Liturgy - or 'Holy Mass' (служба Божi, literally 'service of God' or 'divine service') as the aged priest not fluent in English called it - at a Ukrainian Catholic church. Not perfect by an expert's standards (it was a Saturday anticipated Mass, Low without incense) but not a bad introduction to the rite and tradition either. The little red-brick church looked Russian with a proper onion dome (silver-coloured) - but the three-bar cross had the bottom bar straight, not slanted (a regrettable and unnecessary but perhaps historically understandable anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox statement) - and wonderful painted wooden iconostasis. The biggest latinisation I remember other than the clean-shaven priest (probably an exile from World War II and the Soviet invasion of old Polish Ukraine) was that Communion was received kneeling on the step in front of the iconostasis and the people, looking as though there was an altar rail though there wasn't, passed down the priest's hand crucifix to kiss before receiving - copying how the Pax was shared traditionally in some places in the Roman Rite. Was that Polish practice?

What I remember most vividly is Godwardness - priest properly vested in gold with an icon of Christ on his back, priest and people facing liturgical east and the priest's private prayers sotto voce in a liturgical language, either Slavonic or Ukrainian - and almost tangible holiness, and it was part of a pattern where, thanks to Vatican II, about the only times I've ever experienced Catholic worship actually in a church of the Pope's communion have been with people rather on the margins like these. (Reminds me of the title of one of Fr Ivan Clutterbuck's books!)

Obviously it made quite an impression - today I know Russian and all these years later I still have the bulletin (on its cover is an icon of St George, commemorated by most of this blog's correspondents and visitors this past Friday) from that service!

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