I will preface that this post is somewhat theological, and has no cute pictures. I'll start to have those tomorrow. Caveat emptor.
For some reason, I have long been a Slavophile. This started sometime in high school, reading Russian novels (some of which contain the most potent and penetrating views of mankind ever written outside Scripture). In grad school, I took a 20th century Russian history course (with young John W- and V-), which was a lot of fun. Then, eventually, all this Bulgaria stuff comes along (and incidentally, I learn that each and every Slavic culture is the epitome of culture and alone preserved it pure through the centuries...).
For my first visit with Ana in June/July 2014 (the one where I met Stefan, exactly three years ago), I went and bought a random smattering of Bulgarian books: The Truth that Killed by Markov, about 20th century communist Bulgaria, Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov, which I still haven't read, Bulgaria: A History Retold in Brief by Fol et al., a competent, if secularized history of Bulgaria, subject to some pet theories. (As a long aside, I brought on this trip my Bible, a Bulgarian dictionary, my Bulgarian prayer book, and Dostoevsky's Idiot, Notes from the Underground, and The Brothers K-, two new reads, one old friend; but I think Notes explains the entirety of D-'s mature corpus, which is consumed with the salvation & preservation of Man, specifically a recognition of Christ as the Man, in the face of a dehumanizingly humanist 19th century modernity - that's another article). Thus, I learn about Bulgaria, the seat of Slavic language and culture - a claim which rests on some facts, mostly about the timeline of Ss. Cyril & Methodius and their disciples, who created the Slavic language and liturgy.
This brings up my next thought. Cyril & Methodius translated the Byzantine liturgy and associated texts ca. 866AD, ultimately creating the Cyrillic language family and alphabet. After some discussion with Popes Adrian II and later John VIII, their efforts to translate into the vernacular were blessed (twice, once by each pope). Later clergy would translate the Western (Roman) rite into Slavonic, with some of the southern Slavs even retaining the more ancient Glagolitic alphabet (Croats, up into the 20th century), which was eventually overtaken by the Latin alphabet. Thus, there is very strong and comparable historical footing for the Polish, Hungarian, and Croatian Western rite (Roman Catholics) and the Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Russian Eastern rite (Orthodox). As St. John Maximovich of Shanghai and San Francisco cheerfully pointed out: "The west was fully Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable liturgy is far older than any of her heresies.”
But perhaps you wonder what all this means, and why 1200-year-old liturgical questions matter to anyone in this day and age. And you're right, of course - a liturgy that was only 1200 years old would be rather young. The fundamental liturgy is that of St. James, brother of the Lord, first bishop of Jerusalem (see Acts 15:13-19, 21:17-25). This was disseminated throughout Christendom, though it is also said that St. Peter wrote the liturgy for the Roman church, planting the seed of the Western Rite. St. Basil the Great (d.379) collected and codified the liturgy for Constantinople, and his work was furthered by St. John Chrysostom (d.407). Today, I was blessed to celebrate the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom with my Bulgarian adelphoi and fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of God.
It felt like home.
No, I couldn't follow the homily. I had to look up the reading later (though I knew it was from Matthew, it turned out to be 8:5-13, the faith of the centurion). But I knew the liturgy. This was new to me, as we have not been Orthodox for very long, and this was the first foreign-language liturgy I have attended as a communicant. I knew the prayers - the Great and Little litanies, and the Lord's Prayer. I didn't follow the Beatitudes (they are a little less rigidly set than the litanies, so it's harder to follow the form). The celebration of the Eucharist was all familiar (though it is always strange and wonderful). The body and blood of Christ effected in the power of the Holy Spirit know no language or border.
And until Vatican II, any Roman Church would have served an Orthodox liturgy, too (and many still do - though I distinguish between the form, which is ancient and Orthodox, and the theology behind it, some - even perhaps much - of which has deviated from the apostolic teaching). And in America, there are actually a good number of Western Rite Orthodox churches (many of which were convert congregations from Anglicanism, but not all). Unity of worship is not the same as strict uniformity.
While Mama and I are indeed Slavophiles, and love the Eastern liturgy and worship, I am so thankful that Orthodoxy is emphatically not constrained by culture. Some Orthodox people choose to be culturally-constrained, and that is sad. But from Rome before the schism, we have a beautiful Western liturgy - more simple, spare, even minimalist in some ways. And from Antioch and Constantinople, a rich and very Eastern liturgy. But there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, and one Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And it is this Spirit who is invoked in the opening prayer, referenced in the title:
O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessing, and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
It is this same Spirit at work in all who say "Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor. 12:13), and though I rejoice to be at home in the Orthodox church, and long for all to return to the apostolic faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3), I remain thankful and indebted to my own Protestant background and for all the grace that is shown in and to and through all those who call on the name of the Lord. I hope all Christians who travel can experience a measure of the joy and interconnectedness of God's people as I did today.
An admittedly dark aside, to lead to a bright conclusion. It is my goal to love God and my neighbor. This must be the goal of every Christian, for Christ said so. There is much, much, much darkness in the world, especially (it seems) here in the Balkans and Near East. If you don't remember the details of the fourth crusade, you might look it up. If you do not know that Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria fought a bloody intra-Orthodox war in 1913, I understand. If you are ignorant of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocides, I am sorry. If you do not know the name Jasenovac, file it the same place in your head as Auschwitz. If you do not know Srebrenica, Lord have mercy. In the Balkans, Orthodox have massacred Muslims & Catholics, Catholics have massacred Orthodox and Muslims, and Muslims have massacred Orthodox and Catholics (and this just in the Balkan war of 1992-1995, to say nothing of the WW2 era, which saw deplorable collusion between the Roman Catholics and the Ustashe, or the WW1 era which saw the beginning of modern religious-ethnic genocide). What to make of the nations of the world, even those we love?
In the world you will have tribulation; but take heart, for I have overcome the world. (Jn. 16:33)
For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1Jn. 5:4-5)
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. (Rev. 2:26-28)
St. John has much to say about the world, and overcoming the world. I'll close on this: in the passage from Revelation 2, Christ invites us into Psalm 2. And I think He invites us into both sides of that Psalm. The nations rage, the peoples plot in vain against the Lord, and against his anointed, and we see ourselves among them, even shouting 'Crucify him!' But we are invited to be wise, be warned, to kiss the Son, not to perish. Having done so, and keeping His works until the end, we are invited to join Him in ruling over the nations with a rod of iron. My arrangement of the passages above is quite intentional (as well as linear in the New Testament) - Christ has overcome the world. We believe and have faith in Jesus the Son of God, God come in the flesh. And we keep his works to the end, loving God and our neighbor in tangible ways (which the Church teaches in worship, prayer, fasting, alms), and finally entering into the joy of our Lord. Then, at the end of all, having held firm to the end, we are given the morning star.
What is the morning star? Rev. 22:16 - "I am the root and descendent of David, the bright morning star." We are given Christ himself. In the Eucharist, we step outside of time, above the world, lifting up our hearts unto the Lord in heaven, and we receive Christ Himself. It is this joy that we share in Christ that unites Christians everywhere, and most especially in the liturgy of the Church. We are fed the heavenly bread for strength in our earthly journey. We are given a little bit of the future in the present, that we may travel on the narrow way towards the eternal banquet of the Lamb.
Thank you for your prayers as I go to meet Stefan tomorrow. As promised, there will be photos, as I have time to upload them.
In Christ, our life, our light, our strength and song, our food and drink, our Creator, Redeemer, our Glory, and our exceedingly great reward,