Monday, October 27, 2008

A Fragrant Legacy

A Fragrant Legacy
By Fr John Parker
Originally published in the Post and Courier on Sunday, October 26, 2008

It was on Miodrag’s account that he and Drazen visited our church on this sad day. Miodrag’s brother, Aleksandar, a long-time resident of Mt. Pleasant, had died—alone—and Miodrag had just arrived from his home in Europe to tend to the affairs of his departed brother.

I had not known Aleksandar in this life. Still, it is our custom to care for the dead and their survivors, the weeping and the grieving, who are looking for the consolation of Christ. We put a plan together and agreed to meet at the morgue on that Monday, in order to wash Aleksandar’s body.

The traditional Christian preparation of a corpse for burial is quite a moving, beautiful, and holy experience, even in the sterile environment of a morgue. After the first few Psalms, one really doesn’t take much notice of the room. In this case, our parish deacon and his wife, with the ever gracious assistance and direction from the head of mortuary services, humbly, delicately, carefully washed Aleksandar’s body, all the while I chanted Psalms, prayers and hymns for the departed, in addition to reading relevant passages on death and resurrection from the Epistles and Gospels. We finished our sacred philoxenia (biblical Greek for “hospitality”—and literally “love of strangers”) by anointing Aleksandar’s body with fragrant Myrrh, one of the three beautiful gifts given to Jesus at his Nativity—precisely with reference to his impending death for our sake. Our last act in preparation for his memorial service was to clothe him in white. It is what he would have worn at his first, and more eternally significant death: his baptism. The Panikhida (memorial service) was simple and beautiful—a small gathered choir and a few dozen of Aleksandar’s coworkers and friends, in addition to his brother and sister-in-law.

The same day that we sang our funeral service for Aleksandar, I learned of the falling-asleep (as it is referred to in the Scriptures) of our beloved brother priest, the Very Rev. Nicholas Trivelas, who pastored the Orthodox Church in Charleston for nearly half a century. The preparation of the body of a priest is similar to that of a layman, though a bit more specific. We were kindly welcomed, in this instance, by the folks at Stuhr’s, a few of whom knew Fr Nicholas when he was a young priest and they were children. Fr John Johns, the current pastor of Holy Trinity had invited Fr Anastasy Yatrellis (himself a son of the parish) and me to meet him for these holy preparations. We shared the prayers, washings, and anointings—we washed his face, hands, and feet, and anointed each with Myrrh. What joyful sadness—to wash the face of a perpetual smile, to anoint the hands and feet of one who served so many. Finishing our prayers and the anointing, we vested Fr Nicholas’ body in his brightest Paschal Vestments—a priest is buried as a priest. Fr. Nicholas’ funeral was a more sizeable service. His whole family was there, in addition to his parish family—including surely the children’s children of folks he himself had baptized.

The preparations for the burial of these to men caused me also to reflect on my time in the Holy Land. Not far outside of Jerusalem, we visited the Judean desert, and specifically the Great Lavra, a living and ancient Orthodox Christian monastery founded in 485AD. Within the nave of the katholikon (the main monastery church) is a glass case about 6 feet long and three feet deep and high, which contains a human body vested similarly to Fr Nicholas. The body is that of St Sabbas, the founder of the monastery. His incorrupt relics (non-embalmed, non-decomposing body) are laid in state for pilgrims to come and venerate. (Incorrupt relics, which often exude the scent of myrrh or roses—even 1500 years after death—are a sign of sanctity in the Orthodox tradition. It is one way we recognize a saint.) The preparations made for St Sabbas’ funeral 1500 years ago would have been the same as those we made for Aleksandar and Fr Nicholas. It is the way our tradition teaches us to treat the corpse of any departed soul.

The body of a deceased layman, the body of a departed priest, and the incorrupt corpse of an ancient monastic saint. You and I each share two vocations with Aleksandar, Fr Nicholas, and St. Sabbas. The first is that not a single one of us escapes death. Psalm 49:7ff is a reminder: “Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit.” We will all die.

The second shared vocation is also highlighted in this Psalm: “Yea, he shall see that even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others” (verse 10)—the call to “leave our wealth to others”—the eternal memory of a holy, self-denying life, which in turn gives life to those with whom we come into contact. And we have a limited number of breaths in this world to be perfected in such holiness. God help us not to squander those precious few!

As the Western Church prepares to celebrate the feast of All Saints (Nov 1) and All Souls (Nov 2), let us remind ourselves that life is but a breath, and ask the Lord that after our own death, we leave a truly holy legacy—alive, as fragrant as roses—15 days, 15 months, even 1500 years from now.

Fr John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at To read more visit

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Interview with Frederica on Ancient Faith Radio

Hear it here:

Read it here:

A Voice in the Public Square
Thursday, October 9, 2008Frederica in Orthodoxy, Christian Apologetics, Podcast
[Ancient Faith Radio; October 9, 2008]

Frederica Mathewes-Green: I’m in the nave of the Church of Holy Ascension in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina on Route 17, just north of Charleston. I’m talking with the pastor, Fr. John Parker. Tell me a little about your journey to Orthodoxy, Father, as we get started.

Fr. John Parker: Sure. Well, it all began during my Episcopal seminary experience in Ambridge, PA, when the library there had a sale on duplicate books. So they were 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardback books. I found a whole stack of Orthodox Books there, which, I’d never read anything like that before. So, there was “Becoming Orthodox” by Fr. Peter Gillquist, there were several books by Fr. Schmemann… so, we began to read those books at home actually. My wife (she’ll probably not be happy that I said this) took “Becoming Orthodox” off of my bedside. I had read thirty pages in three days, and she’s a very voracious reader, and so she took it and put it on her bedside, and read it in one day. As a result of that, she came to me and said, “You know, this book… we have to talk about this book.” It raises questions that we couldn’t even think to ask. That was very intriguing to me. So that was the very beginning of it: some used books from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

FMG: And is that about eight or ten years ago now?
Fr. JP: That would have been… you know, I was just measuring it the other day. It would have been 1998 or 1999. So, yeah, it’s been almost ten years ago right now. Amazingly, (I remember this too because I still have the email) once I began to ask some of the questions that Fr. Peter raised in his book, “Becoming Orthodox”, the first thing that I tried to do was to contact your husband, who was my Episcopal priest when I was a child, and to ask him some of these questions- what has the Orthodox Church always believed about this? That was an email, I think it was in January 2000, that I was able to reach him.

FMG: I have a similar memory, I was going through some old file boxes and I found a manila envelope. My husband’s handwriting on the tab said, “Orthodoxy”. To think that there was a time in our lives when everything about Orthodoxy fit in one manila folder! It’s like it just exploded and took over the whole house and our lives.
Fr. JP: I have the same folder!

FMG: (laughs) And as you mentioned, we go back quite a ways. When my husband was the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Woodbridge, Virginia, 1981 to 1989, your dad was on the parish council, and you were a teenager in the youth group, and we knew you quite well then. And as we always say, you always came over and mowed the lawn for us when we were out of town. So, God has some very strange and surprising plans- because here you are in our home town, right outside of Charleston with this beautiful church. I’ve already talked to Andrew about the architecture and all of that. But you’ve drawn some attention to yourself here in Charleston, by being outspoken, as I’m sure you were in the Episcopal Church as well. Tell me how you began to get the attention of the local newspaper and local inquirers.
Fr. JP: Well, it happened in two ways, actually. The first is that the local newspaper has an incredible Faith & Values section. Incredible, I think, because it has one; well, let me just say that it’s incredible that they have a Faith & Values section that’s three pages every Sunday. And they often report on the happenings of local churches. I noticed in reading that section many times that they often reported on mega-church activity in the area, and almost never reported on anything traditional. So, I took a moment to email the contact at that time at the newspaper, and I said, ‘You know, all of these articles I read are about contemporary Christianity in the Faith & Values section, I wonder if you’d be interested in something about the traditional Christians in our area.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’d be interesting’. And as it turned out at that time, I think it was at that time, the main writer for the Faith & Values section of the newspaper had received some sort of a paid study abroad to Indonesia. It was maybe around the time of the tsunami. He went there to study the intersection of journalism and religion in the aftermath of the tsunami. So, the newspaper agreed to allow me to write columns as a guest writer while he was away for several months. So there was a time actually when I was able to write two or three and sometimes four columns a month for that newspaper, unedited except for spelling and punctuation, basically. So I could write strictly about the Orthodox Faith and the Orthodox tradition without any supervision, so to speak.

FMG: That is amazing. So you wrote about iconography, or the Virgin Mary, or…
Fr. JP: Well, I don’t know if I got myself in trouble or not in the very first article I wrote, but I wrote about the importance of tradition in Christianity, and in that particular article, I described that all Christianity is traditional, but the question is, whose tradition?

FMG: I remember reading it!
Fr. JP: That was not received well in certain circles, because it seemed like a slam on everyone, but I made the point in that particular article, writing about churches, that if you come into a church like we’ve been graced to build here, a traditional church which is oriented toward the East- that’s redundant- but it’s properly oriented, and it’s in the form of a cross and it has three spaces, you know- the narthex, the nave, and the altar, and so forth. That describes one tradition. And a gigantic church in an auditorium with stadium seating and a stage represents another tradition. It is a certain Christianity, but that comes from a different architectural tradition. So, it’s traditional, it’s just not the ancient Christian tradition.

FMG: I want to say, I’ve been experimenting, I always want to find terms that go down a little smoother. When you use the word ‘tradition’ you always have to do a lot of explaining, because people think about the scripture of, ‘Do not be led by false tradition’ - false tradition? ‘dead tradition’. I’m experimenting with using the phrase, ‘community memory’ instead. Orthodoxy is held together by community memory. We do these things because everyone everywhere throughout the history of this Body of Christ has, we always have. So, it’s community memory. I find people don’t balk as much as they do at the word ‘tradition’. So that was your first column, and then you were off to the races for several months.
Fr. JP: That’s right, and the more controversial one was when I was invited to give the benediction at the local medical university, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Actually, the local Greek priest was invited to give the benediction that year, and his schedule was full. I was very grateful that he came to ask me; he wanted to keep it within the Orthodox churches. So, that was wonderful. So I diligently sat down at my desk and I pulled out our four-volume Great Book of Needs, and I went specifically to the service of the anointing of the sick, to look at the different prayers that we have that talk about Jesus as the physician of our souls and bodies, figuring that this is a group of students who are going to be nurses and doctors, that I would find something helpful there. Then, I penned what I thought was a prayer absolutely in line with our tradition, which was both rooted in those prayers from the Great Book of Needs, but also rooted in the local circumstances of the medical school. The day after that, I got a letter in the mail thanking me from the medical university that I would do this benediction, and it said, ‘please see the guidelines for the benediction inside’. So, I did. And it was crazy. It describes that you weren’t allowed to use the word ‘Father’, or ‘Jesus’… actually, it listed ‘Jesus’, ‘Allah’, and I don’t remember what else, but all these quote-unquote specific names for God; you had to keep it generic. I’m not even sure you could say ‘God Almighty’. You just had to be very generic. So, I immediately contacted their office and suggested that I couldn’t do such a thing because I’m an Orthodox priest. We pray in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that’s what I had to do. So, here’s my prayer. And I sent it to them by email.

FMG: So they had their own tradition that they were trying to make you fit.
Fr. JP: Well, ironically, a new tradition, if we can say so, because this is the point I’d tried to make before I wind up just saying, you know, I either need to pray the way we pray, or else maybe I shouldn’t do that at all. And so they asked me, would it be terrible if I were uninvited? And I said, no, you do what you need to do. So they invited someone else. But the point is that the medical university has a chapel which is on the corner of Rutledge and Bee Streets in downtown Charleston. It’s a neo-Gothic chapel, called St. Luke’s Chapel. Who’s St. Luke? He’s a physician, who wrote a gospel. And it’s got a gigantic stained glass window of St. Luke. And it’s got a cross on the top. So, the medical university especially in Charleston has a very venerable Christian tradition. But that has changed a lot lately. So, anyhow, that became an opportunity for the local area to learn a little about the Orthodox Christian Church. And the newspaper allowed me to write a column about why I couldn’t give the benediction. And it gave the chaplain of the medical university a couple of columns next to my column so that we were side-by-side in our writings, and that caused many letters to the editor to be written. Ultimately, I was able to sit down with the chaplain, which was very good, and to talk to him about his position and so forth. It was very helpful in that sort of dialogue sense, but very frustrating because a Christian should be able to pray as a Christian, and a Christian chaplain of a school should be able to defend that a Christian invited to pray as a Christian should be able to pray as a Christian! If that makes sense. Kind of crazy.

FMG: So it was a moment of controversy for your church here, for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, but it was a beneficial controversy, because it drew attention, it got everybody talking, and I’m sure there were a lot of discussions of the pro’s and con’s and what should be done. I imagine you found that a lot of the local population was very sympathetic to what you were trying to do.
Fr. JP: It’s true. Actually, that was my first foray into the broader religious constituency of Charleston. I did get a lot emails- every time I wrote in the newspaper I’d say, “And you can reach Fr. John by email at… ” and I’d give my email, and I’d give the phone number, precisely because I would enjoy having the conversation with anyone. I received an equal number of ‘Atta boy!’s as, ‘You are just a Neanderthal Christian…’ I mean, I received that from atheists, I received it from other Christians… So it was a very interesting response, even from the Christian community there were those who were way in favor of, ‘Yeah, you stand up there and the Gospel says, if you deny me I will deny you, and so forth, and if you stand up for me, I’ll stand up for you!’, and then from other Christians, who’d say, ‘You just have no business saying those sorts of things.’ It’s crazy. It was quite an experience.

FMG: You told me you met recently with an orthodox rabbi who specifically wanted to meet with you because of that controversy.
Fr. JP: Right. He was given the opportunity to give the benediction this year, and ironically, um, I’ve never said anything like this, I’ll say it out loud, he prayed in the name of ‘Our Father’ in the benediction, which was permitted for him. So maybe in some little way, I paved the way for some stripping of the generic language about God, even if we need to talk about Who the fulfillment of Our Father is. But, that was quite a remarkable experience. It was nice to hear from him as an orthodox Jewish rabbi that he has a firm conviction about in Whose name he prays, and that he would not waver from that either.

FMG: That’s very good. So in a short time, you’ve managed to become pretty well known, I guess, in Charleston, with the regular newspaper columns, over the course of a couple of years now. Do you find that people are being drawn, being brought to this parish out of curiosity or whatever because of this effort to speak in the public square?
Fr. JP: I think that’s true. Yes. We have a number of people, I don’t know, maybe two or three or four families, who have specifically come here as a result of those newspaper articles. There is one family I am thinking of at the moment, who read something that I read in the newspaper- it was in late October that year because it was about Halloween- and actually, I wrote about the link between Halloween and death. Just to kind of capture everyone’s imagination. They happened to be reading that, they had dabbled in witchcraft, and they thought, ‘This is amazing. I’ve never heard anybody write anything like this about Christianity and death and Halloween. We need to go check that place out!’ And in short order, they were catechumens, and a year later, they were received into the Church. Really remarkable. You know, people aren’t coming in droves, but I’m guessing now, that just about everyone who reads the Post and Courier in Charleston could name the Orthodox church as a result of this. It’s been a real gift to us to have that kind of opportunity. Many of my brethren in other states, particularly in the north or northeast, can’t believe even that there is such a thing as a Faith & Values section, much less that Orthodox Christianity is playing such a prominent role in writing in that particular paper.

FMG: I know that’s one of the things, as newspapers have lost so many subscribers, and they keep shrinking, they keep losing pages, that the religion section is one of the first things to go. So, to still have three pages devoted to it here is an amazing thing. I know that there’s Fr. Aidan Wilcox in Cedar Park, Texas, right outside of Austin, that he writes regular columns for the local paper there, and I guess I would want to encourage pastors to do that. If you’re listening and an Orthodox pastor, you might think you’re not a writer, but if you can write a sermon, you know, just write down what you said in the sermon. Find a local hook, something in the news, and… a lot of times papers are looking to fill content, especially online, on web pages it’s 24 hours a day, and you have to keep replacing it. There are many ways you could actually reach a larger community than just your parish by reaching out like that.
Fr. JP: May I say another word about that? I would just like to encourage the same, and one of the tacks that I found most helpful was that the Orthodox Church represents something so totally ancient, something so totally different from everything else that’s in the religious news, at least in our area, but I think it’s true in the broader context of our country. We represent the minority, in a sense, and newspapers like minorities. So it’s helpful to use that, to use it for good, to describe that ‘Here’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, and here’s how come you don’t know about it already.’ Or by comparison to some grandiose thing, I read in the newspaper- this is how it happens sometimes. There was an article in the newspaper about eight weeks ago about some local mega-churches that have been partnering with other mega-churches to make mega-mega-churches. Their call to unity is to do things together, so they’re going to put a lot of money in a big pot together, and they’re going to go plant a church in Africa. Or something like that. It’s a very noble idea, and thank God they have such resources. But nevertheless, one of the lines in that article said, ‘We are partnering together with churches to plant other churches in other parts of the world where it’s never been done before.’ That was one of the things they said! And I thought, that’s outrageous! So I called the newspaper, my contact there, and I suggested, this has been going on for a long, long time, and can I have the time to explain a) what true Christian Unity is, and b) how it has been going on throughout the last 2000 years, and perhaps why they might not know so- part of which is our fault, and part of which is their own myopia. But anyway, just to read something in the newspaper, and to contact the newspaper and say ‘I have a different perspective on that, which is also very venerable and ancient’, and I also have the opportunity to talk about it. I find that they’re always interested in that.

FMG: Yes, I think you will find that editors are often very receptive to that. Otherwise, they have to go out and find written material day after day after day. If you can tap into some open discussion going on they’re often very willing to hear that.
Fr. JP: One last word: I’ve found it very helpful to do that sort of writing about something that’s already been written about, because they’ve already chosen the topic, and this would be a way to respond to it. It does happen on occasion that newspapers are interested in having two opposing sides put in a room and having you duke it out. So, that also can be beneficial if everyone knows that that’s going on. It’s important to be aware of that, so that when we come to the table to write about that, to write about whatever the topic might be, we know that sometimes it might just be for the spectacle. So we have to be careful to know that’s the case. We may still choose to be in the arena, but…

FMG: I noticed that desire for spectacle when there used to be much more interest in hearing about the abortion issue, and I was doing a lot of writing, radio, newspaper, and TV shows. Especially on TV shows, I would notice how the producer would dart in during the commercials and try to make us angrier, saying, ‘Challenge him on that, don’t let him get away with that…’ It is spectacle; they know that what catches the viewers, or the readers, is people getting angry. We want to do things the way that is appropriate for us as Christians and not get hooked into that culture of spectacle and anger and violence, in fact, verbal violence.
Fr. JP: Yeah, it’s amazing how that does work sometimes. I would say, just to make a shameless plug for the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, that over the last two and a half years, they have been incredibly gracious to me, and have allowed me on behalf of our parish, to write about things that otherwise people just… they won’t buy a book at the store to read about this, they won’t type it in to the internet to read about it, but they flip over to page F-1 or whatever the Faith & Values is that particular Sunday, and they look on there for what piques their interest, to the point where people will see me on occasion in my cassock, and they’ll say, ‘Are you the one who writes in the newspaper?’ And then I find that they’ve clipped those articles out and they’ve studied them in their adult Sunday School class in their big Baptist churches, and that’s amazing! So thank God for that and anything to help the Orthodox Faith become well known.

FMG: Well, it’s my home town. I’m glad to hear that they’re gracious and agreeable as you say at the Post and Courier. Congratulations. You say things in those columns sometimes, I think, ‘You can’t say those things in public!’ Because you’re so forthright about the Orthodox moral and theological position, and I find that it turns out, you *can* say that! And it clears the air when you just spell it out. And anytime you want to come mow our lawn, you can do that too!
Fr. JP: Thank you, I’ll be happy to do that again sometime!

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Pilgrimage may be a life changing event

Special to the Post and Courier
By Fr John Parker

I am going on a journey across time and geography. As you read this column, I am making my way from Charleston to Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In July, I received the most amazing gift: a two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led by the most well-known Orthodox Christian bishop in the English-speaking world — His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. We are not going on a tour; a pilgrimage is substantially different. Yes, we will travel with cameras and MP3 recorders and notebooks, but these we bring along in order to share the pilgrimage upon our return with those who cannot physically go. We go to the Holy Land to experience the life of Christ in the very places he was born and lived and walked and died — to pray in the holy places, to reflect on the holy moments, to venerate the sacred relics.

Last week, while surfing with a friend, I learned that he had taken a trip to the Holy Land. He described with such palpable joy standing on a certain mountain and being able to point from there in the panorama, to these holy sites — places most of us have seen only in pictures and located only on maps in the appendix of the Holy Scriptures. His greatest impression was that "Jesus was clearly human to me now." Having walked on the roads where Christ walked and been in a boat where Jesus walked on water, Jesus was "more real" to him.

I had lunch with another friend who took a similar trip more than 40 years ago. He had a reaction which I hadn't really anticipated: it was hard to focus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the Holy Tomb of our Lord — since there were so many tourists: folks who were only interested in getting a snapshot of the tomb of Jesus (as if it were simply an artifact in an old museum) before moving on. Yet this is the site of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ — the most significant moment in the history of the world! I don't look forward to that particular juxtaposition.

Still, I hope it will be more like when I visited the Byzantium exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about five years ago. While every other gallery was filled with tourists gabbing about art, the section containing 500 years of Christian icons, mosaics, and vestments was nearly silent.

One knew this was a holy space, even in the middle of one of the most well-known treasure houses of art in the world.

Our pilgrimage is an intimate family visit. A living connection to relatives on the other side of the world. On Tuesday, we'll be honored to visit with and receive the blessing of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the successor to James (the first Bishop of Jerusalem, who presided at the first council of the Church, as described in Acts 15). We are in communion with the Patriarch to this day, and will have the opportunity, most likely, to serve and receive Communion at the tomb of our Lord.

As a parenthetical note, for us Orthodox Christians through nearly two millennia, the various sacred sites are not "supposed." We know the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be the tomb of Christ. We know Mount Tabor to be the Mount of Transfiguration. We know these things because our relatives were there — just like Charlestonians know that Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie and as the English are certain that William Shakespeare wrote all those great plays — some of our relatives knew him, too. This pilgrimage is a visit to living relatives whose relatives' relatives' relatives built these places in Jesus' honor — and their Christian kin before them walked with the Lord himself.

In the wider religio-political sphere, I seriously wonder what we will encounter. There is always the threat of missiles. The region is not the most stable place. And what of the presence of the evangelical Christian Zionists who have such a heavy influence in Israel? (These folks believe that the Jews should "get their land back" in order that Jesus can then return to judge the Earth. Their ideas about this link between the land and the final judgment are based on personal interpretations of Scripture which find their roots only in the last century or so in North American Christianity, and nowhere else in Christian history.) What place will they play in the landscape there? Do they improve or detract from the reputation of Christianity in Israel?

Add to all of that the fact that this is my first visit to a non-Western culture. One semester of Hebrew and several years of seminary cannot truly prepare one for even two weeks in a society entirely different from ours, with a language read and written opposite ours, and with a vocabulary base almost fully unrelated to the romance languages and Greek that I have studied.
Mercy — this is quite a pilgrimage, a stretch in virtually every facet of my life.

A few weeks from now, I will follow up with a column describing the reality of that which I can only imagine right now. I'll also be pleased to share with all who are interested our pilgrimage in photographs and MP3s on Wednesday nights beginning in October. Your prayers, please! And send me your names and the names of friends and relatives for whom I should pray at these holy sites!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. Reach him at He will contribute to a blog while on pilgrimage: page 8.htm.

Priest Becomes a Pilgrim

Special to the Post and Courier
October 5, 2008

Riot shields. A ray of light beaming from the dome of the Church of the Resurrection down into the nave. A Berlin-ish Wall running over the hillside, dividing families. The Great Walls of the Old City. Women bearing machine guns in the streets. The angelic voices of the nuns at the Russian monastery at En Kerem. A late night talk with an Orthodox Rabbi who has a well-known radio program broadcast world-wide. A Palestinian Roman Catholic guide on our trip. An hour with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, successor to the brother of our Lord. Walking—if we can call it that—in a crowd of 10,000 (literally) Muslims leaving the Dome of the Rock on a Friday during Ramadan. Receiving communion at the hand of the Archbishop of Jerusalem at the tomb of Jesus Christ in the middle of the night. These are a just a few of the sites and experiences of my two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land from September 8-20. Our local host, a newly ordained Anglican deacon, began to describe all this to us before we would experience it: “If all the world is a stage, Jerusalem is an Opera.” Opera indeed.

The religious and political history and situation in Israel is as varied as its terrain. Rocky here, desert there, lush and tropical in another spot. Never the same for 40 miles in a row. Jerusalem seems to be a police state. Everywhere we went, the presence of small bands of armed officers were walking about. In order to enter the temple mount, one must go through airport-type security. And yet, despite the military and police presence (or perhaps because of it), I felt entirely comfortable walking the streets of Old Jerusalem at 11pm, 1230am, and 445am.

The only time I ever felt threatened at all was at the Wailing Wall, the remnants of the Western Wall of the Temple, to which many people come to pray, most numerously Orthodox Jews. As we entered the area, Metropolitan Kallistos, Fr Marcus Burch, and I were confronted by a very angry (and I suspect disturbed) Orthodox Jew who came practically belly to belly with our Bishop. He had a very hateful (I use such a term very sparingly, yet intentionally) look in his eyes as he continually pointed the way out, and blocked Metropolitan Kallistos’ every effort to move forward. Finally, Israeli police moved in and escorted the man back towards the wall, in order to leave us in peace. Still, the fellow kept an eye on us from a distance—and I likewise kept an eye on him. He had obviously identified us as Christians by our dress (cassocks and hats), though we were forbidden to wear our pectoral crosses there. Forbidden were all “ritual objects”. Apart from being spat upon by a few Jewish teenagers and receiving the Arabic equivalent of the middle finger by a few Muslim boys, we were generally well received in public. I guess pubescence is a universal suffering.

Jerusalem is a confluence of ancient and modern tides. Where in our country, we think in terms of a few hundred years, and in Europe, one thinks in terms of more centuries, Jerusalem is the land of millennia. King David lived and ruled there nearly 3000 years ago. It was incredibly humbling to walk the Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa—the path the Jesus himself took to his crucifixion 2000 years ago. It was mind-boggling to visit Jericho, the oldest inhabited city in the world—a 10,000 year history (and to see the very Sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed up into. There is only one ancient Sycamore tree in Jericho, and it is more than 2000 years old.) If anything, our pilgrimage helped to establish a sense that we are part of a great and long (very long) history.

My concerns about the mixing of tourism and pilgrimage proved to be true—and not just for others, but for me. It was a difficult line to walk—the line of wanting to be there in the moment to pray, to venerate, to pause, to reflect, but also to record, to photograph for those who could not come along and may never go. The most significant moments of prayer and true pilgrimage occurred at unusual times and unanticipated places. To serve the services at the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre, tomb of Christ), we had to go in the middle of the night. There is simply too much chaos during the day, so the monks begin the liturgy after midnight, when the doors to the church are closed to the public, and open only to those who come to pray. How incredibly peaceful it was to receive communion in the Tomb of Jesus Christ at about 4am, nearly the hour of his resurrection “before dawn”.

Another angelic experience was the Vigil (Evening service) for the Beheading of the John the Baptist, celebrated at the Russian Orthodox monastery in En Kerem, providentially, the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth—the parents of the Forerunner himself. We arrived after the prayers had already begun, and on entering the magnificent church, surely we heard the voices of the hosts of heaven. The monastic women’s choir sang from the loft over the west doors and filled the domed church with the most ethereal resonance. We clergy were also then invited to serve with the monks for as long as we could stay, which turned out to be one of the most moving experiences of my priesthood.

We got a taste of parish life in Nazareth, when, on Sunday, we served with the local bishop and clergy in a packed church. The service was sung eagerly and fervently in Arabic—with a little Greek and English thrown in by us visitors—and was apparently aired on internet TV. The local Orthodox Christians invited us to their version of coffee hour, and treated us like kings. Middle-eastern hospitality ranks near the top of the list. How beautiful that the biblical term is “philoxenia”—the love of strangers.

I really can do no justice to the pilgrimage in a brief column—but I wanted to give at least a taste of my experience here. I thank the Post and Courier for the opportunity to write these two before-and-after columns. To those who did email me names of friends and family, I did pray for you at the Holy Sepulchre and at the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. May the Lord bless you! For a fuller walk through our pilgrimage experience, I invite you to Holy Ascension on Wednesday nights in October. We’ll pray Vespers at 6pm, and from 6:45-8pm, I recount the pilgrimage in pictures and tales. Come and see!

Fr John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 843-881-5010 or

On Christian Unity

Special to The Post and Courier

It started out as a recipe for key lime double chocolate chip cookies. But after mixing the ingredients, I thought the pre-baked conglomeration looked too wet. There was absolutely no way I could roll one-inch balls of dough out of this soup. So I decided to add almost double the flour. Then (amateur that I am) I thought I ought to add some more of the other ingredients to try to even out the proportions. Good intentions, bad idea. After the timer sounded, I pulled my confections out of the oven, and voila! Cakies. They are round and somewhat flat like a cookie, but overly moist and airy—not crispy or buttery. Cakies look and smell a lot like cookies, but they aren’t.

Now, some might say, “Hey, those are great! Cookie meets cake. And since everyone has differing tastes in desserts, all the merrier.” To a certain extent, this is true. But what if folks called those cakies “cookies,” and for the next two or three hundred years, this crazed recipe took off and my cakies were baked all over the planet and called “cookies.” Then, after a half of a millennium, someone shows up with a recipe calling for half the flour and proportionately less sugar and eggs claiming that these are actually cookies. Citizens angrily suggest that the baker is trying to force his (presumably) ancient recipe for his “cookies” on them. Cakie enthusiasts insist, however disconnected from the past, that they know what a real cookie is. After all—everyone knows that they are supposed to be light and fluffy and moist.

In the heat of the debate about the ancient recipe and the newer one, there is a group of folks who think it is not worth battling over which is the true cookie. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” they thought, “if we just got together to bake.” And so they did. Some baked cakies (calling them cookies) and some baked the ancient treat, and they were content to “just bake together.” They thought that this would unify them. But did it?

Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed in the Garden prior to his passion, “that they may all be one,” and with a purpose—that the world might know that God the Father sent Jesus Christ into the world to save us. When self-professing contemporary Christians read these verses and look around, many assume that the denominations of Christianity are God-willed and God-sanctioned—like varieties of cookies and cakies or the 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins. Some attempt to justify these differences, saying that hands and feet and ears all make one and the same body. Others claim that God “wired” us all differently for different “expressions” of church. Still others figure that there is little use in worrying about the differences, and that self-professing Christians ought just “to do things together” to show unity (have communion, pray, build houses, go on retreats).

But the Christian life is so much more profound, and frankly, so much simpler. It is certainly good when Christians get together to serve others to bear witness to God’s love, and we should make the effort more often. But this action of doing things together is not the unifying factor of the Christian faith. We are not made one by a common cause. Rather, we are made one by Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We are not called—to make reference to the story above—just to bake together, we are called to make true cookies and to pass the same recipe on to the next generation.

Unity in the Christian understanding is not simply an outward unity that covers up a multitude of polar disagreements on the fundamentals of faith—such as baptism (who, how, when?) and the Eucharist (body and blood of Christ or not?)- or whether or not fornication, unchastity, adultery, and porneia are sins (they are!). Rather, the unity of Christians and the inherent Oneness of the Church (which to this day is not fractured) is established by knowing the unchanging Jesus Christ and living the Christian life as it has been traditioned (handed down) to us, from the beginning, starting with our Lord.

St Irenaeus of Lyons (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John the Evangelist, who was among the closest to Jesus) described this reality beautifully in the second century:

The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth…For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East... But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it (Against the Heresies, Book I, Chapter X).

So, we ought not to overlook our differences. Rather, we ought to seek, each of us, to root out everything in our selves and souls and our practice that has not been believed in every place at all times by all Christians, and from this starting point, to know the true Christ as he really is. From there we can begin to serve the world in true unity.

Fr John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at or visit