|Christ the Bridegroom|
(Image from goarch.org)
I wrote this five years ago, during what was our first Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. Our journey to Orthodoxy was a very personal one, full of many struggles, and difficult at times. I've not shared a lot about it here; at times it was too close, too raw, to put out in a public space. It seems that many people who become Orthodox "jump in with both feet" but I've not been one of them. I've waded in slowly, testing, considering, struggling, and praying as I've been faced with things that are new (to me) and different. I'm thankful that I've been allowed, and even encouraged, to go at my own pace, not pressured at any time to be or do something that I was not ready for. Last night we again attended the Bridegroom Service, this time with four kids in two, and I was reminded of this experience. I realize that for my many friends and family who are Protestant Christians, some of this will seem weird and even offensive. I get that. I really do.
Once again we are journeying with Christ through this week, through to the wonderful celebration of Pascha, our Passover, the Resurrection. It is my favorite week of the year, the time where I feel the most in tune with who I truly am, with where my focus should lie. It is intense and tiring and inexpressibly beautiful. It was going through Holy Week and Pascha the year I wrote this that confirmed for me that the Orthodox Church was where I belonged.
It is the evening of Holy Monday, and the Bridegroom Service is soon to begin. It's been two years since my husband Erik and I began the journey that would lead us to the Orthodox Church, and only two months since we became catechumens. This is our first Holy Week. We feel as if we are stepping into something so much bigger than ourselves, something ancient, and sacred. We feel a bit as we have when traveling in foreign lands; there is so much that is new, different, and sometimes uncomfortable.
Tonight, for once, we arrive early. We make our way through the dimly lit narthex, past flickering candles, and into the nave. There we settle ourselves and our two children into our usual spot nearest the back. We each take charge of one child. Tonight I take Peregrine, our active four-and-a-half year old boy, and Erik gets Alethea, our two year old daughter. If we were at home if would be time to get pajamas on and start winding down for the night, and we're a little unsure of what to expect of them at this hour.
The service begins. They are busy, these little ones of ours, and it seems their ability to sit quietly at home never seems to make it to Church with us. Peregrine, tonight, is particularly active. He starts out well, standing up on the chair next to me and singing "Lord, have mercy" in a rather loud voice. Before I know it though, he's flopped himself on the floor and is beginning to wriggle beneath the chairs. I quickly hand him a pen and some paper in an attempt to settle him. I stand again, trying to focus on the prayers, the Scripture, the words that have been spoken and prayed by the Church for centuries. My mind wanders to the words in the Liturgy that instruct us to "lay aside all earthly cares". I often ponder this; as a stay-at-home mama my life is wrapped up in my children, and I'm tempted at times to think of them as "earthly cares". But they aren't really; they are souls who have been entrusted to us to care for on this earth and to guide towards heaven. I'm privileged to have them next to me.
My thoughts are pulled back to the present by a loud noise at my side. I look down to see Peregrine thrusting the point of his pen into the notebook over and over, making dots. I sit down and whisper that he should make dots quietly. I stand and try to refocus, but before I know it the dot-maker is at it again. I sit down and have him lay his head in my lap.That works, for all of about twenty seconds. And then he is rolling onto the floor, beneath the chairs again. I pray silently for patience and move on to my next tactic. This time I'll take the sketch pad and draw a picture for him. This keeps him quiet and happy for some time as I draw a castle with turrets, a drawbridge, and a moat. A dragon flies overhead, and a flag flies from one of the towers. In spite of my lack of artistic talent, he's thrilled. Alethea starts crying and Erik takes her out. We give each other that look, the one that says "Is this worth it? Why didn't we just stay home?"
And so it goes. Peregrine soon tires of the castle and gets squirmy again. I feel like I'm in a battle with my son. It certainly feels like it would be better to be home home enjoying a peaceful evening, than here at Church, trying to worship and fighting instead. I've given up trying to pay attention and participate in the service. I hear a few phrases, the story of the foolish virgins, prayers that we might be wise and watchful, confessions that we have no wedding garment, pleas for mercy. Instead of quieting my heart, I allow anger toward Peregrine to rise within me. Why can't I just make him obey? Why won't he sit still for a few moments? I see my heart in it's wretchedness, and yet I continue on. He lays his head in my lap again and starts flapping a hand in my face. I ask him to stop and the hand moves to my neck. I tell him not to touch my neck and again the little hand reaches up. I grab it, stand up, and march him out, and down the hallway. I am angry and frustrated.
He apologizes and I forgive him. And then I have to ask his forgiveness too, for letting myself get angry. I should have brought him out long ago, walked together a little, given him a break. I should have been compassionate, understanding that he is a small, tired child and being still and quiet isn't in his nature. He is quick to forgive and wraps his little arms around my neck. I hold him and our mutual anger and frustration melt away. We talk for a moment, and pray together. We walk back into the nave, hand in hand again, but this time as comrades and not as foes. Once again we take our place at the back, just as the service is coming to a close. At least we finish in peace.
People begin to line up to venerate the icon* of the Bridegroom and Peregrine asks if we can go up too. I say yes, not wanting to quench his desire to participate. We make our way to the end of the line, Peregrine eagerly, and I with much hesitation. I'm not ready to venerate icons. Mentally, I find no fault in it, but so far I haven't brought myself to do it. Making the sign of the cross feels weird enough, but kissing an icon? And in front of everyone?
We take a few steps forward. I glance up front, trying to see "how it's done." If I must do it, I want to get it right. As if I'm being graded or something. We move forward. Alethea sees me and I stretch out my hand to hers; she doesn't want to be left behind. Peregrine stands behind me, hand in mine. He wants me to go first. And I don't want to go at all, but there's no turning back now. We approach the front and my mind and heart are in turmoil. What is holding me back? Is it merely discomfort? Or is it pride?
It is our turn to step up to the first icon, the one of the Christ Child in His mother's arms. Peregrine slips out from behind me, deciding he wants to go first after all. I am relieved; relieved to be following my child and not leading him. He approaches the icon eagerly, crosses himself, and stands up on his toes, but he's still not quite tall enough. He looks at me and I step forward, Alethea on one hip, and lift him with my free arm. He kisses the icon of Jesus and steps away, toward the Bridegroom. Alethea wants to kiss "Jesus and a Mommy" too, and I hold her close. She's serious about this, and gives them a nice long kiss. She's not showing any signs of stopping, and I give a little nervous laugh and pull her off. We approach the icon of the Bridegroom, and I take her little hand and make a cross with her. She kisses Him, and then I know my moment has come. I look at Him, His sad but loving eyes. How can I, the unworthy, approach Him? He, who is slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and I, who have spent a good part of the evening angry at my precious child? I have no other response, and so I bend down and kiss Him.
Any thoughts or reflections that may follow are interrupted all too soon. Alethea has slipped out of my arms and ducked in between the two ends of the purple cloth hanging down from icon stand. I reach down and scoop her up before she pulls the whole thing down; she giggles and says "hiding, hiding." I glance over and see that Peregrine finished venerating the third icon and has settled himself comfortably into the chair reserved for the bishop. I break out in more nervous laughter. Peregrine sees me and thinks he must be doing something terribly clever. He bursts out laughing too. I go, and with my free hand help him down. We walk out together, Alethea on my hip and Peregrine next to me. We are all smiling.
The evening has not been what I had hoped, but something good came from it in spite of us, in spite of me. Something that wouldn't have happened if we were at home with the children tucked nicely into bed at eight o'clock. And I think it may have been worth coming after all.
*Here is a good explanation of the use of icons in the Orthodox Church, as well as why we would do a seemingly crazy thing like kiss them!