Many churches held Christmas services the Sunday before Dec. 25. St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church celebrated Christ’s birth that same Sunday — and again this week.
“We tell the same story, but it unfolds at a little different rate and a different calendar,” the Rev. Mark Christian said prior to the Jan. 4 service in a storefront sanctuary in the Country Club Shadows strip mall just north of Interstate 12 on Jefferson Highway.
The adults smiled and snapped photos as their children closed out the Advent season with a brief Nativity pageant called a “yolka,” a Russian word for evergreen tree. Dressed as angels, shepherds, the star that guided the Wise Men, the Lady Theotokus (Virgin Mary) holding a baby doll and a small lamb, they sang several songs to hearty applause.
The “yolka” followed the nearly three-hour liturgy of a cappella songs and prayers, sung and spoken in English, looking to the Theophany, or Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, also celebrated this week.
The 60 adults and children stood for most of the service and dozens of times performed the sign of the cross, in moves opposite to the Catholic manner.
Before receiving the Eucharist, they bow to and kiss an icon of St. Matthew, then are served a spoonful of wine, with the bread already mixed into it, by the gold-robed priest.
Orthodox Christians, like Catholics, teach that the wine and bread miraculously become the blood and body of Christ.
St. Matthew the Apostle is Eastern Orthodox, a mission of the Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church of America. Its roots are in Russian Orthodoxy stemming from Russian missionaries establishing churches in Alaska in the 1790s, Christian said.
The congregation of about 100 includes many local Anglo-Americans, some international LSU students as well as relatively new residents who hail from Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and several Middle Eastern countries.
For much of the Western world, Christmas falls on Dec. 25 according to the Gregorian calendar, but much of Eastern Orthodox Christianity uses the older Julian calendar. This year, Christmas fell on Jan. 7, 2015, and the new year begins on Jan. 14.
To make things even more complicated, some Orthodox Christians use a “revised” Julian calendar.
“For a substantial number of Orthodox around the world — primarily in Russia that follows the older Julian calendar — that is 13 days different,” Christian said.
Before Christianity was established, the Roman Empire followed the Julian calendar, based on lunar cycles, devised by Julius Caesar, Christian explained.
“After the division of the Orthodox East and the Roman West (called the Great Schism of 1054), Pope Gregory had his astronomers revise the (Julian) calendar,” Christian said, creating the modern Gregorian calendar.
The Orthodox never adopted the Gregorian calendar, and to complicate matters even more, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople revised the Julian calendar in 1923, Christian said.
St. Matthew’s is Russian Orthodox and uses the revised calendar. It observed Christmas on Dec. 25. But the St. John Orthodox Mission in St. Francisville uses the old calendar and celebrated the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity on Wednesday, Jan. 7.
“It’s funny, when a Russian will arrive here straight from Russia having not experienced life in the West and they’ll say ‘Christmas before New Year’s — what do you mean?’ ” Christian says with a laugh. “It’s just too confusing to have two Christmases,” which is why they celebrate on Dec. 25.
The revised Julian calendar keeps the springtime lunar dates with the Gregorian calendar so Resurrection Sunday (Easter), or Pascha in Orthodox terms, is celebrated at the same time as everyone else, Christian said.
“We are not a Russian church, or an Arab church or a whatever church, though we are all of that because we have Lebanese, Ukranians, Russians, Romanians, as well as folks from South Carolina, like me,” Christian said. “The focus is on Christ and growing in Christ and repenting our sins and being renewed by the spirit for the life we have been given in him.”
For both the priest and many of its members, St. Matthew the Apostle feels like home.
Christian, the son of a soldier, grew up attending several Protestant churches, was ordained a Methodist minister, later joined the Episcopal church, then moved to Orthodoxy with his wife Mary Elizabeth a decade ago.
“I came to see that the Orthodox faith was not a tool for reforming Protestantism, but rather a life of repentance to be lived to the glory of God, a life that was inseparable from the Orthodox Church,” he said in a previous interview.
Bud Snowden grew up as a Southern Baptist and joined this church about seven years ago.
“I was baptized in the Baptist church at the age of 13, but like many people in college, I started questioning what was handed to me as a child,” Snowden said. “I was leaning toward Catholicism.”
He attended some lectures on Orthodoxy at LSU and attended St. Matthew services being held then in area homes.
“It was like coming home,” he said. “I felt like I found the fullest expression of my faith. It was not an indictment or a rejection of what I was raised with or the Christianity my family observes. We bow and we sing. There is full participation. It is not sitting in the pew listening to other people worship for you. It is full immersion.”
Tracey Lobue and her husband, David, and their two children, Rachel and Christopher, have been attending since May. Her family is also Southern Baptist, but she began attending an Orthodox church as a 7-year-old child with neighborhood friends.
“My mom was a night nurse and slept all day on Sunday so they asked her if I could go with them, and she said, ‘OK,’ ” Lobue said. “Three years later, I was baptized.”
“It is the original, untainted faith,” Lobue said. “A lot of people crave tradition in this ever-changing world, and this is something we can cling to.”
Cornel and Adriana Cajvaneanu and daughter Delia are Romanian and have been attending here for about seven years.
“I like the people. They are very nice and very friendly,” Cornel Cajvaneanu said.
“The priest is a very good man,” Adriana Cajvaneanu added. “They always have something going for the kids.”
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