As a sinful follower of Jesus Christ, my ultimate goal is to joyfully spend eternity in God’s kingdom. Since becoming Orthodox, I’ve frequently turned to the Theotokos for guidance. She is the most pure, with no ego or agenda, and totally devoted to serving and worshipping God. Because of her, and through her, Love is embodied and enters the world.
My love for the Theotokos was reinforced one year when I was at a woman’s monastery for her Nativity. It was September 8, the first major feast on the calendar after the Church New Year. I had a sudden realization that the last major feast of the Church was the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15. So with my penchant for symbolism, I saw the feasts of the Theotokos as arms encircling all of our Orthodox beliefs and celebrations. She is the Protector of all Christians.
“All creation rejoices in you, oh Theotokos….”
We arrived at the monastery the day before in time for supper, and we retired early for bed since we planned to attend the Paraklesis service at 4:30 am the next day. It was a dark quarter-mile walk through the trees, which we occasionally lit by phone flashlight so we wouldn’t stumble.
As we approached the clearing surrounding the church, we were summoned to worship by the bells, and since the monastery was far from the lights of a city, we were enveloped by the black velvet sky. It was punctuated by the stars declaring the glory of the Lord, so bright and clear in the crisp morning air.
Upon entering the church our senses were filled with the chanting of the nuns, the smell of incense, and the flickering light of the candles. This was the first time I had visited the church since it had been built. It was too dark to see its beauty, but I could feel it; the quiet rhythmic padding of soft-soled shoes on the solid marble floors, the creak of wood as I shifted in my stasidia, (or stall). And I could sense the vaulted ceiling high above us.
This was a short service, a half hour or so of prayer to the Theotokos.
“It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honourable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you!”
The morning service was the only one before the five-hour Vigil. Starting at 8:30 p.m., it consisted of Compline, Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy, all in celebration the Nativity of the Theotokos. After Paraklesis, our day was spent quietly.
Walking to the church that evening reminded me of the early morning stroll. However, now there were different stars in the sky. For Compline, the atmosphere in the church was also similar, but that was soon to change.
Something I had never seen in any other church was the huge chandelier. This was in two parts; a central chandelier about 10 feet tall and a ring around it about 20 feet in diameter. If the size wasn’t enough, what really made this chandelier unusual was that it was lit with candles, dozens and dozens of candles. There was no chain and pulley to lower and raise it, instead the candles were lit by hand, or more precisely, by long extendable poles equipped with a wick and a snuffer.
While the singing continued, three nuns lit all the candles. They then hooked their poles on the side, gently spun the outer ring in one direction, and let go. The ring rotated about 90 degrees and then returned, back and forth like a circular, sideways pendulum.
Meanwhile, the centre chandelier was given a gentle push, tracing a circle in time with the outer ring. Three times during the vigil, the chandelier was lit, spun, and snuffed.
It was mesmerizing. As each candle was lit, I was reminded of stars appearing in the night sky one by one. As the chandelier was spun, the candles soundlessly traced threads of light across the sanctuary, drawing the eyes upwards to mystically see the church triumphant, the angels, and the saints. The bells rang outside, the nuns chanted inside, and the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers and incense called all of creation to worship, to leave all cares behind, to be pure in heart, to see God, and to be present in His Kingdom here and now.
The little children played on the marble floor or cuddled in blankets sleeping while waiting for the birth of the one who would willingly bring salvation into the world; the Mother of our God, the Panagia, the Theotokos, my example.
Your obedience to God’s
love has saved us all.
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