Antiochian Orthodox church preserves age-old faith
Antiochian Orthodox church preserves age-old faith
Posted by Aaron Ogg | The Grand Rapids Press April 26, 2008 05:14AM
DORR -- In her candy cane-striped dress, Grace Phillips walks up to
an icon stand bearing Jesus' image. Still too short to reach on her
own, she climbs a stool and gives it a big smooch.
"We didn't have to force her to do that," said her mother, Karen
Phillips, of Hamilton. "Even if we've done it already, she wants to
do it again.
"She knows who's in that picture -- who it represents."
The kiss-happy 3-year-old fits right in. She wanders freely about the
worship space, air thickened with incense from a fresh shake of the
censer by Father Gregory Hogg. The aroma, along with the glowing
candles, represents the presence and prayers of saints.
Amid this smell and sight, about 50 souls delight, finding one voice
and filling Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, 1928 142nd Ave. in
Dorr, with time-tested praise. Music with heart and no hymnals, sung
with power but no amplifiers. A bright-eyed band of worshippers
working from a 2,000-year-old set list.
This is now. This was then. This is forever.
Today is Holy Saturday -- the day before Pascha, the Hebrew-derived
name for Easter in Orthodox churches, which celebrates the holy day
according to the Julian calendar. Most Western churches follow the
newer Gregorian calendar.
On this day, Grace and her parents are to be chrismated. The senses,
heart, hands and feet are anointed with oils representing the Holy
Spirit. It is the way orthodoxy receives Christians of other
traditions into the church.
The journey -- or as Gary Phillips calls it, "the pilgrimage" -- has
been a hike for Mom and Dad and a short skip for their adopted
daughter. Yet each path has led them to this place, this never-ending
song, this unchanging truth.
"I'm done looking," Gary said. "I don't have to look anymore."
Gary Phillips described his Protestant experience as a "jigsaw
puzzle," but more befuddling.
All the pieces were in the box, he said, but there was no
illustration showing how to put them together.
"I'd always sensed that there was something missing and I haven't
found it," said Phillips, 49. "All these little pieces have begun to
fall into place for me."
He attended a Presbyterian church with his wife for about four years.
She said she grew weary of changes. Familiar songs and traditions
taken away. Diminished importance of ordinances -- what orthodoxy
calls the mysteries, or sacraments -- such as communion and baptism.
They longed for more permanence, less conflict.
"The biggest part was the frustration doctrinally," she said.
"Everybody was right, but everybody was different in their teachings.
"Things were looking more like entertainment and performance rather
than worship. I think we came away oftentimes feeling really
frustrated and not feeling like we'd worshipped in a meaningful way."
The Phillipses have attended Holy Cross for about a year and a half.
Karen's first service gave her a unique feeling, she said. Fulfillment.
"Everything was very different from what I'd ever experienced," she
said. "But I think the one thing that hit me more than anything else
was I really had a sense that we worshipped God, even though I didn't
Hogg, who opened the church in 2005 with six families, said it's a
feeling shared by many newcomers.
"A refrain you often hear from new converts is, 'I have come home,'"
Hogg said. "People have been in a number of different places, but
they all find one in the same home and that's been quite a joy."
Of the parish's 45 members, only one grew up Orthodox, and two have
been baptized at the church, he said. The rest are converts, including Hogg.
He was ordained into the Lutheran Missouri Synod in 1983. Soon, he
became aware of "very troubling issues."
"Things that I thought were fixed were being called into question,"
Hogg said. "For me, religious faith has to be an anchor; the anchor
is important to keep you grounded
"If you're not grounded, you drift."
About 20 years ago, he visited a small Orthodox mission church on
Good Friday and was in awe.
"When I listened to the words of the liturgy, I thought, 'My God,
they know the gospel,' and it was in its beauty and its truth. There
is a place that has it.
"For the next 18 years, I kind of puzzled out how you sort out all of
Now Karen Phillips, 49, approaches the threshold. She looks toward
her chrismation with reverence and fear.
"It's a happy time, yet there's that little bit of fear aspect
because it's not something to take lightly.
"This isn't funny stuff."
Meanwhile, Grace isn't missing a beat, and can't wait to receive her
first Eucharist, Karen said. She happily sings liturgical prayers as
Dad tucks her in at night.
"It's very much a little kids' religion," Hogg said. "The kids get it
Prayers sung in triplicate. Parishioners crossing themselves in
triplicate. Baptism, Easter and marriage processions in triplicate.
Brevity is not a trait highly regarded by Eastern Orthodoxy.
Sunday morning gatherings begin with "matins," or morning prayers,
followed by another hour and a half of divine liturgy. Holy Cross'
matins ran about an hour on Palm Sunday, but there is no prescribed
time limit. Worshippers approach and revere icons, and sing a set
series of established prayers.
"Have mercy on us, O God, according to thy great goodness, we pray
thee: hearken and have mercy," sang Hogg.
"Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy," the
The repetition invokes the holy trinity, Hogg said. The chant itself,
like so many Orthodox practices, also bears historical significance.
That was the prayer early Roman citizens would chant "when the
emperor came to town," he said.
Singing makes up most of a service. When asked why, Hogg answered
with another question.
"Why not sing? Music is the language of love."
Peter Marth, 31, of Georgetown Township, chimed in: "All of this is
Old Testament heritage. If you entered the temple, you would not hear
Kids dig the a cappella, the golden censer, and the colorful
vestments worn by priests, Marth said. And seating arrangements are
perfect for the fidgety: There are none.
Chairs are available for those who need them, and no one is
discouraged from sitting, but most stand for roughly three hours.
"Not having pews is a great thing for kids," Marth said. He and his
wife, Laura, have three children, age 8 months to 5. "If they have
ants in their pants they can move around a little bit without
"It's just kind of a natural organism that's moving all the time."
Many rituals are holy as well as pragmatic. The golden fan used
throughout the centuries that trails large processions was meant to
keep flies away from Eucharistic elements, Hogg said. Also, 12 holes
are poked into the consecrated bread. This not only signifies the 12
apostles, but it also "prevents bubbles in the bread," he said.
The faith is the same wherever you go, "from Damascus, to Dorr, to
Santa Cruz, California," Hogg said. While Eastern Orthodox churches
bear different names -- Greek, Russian, Antiochian and so on -- they
denote ethnicity, not sect.
The difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity
compares to that between a hospital and a courtroom, Hogg said.
"We're here because we're sinners and we're sick, and Christ heals us
with his life-giving body and blood," he said.
"We're a family."