Holy Week in Our North Carolina Missions

Orthodox Holy Friday Services in Greenville, 2009
Orthodox Holy Friday Services in Greenville, NC, 2009

Whenever I visit our parishes, or speak to fellow Orthodox Christians, the topic of the missionary work we are doing in North Carolina always generates interest. I have previously written two articles concerning our missionary endeavors in North Carolina, “Our Missions in North Carolina” and “Our One Year Anniversary,” but for some time I have wanted to author another informal reflection to update our friends. Although it is now several months since Holy Week, that blessed time remains ever present in my heart and mind, so I will recount with joy how we celebrate this time in our missions.

I continue to serve both our missions in Raleigh (St. Mark the Evangelist) and Greenville (Nativity of the Holy Theotokos) regularly; generally speaking, three times a month in each location, by a combination of Saturday and Sunday liturgies. I maintain a secular job to support myself, and my on-call rotation has increased, so scheduling is often challenging, but God has always blessed it to work out in the end. I also occasionally find time to visit my other mission station, in Charlottesville, Virginia, or to provide pastoral care for families who have found us elsewhere and are hopeful to establish a mission, such as the folks in Nashville, Tennessee.

During Holy Week, there are several services a day. It would be impossible for me to sustain trips back and forth each day between the two missions, which necessitated some compromise. I was able to take off Holy Thursday and Great Friday, but worked Monday through Wednesday. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night, then, we celebrated the Bridegroom Matins in our Chapel in Raleigh. Holy Thursday, we celebrated the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil in Raleigh in the morning, and then after some rest, left Raleigh around four o’clock in the afternoon for the trip to Greenville, which takes about an hour and a half.

Arriving in Greenville, we set up and then served the Matins of Holy Friday (during Holy Week, the services are done in anticipation, such that Matins is at night, and Vespers in the morning), which includes the reading of the Twelve Gospels. This year, I became slightly faint during the first reading, which takes upwards of twenty minutes. Our chanter John served admirably, and I provided assistance in chanting some of the melodies with which he was unfamiliar; as with everything in our missions, chanting is something we have to learn “on the fly,” and we can only accomplish so much at one time. I found myself prepping for the melodies just a few hours before we left!

Returning home after an hour and a half drive, being scared a bit by seeing an opossum dart in front of my car while I was going seventy miles per hour and witnessing a deer foraging for food alongside the road, I rested for the night, and then awoke on Great Friday. The Royal Hours were prayed as a Reader’s service (without me serving) due to the limited resources, and my desire to preserve John’s voice. At two-thirty in the afternoon, we prayed the Vespers of the Descent from the Cross, utilizing the Crucifix that had been kindly donated to us by our brothers and sisters at St. Peter the Aleut Mission near New Orleans, Louisiana. Upon completion, we got in the car, and travelled back to Greenville, where we served the Matins of Great Saturday, also known colloquially as the Epitaphios service, when the great shroud of Christ’s burial is carried about the four corners of the Church property (or around the streets in cities). Epitaphioi are quite expensive, so Presbytera Michaela had constructed ours last year by sewing an unused antimension we had purchased online into a velvet backing (antimensia are a cloth with the bishop’s signature and relics enclosed, which the priest places on the altar; naturally, ours was plain and used for the image of Christ’s burial which adorns all antimensia). We had constructed a Kouvouklion (the bier to house the Epitaphios) the year before, but its dimensions proved not to be convenient, so Greenville mission co-founder Tony presented us with an entirely new Kovouklion which he had constructed himself with great love and attention. His desire to dig in and get things done is an inspiration to us all.

Holy Saturday morning, we served the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, the first Resurrection as it is often called, in Raleigh. After its completion, we rested, and I cooked for the meal after the Paschal (Easter) liturgy—no small feat, since I could not taste what I was cooking, since we were still fasting! Then at eight-thirty in the evening, those of us who were able travelled to Greenville to liturgize there. By economy, we started at eleven o’clock in the evening, because I did not want anyone to fall asleep on their way home afterward, with many of our parishioners living far from the Church—some almost as far as I myself live (but all in different directions)—and having to traverse back country roads which are not well-illuminated.

Nocturns, Paschal Matins, and Liturgy were a blessing and also somewhat stressful for me; I was the only one who knew the melodies of the canon, although I cannot claim well, and thus I had to alternate serving, censing, and helping John and Presbytera, who graciously assisted. We finished around one-thirty in the morning, enjoyed our time together, and then returned to Raleigh at two-thirty in the morning. I asked my brother-in-law Mark to keep me awake, which he did by skillfully engaging me in a topic he knew would rouse my attention: the forced implementation of the New Calendar, of course! At four o’clock we arrived home, and rested peacefully and safely.

This was the second year we maintained this schedule, and with God’s help, we will continue to do it. Of course, we pray that more men will respond to God’s call to priesthood and prepare themselves through the purification of their souls, so that each mission will have its own priest, and thus be poised to become a full parish. But until such time, we rejoice in having a close bond between the communities, being of a common faith, common mind, and common purpose; we are the instruments by which God has chosen to spread the True Faith throughout our home state of North Carolina, and we thank Him for choosing us.

Some marvel at our travelling back and forth three times in the same week ninety miles each way; but when it is for such a blessed purpose, and when we love our Church and the people of Greenville so dearly, it is hardly a burden! Our numbers are still small, but God has ensured our needs are met, both spiritually and financially. Naturally, we can always use more help though; donations are appreciated, and even more so, we would love to have those reading this reflection join us in our missionary endeavors. Perhaps you are thinking of Orthodoxy, and live near one of our missions; we would love to meet you and welcome you into our Church family. We entreat all those living afar for their prayers.