10 July, 2007

The Church of the Crossexoetation in Kazan (Russian Orthodox)

Sunday evening, my wife and I visited the Church of the Crossexoetation. That's not a misprint; the sign outside the church calls it "Crossexoetation". Really! I suspect that the English sign should say "Church of the Exaltation of the Cross", and my wife says that the Russian sign uses a word that means "lifting the cross up", so that's probably what it should be. Whatever the case, the Eparchy of Kazan needs to fire the incompetent translation service and hire my sister-in-law, or my wife, or even my son, who's a genius and, not knowing the value of money, will likely work for peanuts.

This church's claim to fame is that it is the current shrine of the famous icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which first appears in history some 500 years ago on the site of the church. The story goes that a young girl discovered it after seeing the Virgin Mary, who told her where to look for it. This sounds a lot to me like St. Bernadette's vision at Lourdes; I'd love to read more of the story and find out what became of the girl.

The icon has since been associated with the trials and tribulations of Russia and of the Russian Orthodox Church, disappearing shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution, reportedly stolen for the gold and jewelry mounted on it, with the wood icon itself chopped up. Somehow the icon, or a copy of it at any rate, turned up first in the possession of the Blue Army, which enshrined it at Fatima. The Blue Army gave it to the Vatican in the 1990s, and Pope John Paul II sent it to the Patriarchate of Moscow a couple of years ago, after giving up on visiting Russia personally to return it. The Patriarchs of Moscow aren't about to let some no-good Patriarch of Rome pop by for a visit until they renounce that notion of juridical primacy, among others. (They don't hesitate to blast the Patriarchs of Constantinople for their friendly relations with the wayward Romans, either.)

It's easy to visit, since the church is across the street from my wife's aunt's house. (ул. Болщая Красная, "Big Red Road") My wife and I attended the Vespers service with our kids in tow. The ten-year old managed to survive the hour-long service, although he was less and less excited as it went on. For her part, the one-year old was impressed into silence for about ten minutes. Impressing her into silence for any period of time is no mean feat, so I was duly impressed in turn. After ten minutes, however, the impression wore off, and she decided that she had to explore this place and have some fun. I didn't want her exclamations of delight and her insistence to touch this and grab that to distract the worshipers, so I took her outside and we spent 30-40 minutes touching plants, or rubbing the metal grating in the gate, or... whatever. She's only one year old, after all. We returned for the last 10-15 minutes of the service, and again she was impressed into silence for the remainder of the service.

The Orthodox do know how to put on a show: when we returned, the great door in the iconostasis stood open and the curtain drawn back, and candles had been lit on the altar. The glow from within was beautiful, especially when it mingled with the haze from burning incense. A choir of one man and and two or three women engaged in their polyphonic dialogue with the clergy: Господи, помилуй, Господи, помилуй, Господи, помилуй... Слава отцу и сыну и святому духу... and so forth. (Lord, have mercy and Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, all of which are repeated throughout the service.) The faithful in attendance did not sing, although a few of them "hummed mystically" at the beginning of the service. This being an Orthodox liturgy, the sign of the cross occurred over and over, at more or less every other exclamation by the choir or the priest. In Russia, people make the sign of the cross right-to-left, rather than the left-to-right style that we Westerners use. Russians also bow at the end of the sign of the cross, so there was a lot of bobbing up-and-down. A number of them also kneeled for the entire service; the rest kneeled during two sections. The church had no pews, let alone kneelers, so they knelt on the floor and sometimes touched their forehead to the ground. It amuses me to report that Russian Orthodox laity make even traditionalist Catholics look like wimps. That's what I call ol' time religion.

The chapel itself is on the second floor of an old monastery, capped by a magnificent dome. My wife tells me that during Soviet times, the building was taken from the church and used as a pedagogical institute, and the walls remain white as if they had whitewashed it. This may be why the chapel walls don't have much in the way of art, which is very unusual for a Russian church. (Take any of the ten or twenty within walking distance.) But its beauty is unquestionable, and the iconostasis is marvelous.

Once Vespers ended, we lined up to kiss the cross and the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, although there was some confusion as to which one was to be kissed first, so some of us ended up kissing only the icon because the priest holding the cross vanished back into the sanctuary once the line for the cross emptied. Oops.

After the Orthodox service, my wife added a comment to her earlier remark on the Catholic Mass here in Kazan. I prefer the Russian Church, she observed. The music, the language, the constant activity (sign of the cross and bowing), it brings me closer to God.

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