Monday, January 29 provided the opportunity to visit St. Mary's Antiochian Orthodox Church in Livonia, Michigan. The church is Antiochian, meaning that it has its roots in Syria rather than Greece or Russia. (Antioch was one of five major centers of Christianity in the early centuries of the New Testament Church.)
NOTE: This commentary is also being submitted to Father George Shalhoub who has served at St. Mary's Orthodox Church since its inception (1972) and was also chiefly instrumental in its construction. Pastor Geoff Kieta and I were given our tour by Father George, for which we are especially grateful.
Being somewhat acquainted with Orthodox traditions, especially in regard to iconography and ceremonies, I was prepared to see a rather ornate church. I was not disappointed.
While the nave of the church is more plain, it is still reverent. The walls and ceiling are white. Low columns allign the side aisles. The low columns, rather than the high columns and ceilings in Gothic architecture, make the people in the rear pews feel closer to the front. Father George also explained that the columns reflect Syrian roots rather than Roman or European. Clear windows are etched with symbols which proclaim doctrine as well as let in natural lighting. Most striking, of course, are the vibrant colors in the chancel and in the copula where the cross-shaped church intersects.
The imagery in the murals is magnificent. Once again, they proclaim doctrine as well as please the eyes. In the archways, the symbols of the Gospel writers are seen (in descending order -- eagle, ox, lion, man). Around the base of the dome are images of various saints which are significant to the Antiochian Orthodox tradition. Ringed around, just above them, are the words: "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord," which are part of the Communion liturgy. It is a reminder both of where we are and who comes to us. Above that are twelve Old Testament prophets, many of whom hold parchment which proclaims the Messianic promise unique to them. Finally, the eye is drawn to Christ Pantocrator (the almighty).
The dome is held up by arches, and the Gospel writers are in the corners of the arches. They are holding everything up, as it were.
The rood screen, which separates the altar from the nave of the church, has panels which depict apostles, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the dormition of Mary (after which the church is actually named), et al. The doors which lead to the altar have on them the angels Gabriel and Michael. Of course, the angels no longer bar the way to the Tree of Life. Its fruit (Christ) is given to God's faithful in Holy Communion.
Behind the rood screen is the altar. On the altar are the tabernacle, which holds the reserved elements for communion later, and the Gospel Book. Behind the altar is depicted the Lord Jesus Christ celebrating the sacrament with his apostles. Even Judas Iscariot is depicted, but he has turned and is walking away from Jesus and the feast. Flanking the apostles further out are church fathers which are significant to the Antiochian Orthodox church -- St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, and St. Ignatius, each holding parchment which bears a quotation from them. Above the altar sits the Virgin Mary with the Christ child on her lap. They are flanked by angels, and above are the sun and the moon, representing all creation which worships the Christ.
A great deal of time can be spent simply absorbing what is proclaimed in the iconography and architechture of this church. It also highlights the importance of using God's gifts to declare his promises and his praise in as many ways as possible. Good artistry proclaims a lot!
Naturally, this was not done easily or cheaply. Father George explained some of the challenges and hardships that his parish had to endure in the construction and beautification of his church. Nevertheless, by persisting in their efforts, St. Mary's Orthodox congregation has a church whose images will be etched into the minds of their parishioners as well as the liturgy they use Sunday after Sunday.
What's more, they are not done yet! Father George explained the plans they have for some of the white space that remains on the ceilings in the front of the church. (The nave, he explained, will remain a white ceiling.) He suggested that the remaining art and icons should be done by the end of this year. That demands a return trip and another tour.
Here are some photos.