He looks like a regular young guy — maybe late 20s or early 30s. Head shaved to mask a receding hairline, a black goatee to offset the baldness, the gold rim of his glasses glinting beneath his dark brows. A regular guy, except maybe for his robe. Though it has the sheen of satin, it does not drape or hang; it holds its shape, stiffly framing the man beneath. Though mostly creamy white, the robe beams with patterns of yellow gold. (If we were not in church, the fabric would seem ostentatious, guilty of Louis XVI excess.) And over the robe, a stole, equally stiff and resplendent, making an X across his belly. The resulting look is old-fashioned in the extreme, reminding me of nothing so much as the priestly robes worn by long-ago Jewish characters in the Jesus movies. Yet here it is on a Sunday in 2009, on a young guy, in a brick chapel set amid the more ordinary opulence of La Jolla Scenic Drive North.
The man is not a priest, nor even a deacon. Rather, he is one of at least eight more regular men assisting in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is being celebrated by St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. Eight men, all in similar robes of white and gold, except for the priest, who is even more enrobed and golden than his fellows. For much of the liturgy, we behold his back as he stands facing the altar, the tabernacle, and the cross, facing east along with the congregation. On his back is affixed a sort of medallion in the shape of a cross; in the center of the cross, a painted circle depicting the resurrected Christ.
Christ appears again on a large icon to the right of the Sanctuary stairs. Across from Him, an icon of Mary, His mother, referred to by the Orthodox as Theotokos — God-bearer. Throughout the liturgy on this Sunday of the Last Judgment, the icons are reverenced — the priest turning and bowing and making the sign of the cross as the choir sings in its thrilling, cheerful harmonies: “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us!” Later, he will swing a pot of incense toward each icon, then expertly yank back on the jingling chain so that a puff of smoke pushes out toward the image before rising to heaven. And he will do the same for both altar and congregation.
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