By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
The icon of Christ the “Pantokrator,” master of the universe, looked down from the ceiling as outside, darkness descended over Tupelo.
“The sun knoweth his going down. Thou appointedst the darkness, and there was the night,” said Paul Sudduth, a lay leader at the St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Mission.
Sudduth, along with a 33-year-old priest named Nikolai, whose beard touched the collar of his clerical robe, led the community in the prayers known as vespers.
The strong, earthy smell of incense filled the room as, in the floor, babies crawled over soft rugs, watched over by prayerful mothers.
The nave was dark, dancing with the honey-colored light of candles. Mary, the “Theotokos” or God-bearer, seemed positively alive and wet with tears, her big, serene eyes glimmering like water behind glass in the icon that hung in front of the congregation. Broad-shouldered archangels stood guard at either end of the iconostasis, the screen, heavy laden with paintings of holy figures, separating the altar from the congregation.
This was an old expression of the faith, the oldest, some claim, in Christianity, tracing its roots back before Rome became the center of church governance, to when the Hebrew world of the scriptures met the world of Greek culture.
Since 2004 the beauty and power of the Orthodox liturgy in Tupelo, the intoxicating sensory experience, designed to transport the believer into the realm of the transcendent, has brought several local members into the fold.
“It’s a 360-degree experience,” said young Jason Guntharp of Dorsey. Along with his wife, Shea, Guntharp converted to the Orthodox faith three years ago after his spiritual search led him to what he called a fuller, more complete worship experience.
Orthodoxy isn’t unknown to Mississippi. More than a century ago immigrants from Syria and Lebanon established St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg. There’s also Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Biloxi.
Orthodox Christians today comprise the second largest communion in the world, with an estimated 300 million believers.
As in Judaism, evening is the start of the liturgical day for Orthodox Christians, but evening is evening in the South.
“It feels like closure,” said Justin Stevens, who grew up a Protestant Christian and got used to Wednesday night worship. Vespers in the Orthodox faith seems a continuation, an extension, he said, of the church’s emphasis on sanctifying each moment of the day.
Father Nikolai walked through the Royal Doors, the gateway in the iconostasis, facing east and west, flanked by the icon of Mary and the icon of Christ enthroned. The two pictures symbolize that all things take place between Christ’s first and second coming.
Today, Father Nikolai said, the faithful should remember the martyrs killed during the persecution of the emperor Decius. He swung the censer at the end of a bronze chain, wafting the fragrant incense out over the iconostasis and bowing his head. The church is watered, he said, in the blood of martyrs.
Twice a month Father Nikolai leaves his wife and children in Memphis and drives to Tupelo to lead the congregation, usually once on a Sunday for Eucharistic liturgy and once on a Wednesday night.
Starting Nov. 9 and continuing for six weeks Father Nikolai will be in town most every Wednesday to lead vespers and to teach a class on the Orthodox faith. The St. Paul Mission has come a long way since it started meeting in people’s homes, and members are eager to share their faith with the broader community.
“Save me, oh God, by thy name, and judge me by thy strength,” Father Nikolai chanted, as he proclaimed the prayer called the “Prokeimenon” near the end of the service. When the lights came up, still in a singing mood, he led the church in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for little Jordan Guntharp.
It might not seem so to the casual observer, said Janet Berry, as she enjoyed a piece of after-service pie, but the Orthodox faith isn’t really all that different from the Protestant Christianity in which she grew up.
“We believe in the Trinity, and that God sent his son to die for us,” she said. Berry laughed, pointing toward the wall where hung an icon of Saint Xenia, an 18th century Russian saint whose name Berry took when she started attending services at the St. Paul Mission.
Berry will be known as Xenia among her fellow congregants, she said, once she completes her initiation classes. “Well, that’s a little different,” Berry said, laughing. “But, I like it.”
THE MEMBERS of the St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox
Mission meet for vespers and classes on the
Orthodox faith Nov. 9, Nov. 16, Nov. 30, Dec. 7, Dec. 14 and Dec. 21. Services start at 6 p.m. at the church’s home at 24361⁄2
West Main St., Suite C, Tupelo, across from
Wendy’s. For more information, call (901) 590-
9050 or visit www.orthodoxtupelo.com.