On a Tempe Town Lake dock on a recent January morning, the Rev. Damian Kuolt thrust a long cross into the air, took off its extension, went to his knees and churned the cross through the lake water. He stirred the waters again and again with the cross, which held an iconic image of the full body of Christ, as a small choir sang rich, harmonic chants.
Repeatedly, Kuolt reminded the group of 25 how Jesus went to the Jordan River where John the Baptist, though declaring himself unworthy, baptized Christ “in fulfillment of all that had come before him.” In that moment, the Holy Spirit was said to have descended from heaven in the form of a white dove.
Moments later, Kuolt joyously spattered waters of blessing onto all who had gathered. They squinted and squirmed at being pelted, then laughed. He extended a smaller wooden cross for each to kiss.
The 20-minute sacred ritual was part of a full morning for members of Saint John the Evangelist Orthodox Mission, a fledgling Tempe parish of 18 families affiliated with the Orthodox Church in America. It was the Feast of Theophany, second only in importance to Holy Pascha, or Easter, in Orthodox Christianity. Theophany means “the manifestation of God” and focuses on the significance of Jesus’ baptism.
Before and after the lake event, the group gathered in a Tempe home where a large family and dining room have been made into worship space, complete with an altar. The walls contain more than 50 icons of saints, most donated by members to honor their own patron saints. In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the people stood through the two hours of morning prayers, or matins, and 90-minute divine liturgy. Typically, threefourths of a service is a capella singing and chants.
Water blessed during divine liturgy was taken to Town Lake and poured into it for sanctification. Kuolt would visit all the homes in his parish in the following days to bless them with some of the water, and other holy waters of Theophany would be used throughout this year, until next year’s blessing.
Steve Robinson, a construction company owner, was a founding member of St. Ignatius of Antioch Orthodox Church in Mesa. He also helped with mission churches in Prescott and Palm Springs, Calif. About six years ago, he met Bill Gould, and the two paired to build an Orthodox bookstore, construct buildings at an Orthodox monastery and team for an Orthodox radio program, “Our Life in Christ.” And they realized a need for an Orthodox parish in Tempe.
“I couldn’t let it go,” said Robinson, a one-time Protestant campus minister at ASU.
Two years ago, they got the go-ahead to launch the mission parish with four families. Kuolt, a fellow convert to the Orthodox Church and owner of a software company, became spiritual leader. They met temporarily in a mortuary chapel.
Later, they convened in Gould’s house, but it required enormous rearrangement of furnishings weekly to accommodate an Orthodox service. They found another home, rented it and currently use it as a “house church” until permanent space can be found.
“Our goal is to create a worshipping community that is focused on helping people be conformed to the image of Christ, according to the spiritual wisdom and disciplines of the early church,” Robinson said. Though the Orthodox Church in America’s roots are in the Russian church, the church does not emphasize ethnicity like some Orthodox traditions.
“You never know where people will come from,” said Kuolt, 55, noting that many have found the parish in Internet searches (www.stjohnaz.org).
“They get to the point where they want to actually encounter the church,” he said. “Orthodoxy cannot be engaged just intellectually. It has to be experienced.”
“The relative smallness of Saint John has created the intimacy of a small community,” noted Teri Johnson, the parish’s hospitality coordinator. “We share an Agape meal together every Sunday after services, and it is a time for people to visit and grow together.”
Orthodox Christianity directly traces itself to the Apostles of Christ and the beginnings of the church.
It considers itself part of the original Christendom even with the Great Schism of 1054 in which churches of the Western half of the old Roman Empire were retained under authority of the bishop (pope) in Rome as the Roman Catholic Church.
“In the Orthodox spiritual tradition, we are saved ‘in community,’ ” Robinson said. “That is, we learn to be spiritual through relationships. We are taught to see the image of Christ in everyone.”
He said the dynamics of forming a mission are special. “It means working very closely with people at a level of intensity and commitment that demands a lot of patience, forgiveness and sacrifice of ego, personal agendas and time. The intimacy and love you grow into with people through sacrifice is amazing and rewarding.”
It’s estimated there are six million Orthodox Christians in the U.S. and about 250 million worldwide. In the U.S., they largely align with three traditions, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Orthodox Church in America and Antiochian Archdiocese (Arabic roots).
During worship, only members may receive communion. Unlike other Christian communions in which the bread and wine are offered separately, the Orthodox tradition is to cut the bread and divided it into two parts. Some is cut into fragments and put into the chalice of wine, while the rest is put into a large basket. Followers stand before the priest, who ladles wine-soaked bread into their mouths with a golden spoon.
“Even babies who are considered fully members of the church participate in all the sacraments,” Robinson said.
The bread in the basket is subsequently gathered up by members and given to non-Orthodox attendees, or each other, as signs of fellowship.
A children’s Sunday school is held during the matins.
Members can spend 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. participating in the full day of services and fellowship, most of it on their feet.
“Relatively little changes from Sunday to Sunday,” says the church’s Web site. “The same prayers and hymns appear in the same places, and before long, you know it by heart. Then you fall into the presence of God in a way you never can when flipping from prayer book to bulletin to hymnal.”