St. Botolph's Parish, Circumcision of Christ / Saint Basil, 1 January 2022
How is it that you sought me? (Luke 2.49).
Rich, red mahogany pew. 'Must have cost a fortune', you run your finger over the back rest. The finest hardwood from Honduras. Or was it Brazil, north of Rio Negro? The rose quartz crystal on the chandeliers hails from Minas Gerais - 'min-arse', not 'mean-ash' - near Esmeraldas. Darkest chap in your congregation, Stephen. Estȇvão, he calls himself. At least, the interior columns - all forty-six of them - are from Greece. Hewn from Pentelic marble, like the Parthenon. Funny that Vasilía Harálambou should phone you this time round. Normally, it is George Constantinou the churchwarden. 'Vidzil of the Saint Vasílio, Páter mou'. she reminds you, in slower, sterner tones than expected. 'Name day, I suppose', you shrug as you rouse from your afternoon siesta. The Harálambou clan sunk £3,850 into a private pew alone. You do their bidding, not vice versa. 'It's normal, I suppose', you don your silkiest embroidered cassock, a navy-blue Chesterfield coat, then crank up the motor. From Brighton Pier to Broomhill Sands, Eastbourne to Birling Gap, the pearly necklace of little Cypriot churches dots the Sussex shoreline. Saint Phanourios is five minutes away. 'Father Aristóbulus?' an unfamiliar voice on the car phone enquires. 'Aristóbulus Moore?' 'Um, yes', you bumble, 'this is, um, it's, uh, Father Harry Moore. Diocese of Chichest --, um, Thya-teira'. 'Aren't you running late, Father?' Late? In Cyprus time? Locking your 2003 Ferrari Enzo in your private parking spot, you enter the almost pitch-black space. A few lone candles flicker.
What, no chandeliers? No lights? George must be here by now. Something seems abnormal.
Running your finger over the pew, you try to get your moorings. A ray of light from the gold-case icon of Saint Stylianónos hits the grain. Instead of straight-grained, it looks knotted, curled, bent. The tone is deep red, like the acacia out front. Under the moon of early January, those feathery, silvery leaves frame fresh blossoms of gold. 'Hello, George!' you call for the churchwarden. 'Are you there? Would it be asking too much to switch on the lights?' Graduate of Cuddesdon - hewn from the solid oak of Harrow School, from age thirteen - you are too well-bred ever to shout that old boy down. 'Where the devil can he be?' you blurt. Moonlight streaming on the stained glass, flickering candles deceive your eye. Just in off the narthex where the christening font should be, a wooden box. Across from it on the right, a gallery of seats. Below an icon of Saint Stylianos by the tenth column, stairs lead up to a stand. 'Will the defendant please be seated?' a sober voice directs. Rising from the first box, the shadowy shape escorts you. You cannot make out its face. Twelve shades face the dock. Where you find yourself. 'What is this?' you protest. 'Do you have any idea what …? This is a church!' 'Is it?' replies the sombre Voice. A figure approaches you in the centre of the nave. 'No worries, Harry old chap', it reassures. 'Open 'n shut case. Only doing what all Greek Orthodox priests do. If they wish to remain in the post. Perfectly normal, Harry'. If memory serves, it is Eustace Bancroft-Cunningham. You were at Ripon College together. 196-8 or so. 'Is that you, Eustace?' 'Call me Eunómios', he articulates the name in Greek. Beside him, a figure in a red cloak. A squarish, V-shaped, silvery-grey beard. A scarf with crosses. 'Where is the iconostasis?' you ask fretfully. 'Is this really Saint Phanourios church? Where's the chanters' klēros? Where's Thános Harálambous, the main psáltis? Why are these pews like shittim wood from Jerisalem? Is nothing normal this evening?' 'Everything normal', says the solemn Voice.
'I alone am not normal', says a clever, dark boy of twelve in the witness box across from yours.
In a typical UK, US, or Canadian court of justice, a witness box is clearly visible on the left of the magistrate's bench (right if you are facing it), the defendant's dock to the right (or the left, as the case may be). Entering from a foyer, one finds the usher opposite a gallery for the public. Press, in front. In the centre, counsel for the defence left, the prosecution right. A clerk or legal advisor, before the bench. In a 'normal' Orthodox parish of tribal robes and censor chains, a witness box is not so visible. Built like the Parthenon to preserve a myth, fortune smiles on whoever donated an emerald-inlaid icon screen or gold-cased image of him who ate with outcasts. Do the donor's bidding, not his. Never his. He is no Crown Prosecutor, no barrister bought and sold.
Playing to his jury of ten fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot, the Magistrate's face is veiled.
Bundled in a blue-and-gold veil, the eighth-day Child of the Covenant sleeps in Maryām's arms. 'Why this long trek to the Holy City?' grumbles Yosef, the donkey's bridle in his hand. 'Po po po, is ninety-three miles from Naṣraṭ'. 'The Law', whispers the young girl. 'Bǝre ṥīt 17, v. 10-14. And every male among you … in the flesh of his foreskin …' 'But why in Yeruśaláyim, not Naṣraṭ? Is not normal'. 'What is "normal" about him?' asks the Virgin. Twelve years pass. Pesaḥ, the Feast of all Feasts, is upon them. Down the normal, narrow, flagstoned lanes; into the bustling market, where the price of lambs 'normally' skyrockets near Passover; in courtyards of kinsfolk - Mal'aḵí and Rāḥēl, Ya'aqōv and Šošannā - they search and search. 'Have you seen Yēšūa?' asks aged Yosef. 'Po! He can't be a normal boy, like the rest'. Near the south wall of the Temple, where the Court of Women meets the fifteen steps to the Court of the Israelites and the Liškat haGazit, the Hall of Hewn Stones where the Sanhedrin assembles, they find him among the rabbis. 'Are you, then, a Levite at age twelve?' asks Yonāh ha Matzlīaḥ. 'Chanting to Ĕlōhīm the God of Yīsrā'ēl?' 'Tell me, rabbi', the Twelve-Year-Old challenges. 'What is the first letter of Ĕlōhīm?' 'Ālef', Rabbi Yonāh replies. 'A bar with two flames. Does it make a sound?' 'Not without niqqud', the learned man observes. 'Vowels, below and above'. 'Neither does God speak', says the Boy …
'Until you meet Him, face to face'. Dumbfounded, the rabbi notices Maryām at the bottom steps. 'You worried us', she chides. 'Why did you seek me?' he says. 'Where should I be but here?'
Beloved in Christ: 'normal' is no acacia blossoming in mid-winter. 'Normal' is no twelve-year–old who ties a rabbi's logic into knots. 'Normal' is the immigrant ghetto, five generations too late; the sweet, senile sound of late Byzantine demotic matching Cranmerian cadences; the Eton-edited, Harrow-hewn convert ding-donging merrily in Greek to please Harálambous and Constantinou clans who honey his baklava. 'Normal' is Eunomius the heretic, for whom God is … a technicality.
The Gospel, on the other hand, is nothing normal. Nor anything normal, the Gospel.
'The Crown Prosecution may proceed as normal', rings the sober, sombre Voice from the bench where the iconostasis should be. 'Do you see this letter Aleph, m'Lord?' the crown prosecutor in red with a squarish, V-shaped beard holds up a placard. 'Does m'Lord see the twin flames?' His Lordship nods. 'When the witness, at age twelve', he indicates the witness box, 'asked probing questions about the faith …' 'Smart ass', you smirk. ' … did the defendant reply? No!' 'My Lord', argues Eunomius, 'faith is mere custom. Like the term "Only-begotten". A word'. 'When a Greek family ousted him from its private pew', says Basil of Caesarea, 'did the defendant object? I tell the court, the defendant is guilty of the worst of all crimes. He has let the fire go out'. 'I run a normal parish', you testify on the stand, 'a conventional, normal Greek parish'. 'True', says the High Court of the King's Bench. 'Perfectly normal. That is the charge against you.'Holy Hierarch Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia, pray to God for us.
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