An Eastern/Oriental Orthodox Christmas

Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
5 min readDec 27, 2023
Source: https://www.stmary.org.au

“Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon and Newton, man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories people told each other — stories about the structure of the cosmos and the place of man. But now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished.” — Dr Jordan B Peterson, Maps of Meaning

Here in Summer Australia, we don’t have white Christmas (except for Central NSW), but I was happy with my Orthodox Christmas. In my last blog post a few days ago, I blogged that:

“I’ll probably make another post… covering the following upcoming Sydney Orthodox adventures of mine:
8am English Liturgy Sunday the 24th at Sts Mary and Mina Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Bexley
6pm Great Vespers of Nativity Sunday the 24th at St Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Punchbowl
9am Matins and Liturgy Monday the 25th at St Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Mays Hill”

I turned up on time at Sts Mary and Mina’s (8am), just as the 5:30am (that’s commitment!) dual English and Arabic Liturgy was wrapping up, and the Cathedral will filled with incense like there was a (Holy) shisha party going on. The priest (or was it bishop? The ecclesiology at this Oriental parish was too foreign for me to instantly comprehend) then walked around sprinkling holy water onto his parishioners up close and personal — an almost literal Communioning of the Saints.

As it was my first Oriental Orthodox experience, I was redirected to their 8am Multicultural (English-speaking) Liturgy, located in the attic of the building next door. On my way there, I past families and friends hanging out with each other like it’s an extended family gathering, and I past the 8am Kids Liturgy. Other than Sts Mary and Merkorious Coptic Orthodox Church’s website (also Oriental Orthodox), I’ve never seen so many weekly Liturgies listed on a website!

When I got to the attic, it appears that I was relatively early, and I was warmly welcomed by some of the women there. This attic reminded me of my recent visit to Sts Michael and Gabriel Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ryde. Without really knowing what was going on, I sat to the right of the aisle (priest’s right), back row, and it was only obvious to me later when the pews were filling up, that I was sitting on the men’s side. Whoops!

The sermon referenced a “Paradise of Monks” story as follows:

“There was a monk who neglected his worship and slacked until the day when he was about to die and the monks gathered around him to see how he would receive death. They found him joyful!! An elder father asked him: ‘Be strong, brother, in the name of Christ, and tell us why are you so joyful?’

That brother replied: I saw some people coming to take my soul, and I saw the deeds caused by my sins. They said, ‘here are your sins’, and I said I know and do not deny them. But since I became a monk, I have not judged anyone, and I want the verse that says “Judge not that you be not judged” to be applied to me. Since I have not judged anyone how can I be judged? Upon uttering these words, these sinful deeds were erased.

This monk did not live a life of sin, but he neglected his worshipping duties. He was kind-hearted, harbored no malice against anyone, judged no one, spoke no evil against anyone, and was humble. Thanks to his humility and not judging others, that monk was saved.

Through careful compliance with the commandment he was able to escape the judgment that would have otherwise been inflicted on him because of his slackness.”

This Liturgy didn’t feel Eastern Orthodox, and it was only later that I realised it was a Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. If it wasn’t in an attic, it would have a much higher church feel to it, and go on for longer than 2 hours! There was no choir, so it was up to the congregation to chant. In both the Cathedral and the attic, there are TV screens to subtitle the Liturgy, and I noticed that Sts Mary and Merkorious had something similar.

I saw cymbals being played, and I noticed that some of the women at certain points during the Liturgy bowing whilst kneeling — the soft rug under me made sense. Also, during communion, men went first to receive. The modernist in me wanted to react, but I contemplated instead.

For a while I’ve been contemplating whether the Anglican Communion should or shouldn’t allow women’s ordination to the priesthood. I’ve contemplated all sorts of arguments, from “It’s not Biblical”, “Nothing stopping a woman from becoming CEO of Anglicare instead”, and “We should push for more religious life options for women like Rome”, to “Henry VIII distorted marriage and sexuality in the English Church, so why stop there”, “We don’t have to be a copy-and-paste of Rome, we should be uniquely Anglican”, and “Why stop a Margaret Thatcher from becoming a priest”.

It was during this communion did I finally accept that I don’t go to God’s House on a Sunday ‘in the world’, just to then be part ‘of the world’ simultaneously. Secular egalitarianism is waiting outside the church doors, and so that should remain the case, a patient waiting that is.

The women having been spoonfed the bread then used their scarves (virtually all the female parishioners were fully scarved) to cover their mouths whilst chewing before then being spoonfed the wine. After the Liturgy, I was invited to Bible study right after, and it was no ordinary Bible study. We read and discussed a page of Athanasius the Apostolic’s On the Incarnation of the Word. Based as — like how I feel about Sts Mary and Merkorious, I wanna come back!

That same evening I went to the 6pm Great Vespers of Nativity at St Nicholas in Punchbowl, and found it difficult to follow the service using my smartphone. I’m so used to reading from a print-out at church, that I just stopped using my smartphone altogether. I spent some time admiring the massive icons on the walls and ceiling. And the following morning I went to the 9am Matins and Liturgy at St Mary’s in Mays Hill. I didn’t stay for the whole service, I was starting to tune out — when the pews started to overflow, I decided to give up my seat for someone else who’ll pay closer attention, and left, maybe because I was over-Orthodoxed for a week.

Since then, I have been reading into Orthodox theology, specifically, the essence–energies distinction and miaphysitism. I can’t say that I can be fully convinced to convert to Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy — I’m too scholastic in the catholic sense, and via media Anglicanism has emboldened my sense of religious freedom. Still, the eternal reverence of the Divine Liturgy (especially Oriental Orthodox) makes you wonder, did pre-Reformation Scholasticism miss something vital along the way?

Epilogue: too much tradition you become orthodox, too much scripture you become evangelical, and too much reason you become liberal.

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Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)

Trans-inclusionary radical feminist (TIRF) | Liberal Arts phenomenologist from @notredameaus | Anglo-catholic | all opinions expressed here are my own