Eastern Christianity in Greater Boston

Introduction

Every Good FridayGood Friday—the Friday before Easter—is the day observed by the Christian church as the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Christians keep this day in many ways: with prayer, fasting, or the veneration of the cross., Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, Cambridge, is momentarily blocked off, and two Eastern OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... processions meet. The congregants of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church—founded by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants eighty years ago—march from Inman Street. Members of St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church process from just a few blocks away on the other side of the Square. Ushers holding a flower-adorned sepulcher, symbolizing the tomb of Christ, lead each procession. IconsAn icon is a painted or mosaic image of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity, or the saints which is used in the liturgy, prayer, and theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches. The icon is understood to be a window opening upon the divine reality. rest in the arms of altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said. servers. When the tombs mirror each other by a few feet, the communities converge, the priestsA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... alternate sprinkling the crowd with water and oil and the choirs exchange hymns. Soon all present sing as one. Cars and pedestrians continue along Massachusetts Avenue, wondering what they have just witnessed, some slow down, some fall in line with those who hold candles.

To visit the various Eastern Christian churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... of Greater Boston is to undertake a course in the diversity of Eastern Christendom in America. Eastern ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church. can be broken into four categories: the Eastern OrthodoxThe Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox churches are a family of fourteen or fifteen churches that developed from the Church of the Byzantine Empire, which formally separated from the Church of Rome in the 11th century. Today they include the ancient patriarchat... Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Assyrian Church of the East (formerly known as the Nestorian Christians). All but the last group are well-represented in Greater Boston.

The Eastern Orthodox ChurchThe Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox churches are a family of fourteen or fifteen churches that developed from the Church of the Byzantine Empire, which formally separated from the Church of Rome in the 11th century. Today they include the ancient patriarchat... is a family of geographically distinct but theologically unified self-governing churches. Worldwide its membership is estimated at 225 million; it is the second largest Christian communionCommunion or holy communion—also called the Eucharist, or the Lord’s supper—is the central rite of the Christian community in which the faithful partake as a community of the sanctified bread and wine. By extension, communion is often used to refer ... in the world. The Eastern Orthodox Church is considered one church, one body, one truth. Orthodox Christians consider themselves first as “Orthodox Christians,” second, as whichever national adjective may modify that term. Particularly in America, where Orthodox Christians are often defined as neither Catholic nor ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists..., this collective identity includes Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians: worldwide they number well over a quarter billion.

Orthodox Christians are proud of the long history of Christianity within their respective cultures. This is evident when surveying the names of many Orthodox churches in Boston. The Ukrainian Orthodox community of Boston chose St. Andrew as the namesake of their parishA parish is the geographical neighborhood or area served by a church or pastor. in Jamaica Plain. St. Andrew was the first apostleThe apostles are the disciples of Jesus recognized as leaders of the early church; Paul, although not a disciple, came to be considered an apostle as well. commissioned into Jesus’ discipleship and is believed to have reached modern day Ukraine in his travels. St. Mark’s CopticThe Coptic Church is the ancient and still vibrant church of Egypt, an autonomous Christian church which dates its origins to Mark the Evangelist in the first century. It continues to be led today by a patriarch called a Pope; its liturgical life is condu... Orthodox Church in Natick honors St. Mark the Evangelist, who is considered the founder of the church in Egypt. The Serbian Orthodox Church in Cambridge, consecrated in October 2009, was dedicated to St. Sava. In the early thirteenth century, St. Sava became the first hierarch of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church when the Patriarch of Constantinople elevated him to the office of MetropolitanA Metropolitan is the title given to a bishop, used especially in the Orthodox family of churches today..1

The organization of the Orthodox Church is based on the structure of the church in the Christian Roman Empire, where local churches were gathered under the jurisdictions of regional bishopsA bishop is an ordained minister who supervises life in a diocese, synod, or other broad region and possesses, among other things, the authority to ordain clergy to the ministry of the church. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and Protest..., who in turn were under one of the five patriarchs, situated in the major metropolitan centers. This “pentarchy of patriarchates”2 included: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and JerusalemJerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel from the time of King David (c. 1000 BCE), was the ritual and spiritual center of the Jewish people for 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For Jews, Jerusalem is still the geographical.... The Roman See was considered the “first among equals” by the other patriarchs until the Great Schism of 1054, after which the Latin Church was no longer in communion with her Eastern brothers. Within the Eastern communion, this honor was later passed to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Subsequent autocephalous, or self-governing national churches, were added to this federation, such as the Russian Orthodox Church in the sixteenth century, now the largest Orthodox Church in the world.

History of Eastern Christianity in Greater Boston

When Orthodox Christians began to immigrate to America in large numbers during the early twentieth century, the immigrants were inclined to celebrate liturgy in their native language, maintaining the liturgical particularities of their cultural traditions. Having established settlements in Alaska, the Russian Orthodox Church was the first Orthodox Church in the New World. As a result, prior to World War I, Orthodox churches in North America were de facto, despite ethnic association, under the ecclesiastical authority of the Moscow PatriarchateA patriarchate is one of the sectors of the Eastern Orthodox church over which a patriarch, or senior bishop, has jurisdiction. The ancient church recognized Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople as patriarchates. Today, for example, th.... After the confusion induced by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, churches began retaining and reestablishing their organizational ties with their mother churches abroad, resulting in overlapping American jurisdictions that still exist today.

Boston presents a good example of this diocesan diversity. Within Greater Boston, the following Eastern Orthodox Churches are represented: Albanian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian. Early twentieth-century Boston saw waves of immigrants from the Middle East, and North and South Eastern Europe and thus many Eastern Orthodox churches in the area were founded in this period. As the world ushered in a new millennium, many churches have rung their bells in celebration of their centennial: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of New England in Allston in 2003; St. John of Damascus Antiochian Orthodox Church in Dedam in 2007; St. George’s Albanian Orthodox Cathedral in South Boston in 2008; and Holy TrinityThe Trinity is the Christian doctrine of the three natures of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The language of the Trinity bespeaks the complexity of God, who can be spoken of as the transcendent creator, the one who accompanies humanity as the ... Orthodox Cathedral of Boston—founded by Russians and Austro-Hungarians—in 2010. St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox in Cambridge marked their eightieth anniversary in 2008.

In the mid-twentieth century immigrants from India and Egypt began to settle in Boston seeking higher education and more promising jobs. St. Mary’s Indian Malankara Orthodox Church in Maynard was founded in 1973, only the second Indian Orthodox church in America. St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Natick was founded during this same period. St. Mark’s community is now served by six priests and includes a retreat center in New Hampshire, the Holy Virgin MaryMary was the mother of Jesus and, as such, has a special place in the affection and devotion of Christians. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew speak of her as a Virgin who conceived Jesus by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Devotion to the Virgin Mary, also cal... Spiritual Vineyard. With the more recent influx of immigration from Northern Africa, and the growing Ethiopian presence in Boston, the drums of St. Michael’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church have been beating since 1989. Along with the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox churches in Boston, these communities are members of the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches, a group of churches that only recognize the first three Ecumenical Councils.

The Oriental Orthodox Church rejects the Fourth Council of Chalcedon, which decreed the nature of Christ as equally human and divine. In 2001, a council of bishops representing both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church declared their Christologies effectively consistent, citing linguistic and political factors for the historical disagreement. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches are not yet in full communion, but like the Eastern Catholic Churches, all these churches share very similar theology and practices. Efforts for reconciliation continue today.

Greater Boston is a major cultural center for both the Maronite Catholic Church and the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church, communities of primarily Middle Eastern descent. These Eastern Catholic Churches are sui juris, or “of one’s own laws,” churches of the Roman Catholic ChurchThe Roman Catholic Church, often referred to as the Catholic Church, is the largest of the major streams of Christianity. It claims the authority of Christian tradition dating to the time of the apostles. Its representative and interpreter is the Pope, th.... Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Maronite Church in Jamaica Plain is the oldest Maronite community in America. (The Maronite Church derives its names from Maron, a fifth century Syriac monkA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord....) The Annunciation Melkite-Greek Cathedral in Roslindale is the ecclesial headquarters of the Eparchy of Newton that encompasses the entire United States and is led by ArchbishopAn archbishop is a bishop with authority over a particularly large or important diocese. Cyril Salim Bustros. The Roslindale headquarters also includes a publishing house, Sophia Press, and St. Gregory the Theologian Seminary, the only Melkite-Greek seminary in the United States.

Boston acts as an ecclesiastical see in many Orthodox Churches, the administrative center of a dioceseA diocese is an administrative unit of the Christian Church, presided over by a bishop., where a bishopA bishop is an ordained minister who supervises life in a diocese, synod, or other broad region and possesses, among other things, the authority to ordain clergy to the ministry of the church. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and Protest... resides and oversees other churches in the region. Within the Orthodox Church in America—an independent church of the Moscow Patriarchate—His Grace Nikon is the Bishop of Boston, as well New England and the Albanian Archdiocese. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, His Eminence Metropolitan Methodios of Boston is the bishop and spiritual leader of over 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians throughout the North East and Mid-Atlantic states.

Metropolitan Methodios’ offices are located at the Hellenic College and Holy CrossThe cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith, pointing to the significance for the church of the whole Christ event: the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline. This seminary serves the Greek Archdiocese of America, a province of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the United States. While most students are from the Greek Diocese, the seminary also trains clergyClergy are the body of ordained men (and in some cases women) who are authorized to perform the priestly, pastoral, or rabbinical duties of the community—as distinct from the laity whom they serve. from other Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox jurisdictions. Its printing press, the Holy Cross Orthodox Press, has published over 500 books on Orthodox Spirituality. Every Thursday, vespers are held in ArabicClassical Arabic is the language of revelation in Islam as recorded in the Qur’an. Muslims consider every word of the Qur’an to be a direct utterance of God. The Arabic language itself is regarded as perfectly suited as the instrument for God’s comm... in the seminary Cathedral and the 52-acre campus is often used as a retreat destination for Pan-Orthodox events and youth groups throughout the East Coast. One of the eights schools that comprise the Boston Theological Institute, the seminary annually hosts academic conferences and ecumenical events on interfaith dialogue.

The Greek Orthodox Diocese of Boston and the Armenian Diocese are members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. On the national level, Orthodox Churches comprise eight member communionsCommunion or holy communion—also called the Eucharist, or the Lord’s supper—is the central rite of the Christian community in which the faithful partake as a community of the sanctified bread and wine. By extension, communion is often used to refer ... of the National Council of Churches. Seven of these jurisdictions have parishesA parish is the geographical neighborhood or area served by a church or pastor. in Greater Boston.

Conclusion

The Orthodox churches of Boston have continued in the tradition of their strands of OrthodoxyIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. but have both grown into congregations of diverse ethnicities. Many of these churches pull members from different Orthodox backgrounds. St. Mary’s Antiochian Church in Cambridge now maintains a large Eritrean membership. At the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston, fifty percent of the congregants are converts. Many Orthodox churches hold annual bazaars that feature their ethnic heritage through cuisine and dance. These events help establish the parishes in their respective communities and often attract visits from Orthodox Christians that are not members of their community.

Though more fractured than many American Orthodox Christians wish, Orthodox ChristianityThe Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox churches are a family of fourteen or fifteen churches that developed from the Church of the Byzantine Empire, which formally separated from the Church of Rome in the 11th century. Today they include the ancient patriarchat... in Greater Boston boasts a rich and diverse community, and faces many of the same challenges in the future. Like the converging processions in Central Square every Good Friday, the Orthodox churches of Boston walk together in theology and practice. Though onlookers may gaze with eyes of astonishment, Eastern Christianity is well established in Greater Boston.

Icons

This ethnic diversity of Eastern Christianity in Boston is evident in the icons that grace the churches, from the hard lines of Byzantine iconography to the soft portraiture of the Ethiopian style. Icons hold a very important place in Eastern Christian worship and theology. These “windows into Heaven” as St. John of Damascus described them, do not merely serve the purpose of decoration nor do they simply illustrate scripture. The current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church writes that icons are “faith depicted in color, simultaneously constituting part of the transfigured cosmos.”3 The veneration of the icons of Christ, of the Mother of GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality., of the saintsSaints are human beings whose lives have displayed extraordinary holiness and devotion. As such they become examples for others. Indeed some of the faithful may understand them to be intermediaries and seek their help in time of need. Roman Catholics and ... and angelsAngels are a class of supernatural or spiritual beings, imaginatively understood to perform various functions on God’s behalf. Angels are especially described as divine messengers. Angels are common to Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam., and of scenes from scripture, demonstrate the Christian dogma of Christ’s Incarnation. Eastern Christians believe the Incarnation of the Son of GodThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. revealed to all humanity the image of the Father. When God took human form the entire material world was made holy, the cosmos transfigured. Saints are thought to achieve deification in their lifetimes through the emulation of Christ, fulfilling the role of humanity as created in the image of God. Icons—which in Greek translate as image, likeness, or portrait—are thus images of the images of God.

The artists of these sacred images are held to high spiritual standards and must follow traditional rubrics in what they portray. The style is not intended to mimic pictures but rather depicts the “Kingdom within.” Christians do not worship the paint or wood or the figure depicted, but instead the spiritual reality of the one God to which the images and the liturgy lead. Though Eastern Christians venerate icons in their homes, icons cannot be separated from their liturgical context.

In churches icons are often arranged in iconostases. The iconostasis—literally translated in Greek iconAn icon is a painted or mosaic image of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity, or the saints which is used in the liturgy, prayer, and theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches. The icon is understood to be a window opening upon the divine reality. stand—is often rendered in English as an icon screen, since it is thought to provide not a barrier but a threshold between the altar and the church nave, where the congregation resides. From entering a church in the narthex, to standing before the nave, to gazing at the iconostasis, to partaking of the sacramentSacraments are the sacred rites of the Christian church, sometimes defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Two sacraments are universally accepted as instituted by Christ himself: the Eucharist (holy communion) and b... of Holy Communion, the church symbolizes a vertical ascent from earthly to heavenly realms. St. Simeon of Thessalonica wrote: “the narthex corresponds to earth, the church to heaven, and the Holy Sanctuary to what is above heaven.” Upon approaching the Holy Sanctuary, the faithful are greeted by a reflection of humanity through those who have been deified—familiar figures that are believed to guide them still further to the unknowable God.

Though the form and height of these icon screens varied in the ancient church—from solid structures reaching elbow height to lattice work to architraves sets on a row of columns—they grew more complex by the 14th century. Inspired from the triptych frescoes of the deesis, or JesusJesus is the historical figure considered by Christians to be the Christ, the Messiah, whose life and teachings, death and resurrection give clear evidence of God’s love for humankind. Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE... flanked by John the BaptistThe Baptist tradition includes a variety of Christian churches which trace their beginnings to the Anabaptist reform movement that rejected infant baptism insisting on the importance of baptizing only those who are able to profess the faith as believers. and the Virgin Mary, templon screens is Russia were soon built with many levels, later spreading to the other Orthodox churches. By the sixteenth century, a common organization of images was established. The center doors, or the royal doors, often depict the four writers of the GospelsGospel means “Good News” and refers to the central message of the Christian tradition: the good news of Christ’s life and message of redemption. Gospel refers more specifically to the four books that tell the story of the Christ event and became par... and/or the Annunciation. To the left of the royal doors, the mother of God reigns, indicating Christ’s Incarnation, while to the right of the door sits Jesus enthroned, the Panocrator, symbolizing Christ in the majesty of his Second Coming. John the Baptist and the namesake icon of the church often occupy the other panels of this row. The following tiers depict the liturgical feasts or scenes from the life of Jesus, then an extended version of the deesis, then rows of prophetsA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe ..., then rows of patriarchs, completed by the Cross.

For a journey through the various icons venerated at churches in Greater Boston, click here.


1. John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 2008, 65. ↩

2. ibid, 30. ↩

3. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, Doubleday, 2008, 11. ↩


Bibliography

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today. Doubleday, 2008.

McGuckin, John Anthony. The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church, New Edition. Penguin Books, 1997.