"A feast of faith and unification." Perhaps that short phrase best describes what was felt by parishioners and visitors on those unforgettable days of celebration of the parish feast of Washington DC's Cathedral of the Beheading of St John the Great Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptizer of our Lord.
The celebration of the fore-feast began on September 8 with the arrival of the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus. That evening, he celebrated the all-night vigil in our Cathedral together with local clergy. The early, English-language Liturgy that would ordinarily be celebrated the next day was canceled, so that all of our parishioners might pray together with our First Hierarch. The faithful filled the church to overflowing. A multitude received Holy Communion, offered from three chalices. At the conclusion of divine services, our First Hierarch Vladyka Metropolitan read his special encyclical on the occasion of the coming of the "Reigning" Icon of the Mother of God to the dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the celebration in the Russian Diaspora of the establishing of full fraternal communion within the Local Russian Orthodox Church.
In his epistle, Metropolitan Laurus reminded the members of ROCOR that “The approaching Church festivities…are a fortunate opportunity to increase of our efforts directed to seeing that the grace-filled gifts of our Risen and Ascended Lord be received worthily. Therefore, in preparing for this celebration, we should turn our minds and hearts to what is our constant obligation, to strengthen friendship and cooperation within our Church. This also means that we should strive to love one another, that we should live in peace, that with all our hearts we should glorify the Lord, Who, becoming man, showed us an example of love, humility and long-suffering in order to instruct us with His life.”
“I am convinced,” said Metropolitan Laurus, “that the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God's visit to our dioceses, significantly coming in the 90th year since its appearance, and accompanied by an official delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate and the choir of Moscow's Stavropegic Sretensky Monastery is of unique importance, for it will serve as a firm foundation for our effective cooperation ‘in the bond of peace' (Ephesians 4: 3).”
In conclusion, Vladyka Metropolitan called everyone to pray together with our pilgrim guests before the Reigning Icon, to take the opportunity to speak with them about the state of the Church in Russia, and to listen to the prayerful chanting of the Monastery Choir.
The next day we had that opportunity. On the morning of September 10, the holy icon so dear to the hearts of all Orthodox Christians, the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God, accompanied by His Eminence Isidor, Metropolitan of Ekaterinodar and Kuban; His Eminence Yevgeny, Archbishop of Verey; and Rector of the Moscow Theological Academy and its seminaries, and Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), Prior of Sretensky Monastery, and the choir of that Monastery, arrived in Washington on a special private flight from Chicago. The large Icon was taken to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, where it was greeted by the clergy and faithful, and installed on a specially-constructed analogion. The icon remained in the church from September 10-13. During that time, there was a constant stream of visitors from among the faithful of many Orthodox parishes in the greater Washington area. Our parishioners saw the appearance of the icon in our church as a special kindness from God, as an event that not one of us could have heretofore imagined.
On September 10, the eve of the Feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the first Moleben and Akathist was served before the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God.
Immediately following the Akathist, the Vigil began. The Sretensky Monastery Choir, directed by its talented 30-year old maestro Nikon Zhila, sang the service. From the moment they first intoned the chants, the young singers demonstrated their choral and musical mastery, their ability to join their voices as one. Most important, their singing was extremely prayerful.
At the festive litya and procession of the cross, the principal celebrant was Archbishop Yevgeny. Metropolitan Laurus, Metropolitan Isidor, His Eminence Metropolitan Onufry of Chernovits (who had just come from New York), Archbishop Yevgeny, 15 priests and 7 deacons came out for the polyeleios. After services, the cathedral's Holy Protection Sisterhood provided the clergy, choir and faithful with an abundant festal meal.
September 11, the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, began at 8:00 am with the lesser blessing of the waters. At 9:30 Aam, the hierarchs and clergy, numbering 30 people, greeted Metropolitan Laurus, who would head the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. During that Liturgy, a multitude of the faithful once again communed of the Holy Gifts, once again served from three chalices. Metropolitan Onufry gave the homily. The hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reminded the parishioners of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist of our heavenly patron's martyric podvigi, and called upon us to emulate him in standing firm in the faith. Vladyka Onufry delighted our English-speaking parishioners by repeating his words in English. The festive services concluded with a moleben served before the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God and our patronal Icon (which contains a relic of the Most-precious Head of St John the Baptist), and a procession of the cross.
Our parish feast coincides with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington, taking the lives of a multitude of people entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. On that occasion, following the moleben and procession of the cross, a protodeacon intoned “Memory Eternal” for the victims of the acts of terrorism, and, as called for in the Church ustav, for all Orthodox warriors who have fallen on the field of battle.
Afterwards, on behalf of His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II, Metropolitan Isidor, head of the Moscow Patriarchate delegation, gave the Rector of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Protopriest Victor Potapov, a hand-painted copy of the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God, in token of the unification of the two parts of the Russian Church and as a reminder of the miraculous icon's visit to Washington.
At the festal meal, Fr Victor, Cathedral Rector, read the Epistle of the Head of the Russian Church regarding the celebrations in parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia marking the restoration of full communion within One Local Russian Orthodox Church.
In the epistle, His Holiness Patriarch Alexei states, “I heartily congratulate all of you with the important events in the life of our Mother Church – the establishing of unity between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad. We all remember the conciliar service in the Cathedral Church of Christ the Savior in the city of Moscow on the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, when that unity was confirmed not only by the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion, but by concelebration – for the first time after decades of division – of the Divine Liturgy, and the joy of communing from a single Eucharistic Chalice.
“Now as then, our hearts are filled to overflowing with thanks to God, for with the restoration of unity within the Local Russian Orthodox Church, our merciful Lord has healed the bleeding wound of division. That is a gift precious to the entire fullness of the Church, all Her children gathered together as one, and for the people and the entire Russian world.”
Fr Victor also read greetings from the Archpriest Dimitri Grigoriev, Honorary Rector of St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington (OCA), whose state of health prevented him from participating in this celebration:
“I rejoice with you and your parishioners in the restoration of unity of the Holy Russian Church. The clergy, parishioners, and especially the Russian faithful of St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington join me in rejoicing, and send their greetings.
"The unification of all Russian Orthodox people in the homeland and in diaspora throughout the world is so important for the faith which is becoming resurgent and for the Church following the tragic years of theomachist rule in our Homeland. May the Lord assist us!”
On September 12, Vladyka Metropolitan Laurus, Fr Tikhon and Fr Victor visited venerable Protopriest Dimitri Grigoriev, had a meal with him, and exchanged mementos.
In the evening on September 12, the choir of Moscow's Sretensky Monastery gave a concert Washington in the auditorium of the Library of Congress. They sang Orthodox chants, folk songs, romances, and songs of the war years.
The concert opened with a litya in memory of the victims of the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 in the USA. Fr Victor offered prayers in English, and the Sretensky Choir responded in Slavonic.
The great concert concluded with long and loud applause, which – after a number of encores – the musicians were finally able to put to an end by launching into a “Many Years.”
Metropolitan Laurus, Metropolitan Onufry and Archbishop Yevgeny attended the concert.
Librarian of Congress James Billington, director of the Library and a renowned expert on Russian history and culture, welcomed the guests to the Library of Congress.
Early in the morning on September 13, the great Holy Icon of the Russian Land, the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God, together with our dear guests, departed for San Francisco in order to bring joy to the Orthodox people of California.