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1660: Assumption, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Assumption, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Assumption, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Greek Orthodox, Archdiocese of America.
The building: The parish was formed in 1987, worshipping in a private home. On May 28, 2000, ground was broken for the present building, which celebrated the opening of its doors on October 28, 2001. The building is an amalgam of Byzantine and American Southwest Spanish styles. There is a domed outdoor baptistery bearing a plaque in Greek and English that reads, "Wash your sins, not only your face," which in Greek is a palindrome inscribed on the fountain in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia. The church is cruciform in shape, with a dome crowning the sanctuary. The inside is bright and airy, with white walls and a white tiled floor. In the south transept are chairs for the choir plus an electric organ and digital keyboard. The iconostasis features only a token royal door, thus affording full view of the altar. Behind the altar is a large iconed crucifix.
The church: The parish conducts a variety of religious, social and charitable ministries. Of special note is Spiritfest, an annual outreach to lapsed Orthodox Christians and persons of other religious traditions who may be curious about Orthodoxy.
The neighborhood: Recent Mystery Worship reports have described Scottsdale as an affluent suburb to the east of Phoenix. The church is located on Cactus Road, very close to the highway known as the Loop 101 that encircles Phoenix and its outlying suburbs. The area features some commercial development as well as walled, gated residential enclaves of the very wealthy.
The cast: The Revd Andrew Barakos, priest. He was assisted by the Very Revd Virgil Suciu, a visiting priest from St John the Baptist Romanian Orthodox Church, Glendale, Arizona. There were also a crucifer, two standard bearers and two altar servers (a little boy and a little girl, about whom I'll have more to say directly). The little boy wore the shortest alb I have ever seen. At least he was wearing black shoes – as was the little girl, to her credit (but read on!).
The date & time: Feast of the Nativity of Christ, Thursday, December 25, 2008, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

How full was the building?
I would estimate that the pews could hold about 350 persons. There were only two people present for Orthros, but by the time the gospel was read the church was about three-quarters full. The congregation were comprised mostly of young couples, some with children. I saw no little old Greek ladies in black – knowing the demographics of Scottsdale, I would be surprised if any lived there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one on the porch; a bowl had been set out to receive candle offerings on the honors system. Inside, as I was taking notes on the interior, a lady came over to me and asked me if there was anything she could help me with. I explained that I was not Orthodox but would like to worship with them, whereupon she introduced herself and told me I was most welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The pews were of a warm colored wood that I couldn't identify and were not padded, but they were quite comfortable. There were also kneelers. However, we stood for almost the entire service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Orthros was being sung by the priests at the altar and a lady cantor in the north transept. People entered quietly and took their seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages" chanted in English.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Divine Liturgy in Greek and English. The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, was available in the pews but was not used. There was also a newsletter containing announcements and advertisements. The newsletter included a rather interesting timeline depicting the history of Christianity by means of a superhighway labeled "The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church," off which veered a side road labeled "The Roman Catholic Church" at a marker called "The Great Schism." Smaller side roads labeled "Luther's 95 Theses" and "The Church of England" veered off the Catholic road, with a number of even smaller roads branching off from those.

What musical instruments were played?
A small choir chanted most of the service unaccompanied. The organ was used occasionally to support them in more difficult passages. The digital keyboard was mercifully not used.

Did anything distract you?
A young mother carrying two small, fidgety, noisy children sat in my pew. At length she carried her brood off to the cry room, but the little girl escaped and returned to the pew, where the mother seemed content to leave her. After several minutes the mother rejoined us carrying the other child, having determined that the cry room was either unnecessary or ineffective (I suspect the latter).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Typical St John Chrysostom, with no surprises so far as I could tell. It was conducted entirely in English and was for the most part chanted. The choir sang sweetly and skillfully but by no means professionally. Father Barakos was vested in crimson robes with gold embroidery; Father Suciu in identical robes except that they were white with crimson embroidery. As is common in Orthodox churches, the thurible had little jingle bells attached. The peace was exchanged via handshakes and kisses.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – I really have nothing positive or negative to say about Father Barakos' preaching style. His points were well stated, he spoke clearly, and did not use notes. I was a bit put off, however, by his adding "Orthodox" every time he said "Christian." It was as if he were implying that his remarks pertained only to those Christians traveling on the superhighway, not those who had detoured off onto one of the side roads on the timeline depicted in the bulletin.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
People often say they need to find a purpose in life. But our purpose has been given to us! It is to be baptized and clothed in the Spirit, and to enter into a loving relationship with God. Who would ever have guessed that Jesus would love, touch and heal those who were considered unlovable, untouchable and incurable? Everything we see in church is an expression of someone's faith. It is our duty to pass on what we have inherited – that is, to witness! Christmas is the realization that God is with us. True, Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, but he is also born today, in us. The greatest gift we can give to God is ourselves.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The fact that the service was in English made it more accessible than other Orthodox liturgies I have attended. The prayer book was for the most part easy to follow, although some guidance would have been welcome as to where proper antiphons for the day were being substituted for the standard antiphons. Father Suciu chanted with a heavy Romanian accent, but in a deep bass voice that would have been at home in the deepest bass section of the finest Russian Orthodox choir.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
About halfway through the eucharistic prayer, it finally dawned on me that the little girl altar server was actually a little boy – with a mop of hair that would have made Ringo Starr in his prime look like Yul Brynner!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I went forward to receive the antidoron and then followed the crowd out to the porch, where everyone stood around visiting and wishing each other a merry Christmas. Father Barakos had announced that there would be no collection taken up, that "God wants our hearts, not our money," and so I slipped my Mystery Worship calling card into the candle money bowl and then did my best to look lonely but hopeful, but no one paid me any attention.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Despite what their website claims in regard to reaching out to non-Greeks, this appears to be very much a closed community, unwelcoming to anyone not of Greek heritage. I was reminded of the time I was refused service in an ethnic Greek restaurant in Astoria, Queens, New York, because I am of Italian ancestry.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Well, I wasn't doing too badly until communion time. I knew I couldn't go up to communion (and a surprisingly large number of people remained in their pews, as a matter of fact), but I noticed that many of those who did brought back a piece of the antidoron for people in their pew who didn't. No one brought me any, though. I felt as though a curtain had suddenly descended between me and the people who belonged to the parish. It spoiled the act of worship for me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"Wash your sins, not only your face."
 
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