Orthodox Christmas: A celebration of Christ's birth
In Madison, 15 Oriental Orthodox Christians gathered at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Mission Parish Chapel, 6205 University Ave., at midnight for a night of celebration and worship.
Women arrived draped in white - the color of purity - took off their shoes and knelt to pray before the altar. A thick fog of sweet-smelling frankincense permeated the small room, lit only by candles.
For two hours, worshipers led by the Rev.
The service "is the oldest continuous expression of the Christian church," said Paprock's wife, Teresa. "When you come to a service, you're experiencing a tradition and liturgy that has existed, literally, for 2,000 years. That's what makes it so interesting."
Worshipers gathered in a circle around a makeshift bonfire - representing the fire the shepherds sat around when they were told of Jesus' birth - and one-by-one threw incense and palm fronds left over from Palm Sunday into the fire.
Nearly every aspect of the service is symbolic of the environment of the Nativity. Breathing the same incense, surrounding the fire and hearing the bells ring - representing angels - are some of the steps in becoming more like God, John-Brian Paprock told worshipers.
"Salvation is not a one-shot deal. It's a process, as we become more like God," Paprock said.
All Orthodox Christian churches recognize Dec. 25 as Christmas, but a disagreement about exactly when that date occurs has resulted in some churches celebrating the holiday 13 days later. Those celebrating on Dec. 25 follow the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world. But a few churches have opted to stick with the older Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian.
"I think there's a certain stubbornness in accepting what you've been given as truth. I think that's really a fundamental of Orthodoxy, that we honor what our spiritual ancestors have given us," Paprock said. "There's this idea that we're continuing, not starting over all the time. . . . Sometimes a calendar becomes a major way of doing that."
Paprock estimated there are 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and 20 million in the U.S.
Paprock's small congregation of mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants practices under Oriental Orthodox traditions, the original Christian practices of North Africa, the Middle East and India.
The Madison church's existence - it's one of only a handful outside major Midwestern cities - was surprising to many of the immigrants who came here expecting to either have to travel great distances or forgo going to church.
"I was really excited," said Banchiygezu Wolde, who immigrated to Madison from Ethiopia in 1999,
The influx of Ethiopian or Eritrean immigrants to the church was an unexpected but pleasant surprise, Teresa Paprock said.
"We thought we were going to be a mission of American converts," she said. Instead, the congregation is a diverse group representing different cultures, languages and backgrounds.
Because of the diversity of native languages in his congregation, John-Brian Paprock conducts services in English. And although that can pose problems at times, the diversity is a blessing, he told his congregation during the Christmas service.
"This is what's so great about our little mission. We are proof that God works regardless of our race, regardless of our language regardless of our culture."
[photo BY ANDY MANIS - For the State Journal ]