Sign of the Cross

Students criss-cross Moscow on the trail of Russian Orthodoxy
Posted Sunday, March 16, 2003; 11:59 p.m.

Moscow - Igor Lyubimov, 73, a member of the Old Believer congregation at Rogozhskoye cemetary, on the outskirts of Moscow. PHOTO: Dan Evans

MOSCOW - Where the Jewish Sabbath trailed off Saturday at 7:22 pm, forty-five minutes after the Moscow sunset, the Christian Day of Resurrection began, heralding a day of intense, cascading Christian liturgies.

For an entire day, the "Covering Religions" class of 17 criss-crossed central Moscow, participating in a variety of liturgies, the highest of which was presided over by His Beatitude, Patriarch Alexy II, the Bishop of Moscow who currently serves as Patriarch of Russia.

Armed with breakfasts conveniently packed in plastic bags, the group boarded a chartered minibus at 6.45 a.m., driving southeast past the former KGB headquarters in Lubiank Square to the Old Believers' church at Rogozhskoye cemetery. In the bus, the group's guide Andrei Zolotov, a reporter for The Moscow Times gave impromptu lectures on the meaning of the Christian liturgies.

"For the Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist is the apex of all liturgies, the place and the time where everything comes together," he said. "There was a time in Russia when people had to present signed papers at work, certifying that they had gone to confession and partaken in communion."

At Rogozhskoye, the group was greeted by men and women bending their bodies up and down and crossing themselves to express their faith.

The students made their way to the sprawling cemetery at the Western end of the Old Believers' compound, which opened in the late 17th century, when a deadly schism occurred over ritualism in Russian Orthodoxy.

The schism, prompted by the hierarchy's new teaching of making the sign of the cross - with three fingers signifying the Holy Trinity as opposed to two joined fingers depicting the dual nature of humanity and divinity in Christ,- prompted a separation of the Russian Church into Orthodoxy and Old Believers, also known as Old Ritualists. The former had the blessing of the state, which proceeded to banish the latter, by whatever means, from all realms of society.

In1760s, when a plague hit Moscow, the Old Believers returned to the city and offered to bury the dead, Zolotov explained. In return, they were allowed to bury their own dead and to build a structure at Rogozkoye.

Igor Lyubimov, 73, a former chairman of the Rogozhskoye congregation said he had been a parishioner there for over 50 years. In a half-hour torrent, Lyubimov, who has authored a forthcoming book on the Old Believers called "Moscow, So Little Familiar," gave the class a crash-course tracing four centuries of Old Believers in Russia. He led the group into the Rogozhskoye cathedral to hear the sounds of old Slavonic chants.

Soon it was time to move on, and the group thronged out into the open, where they instantly jostled together to ward off Moscow's slashing cold. Tracing back their way along the Moscow River, which meanders past Red Square and the Kremlin, the group wound up at Moscow's equivalent of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome -- the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on Volkhanka Street.

There, Patriarch Alexy II, who suffered a stroke last October, presided over a special service which celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Constantinople the Church ruled it was acceptable to venerate icons.

Navigating their way through metal detectors and security officers, Goldman's class entered the foyer of a temple skirted by three tiers of countless candles on golden sticks. Three four-ton chandeliers hung from the icon-carpeted roof.

Dressed in royal gold from head to toe, Patriarch Alexy II presided over the liturgy of St. Basil the Great with flawless decorum. As he bowed deep before the great altar, standing within a chapel the height of a nine-story building, the congregation sung the Nicene Creed.

Following the day of rejoicing, Goldman announced to the class that fellow journalism student Jamal E. Watson was celebrating his birthday. After a rendition of "Happy Birthday" in both English and Russian, the group was off to St. Tatiana, the 248-year-old Orthodox Church at the original site of Moscow State University. There, they heard the chapel's rector, Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, reiterate the anathema, or prohibitions, pronounced on "all those who pretended to be Christians but expressed unorthodox ideas."

Having spent over half the day standing at four liturgies, the announcement of lunch came as a great relief. But before resting their aching legs, Goldman's group had to trek another mile in search of food, prompting student journalist Lila Arzua to wonder aloud, "Is Professor Goldman giving us a taste of Russian gulag with forced marches across town?"

At Patio Pizza, where the menu included weight indications of every food and drink, Timothy Lavin's table of seven started off with 1,650 grams of Siberian Crown beer. Several standard-size pizzas and cappuccinos later, the group trooped back to the Temple of Christ the Savior for a guided tour.

Their guide Galina Bulavchik, who has been on the job for two years, marched the group through Moscow's reconstructed temple, which was destroyed and replaced with a swimming pool by the Communists but has now become a symbol of hope for millions of Russian believers.

With iconography celebrating the Holy Trinity in the five-story-tall center dome and portraits of the four evangelists on the supporting pillars, the temple was a summary of Orthodox Christian belief.

Up on the roof, Bulavchik pointed out the four smaller towers, each of which was roofed in a dome gilded with 300 kilograms of gold. As the hour approached five o'clock - the time for the Evening Praise that marks the end of the Christian Sabbath - a church worker scaled one of the domes and untied a rope that led to a one ton bell-clapper. Grabbing the rope with all his might, he swayed back and forth. Moments later, sporadic, ear-shattering gongs sounded from the 30-ton bell, the largest cast in the 20th century.

Overdosed with seven centuries of history in ten hours, the class staggered out of the temple into Moscow's winter streets and readied themselves for the next day of this adventurous trip.

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