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Ascension Vespers in Midrand

24 May 2012

Last night I went to Ascension Vespers and Litiya at St Sergius of Radonezh Russian parish in Midrand, where His Beatitude Theodoros, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa served. His Eminence Damaskinos, Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, was present, together with a visiting bishop from Ghana. Several of the clergy of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria were present also present.

Priests at St Sergius of Radonezh Russian Orthodox Church for Vespers of the Ascension

The Pope was visiting southern Africa for the centenary of the Hellenic Community of Johannesburg, and also for the installation of a new bishop of Botswana (Orthodox Christians in Botswana were formerly under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Zimbabwe).

His Beatitude Theodoros, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, officiating at the Litiya

The Vespers included the Litiya, the blessing of five loaves, wheat, wine and oil, at which the Patriarch officiated, assisted by the parish priest, Fr Daniel.

Among the clergy present were Fr George Coconas and Fr George Cocotas (both Greek South Africans), Fr Pantelejmon (Serbian) and Fr Yonko (Bulgarian).

There were also ambassadors of several different countries present at the service, and the Patriarch greeted them afterwards. Among them were the Russian and Egyptian ambassadors, and several other countries were also represented.

The Patriarch greeting ambassaors who attended the Ascension Vespers

Afterwards there was a splendid feast in the church hall, with many toasts and much singing of “Many years”.

Patriarch Theodoros, with the Archbishops of Johannesburg and Ghana on his right and left respectively.

For anyone who reads this who is not Orthodox or South African, some of the significance of it may need to be explained.

The Orthodox Church was planted in Africa in Alexandria in Egypt in the first century by St Mark, who was a disciple of St Peter. Initially Christianity spread mainly among Jewish residents of Alexandria, and then gradually spread among Greeks and the local Egyptian population. By the end of the second century scriptures and liturgical texts had been translated into various local languages, and in the 3rd century it spread rapidly among the Egyptians, so that new bishoprics were created outside Alexandria, and the bishop of Alexandria (the original bishopric) became known as Pope, the father of the other bishops. This was long before the Bishop of Rome took the title Pope.

In the 7th century there was a split over a doctrinal question that had been decided at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, and those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon are known as “Greek” or “Eastern” Orthodox, while those who rejected it are known as “Coptic” or “Oriental” Orthodox. The Coptic Pope, Shenouda, died recently, as was reported in the news media, but Pope Theodoros is not his successor.

In South Africa Orthodoxy was established by immigrants, mostly Greeks, but also from Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and so on. But while there are parishes in which those languages are used (St Sergius in Midrand is Russian) they are one Orthodox Church, as was shown on this occasion by clergy of many different ethnic backgrounds being present, and also by the presence of ambassadors representing the various home countries. In places like North America, Orthodox Christians tend to be divided up into different ethnic “jurisdictions”, but this is not so in southern Africa, which has tried to avoid American “jurisdictionalism”.

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