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Our Church: Baptized by Fire and Water

Bishop Joseph pounded with his hand cross on the closed doors of the Orthodox Church of the Redeemer, then shouted:

“Lift up your gates, O princes; and be lifted up, O everlasting gates, that the King of glory may come in.”

A voice came from within the darkened building:

“Who is the King of glory?

Bishop Joseph responded:

“The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war.”

“Who is the King of glory?” came the question again.

“The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war.”

Dared the hidden voice once more:

“Who is the King of glory?”

This time Bishop Joseph thundered, “The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory!” as he flung open the doors of the Church. With Father Samer Youssef and attendant priests, deacons and altar servers, he raced forward with relics fromSaint Raphael of Brooklyn to seal into the top of the altar.

The altar was then washed while the cantor sang words from Holy Scripture:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

And Bishop Joseph prayed:

“Sanctify this temple and this Holy Table; fill it with Light Everlasting; elect it for Thy dwelling- place; make it the abode of Thy Glory.”

* * *

Six years earlier flames crackled in the darkness just before dawn. An arsonist had poured accelerant throughout the sanctuary. Fire leapt over the pews and roof, then from the altar. Within minutes a place of worship was reduced to neat piles of fine ash.

Before the sun rose, word spread rapidly from phone to phone. Members of the Churchof the Redeemer entered their own fiery furnace: Would their hearts flame into fire like their church, consumed by anger, then blindness?

Into this scene of destruction Christ had extended his merciful hand. The altar of the Church of the Redeemer had been reduced to a nearly perfect rectangle of ash, only inches high. On the altar had sat the Book of the Gospel. After the fire, Father Samer and the firemen found it, its paper pages unconsumed. Most of it remained intact. On the top remaining page of the Book of the Gospel, scorched around its edges but plainly legible, stood fast the words of Christ: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38–39). Christ spoke his gentle but immoveable challenge to the heart of each parishioner of the Orthodox Church of the Redeemer.

First came the clean up. Except for the Words of Christ, next to nothing remained to be salvaged from the ashes. On that first Sunday after the fire the congregation met in a large tent, but the weather made it a struggle to pray. Wind kept loosening the tarp, and wet, cold rain slapped against the cheeks of those who would pray. Yet the prayer continued. The community, momentarily huddled, quickly grew in strength, enlivened by the Spirit of God who had seen fit to baptize it with fire.

To start, all the parishioners gave themselves to vigorous physical labor. A building committee was formed. With tenacity and wisdom Father Samer, the building committee and the parish council encouraged the people, while neighbors and the community supported the Church with generous donations. Six and one-half years of unabated effort swept by. The construction work moved toward its finishing touches.

Preparation for the Consecration reached everywhere. An Orthodox craftsman prepared the holy altar. He carved four rectangular cavities into the surface corners of the altar where icons of the four evangelists, approximately three inches by five inches, would be waxed into the corners. Steel braces were bolted to the rear of the iconostasis and at their base to the concrete under the ambo, then painted gold. Altar implements and temple furnishings traveled from Greece by ship, arriving only a week ahead of the Consecration. Two evenings before the Bishop arrived, the men of the church installed four golden chandeliers, working late into the night. The Russian iconographer adorned the altar, walls and dome of the church with iconography in the Byzantine style. Friday morning, one day before services, the iconographer’s scaffolding came down and clean up began.

Meanwhile, the consecration committee and women of the church prepared a banquet. Gracious and elegant, they did their work as unto Christ. From their character they crafted a tasteful and dignified banquet and hafli, served to several hundred parishioners and community members at the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency. Representative to Congress Anna Eshoo, so helpful to the Church of the Redeemer in the immediate aftermath of the fire, spoke movingly of her parents’ faith. The choir sang hymns of the church with beauty and strength. The architect and the captains of the fire department who fought so bravely that fateful Sunday morning were honored. Bishop JOSEPH then spoke, calling all to Christ, and to the dignity and glory of the work that awaited us in the morning.

In the architecture of the Church of the Redeemer, ingenious in its technique, classically Byzantine in its presentation, a sweeping dome dominates the nave. The stunning beauty and power of the Pantocrator, Who fills the dome and all the sanctuary, draws the eyes of all who enter to Himself. A window to heaven is opened. The heart is compelled to silence. Beauty and the love of God reign. As Father Samer once said, “Love is living with the manners of God.”

Before matins the nave of the Church of the Redeemer filled with the faithful. Bishop Joseph processed into the sanctuary, bearing with him the authority of Christ and relics from Saint Raphael of Brooklyn. The choir sang. Father Samer and neighboring priests gathered around the Bishop. Golden chandeliers shimmered against azure iconic blue. The voice of the cantor, and incense, filled the air with the signs of prayer.

On October 26, 2008, not only was a building built and consecrated, but a people. The Church of the Redeemer, as the body of Christ, was given a vision of heaven on earth. Father Samer asked, “This baptism by fire, then water, how does it change what we see?” He continued, “We are distracted by power or money or position or pleasure. But at the end of time all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The angels now in the altar watch. Christ watches. All of us must live our lives before their eyes.”

As he pointed to the Pantocrator above him, Father Samer offered his final words. “The Church as a people must see in each other the image of Christ, greet one another with a holy kiss, so that love reigns, the love of Christ – one to another, then spreading into the world.” The vision of the Pantocrator in the dome, no matter of mere artwork, lives as a vision of the people – Christ Himself.

As Bishop Joseph stated in his homily at the conclusion of the Consecration, on October 26, 2008, “Orthodoxy is to live the life of Christ. We say, ‘God is marvelous in his saints.’ It means that God is glorified in the people who are following Him. Today I, you, all of us, we baptized the Church. Today the Holy Spirit Himself consecrated the Church. Today the Holy Spirit, God Himself, came into this building. From now on you have to feel the presence of God. See God. Experience God.”

“Let us have a humble and contrite spirit. And embrace one another. And think and be convinced that someone else has more of the love of God than me. This is the Church.”

James Bronson Stroud
The Orthodox Church of the Redeemer
Los Altos Hills, California