Deacon Mark O'Dell during Saturday's Vespers service… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
The service had just begun, but in the dim light cast by candles, the old structure was already buzzing with activity.
Men and women entered in a stream, heads down, approached and kissed an image of Christ, and circled back to the heart of the church. A man in a ponytail bowed before a gold-trimmed painting of a saint, crossing himself several times.
As children clutched their parents' hands, a choir intoned a hymn that sounded straight from the deserts of Syria, and the members of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum gathered in the open center of the room.
It was the Great Vespers service of Palm Sunday, the first day of the holiest, most hopeful week of the year for the world's 225 million Orthodox Christians, 2.6 percent of whom live in the United States. The faith blends ceremony and mystery in a way worshippers say makes their faith less a doctrine than a living thing.
But at Holy Cross, one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland, the old gives rise to the new. Most members are in their 20s and 30s. About 70 percent are converts, including former atheists, Anglicans, Catholics and Buddhists. The group embraces Caucasians, Asians and blacks, ethnic Serbs and Greeks, and occupations from research biologist to homemaker to roof repairman.
For a faith often identified with Eastern ethnic groups, at Holy Cross it has a bustling, American feel. "The Orthodox faith is multicultural diversity," said the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, the priest who founded the parish in 1993.
Members who call this the liveliest, friendliest church they've known said its personality wouldn't show itself fully until today. Services for Easter, or Pascha, are always "noisy, beautiful, joyful and wonderful," one member says, but "so chaotic [they] can overwhelm" newcomers.
On Palm Sunday, it was enough to see that a service meant to begin at 6 p.m. actually started in the afternoon, when members began arriving on their own, and continued after Mathewes-Green went home.
Willows and palms
As the sun sank and the lights dimmed, the church on North Camp Meade Road, built in 1911, had a somber and a festive feel. It was festooned not just with palm fronds but also pussy-willow branches.
Even though Orthodox Christianity (also known as Eastern Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy) took root in the balmy Mediterranean, it spread eastward through Asia, north into the Baltic region and elsewhere.
"Not a whole lot of palm trees in Russia," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, Gregory's wife and the khouria, or mother, of the parish.
In effect, Orthodoxy itself began with a split.
Believers say that in the early days of Christianity - during the 1,000 years after Christ's death - there was a single, authentic church whose followers generally worshipped in the manner described by Jesus' original followers, the 12 apostles.
That changed, they say, when Roman Catholics (insisting, among other things, that the pope should have universal authority) broke away in 1054 - a split that would spark the fracture of the faith into multiple other denominations.
Even on Palm Sunday last week, the Orthodox aimed to practice the "apostolic" faith. The Communion (consuming of bread and wine), atonal hymn singing, shaking of incense and "veneration" of icons on display were codified centuries ago, starting in the Book of Acts.
To newcomers, those often take a little getting used to. "It seemed surreal at first, kissing these pictures," said Robert Lowe, a Catonsville architecture professor who converted in 2005. "In time, you absorb their symbology. There's a meaning and purpose to everything."
Such exercise is thought to develop the nous - a Greek word suggesting one's native capacity to sense the divine in the warp and woof of daily life.
"In [Orthodoxy], union with God isn't for mystics on mountaintops," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, an author whose work includes numerous books on the faith. "By diligent listening or practice, each of us can know God directly. We can become attuned."
Charleston to Catonsville
Having started in the eastern Mediterranean, Orthdox Christianity spread through southern Asia, China and Siberia. Missionaries brought it to North America at Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 1794.
From there, it traveled south and east.
"The usual migratory pattern was reversed," Gregory said a bit proudly.
That path makes sense to the Mathewes-Greens. They also walked an unconventional path.
Gary (now Gregory) Mathewes and Frederica Green grew up in Charleston, S.C., in the 1950s and 1960s, and when they met, their belief systems were a blend of agnosticism and New Age hippiedom. They got married barefoot.
During their honeymoon - a backpacking trip through Europe - Frederica had what she calls a vivid conversion experience in a Dublin cathedral.
Half-embarrassed, she told her husband about it a week later.
"It'll pass," he said.