Follow @neilsteinbergThe sky was overcast and rainy. But before sundown, when David Hostetler, a Navy lieutenant and Greek Orthodox priest, began his service at a beach on an island in the East China Sea, the sun broke through the clouds.
“Just as we started our prayers,” Hostetler said over the telephone last Monday from Okinawa, Japan, where he is stationed.
Christmas is a fading memory for most by mid-January, its farewell marked by secular ceremonies: the Dragging of the Tree to the Curb, the Boxing of the Lights.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity extends Christmas through Epiphany, which ended over the weekend, including a ceremony called the Outdoor Blessing of the Waters, commemorating Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. One was held Sunday on the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with others earlier this month on the banks of the Illinois River in Peoria, the Rock River in Rockford and the Mississippi at St. Paul, Minnesota.
Though the ceremony that caught my eye was performed by a former Chicagoan living with his family on a military base abroad. As befitting a former resident of the Windy City, Hostetler had to deal with a strong wind that battered his vestments.
“A little distracting,” he said. He set up a field altar kit — the military has equipment for everything — with the surf lapping at the table legs. He had asked a Marine—the Marines have no clergy, and Hostetler is assigned to a Marine base—to craft a large white wooden cross to be cast upon the waters. In colder climes, the cross is often attached to a fishing line so it can be reeled out.
But it’s a lot more fun by a warm sea, since the Greek tradition is for children present to race to retrieve the cross. The winner gets a special blessing.
Hostetler counted 27 in attendance.
“A remarkable turnout,” he said. “Just about everybody on the island who were Orthodox.”
The service was brief. Chairs would have been an added logistical challenge, and traditionally people stand.
“I might have added something about the uniqueness of the situation, but given the circumstances, I could not try and preach,” he said.
Hostetler is 45. “Older than most of my peers and rank,” he said. “Most chaplains are. They come later to the service. You have to be a couple years an ordained minister before the Navy considers you; most, they’re in their late 30s before most folks get here.”
Of the 800 Navy chaplains, about 10 are Eastern Orthodox and only three of those, Hostetler said, are Greek Orthodox priests. Those in service sometimes overlook them.
“You get deployed, go overseas, the first default assumption is they’re going to be disconnected from a priest,” he said. “I know a young woman whose father wouldn’t let her join the military, afraid she’d become disconnected. They’re not on their own. We’re here, and we’re eager to get out and see as many as they can.
“We have such a large Orthodox population in and around Chicago, I want people to know, when they send their kids into the service, we have Orthodox chaplains in the military. If they can make themselves known to their commands, that they would like an Orthodox priest to come visit on big holidays.”
When the big moment came, Hostetler lined the kids up, including his four sons — Isaac, 16, Joel, 14, Justyn, 8, and Matthew, 7 — with other, smaller children toward the right. He hurled the cross into the sea. For an awful moment he thought it had sank, but the cross bobbed to the surface as the kids splashed toward it. The priest was a little abashed that one of his teens grabbed it.
“I threw it toward my right, in order to give the little ones a head start,” he said. “But the wind had other ideas, and blew it right back, so in addition to Joel’s advantage of height and strength, he was just closest to it.”
Even though his own kid snagged the coveted cross, that was OK.
“We are such a small community,” Hostetler said. “The kids play together after church. So there were no hard feelings.”