Droplets of holy water flew through the air Sunday as the Rev. Lee W. Gross made the sign of the cross while sprinkling parishioners' minivans and sedans at the Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Mission in Gaithersburg.
It was time for the annual blessing of the vehicles. As three dozen or so parishioners sang prayers, Gross and his altar boys moved quickly along two rows of cars. The holy water droplets sparkled in the air and then evaporated quickly after hitting the hot metal.
"God grant them many, many happy years in health and happiness," Gross sang to the parishioners after he finished. "Thank you, Father," the group answered.
The blessing commemorated the Feast of Saint Elias, also known as the prophet Elijah. Such blessings are common in the Byzantine Catholic Church, whose American members are spiritual descendants of Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, whose center is the Vatican in Rome, the Byzantine or Eastern Catholic Church is centered in the Eastern cultures of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and ancient Constantinople, which is present-day Istanbul. However, the church still considers the pope its leader.
The church blesses vehicles to commemorate Saint Elias's ascension into heaven in a chariot of fire, according to church officials. Next month, fruits and vegetables will be blessed.
"It's the idea of sanctifying all of life and dedicating all life to God," Gross said. He explained that people shouldn't separate their religious life from everything else.
The quick blessing followed the mission's weekly liturgy, held in the gymnasium of the Mother of God Community School, a Catholic elementary school. The mission is an outgrowth of the Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale, one of a few Byzantine Catholic churches in the area.
The mission was created about 10 years ago to provide a local place of worship for residents of northern Montgomery County, southern Frederick County and nearby areas, according to Lou Shanks of Gaithersburg, a parishioner who was involved in the mission's creation.
About 50 families have joined over the years, and the mission hopes to attract enough parishioners to one day have its own place of worship, Shanks said.
For now, the mission rents the Mother of God site. Each Sunday, Shanks and several other parishioners arrive early before the service to set up an altar on the gym's padded floor in front of arched doors leading to a courtyard and bracketed by two basketball hoops.
The mission's pastor is the Rev. John G. Basarab, who is pastor of the Annandale church. Because the mission doesn't have a pastor on-site, members often rely on visiting pastors such as Gross, a Roman Catholic priest who is the dean of students at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, to celebrate Mass.
"There are times when we have to scramble" to find a priest, Shanks said.
Gross has served Mass at the mission occasionally for about one year. But before he could serve, he had to get permission from the pope to celebrate Mass in the Eastern tradition.
Dressed in shiny white embossed robes, Gross stood in front of rows of padded chairs that faced the altar, which was flanked by burning candles and vases of flowers.
On a summer Sunday, attendance was lower than in colder months and many chairs were empty. Those who attended, however, lifted their voices in song and prayer to match that of cantor Larry Baranyi as burning incense created a haze over the altar.
After the Mass, the parishioners headed outside to stand on the sidewalk while the priest blessed vehicles ranging from a Mercedes-Benz to a Honda Civic.
"Next time, bless the vehicle with gas," chuckled Andy Chisarick, 75, of Rockville, as his wife, Rosemary, rolled his wheelchair near their car.
"My car needs to be blessed," Rosemary Chisarick said. "It had a little accident. I need a little protection."
Shanks said he believed the blessing amounted to asking for God's protection from auto accidents as parishioners go about their daily lives.
"It's an expression of faith. My car is right there," he said, pointing to a car parked by the front door of the school. "It gets blessed every time."
For Patricia Ohlemiller, 59, of North Potomac, receiving blessings like that bestowed on the vehicles just made her feel better. Earlier in the week, she had conducted her own rite of baptism for two cats she had just brought home.
"I just feed off this sort of thing," she said. "With all the traffic and everything, we need a blessing."