I realize this is rather late for me, but I’m a little scattered today because January is apparently the Best Time for Every Work Deadline Ever. Also, I had a 3 1/2 hour meeting today which was a very good meeting, but was 3 1/2 hours; this means that not only am I working after hours, but I didn’t get to write this over my lunch break as I had planned. Hope you’re still with me.
So, I had promised last week that I would write of Hopeful’s and my adventures in the Orthodox Church, and so I shall. For starters, this was one of the most unassuming churches around—it was a very plain building in the middle of what, in the summer, would probably be lots and lots of cornfields, but in the winter was just flat plain. I had read about Things to Know about how different Orthodox church services are to we Western folk, so I was mildly prepared. But man—anyone of emerging church or not, you want worship for the senses? You got it.
Visually, the sanctuary was stunning. It was painted dark blue with stars everywhere and a huge Madonna and Child—both darker-skinned, as they would have been despite what Fox says—at the far end. And gold everywhere: on Jesus’ robes, on the gilded frames of the icons, on the latticework of the roodscreen (the not-wall that separates the altar from the congregation; I don’t think that’s what it’s called in the Orthodox Church, but that’s what it was called in medieval European churches and I’m just going to borrow the terminology out of laziness), gold on the cross, gold on the icon stands, gold on the candlesticks, gold on the robes. And the icons themselves (paintings of saints) were a riot of color. And there was a giant Jesus on the ceiling. In case you missed the Guy you presumably came for. I love Protestantism, but man, we don’t hold a candle (literally, as you’ll see in a moment) to the celebration of God’s visual splendor that this seemingly dull Orthodox church had.
Scent-sually, this would have been a terrible day for anyone with allergies. There were about several million candles smoking away and, throughout the service, one of the seven priests (7!) would walk around swinging the censer. A person could suffocate in all that incense, and that was a bit overwhelming towards the end of the hour-and-a-half-long service but it was so…unapologetic. I appreciate the modern Church’s sensitivity to things like allergies and such, I do, but that congregation was doing everything it could to make sure you knew you were in the Presence, and I appreciate that, too.
Physically, my body tired shamefully quickly as we stood…and stood…and stood…and bowed…and crossed ourselves (in the other direction from Roman Catholics, which was a tough habit to undo even though I knew that was the case). I had read that this would happen, was aware that some congregations don’t even bother with chairs and never sit at all, but there’s a huge gap between knowing and knowing with your weight pushing your knees into your shins and your feet shifting uncomfortably in your snow boots. But again, it was unapologetically communicating that you were outside of the rest of your life; this was holy, and we stood for it.
Sound-wise is part of what I mentioned last week, the drone. There was sound all the time. It was almost a cacophany, not because it was loud but because it was unending. If it wasn’t sung prayer it was the bells on the censer; if it wasn’t the bells it was congregational hymns (without anything even resembling a hymnbook, which was freeing but unsettling for a Good Little Choir Kid like me; and some of what we sang were traditional “Christmas” songs I knew right well but were in a sort of minor key, which was utterly bizarre to me. “Silent Night” as an Orthodox drone chant is a whole different experience); if it wasn’t hymns it was priestly prayer to somebody; if it wasn’t priestly prayer it was the homily. Forunately, this service was in English; many Orthodox services aren’t, which would sound beautiful but be totally confusing to a newcomer.
And taste? Ah, we Christians base our lives around eating in the best way possible—Communion. I’m glad to revisit this memory as I have to teach the Methodist sacraments to middle schoolers on Sunday and Communion and I…well, we have a complicated relationship. And in the Orthodox community, it’s closed Communion, meaning that only the Orthodox can receive the bread and wine. It was a more intense thing than I’ve seen even in the Catholic church, as the people went up to the priest and, with arms crossed over their chests, drank out of a cup he held and kissed the base of it. If you aren’t Orthodox, you can go up and just receive a blessing, but for everyone is bread. It’s not consecrated bread, it’s just bread, but it’s cubed and in baskets and you can take as much or as little as you want. It’s a reminder, I think, that the table welcomes all, even if you’re not part of the “inner circle.” Several people brought back bread cubes for Hopeful and I (who did not go up for a blessing, being content to observe), such that we were contentedly full on deliciously mealy bread that rolled on our tongues. And my favorite memory, I think, is of this kid—I’m no good at age judging, but the boy was probably 3 or 4—who went through the line and then, as the line was dwindling, ran back to one of the priests and grabbed a handful of cubes from his basket. This kid walked away munching contentedly on what had to be 5 or so bread cubes and I wondered, what would it be like for us to be filled with the Body like that, for us to eat our fill at the table, to truly make a meal out of this Meal? What would it look like to unabashedly revel in the plenty of Christ?
There’s so much more, Reader, so much that was just gorgeous about this service, but I am past time and length. If there’s an Orthodox church around you, go for a service. If nothing else, the historical controversy over iconoclasm will make SO MUCH MORE SENSE—although that’s perhaps only a thing for us medievalists.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35, WEB)