I have devoted a portion of my time over the past year exploring the strange and mysterious branch of Christianity known as the Orthodox East. I have read three books this past year on the Eastern Church: James Payton’s Light from the Christian East, Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Way and more recently The Orthodox Church by the same author. I am a member of a facebook group devoted to Eastern Orthodoxy and I try and follow along on Orthodox blog sites and articles when I have the time.
But in The Orthodox Church Timothy Ware writes:
Those who wish to know about Orthodoxy should not so much read books as… attend the Liturgy. – p.266
It is one thing to have book knowledge, it is quite another thing altogether to have an experience. So this past Sunday (“Fourteenth Sunday of Luke, Sts. Clement and Agathangelos Orthros and Divine Liturgy” – January 23, 2011) I attended The Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church with my friend Nate.
Finding the Time
The first step in attending a church for the first time is to find out what time its services are at. Not so simple a task apparently. Nate called the church on several occasions and tried to search on-line and all he kept getting was a vague or estimated service time. A friend of his who attends another Orthodox Church in town told him – on word of her mother – that she thinks the service begins at 10 am, but she couldn’t be sure. On hopes of this good word, we met for coffee at nine in the morning to discuss our anticipation – I was quite anxious – then we made our way to the church. We arrived moments before 10 am and was greeted in the foyer by a women who asked us where we were from. When we told her we were local, she then asked what nationality we were. These were odd first questions to me. I have explored many churches in the past and never was I asked what nationality I was.
Lighting the Candle
She then invited us to buy a candle and light it. I did. I tossed a loonie in the basket, selected a long thin candle, and walked toward a small sand pit where other candles had already been lit and placed in the sand. I lit mine and it joined the rest. I remembered reading that there was more to this ritual then simply to light a candle and place it in the sand, but I couldn’t remember exactly what. I was sure I did something wrong, and so I just backed away slowly hoping no one would notice. Here is the proper procedure:
When Orthodox people enter a church, their first action will be to buy a candle, go up to an icon, cross themselves, kiss the icon, and light the candle in front of it. – Orthodox Church, p.271
It’s probably for the better that I skipped steps two through four since I’m not sure how I feel about the Orthodox view of icons yet, but kissing a picture would certainly have stretched my comfort zone to the max.
Igniting the Senses
We then passed through a set of heavy doors and entered the sanctuary lined with pews. Three of my senses went haywire immediately: 1) my eyes were overwhelmed with beautiful frescos from wall to wall and a large gorgeous chandelier which hung from a giant dome in the ceiling. It was quite stunning. 2) My ears were overwhelmed by the sound of perfect-pitched chanting in Greek, and 3) my nose was overwhelmed by the smell of incense which was so strong you could almost see smoke of the incense cloud the room.
Getting Into Routine
We took our seats. I counted about seventeen people not including the bishop (or priest, but since I don’t know which it was, I’ll refer to him as “bishop” throughout this post) and the three or four chanters. The chanting continued for more or less an hour as the room slowly filled up. I got the sense that there was no “start time” for this service (which would explain the ambiguity of the service hours) and there was a lot of liberty as to when people arrived. Occasionally the congregation would stand up, then sit back down, cross themselves, and at one point we kneeled. Nate and I followed suite.
On occasion the bishop would speak in English and switch back to Greek. The chanting was done in Greek (and apparently was repeated several times) but there was a service book in front of us with the chanting in English and Greek parallel if we wished to follow. At one point I remember hearing the words of one of the Creeds. I don’t remember if it was the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, but at the time I thought it was the Nicene Creed. I don’t recall ever attending an Evangelical service were one of our ancient Creeds was read or uttered. I also recall at one point hearing words spoken in Greek and thinking, this sounds like the Lord’s Prayer. Sure enough they repeated it in English.
Singing the Word
We received a bulletin when we first arrived, and in it were two readings from scripture, the first from the Epistles (1 Timothy 1:15-17) and the second from the Gospels (Luke 18:35-43). When I left in the morning I was unsure what bible translation I should bring with me, or even if I should bring a bible. I chose my NRSV and decided to keep it on hand just in case. My friend Nate who attended an Orthodox church somewhere else once before said that I wouldn’t need it, so I left it in the car. He was right.
When the time for the readings came the readings were not so much “read” as they were “sung”. It was interesting.
Offering or Tithing Plate
I was surprised to see an offering plate get passed around. We know that at least for the first four or five hundred years of the Christian faith the early church never practiced tithing, and many churches (like the Brethren) collect money in a different fashion in order to keep with the orthodox practice of the earliest Christians. I wondered if tithe collecting was just a Western thing. I suppose though that I can’t be sure if the passing of the plate was a collection of “tithe” or simply a collection of “offering” which the church always did practice (as the book of Acts clearly testifies to).
The bishop took to the podium and began to deliver a sermon. It was in Greek and no more then five or ten minutes long. He then repeated the sermon in English. Frankly, it was good. As good a sermon as I might expect to hear from an Evangelical pastor. He applied today’s readings about the blind man who cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” to his own congregation, reminding them that these words are a part of their Liturgy: “Have mercy on me, a sinner”.
The Kids Sermon
Prosforo: Offering Bread
As the sermon came to a close all of the children – ranging I suppose from toddler to twelve year olds – entered the sanctuary and took seats in pews near the front. The bishop went over and stood in front of them carrying a large piece of bread (called Prosforo) and a platter.
He showed the kids the bread and asked them if they knew what the symbols meant. He would tell them how it was said in Greek and how it was translated in English. Then he took the time to explain to them what all of the symbols mean, how it represents the church and what the church looks like, (i.e. “we are to be loving, sacrificial, friendly” et cetera). The children paid close attention and raised their hands to ask or answer questions. This was certainly the highlight of the service. I could not believe how well behaved the children were. I was impressed with how the bishop taught them (and us), and I remember thinking to myself, now here is a tradition we Evangelicals can take more seriously – the educating of our children in the ways of the faith (I’m not talking about teaching them to sing “Father Abraham” either).
When this portion of the sermon was complete the children with their parents went up and partook in communion (I don’t know if it was wine of just juice). The liquid was in a chalice, but the bishop had a spoon which would skoop out some liquid for them to drink. Another priest or deacon stood next to him with a basket of bread chunks, large ones! No puny round waffers were to be had.
Then the bishop blessed the congregation and dismissed us at which point the adults, beginning with those in the pew closes to the alter, made their way to the front, grabbed a large piece of bread each and made their way for the exit.
When our turn had come, Nate and I simply left because he didn’t want to risk offending anyone. We did not partake in Communion.
And that was my first experience in the Orthodox Church.