Upon my first visit in an Orthodox Church, I remember thinking that it was a bit too ceremonial and flashy. There were fancy vestments worn by the priest, candles burning, incense being flung about in a censer, icons painted on the wall, and a procession around the inside of the church with the communion elements. But upon further reflection, it seems “showiness” is in the eye of the beholder.
Take your typical local mega-church for example:
When you walk in, there is often loud pop/rock/worship music blasting on a very large and expensive sound system. There are screens with some kind of video displaying, camera men setup on perches throughout the auditorium capturing every moment of the action, fancy stage lights that probably beat the heck out of whatever is at the local theatre for plays and drama, perhaps some fog machines, a worship band cranking out some kickin’ rock music, and an engaging sermon with some kind of accompanying power point or video.
I don’t mention any of that to condemn it, only to say that I grew up with that and it didn’t faze me much. Apparently, flashiness is in the eye of the beholder.
Understanding The Beauty
The more time I spent in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the more I realized that they are actually not flashy or showy. They simply continue to practice the rituals from the ancient church, which contain a great amount of depth and meaning.
A few examples:
- Icons are not works of art, but are windows to heaven. They display not photo-real images of the saints and Savior, but the spiritual reality of those persons to us. They also manifest presence.
- The bread offered on the altar is baked by those in the congregation as opposed to pre-packaged communion wafers. It represents us being on the altar offering ourselves and the work of our hands to Christ our Lord.
- At the highest point in the church is the icon of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler, Redeemer). Below that is the icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) who represents the link between Creator and Creation and strongly affirms that God wrapped Himself in flesh and dwelt among us. And below that icon are all of the saints gathered together with you and me.
- The Iconostasis (Icon Screen) that separates the altar from the rest of the people in the congregation was originally designed with the intention of holding icons. However, in partially blocking our view of the altar, we are reminded that God is mystery. He beckons us “further up and further in,” but we will never understand Him fully or figure Him out.
Here we are now, entertain us, convert us, be present
Despite all of that, the Orthodox are not there to entertain or amuse those attending; in fact, many Orthodox will bluntly state that the service is not about us. Having grown weary of the showmanship that dominates much of American Christianity, I welcomed that message.
That leads me to my next point. As my godfather told me, unlike the typical evangelical church service, Sunday morning is not about converting people. Following the customs of the early church, it is primarily for those who already believe. The Sunday morning Divine Liturgy is a time of prayers and praise (and a short sermon) that revolve completely around the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and His presence with us and within us in the Eucharist.
Sunday is a Eucharistic Banquet, not an outreach program, which could certainly rile any good evangelical’s feathers. “Why the inward focus?” they might ask, “What about all of those lost souls?” To that I would say there are six and a half days for evangelism. Why is it wrong to spend a couple of hours each Sunday praising our Savior and praying for the salvation of the world?
May the peace and love that overflows from a life transformed in Christ be all of the witnessing that is necessary for us. Not that there isn’t room for discussion or even a friendly, light debate, but in the end, I find a life transformed and beautified to be much more compelling than a slick sermon or a well-rehearsed argument.
“Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand around you will be saved.”
~St Seraphim of Sarov
Have you attended an Orthodox service? What were your first impressions? Boredom? Confusion? Awe? Feel free to be honest, I struggled with the Liturgy for months before I could fully engage.
8 thoughts on “The Sunday Morning Show”
Very interesting perspective and food for thought. As you know this is something I’ve been wrestling with. I’m curious what place the Orthodox Church has for artistic expression of all kinds (not just music). Is expression of art through talents and gifts reserved for the other 6 days as you mentioned could be used for evangelistic purposes, or is there room for artistic expression in being present with God on Sundays? I realize the elements you describe have been handed down since the beginning, but am just wondering what room there is for something new or the ways that we feel compelled to respond out of ourselves?
Those are really good questions. I honestly don’t know the answer. Fr Stephen Freeman teaches that in an Orthodox culture, the arts should thrive because in such a culture we become fully human. However, when it comes to the divine services, I do know that they are not about us. We put aside our preferences and our egocentric wants and desires.
But again, those are all things that a priest would be better off answering. And it may even be something that they would evaluate on a case-by-case basis. That probably doesn’t help you any, but those are good questions.
I remember my first visit to an Orthodox church, at Holy Ascension in Mount Pleasant, S.C. I had been looking for the “Church of Acts” for quite some time, and walking in, with the incense, the candles, the prostrations (it was during Lent), the absence of pews or instruments, the old ladies moving around during the service, venerating Icons, the strange languages being spoken and the light from the windows of the dome shining through the haze of the incense and landing directly on the Priest has he served the Eucharist..
..it was like stepping back into the Catacombs for me, you could feel the “earliness” of the early Church there. The prayers for the dead, for the living, for those traveling and for the government and soldiers, and for the deliverance from persecution, both worldly and satanic..
..it was like the entire universe was being embraced by the prayers of the Liturgy, as if this was the one thing holding it all together, this connection between Heaven and Earth taking place before me, right there.
Wow, that’s beautiful. Truly moving. Thank you for sharing, Ian.
Amen .,, amen … amen … after 40 year search …
My “godfather” said
Come and See
I CAME … I SAW,,, I STAYED
ENTER SACRED TIME AND SPACE
Though, not Orthodox, rather a Ukrainian Catholic, of the Byzantine Right, the Church I grew up in was one which had a very modern design. Fortunately, our priest invited us on a pilgrimage to Lordes, France, Rome, Italy, and our own trip to Ukraine where in Kiev, and Lviv it was as if night and day. I’ve no intention to diminish the value of the experience in Kiev, but in Lviv (western Ukraine) the people were given more room to express their spirituality vs. in (eastern Ukraine). Still you could see and experience God’s presence all around you as each icon entailed a rich history to it. The main gate, the Iconostas as it’s called varied in size and how much was portrayed of the aspects of Christ’s life. Byzanthium came from Greek influence, yet there are areas in Rome, Scicilly which had displayed similarity to the Othodox and Byzantine churches. The experience I had in Europe resembled my grandmother’s message of remembering that God is all around us and will not allow us to fall. Many had asked the priest why then was there hardship to experience and I recall one who answered that what seems to be pain, suffering, or an unjust experience is actually a test to our faith. This very message can be seen in various icons of Churches depicting the lives of the Apostles or The Virgin Mary. Often we see icons of John baptizing Christ, the angel as he came to Mary informing her that she would give birth to the Son of God, baby Jesus. Each icon holds a deep history, but an even deeper meaning for those who seek it. Each of us has been given a gift, talent, such as, the iconographers who may or may not be famous. They never sought fame, rahter utilized their gifts to share their God given talent to furhter the message of God. The famous artist, Michaelangelo, who painted the Sisteen Chapel with such detail to better depict the most significant themes of the Bible. Once you’ve seen it in person you’ll have a different understanding from the impact of the impressions witnessed. In Lordes, France there are many examples of the impact from icons and the architecture of the Churches or Basilica’s you visit. Go twice: 1st w/ a tour guide and find yourself captivated by what you see and wish to stay longer to view all of it, but you tend to get rushed as the tour must continue, therefor, the 2nd visit give yourself the chance to stay as long as you wish. Enjoy the gifts granted from above to those who painted the depictions you see or read in the Bible. Other parts of the world who follow the Koran will be just as moving. One must experience it for themselves as I can’t write a book about it here, but the experiences from the pilgrimage can provide you with enough to do just that.
It sounds like you have had many beautiful journeys. My travels have been very limited. I’ve been to some beautiful cathedrals and castles in Spain, but I would love to visit some of the places you mentioned and especially some of the ancient Orthodox Churches. Perhaps some day.