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.