I went to my very first Greek Orthodox service a couple of weeks ago, I had to scrounge around my closet to find a dress that went below my knees. Since the only dress I had that was long enough was a sort of beach dress, it cut really low in the back and down the side so I had to wear a jean shirt over it. Then I looked like a squat square, so I wore heels, a decision I would later regret due to the Orthodox practice of standing for almost the entire two hours service. Now that we’ve established that I’m vain and maybe a little slutty, you’ll be happy to know I arrived to find that half the women had their heads covered. I felt like a nun, and I was still risqué.
I walked in and had the feeling of entering a foreign country due to the instant sensory overload (I love that feeling, it's my favorite part about traveling to a new place). My only previous experience in Orthodox churches has been in Palestine, so I also think some of the foreigner feeling was just because I was connecting my sensory input to those Holy Land experiences. There were icons adorning every wall and I was met instantly with the pungent scent of incense filling the room while I stared at, ahem, watched church goers in their weekly routines as bowing, the sign of the cross, and kissing icons is a normal part of church behavior. It’s weird how religious tradition can feel so normal to one and like, what the FOOOK, to another.
I went with my friend Kyle who walked me in and explained what was happening and why. He helped me find the place in the novella of a liturgy book when I got lost, and told me what to do when I found myself in line and thus committed to kissing the cross and hand of the priest (which by the way made me really nervous for some reason, it's not like you can really mess it up, or can you? What if I think I know what I'm doing then then my lips touch a strange man's hand and their heads explode exclaiming, "you don't actually kiss him you newb!"). All this to say, I want to go when I’m a little less overwhelmed so I can pick up on the liturgies meaning and maybe experience a bit more, but as of now, here are my observations.
First, the sensory overload is intentional. Kyle explained to me that in worship there is an expression of unity of heaven and earth in every way. So in a service one might inhale the sense of incense as God breathes in the aroma of our prayers, or one might look around and find themselves surrounded by the saints and angels as if they themselves were in heaven. There is perpetual interaction with the worship from recitation of beliefs and prayers, to singing, and then the constant physical response to God’s name by doing the sign of the cross. It’s totally different than the impassioned ballads of today’s evangelical services, but it accomplishes the same goal, to remind our dust made minds and calloused souls of who we are and who God is, so we can then truly worship.
Second, the Orthodox church is not apologetic about anything.The priest at the Orthodox church at one point said to his congregation that if they were looking for the praises of men more than they were the praises of God then, “I wonder if you have the courage to be a Christian.” All this said while we stood for two hours and a new-comer felt like an outsider, none of it easy. I would imagine you only come if you are really compelled by faith with a humble devotion to God, which I often think is exactly what a group of Christians should look like. Maybe this church is not a place of easy evangelism, but maybe it's not supposed to be.
I could never dream of hearing what the priest said in an evangelical church. We treat other’s belief like it’s so fragile never wanting to discourage them from the price we pay to believe because we don’t trust that they’ll believe anyways. We don't trust that they too will discover that it's worth it, that it is in fact the only thing that is truly real.
The third thing I noticed was the strong sense of humility in their worship. I think they said “Lord have Mercy” at least a hundred times in that one service. They gather together for a service that is meant to be a struggle, and spend time contemplating their sin leading into confession so that one might in gratitude partake in communion. In contrast, a lot of evangelical churches I visit seem to have taken a cue from our self-esteem obsessed culture, and spend their time heavily focused on convincing the believer that they are loved and accepted.
I know that evangelicalism is a reaction to these heavy handed confession traditions that had a tendency to remind the congregant that they are never enough, inspiring what became guilt. But then what if we actually are always falling short? I think we generally feel pretty good about ourselves and I wonder if what we need more of is reminders that it’s not about us, and that in fact we are that bad, so that we might finally cry “Lord have mercy”. This seems better than the arrogance and apathy that surrounds a sense of comfort in that feeling of being relentlessly accepted, drowning in grace and assured forever salvation while we repeat in song, "how He loves us".
I understand both traditions have much deeper theologies than their loudest chant, but at first glance they are so very different from one another. It seems we’re all just reacting to something which drives us to polarize, because both narratives are true- that God is gracious and loving and we are broken and sinful and need to take responsibility for that.
I'm not a theologian, but I think we find that somewhere in the middle of those narratives lies the ministry of Jesus. What a genius.