Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox is about the prettiest church we’ve been to this year. This is due, at least in part, to the stained glass, the dome, and the icons in the sanctuary. Farmergirl was a little weirded out by the icons, not because they were icons, but because she felt they were all grumpy and glaring. Sally explained, over brunch, that there were certain rules about the creation of icons, and that the facial expressions were part of those rules. She further explained that the icons are “looking out” from heaven at the worshipper.
If we thought we were fish out of water with the Roman Catholic mass or the Jehovah’s Witness Memorial Meal, we were really strangers in a strange land this morning with the 9am Orthros service. According to their website, the Orthros is “A morning prayer service of psalms and hymns to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ,” which is good to know, because it goes so fast and furious, slips in and out of English (we’re not 100% on what the other language was–maybe Greek, but even Michael, who’s studied the language, wasn’t sure), and there’s no prayer book to follow along with. It was liturgical, and the cantors (at first two, then three) and the priest were pretty obviously following a liturgy, but if it was available in the pews, we didn’t find it. One of the extraordinary things about the service was the rapidity with which the cantors and the priest spoke, and the speed at which they sang. We finally (think) we “got” the rhythm of when to stand or not: it seemed to be anytime the priest came out from behind the iconstasis to do something in front of the altar.
It was good that we’d read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s My First Visit to an Orthodox Church: 12 Things I Wish I Had Known. In particular, there were two things of note: first, we were the only ones there when the service started, and, as it progressed, several more people came and wandered around the sanctuary, kissing icons, lighting candles, saying prayers, and bowing at the altar. Had she not mentioned this particular practice, we would have been really confused. Michael said it was like “Montessori Church” — where there were lots of things you were permitted to do, all going on at the same time. One woman came in, bowed and kissed the icons that were on the altar rail, just in front of the front row, lit the two candles she brought with her, and then took her seat. One man bowed, kissed, and prayed in front of all the icons in front, plus most of the ones on the iconstasis, and, at some point, took what appeared to be a folded towel and a rosary from a decon who popped out from behind the iconstasis. (This guy surprised me, since I had no idea he was back there. I knew the priest was back there, but I thought he was alone). Another woman prayed in front of each of the windows all the way around the church, lighting the short red votives on each sill. Another man seemed to kind of be wandering, didn’t seem to be doing much praying, but crossed himself a lot. This bears a little explanation, as the tradition seems to involve more crossing than any other we’ve encountered — but this particular man seemed to do it more often still.
The other thing Mathewes-Green mentions is that the Orthros segues into the Divine Liturgy (which is listed as the 10am service). We cut out when the priest came out with the thurible to cense the altar.
(Which means, as my mil is reading me snippets of an essay on the use of jargon to mentally bludgeon other people, that the priest came out with a big gold pot on chains that was burning incense in it, and started swinging it around in front of the altar to create a big cloud of smoke. According to the brochure we picked up called “Welcome to this Holy House,” they use Incense during services
to recall the cloud which covered the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 13), symbolizing the presence of God. As we see ourselves enveloped in the clouds of incense, we recall that we are in God’s presence.
Now you’re “in” on that particular jargon. Don’t you feel special? Probably not — I probably have 7 more, undefined jargon words in this piece).
If you’ve followed along since the beginning of the project, you know that we’ve got respiratory issues, so we were hoping that one of the following would be true with regard to the incense: that they didn’t use it at this particular service, or this particular congregation didn’t use it, or that, it being a large building, even if they had it, it wouldn’t be an issue for us. The Orthros service suited the former, and we cut out before the Divine Liturgy. We considered staying, as the Orthos service seemed to be the lead-in to the 10am service (rather than a replacement for) and it looked like there might be a book to follow the liturgy, but none of us had the heart to suffer the incense and watch another fenced communion. Sally said she thought some of the folks in the congregation glared at us when we left, but I said I thought they were just looking out at us.
Actually, we were planning to do the 10am service, but when we got up this morning, none of us had the heart to just be communion spectators. According to the Mathewes-Green essay
Orthodox believe that receiving communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshipping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited to make this commitment to the Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding.
I’ve been pondering that final line for a few months, and I don’t know the Orthodox view on other traditions (ie: is the eastern church the “only” or “true” church? — which would make the marital analogy work well), so I don’t think I have much of an answer for myself. Holy Trinity does have a Q&A on the first Tuesday of the month, so we could certainly go and find out . . . if we do, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I have the piffling feeling that “the Church,” as Mathewes-Green is using it is not “the Church” as I think of it: that is, the Body of Christ in its many manifestations, denominations, and individual congregations.
Or maybe I’m just a communion slut . . . .