… still a despiser of icons.
I have family and friends who have left the Protestant Church (Baptist and Reformed) for the Eastern Orthodox Church, an act of schism if you ask me. I love these people, I spend time with them and I desire their best. Like any good friend my desires are often in conflict with what I believe will be the result of confrontation in matters of sin and rebellion. In other words calling my friends out of an idolatrous Church may mean I loose them as friends. To date this has not happened, thank God, but I am not relenting on my call of repentance and am in danger of becoming an irritation. I pray it does not happen. (I have written about the idolatrous nature of Orthodoxy in a few posts: HERE IS THE TAG FOR THOSE POSTS.)
I attended an Antiocian Orthodox Service Holy Saturday morning. We participated in the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, this is the normal service for the Saturday before Pascha. It lasted two hours and culminated in the Lord’s Supper as all divine liturgies in the EO do. I believe I received a first hand education in the Antiochian liturgy.
The Devine Liturgy is primarily conducted by priest, deacon, choir and reader. There is very little congregational interaction with those conducting the liturgy. There may be an effort to change this to varying degrees, but at the end of the day the congregation is mostly passive in the liturgy. A couple of caveats for the service I attended. In that service there was no Deacon, so the Priest took over some of his readings, there was no one, single reader (more on that later) and some in the congregation participated in some parts designated for the Choir.
Click here for a picture of the layout of the typical Eastern Orthodox Church building.
There is a good bit we might say about architecture and its importance in worship, but it is not for this post. Onward.
My initial impressions… (visceral – BLECH!)
The liturgy: Man, has this thing been Protestantized. First of all, we were permitted to sit for much of the service (we had pews and everything), though I noticed that one man stood for the entire service. As far as I know in most EO churches everyone stands for the entire service. There may be benches on the sides of Nave, but these are typically reserved for the elderly and infirm. It may not be the norm, but we sat through many of the readings of Scripture. Standing only for the Gospel. After a call to attend, the passages of scripture were read by members of the congregation, including women (this surprised me). The Gospel was read by the Priest.
I was really taken aback by how little the congregation is involved in worship (even less than in American Roman Catholic services or the typical evangelical service) The liturgy is for truly the Priest, the Deacon, the Reader and the Choir. There were two parts of the service marked “All.” The congregation recited the Niecean Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. There were mumbled attempts to join the choir in the singing of hymns but they were halfhearted at best. I was later told that their Patriarch issued direction that the congregations in his care should be singing with the Choir. If true then that is another mark of the Protestantization in American EO Churches.
For those who don’t know, the Orthodox orient their buildings East and West. The liturgy spells out (and explains) that the priest faces east (toward the altar) on some occasions and west on others. The people all face East during the service. A good 20% of the service the priest has his back to the congregation and his is ministering at the altar, his prayers and invocations are often inaudible to congregation (at least they were to me). While the Priest’s prayers were printed in the copy of the liturgy we held in our hands, I don’t think the Priest followed them exactly. On occasion we could make out what he was saying and he did not follow the text exactly (not a big deal in my book).
The Icons: Damn them. Seriously, why, in the midst of a worship service of the Lord God, do we need additional intercessors? I understand the Eastern custom of incensing honored guests (the congregation was incensed as well), but the priest seemed to be invoking the presences of the dead and calling upon them as witnesses to the work done by the priest. Disturbing to say the least (Deuteronomy 18:9-14 lists consulting the dead among the abominations). There was much kissing of the icons before the service, but no processional of icons for the folks to lavish with their lips in this service.
Mary: The congregation crossed themselves frequently. This was often an individual effort (westernized?), with folks crossing themselves when they thought it important enough to do so. Two exceptions though… When the Triune name of God was spoken by the Priest (I am pretty sure no one else said ever said it) everyone crossed themselves. The other time everyone crossed themselves was at the name of Mary, the Theotokos. It startled me when everyone rapidly crossed themselves at her name. They did not sing any songs to her, but her name was invoked by the Priest (a part normally intended for the deacon.) Why would they cross themselves at her name? I don’t get it.
The Lord’s Supper: Well… This was terrible. First the Priest goes through the “Beautiful Gates” at the center of the iconstasis and closes a veil – A VEIL! The altar is incensed for about the 4th time (you could hear the clanking), and the Priest does something spooky back there. As if the Supper was not mysterious enough the EOs have to hide some Priestcraft from the congregation. Somehow (the mystery is not in the Supper but in the magic that got it there) the body of the Lord is brought forth in a cup of His blood. There is nothing resembling the Lord’s instruction in the Gospels or Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians and I am not real sure of the history of tincture, but it seems foolish to me.
Closing thoughts: There was a great deal of individualism expressed in the worship I experienced this past Paschal Saturday. From the one man standing during the service, to the random crossings of the individuals and the lack of congregational praise I was left feeling rather alone. The community (or lack thereof) of the Lord’s Supper was most emblematic of this individualism. When the people went forward to receive their spoonful it was a procession of individuals, ignoring the corporate nature of meal. I wonder how this expresses oneness.
I doubt I will be back.