Last week I attended my first Orthodox service. Along with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of Christianity. Since Orthodoxy and Catholicism both have longer historical roots than Protestantism here’s a brief contrast of the two.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy
First, Catholicism is based in Rome where Latin was spoken, but Orthodoxy is based in Constantinople where Greek was spoken. Second, Catholics look to the pope as their spiritual leader, but Orthodox Christians do not accept the authority of the pope. Third, Orthodox reject a clause added to the Nicene Creed called the Filioque which translates to “and the Son”, but Catholics accept the clause. Fourth, while Orthodox use two-dimensional images called icons in worship, Catholics use statues. In addition to the differences above, political differences led to a split between Orthodoxy (Eastern Christianity) and Catholicism (Western Christianity) in 1054. The split is known as the Great Schism. Five hundred years later, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses starting the Protestant movement.
Experiencing Orthodox Worship
Moving on from ancient history, here’s what happened in the Orthodox service I attended. (Keep in mind that this was my first experience with Orthodox worship and I don’t know all of the proper terminology.)
On entering the building I was immediately greeted by the intense smell of incense coming from candles burning in a small tray. I didn’t particularly like the smell, but it didn’t bother me as much by the end of the service.
The rectangular worship area was on the right of our entrance. In the front of the rectangular room lay a large wooden panel with two doors in the middle surrounded by about a dozen colorful icons. (Icons are two-dimensional representations of saints that help Orthodox believers engage in worshiping God.)
Before we entered the worship area, we grabbed a liturgy book to follow along. The liturgy was written in Greek by a bishop named John Chrysostom who lived from 347-407. (Chrysostom, whose name means “golden-mouthed”, is famous for his oratory skills.)
After corralling the kids we entered the worship area and stood near the back. The main worship area is mostly empty space with pews along the back and side walls.
On the right side about 5 or 6 people were standing behind microphones and music stands. They looked like what Protestants would call the worship team.
Prior to the service a reader standing in front with his back toward us was reading quickly in a chant style from a portion of the liturgy. I tried to follow along but it wasn’t easy because of his pace and because I was distracted watching what people were doing as they entered.
As people streamed in they took a candle, walked up to the front, kissed an icon, then placed the candle in a sand filled tray next to the icon. Walking to the other side, they kissed another icon and then moved to a spot where they awaited the service to begin. Those who walked in a bit late followed the same routine.
The service began with the priest, dressed in a golden robe, standing with his back toward us, reading behind the icon area. He read in a loud chant style voice and we followed along in our liturgy books. After the priest finished reading his assigned portion, the choir on the right side of the building responded with beautiful a cappella tonal singing. It’s the type of signing that would be impossible to do unless you’ve practiced.
And back and forth it continued between the priest’s reading and the choir’s reading. I started singing when the choir sung, but then I noticed that few others in the congregation were actually singing so I stopped. (I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to sing until I asked my friend after the service and he said it was okay.)
The liturgy included the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. I enjoyed singing both of those.
As the service continued we came to the reading of Scripture. The reader walked to the front with the Bible and proceeded behind the icon area to where the priest was standing. After a reading from the priest, the reader exited that area and stood front and center with his back toward us as he read a portion from Romans.
The designated Gospel reading was from Matthew. The priest stood in the front facing us as he held an ornately decorated Bible and read in the chant style. As the priest read, one man stood on his right and another stood on his left both holding a long candle that arched over the priest.
We then came to a point when the priest motioned for everyone to sit. We sat and he gave a 10-15 minute message. He talked about how it’s not the church’s job to tell everyone what to do. Instead our job is to be stewards of a treasure and that treasure is the gospel. He also explained that the treasure contains mystery and we should be okay living with mystery. Since it was the day when North American saints were honored, the priest mentioned several North American saints by name. One saint I recall him mentioning was Herman from Alaska. The priest also emphasized how ancient and modern saints suffered.
Following the message we continued with the liturgy.
Communion began with special prayers and the ringing of bells. Everyone stood in a line as they waited to approach the priest who was holding the cup of wine. Upon reaching the front of the line, the priest gave each one a blessing that included their name. The name he called them was their chrismated name—the name each person is given when they become Orthodox members. The priest then dipped a spoon into the cup and served them. After receiving the wine, congregants kissed the cup and walked to another table where they took bread in one hand and dipped another piece of bread into the cup of wine.
Since only Orthodox are permitted to partake of communion we stood in the back and watched. Our friend told us that if we approached the priest, he would have asked us when we were chrismated and when was the last time we confessed. We were, however, served several pieces of hospitality bread.
As the service came to a close, the priest read several announcements. Also people who would be traveling came forward and the priest sprinkled something on them and prayed a blessing over them.
The end of the liturgy book contained about three full pages of reading. So the service concluded in the way it began with a reader facing the front and reading quickly in chant style through the liturgy.
The entire service lasted about 2 hours.
After the service my friend introduced me to the priest and we walked into the fellowship area where food was being served.
In the fellowship area, we met the priest’s wife who is called Mother. She shared how she was raised in a Baptist home, worshiped in a house church for some time, and served in an Episcopal church where her husband was the rector. While in the Episcopal church they were becoming increasingly comfortable with liturgy and Orthodox Christianity. They then converted to Orthodoxy where her husband was able to become a priest. I thought it was an amazing transition from the spontaneity of house church worship to the structure of the Orthodox service. It seems that many in that particular congregation have transitioned from Protestantism to Orthodoxy.
So that’s what happened and here are my reflections: (Remember I’ve been a Protestant Christian for my entire life)
Reflecting on Orthodox Worship
- Reading is really important in Orthodox liturgy. It enables people to follow the liturgy exactly. Except for the priest’s homily, the entire service was read.
- Reading in a particular way is important in Orthodox liturgy. All reading, with the exception of one short prayer, was done in the chant/singing style.
- It’s incredible to think that people have been conducting Christian worship services in the same way for more than 1600 years. Participating in that type of service gives you a unique connection with history.
- I liked how the priest only served communion to those he knew because it makes communion more personal.
- I’m interested in learning more about the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. 1 Peter 3:18-21 is a key text for this doctrine. This doctrine adds another dimension to Christ’s work and has the potential to give hope for those who lived before Christ.
- Fasting is a key practice in Orthodox Christianity. Every Wednesday and Friday and during holy days/seasons Orthodox Christians fast. Fasting is not easy, but I can see how fasting with others can be a great encouragement and source of unity.
- The requirement of confession is intriguing. Do Protestants have any established method for confession?
- I liked the choir’s singing.
- It was hard to participate in the liturgy. The type of singing/chanting they do is not easy to follow.
- I didn’t like the reading at the beginning or the end of the liturgy. It was too quick, hard to hear, and therefore didn’t seem meaningful to me.
- I’m not sure what to think about the priest’s golden robe. I have a hard time picturing Jesus, Peter, James, John, or Paul preaching in a special outfit. When did the leader in Christian worship begin wearing a special garment?
- I’m not sure how big of a role the departed saints should have in Christian worship. Orthodox make a big deal of the saints, while Protestants hardly refer to them other than when they appear in the Biblical text. In addition to other saints, Mary, who is called Theotokos or “mother of God,” is mentioned in various places in Orthodox liturgy. Also, you face the icons for the entire service, and other icons are on the side walls. I wondered if an emphasis on the saints could help root Protestants into the eternal family of God and the historical family of God. For example, seeing depictions of the saints every week is a constant reminder of their lives. It’s a reminder of how we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1).
- I know that Christians starting using symbols and pictures early in Christian history, but I would like to learn more about the use of art in Christian worship. For example, were early Christians transforming and adapting their cultural heritage to their new faith or were they creating brand new symbols to convey their faith? Also, I would like to learn more about the iconoclastic controversy. Lastly, the practical question that needs exploring is “How can we know when the use of art has become worship?”
- I don’t think the Orthodox are worshiping the saints, but I can see how it can look like that to non-Orthodox. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that saying the pledge of allegiance is idolatry, but Protestants happily say the pledge without even the slightest thought that they might be committing idolatry. I think it’s possible to say the pledge and not commit idolatry, especially when you consider the phrase “one nation under God.” Just because something looks to be the case doesn’t mean it is the case.
- Having said that, praying to departed saints, especially Mary, is not something I’m ready to do. The 66 books of the Protestant Bible don’t encourage prayer to dead saints and they may even discourage it. The repeated command is to offer prayer to God.
- For me a couple of the prayers to Mary seemed to border on worship.
- Regarding prayer on behalf of the dead, I also don’t see a clear command or prohibition in the Protestant Bible, although I know there’s a verse in the Deuterocanonical book of Maccabees that is used to support the practice.
- I was glad I attended the service. It was great to experience an ancient form of Christianity and to see something bigger than the individualism of Protestant Christianity.