This year, I became very dissatisfied with the way I have been celebrating Easter, socially and liturgically. I have been doing a lot of reading for Christian Theology class, and through this I have been drawn to Orthodoxy.
I first heard of the Eastern Orthodox Church in a Music Appreciation class in high school. We studied the iconoclastic controversy and therefore, the icons and worship of the Orthodox church. From my high school’s Protestant perspective, the use of “icons” in worship was basically seen as idolatry. I did not see it that way. I thought it was beautiful, but I didn’t take the opportunity to dig deeper.
My first encounter with an Orthodox Christian was on a roadside in my home town. His car was broken down, and he needed to get home. My parents pulled over and let him in the car. He was wearing nice work clothes, and he had a fluffy, graying beard. We took the opportunity to “witness” to him, but he actually taught us a few things. I had only briefly heard of Orthodoxy in school. (I have a way of seeing when people are lying to me or telling the truth). This man was very sincere and open. He did not look down on us for our lack of knowledge about his religion, nor did he attempt to convert us as we had attempted to convert him in the beginning. We let him out of the car when he asked us to, and we never heard from him again. My parents had never heard of Orthodoxy before but I assured them that he was indeed a Christian, maybe more so than we were.
Again, in a sunday school class when I was senior in high school, we studied Eastern Orthodoxy. We compared and contrasted their doctrines with ours. I could see the differences, but again, they did not seem like bad differences. I thought the worship was beautiful, the worshipers pure.
When a friend told me that he is Eastern Orthodox, of course I took the opportunity to finally learn about this strange church I had only heard of as a distant, archaic religion. I remembered my encounter with the Orthodox man on the roadside. I decided to take the time to learn what they believe and how they practice those beliefs. I started listening to podcasts by Deacon Michael Hyatt at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Tennessee. First, I listened to his Sunday school class about On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. This taught me the Orthodox Church’s beliefs about salvation and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This also gave me a look into the history of the early church and the Arian controversy, which St. Athanasius settled. Next, I listened to his Sunday school class about Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann. This took me step by step through the weeks of lent in the Orthodox Church, which is very different than Catholic Lent, and taught the origins and meanings of every tradition. My friend let me borrow The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware. I devoured this book in less than a week. Bishop Kallistos took each chapter to explain different attributes and functions of God: Creator, Spirit, Trinity, Man (in Jesus), Mystery, Prayer, and Eternity. This was not a systematic theology, but it was a simple but in depth explanation of what the Orthodox Church believes about God. I made notes and questions throughout the book, and we discussed them all. Next, I listened to Deacon Michael’s Sunday school class on Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. This taught me the importance of prayer in the Orthodox church and also the different methods of praying. Now, I am listening to his Sunday school class about Scripture and Tradition. This three part series is based on scripture; it shows the impossibilities of trying to defend sola scriptura, as enforced by the Protestants after the Reformation.
The importance of Tradition as well as Scripture is a difficult subject for me to address without considerable bias. I have always been taught that Scripture should be our absolute authority. The Orthodox church does not deny the authority of scripture, rather they give some authority to the Tradition that has been passed down from the Apostles and the early church. According to Deacon Michael, in the New Testament when Paul refers to “scripture,” he is referring to the Old Testament because the New Testament canon was not compiled and agreed upon until 200 years later. Therefore, the Holy Scripture that we adhere to today has only been made available to us through the hard work of the early church fathers. Without their oral tradition being passed down, we would have no record of Jesus’ life. This does not mean that Tradition that does not agree with Scripture should be blindly followed. We should be careful of following any tradition. After all, sola scriptura is a tradition in itself.
Now, back to Holy Week….
Lent had already begun when I started learning about it; therefore, I was not able to participate this year. However, my Orthodox friend invited me to attend the Thursday night service, Matins with the Twelve Passion Gospels. I learned how to cross myself and the appropriate times and places to do so. Of course, I failed miserably at the beginning of the service, but the people never judged me for my effort. The only way I know how to describe the atmosphere of the church is solemn reverence. We all knew that we were in the presence of God for the purpose of worshiping our Lord and Creator. For this special service, a cross with an image of Jesus is placed in the center of the room. Everyone prayed at the icons and the cross but me. I was praying, but for some reason I decided not to try the repeated kneeling and crossing in public. I regret not giving it everything I’ve got. The service began with the priest going around to each icon and person with incense. We bowed our heads when he passed by. Then, he began with the first Gospel reading. We lit candles and listened to the chanting. They do not just read the Scripture, they sing it. It was very refreshing to not need to be able to carry a tune to worship. No one made a show of themselves on a stage. Jesus Christ was the center of attention as He should be. At the end of each Gospel reading, we blew out our candles, kneeled to pray, and sang the hymns. Let me just say that kneeling with your face to the ground is very difficult while holding a candle and a book in your hands. The imminent threat of setting myself on fire kept me alert throughout the service. At the end, everyone prayed at the icons again and crossed themselves as they left the church.
I met the priest and subdeacon after the service. I have always expected priests to be impersonal and reserved. This priest was very friendly and welcoming. He knew I would be there, overlooked my obvious Protestantness, and welcomed me to come back. The subdeacon gave me a big hug and kissed my forehead with his huge beard all over my face. He answered my unasked question of why there was a face on the rock under the cross. It was representative of the skull of Adam. I was not going to ask until I was gone. I guess he just knew it was something I would find odd. Throughout the service, the people were helpful and directed me in the right direction. It was nice to be so different, but so welcome by a group of people that did not know me at all.
I am thoroughly enjoying my exploration of Orthodox Christianity. My purpose in life is to bring glory to God. I want to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth, a topic for another day. If you have any questions for me, ask them! As I said in my first post, I welcome your criticism.