Visitors Welcome – Δύο (Two)

I just attended one of the most intriguing church services ever.

An LDS friend and I visited Saint Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church in Salt Lake City for the resurrection day (Pascha) service called Agape Vespers. The Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar not the (modern) Gregorian calendar, so this puts Easter on a different week.

From the audience: “What? Julie? Vespers?? Orthodox??”

For those who don’t know what an Orthodox Christian church is, this is my crass summary. (And the extent of my knowledge.)

Catholic Proposition: “We are The Way.”
Reformation Proposition: “You’re doing it wrong.”
Restoration (LDS) Proposition: “You’re all doing it wrong.”
Orthodox Proposition: “We are The Original Way.”

The Orthodox Church, whether Greek, Romanian, Serbian, American or some other flavor, strives to preserve the oldest Christian worship tradition. The differences between the various Orthodox flavors is more about the community that is served than by the nature of the service and theology.

Quick Start Guide

Prior to attending, a friend and parishioner sent me a link to an article about 12 things to know before attending an Orthodox Church service. The following are a few related points that I observed.

Icons and Art – A visitor entering the Saint Peter and Paul nave (chapel) is greeted with an explosion of art; wonderful images, carvings, and details that can be overwhelming to a visitor. There is always something to look at. Each icon has a story, of which I am fully ignorant. But, for a heritage that reaches back almost 2,000 years, through times of near universal illiteracy, the icons were how people learned about their faith.

Crossing and Kisses – Veneration of icons and at the cross, greetings, and other occasions were observed by crossing and kissing. The Orthodox tradition is not subtle or apologetic about crossing. The tradition involves the whole person, it is not passive.

It’s Okay to be Late – We arrived 30 min early. The doors opened at 15 minutes prior to the 2 pm service. The priests in white (Paschal), ornamented robes mingled with the parishioners. And mingled some more. And mingled some more. 2 PM came and went and the conversation and visiting continued. The priests continued to visit and hug and visit until the point was made: Timeliness is secondary to community. Finally, at 2:20, the priest began, but the chaos continued.

Stand up for Jesus – Like nearly all church services outside of the LDS tradition that I have attended, worship activities, including most singing, is done while standing. In the Orthodox tradition the praise and songs are continuous. Consequently, many sanctuaries don’t even bother with pews. This is the case at Peter and Paul; there is a bench along the walls, but nearly everyone stands for the whole meeting.

Music and More – Full sensory experience is inherent in most
(small ‘o’) orthodox services (Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian). The (big ‘O’) Orthodox Church takes this up a knotch. Sounds on top of sounds, music on top of music, motion on top of motion, and the gentle odor of incense fills the nave. The worship service seemed to be one continual performance and engagement of the congregants.

Diverse Experience – More than any other worship service I have participated in, there was more variety in dress, uniqueness in observance, and diversity of congregants at Saint Peter and Paul’s. It was fascinating to watch. The reading of the John 20:19-25 is an example. It was done in at least six different languages by parishioners themselves. Each seemed to be a native speaker. (I was pleased to hear Portuguese, which is quite rare in Utah.)

Procession

My friend and I, standing at the back of the hall, watched as the priests and functionaries began walking down the aisle, leading the congregants out of the sanctuary. We thought the meeting was over as we stood alone in the empty room with recorded celebratory bells ringing loudly through the meeting hall.

We began to wander about, looking at the art and discussing the service and then realized that everyone was coming back in. We quickly returned to our wall-flower positions in the back corner.

Apparently, part of the Agape Vespers liturgy is to circumambulate (walk around) the church and re-enter the nave. The meeting wasn’t over. In true Orthodox fashion, more is always more.

Lessons

The following are a few points of holy envy.

Community is the first priority of effective worship. Timeliness and efficiency don’t make the list. (Stark contrast to LDS worship.)

Diversity means you involve as many as possible and allow everyone to worship as they wish. Conformity doesn’t make the priority list either.

Active devotion that engages the physical senses is a powerful reminder of the reason for worship.

And finally. If you march off on a procession, don’t leave visitors behind.

Eugene

P.S. The first Vistors Welcome post is here.

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