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The swirling magnificence of the icons, the ornately decorated sepulcher, prayers recited in a foreign language, and the soaring, magnificent chants of the choir transported me to a wholly other place.
A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to attend a Greek Orthodox Good Friday service. Raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, this particular service holds great meaning for my friend; I was honored by the invitation. On the way there she apologized: the church she had chosen (St. John the Baptist) for proximity and beauty, also only spoke Greek.
The beauty of the church was overwhelming for a Protestant who was reared to think stain glass windows were ornate. The swirling magnificence of the icons, the ornately decorated sepulcher, prayers recited in a foreign language, and the soaring, magnificent chants of the choir transported me to a wholly other place. Yes, I knew well the story they were remembering that night. Yes, like them, I called myself a Christian. Yet their religious practice was as different to me as if I had entered a mosque, synagogue, or Hindu temple.
I am not the only one who understands my religious practice at utterly different from the Orthodox Church. When my friend dutifully checked in with her mother earlier to tell her she would be attending the Good Friday service, she mentioned I was going with her. “Who is going with you?” her mother asked. “My Protestant friend, Abby.” Later in the conversation her mother asked, “So just what religion is Abby?” Her mother had no idea that a Protestant was a Christian.
I have a master’s degree in religion. I could bore you with all of the theological and historical differences between the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. I could even use really big words like theotokos (although I would have to google it to make sure I was using it correctly.) But I will spare you. Instead I want to share the very simple observations I had as a Jesus follower sitting (well mostly standing) in a pew beside other Jesus followers on a holy night. Because I could not understand their language, I was forced to notice things I would not have otherwise. A beautiful world opened up before me through my other, often ignored, senses.
1) Those Greeks love images! It seems like too often the only image we love in the Western Church is the cross, either empty or dripping with blood. If you were forced to choose three images (Greeks also love the number three) that you would paint center stage in your place of worship, what would they be? I would choose Jacob wrestling with the angel, the woman at the well talking with Jesus, and the father of the Prodigal Son running out to greet him.
2) Greeks love mystery! It seems sprinkled into every aspect of worship. There are secret doors, and rituals that acknowledge the unknowable, and very little explanation (or exegetical sermons) of the mysterious stories we have received. No one spoke on and on about how crazy it was that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, there seemed an overarching acceptance that the story was unknowable and mysterious. Shouldn’t we make more room for mystery in the Western Church? Perhaps next time I preach on the feeding of the 5,000 I will singularly tell the story as truth, period, and not try and make any sense of the radically mysterious event that was recorded so long ago.
3) Greeks are talkers! The service was quite long and the congregation, it seems knowing this, did not show up at a set time. Instead, people came when they could. And when they would arrive, even though a formal, ritualized service was taking place before them, they would greet friends and family in pews, chat, kiss, mill, and lead children upfront to the sepulcher. The WASP in me was getting a little nervous by such informality in the midst of formality! At another moment in the service a bunch of youth disappeared behind a secret door and reappeared robbed in formal “religious-greek-wear.” In was clear that another boy who was developmentally disabled wanted to be a part of the group. He got a priests attention (right in the middle of the service!). The priest gently led the boy behind the secret door and he reappeared, dressed to match the group. I watched the boy and priest the rest of the service with great interest. The boy’s pride was evident and the priest’s compassion even more evident as he kindly responded to the boy’s off and on questions. I learned there is room in formality for compassion and informality, even chatter. How can the Western Church’s formal worship make more room for life (like kissing your family and children)?
4) Greeks love all their senses! Have you ever smelled myrrh? It’s as divine and holy as the lilies of the valley blooming in my garden right now. The fragrance of those small flowers signals a sensory memory for me: spring is here. For those from the Eastern Church myrrh signals as powerful sensory memory: Good Friday. Traditionally the dead were washed in the ancient world with myrrh. This part of the story is remembered not through words or scriptural reading, but through the actual smell. A priest walks up and down the aisles spraying the worshippers (with a very ornate and ancient version of a spritz bottle) with myrrh. Why do we non-Catholics in the Western church ignore all the senses?
We all have so much to learn from one another. The Greek Orthodox could learn a bit about the ordination of women from me and even about how to include people who aren’t Greek into their religious practices with a bit more hospitality. Yet on this morning, as the smell of lilies of the valley waft into my house, and I listen to the chants of the Greek Orthodox church on my computer, I don’t feel like teaching them anything. Instead, I am grateful they helped me pay attention to my other religious senses.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.