I wrote this blog over a year ago. Originally it was one of a three-part series about different churches I had visited and was intended to be a comparison. However, much has changed since then and bringing this blog off the shelf seemed like a good way to introduce my next post.
When a friend (ex-Mennonite) invited me to attend an Orthodox baptismal service a couple years ago I had no reason to refuse. One of his college professors was the priest who would be performing the rites and had invited him to witness the event. So we met on a cool crisp October morning for the trek to St George’s, an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA.
Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself to be an unorthodox guy and at one point probably wouldn’t have set foot in a liturgical church having pre-judged it as stuffy, stifling, etc. I was completely committed to my Mennonite ideals and had no intention of changing church affiliation. My visit was a nice opportunity for a different perspective and nothing more.
First Impressions: The building exterior had a foreign and very non-western appearance to my eyes. It could actually be confused with a mosque. On top of the building in a place where one might expect a pointy steeple there was a golden “onion” dome.
Inside there were three main rooms, a fellowship hall on the end where we entered, a sanctuary in the middle and then a kind of inner sanctum. There were paintings (or “icons”) of an ancient style were depicting various saints, Mary and Jesus on the walls.
We met Father Anthony, a man with glasses and a gray beard, and were warmly received by him before he went about his duties.
We had arrived a bit early and waited a few minutes for the service to begin. Soon we were worshiping as Christians had for thousands of years. Fr. Anthony leading out melodically “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” and the congregation giving their musical response.
The words of the liturgy were rich with meaning, the gowns, regalia, ancient rituals, intricate ceremonies, and incense burning had my mind whirling about the origination of these practices. Surprisingly, as one typically a cynic of formalities, I was oddly at peace in this service.
The Message: Be On Guard Against Spiritual Pride. (That isn’t the official title to the sermon, but it is what the message was about.) The text came from the Gospel of St Luke:
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)
This exuberant moment for the disciples was met with the sobriety of Jesus. While listening to this passage being spoken I had a flashback that made the message especially profound.
My mind went to a vision I had during a spiritual high point a year before where I was on a ladder, having climbed far up into the clouds, and the perspective I had gained was exhilarating. However, the lofty height also made me fearful. I was afraid I would lose my grip, slip, and fall. Which was exactly what happened, I was discouraged and feeling that bitter taste of defeat.
The message spoke to me. I repented my attitude of the last while and marveled at how this text and message could reach my own heart so directly.
The Good: I was surprised. I really enjoyed the service and especially the fellowship afterward. Fr Anthony possessed a wealth of knowledge about church history and articulated Orthodoxy in a way more compelling than the explanations I’ve heard prior. For a well-educated man, he was completely humble. He has remained in communication with me since.
The Bad: The congregation was small and the church we attended at a significant distance from home. Also, as a conservative Mennonite accustomed to children and young people, there was a conspicuous absence here. I wondered where the families were. It made me a little sad because there was a depth of tradition here that makes Mennonites seem contemporary by comparison.
The Ugly: While I’m being brutally honest, the iconology did make me a bit uncomfortable. It was something completely foreign to me and it seemed like their depictions could easily become idols. However, when considering the Bibliolatry common in fundamentalist Protestant congregations, perhaps we are also guilty of ourselves? Anyhow, wherever the case, it is one of those things that made me hesitant about this most ancient of Christian traditions.
The Verdict: Ultimately our salvation depends on God and I have a great appreciation for the Orthodox acceptance of this as a mystery of God. This is a welcome relief for someone tired of the contrived (and unsatisfactory) answers of religious fundamentalists. Orthodoxy is about proper worship of God and their perspective is that worship should be about God’s glory—not our personal preference.
What questions do you have about Orthodoxy?