“This constant singing is a little overwhelming at first…It has been fairly said that the liturgy is one continuous song. …it’s pretty much the *same* song every week…and before long you know it by heart. Then you fall into the presence of God in a way you never can when flipping from prayer book to bulletin to hymnal.”
October 13, 2019, 930 AM
The website explained that they offered “Orthros” at 9 AM and “Divine Liturgy” at 1000. I assumed the first one was Sunday school and the second one was the worship service. So my plan was to show up at 1000. Thankfully, I found a website with a page called, “First Visit to an Orthodox Church: Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known,” by Frederica Mathewes-Green. Boy, this was really helpful.
Ms. M-G informed me that, “In an Orthodox church there is only one Eucharistic service (Divine Liturgy) per Sunday, and it is preceded by an hour-long service of Matins (or Orthros) and several short preparatory services before that. There is no break between these services–one begins as soon as the previous ends, and posted starting times are just educated guesses. Altogether, the priest will be at the altar on Sunday morning for over three hours, “standing in the flame,” as one Orthodox priest put it.”
So I arrived at 930, planning to stay for the remainder of the service, which would probably end about 1030ish, I figured. The singing, chanting and speaking seemed to be mostly in Greek or Latin. However, I was happily distracted by the multitude of paintings on the walls and the ceilings-mostly all of saints, angels, apostles, disciples and one very large one of the Virgin Mary, holding a child’s body with a face of a grown man. The altar area resembles a stage, where a partition blocks off the inner sanctum from the outer area. Two men lead the cantor-type singing from the outer area next to a table with candelabras and flower arrangements on top. At one point someone placed a picture of a woman on the table also. Folks kept filing in at various points, some mingling near the front, placing candles or flowers in front of the partition or on the table. Everyone kept crossing themselves over and over again. The priest brought an elaborate book, I assumed The Bible, down the center aisle and everyone stood and went to the middle to kiss it. I remained seated. Then he came down again a little later with the incense burner, waving it back and forth on its chain, seemingly trying to dispense it on everyone. Everyone stood for that too.
In the span from 930 to 1030, the crowd swelled from 30-40 to 300-400 people. I was astonished when folks kept arriving after 1030, even close to 11 AM, when it was finally time to go forward to receive the sacrament, which seemed to be the crescendo of the service. Ms. M-G had also warned me of this: “Orthodox worshippers arrive at any point….This is distracting to newcomers, and may even seem disrespectful, but soon you begin to recognize it as an expression of a faith that is not merely formal but very personal… punctuality is unfortunately one of the few virtues many Orthodox lack.”
Only men and boys worked the altar duties, although two pre-teen girls read the scriptures (not the Gospel, however). A chanting type prayer continued throughout the service and I could not tell where or how to follow along. They sure crossed themselves a lot. They also stood almost the entire time. The pastor gave a short homily, but seemed to be speaking only to the young folks off to one side of the chapel.
I stayed almost two hours, until after the sacrament had been dispensed. I did not go forward to receive it as Ms. M-G had outlined: “Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread.” Apparently, the priest cuts out a section of the bread which is called the “Lamb.” This is what is consecrated to the Body of Christ and the chalice of wine is consecrated to be His Blood. The priest places the “Lamb” into the chalice with the wine and using a golden spoon, gives a fragment of the wine-soaked bread to the worshippers, directly into their mouths. The rest of the bread is blessed by the priest and offered by the altar boys. Some take a piece for themselves, for visitors or non-orthodox friends. The woman in front of me brought a piece of this bread back to give to the woman next to her. Ms. M-G also stated, If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship.”
Most of the worshippers were dressed more formally–men in suits, coats, ties; women in dresses, skirts, etc. Perhaps it was my athleisure wear that kept them at a distance, but I felt like an uninvited guest at a big fat Greek wedding. No one offered me a piece of bread. Also, no one spoke one word to me. No hello, no welcome, no greeting of any kind; not at the door when I entered and not when I exited. So, while this church seems to be doing all the right things to keep a healthy-sized congregation, and the people seem dedicated and disciplined, it FAILED the WELCOME TEST.