In the Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, Sunday Sept. 18, 2005
Orthodox style of worship steeped in tradition
BY JOHN PARKER
EDITOR'S NOTE: While Michael Gartland is away on an international reporting fellowship, Faith & Values will feature occasional columns from Lowcountry writers.
From the outside, one hardly would know it is a church: an unassuming storefront in a local neighborhood. Once inside, however, things are different. Incense hangs in the air. To one side, there is a tall stand filled with lighted beeswax candles that flicker in front of holy images of Jesus, biblical figures and saints.
From aged to infant, most folks stand, attentively facing deep inside the room. After some period of silence, a man in golden vestments lifts his hands and prays an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit. He raises a large book and sings, "Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages!" The choir chants robustly, "Amen!"
Shortly, after a sung litany of prayers (to which the gathered fervently chant, "Lord, have mercy!"), all begin to sing Psalm 104 a cappella.
Throughout the service, this sort of interaction continues. It is solemn, yet not stuffy. It is majestic ... ancient ... awe-inspiring. It calms; it does not excite the emotions. This is the worship of the ancient, undivided church, which St. Paul likely would recognize. It is a service that a fourth-, 12th- or 18th-century Christian would know, served in every Orthodox Church on Earth on Sundays and holy days.
The difference between the liturgy here in Mount Pleasant and in Greece, Serbia or Russia is basically the language in which one prays and the type of chant by which the faithful sing the hymns. It's universal across time and geography.
Coffee and the comfort of chairs are saved for afterward. The posture of prayer, especially on Sundays, always has been to stand. In fact, from ancient times, it has been forbidden to kneel on Sundays because we celebrate every Sunday as a little "Pascha" (Easter) and stand in eager anticipation of the second coming of Christ. (Although those who must sit, ought to. As one saint says, it is better to pray sitting down than to stand and think about your feet.)
The ancient prayers don't change from week to week, but rather stand as timeless requests to God. Rather than binding us by some rote series of words, we are actually freed up to pray truly, fully ... because we know what is coming every week. The prayers change us.
But it isn't just about having the same service. It is about believing the same exact things about Jesus Christ and our lives related to him. The universality of our prayers, hymns and services, as well as our beliefs concerning "faith and values," morals and the like testify to this common faith, universal across time and geography.
How? Why candles and incense? Why chanting? Why not a big-screen TV and a band? Skits and movie clips? Why not varying opinions and practices on the use of vestments or the singing of services? Why no coffee during the service?
We would answer with a single word -- a word that many now eschew, one that ruffles feathers. A word that many today reject outright -- but a word that describes something that everyone has. Everyone. Not a Christian on the planet operates outside of its definition. Not one. The word: tradition.
Everyone has a tradition and worships, prays and studies from within it. There is no such thing as nontraditional -- only the question: What is the font of your tradition?
What I have described above is the most ancient and unchanged Christian tradition on Earth: Orthodoxy. Many others come from later traditions (16th century and after), all of which arose in contrast to what they didn't believe here or there.
Tradition, in the biblical sense, is "from zee Greek": paradosis, to hand down, to hand over.
According to the Scriptures, tradition can be good (that which we should believe and teach) and bad ("traditions of men" that distort the Gospel). Since the beginning, the difference has been determined by a universal comparison to the rule of faith: Does it match the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), what Christians have always believed? Or, rather, is this a tradition of men, a reaction against something they couldn't or wouldn't believe? In fact, this is the main difference between the Orthodox tradition and all other traditions: The Orthodox tradition has handed down -- by the grace of God -- the fullness of the Christian Gospel, unchanged by the tide of popular opinion. Others have handed this down in larger or smaller parts but tainted by all sorts of additions and deletions.
When Jesus was alive, he charged his disciples to "go into all the world" and baptize and teach others what he commanded. Each Christian's task, especially the bishops (the ones in charge), was to teach only what they were taught. I compare the process to a FedEx delivery. A certain message (the Christian Gospel) was placed in an envelope (the tradition) and given to the FedEx workers (the disciples). Their task was to deliver it (the tradition) to the next generation. There was even a way to trace the package: the bishop. From the earliest days, he has been the guardian of the faith. If anything changed, the traced teaching was compared to the original, and if found false, it then was rebuked. And the heretic was cast out. Thus, the Orthodox Christian tradition was both handed down and guarded -- what St. Paul urges in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."
How does architecture demonstrate this point?
Picture two buildings: the first a massive structure, several stories high, situated on the plot of land in the most convenient way. Inside, one passes through a set of doors into the main room that contains hundreds of chairs, even in the balconies. If a service weren't going on, it might be confused for the auditorium at the local high school or the IMAX Theatre. It is designed to fit scores of people and to offer a message using modern media. The architecture tells such a story.
The second is cruciform and faces East. One enters the West end, from "the world." In the central dome, an imposing image of Jesus gazes down, blessing with one hand and holding that which tells the life of Christ in prophecy, parable and event.
Moving eastward, one ascends a few steps as toward heaven. The priest faces the people only to speak to them. Otherwise, he prays with them, facing East, the direction from which we expect our Savior to return. The architecture tells such a story.
Both are traditional. One is ancient, as old as the oldest Christian Church. Its task is to teach by its shape and adornment -- "the very stones cry out!' The other is a convenient container for services, inspired by the entertainment industry. The question remains: whose tradition?
But just like with worship, the Christian's purpose is not about having the same buildings across time and geography, it is about making people, places, even time, holy, bringing everything that we say, do and even build into the presence of God for his purposes.
Tradition! The Christian Church has never been about innovation. Its very task is tradition -- to hand on what it has received.
But we must be careful to pass on the original tradition! The next generation's task is to receive it, as is, and then to pass it on in the same way. No, it is not the teachings, the prayers, the services or even the architecture that we are to modify. Rather, it is we who are to change, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Father John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, in the I'On community in Mount Pleasant. He can be reached at 810-9350 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.