UNEXPECTED TREASURE IN EARTHEN VESSELS
Down to earth and yet filled with flashes of the greater reality of Heaven. Warm and enveloping. These words begin to describe what for me has been a surprising introduction to the Orthodox Church. And yet there is much more to be said as an inquirer who has attended a number of the services at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, just up the road from our home.
Passing through the large double doors, I had expected a formality that kept the God I knew at arms distance, an aloofness from the Priest and laymen alike. Previously just the name Orthodox conjured up images of shimmering candles reflecting light from timeless and odd-looking icons, liturgical services conducted in hushed tones by a swarthy and solemn priest, swishing about in floor-length vestments while swinging censors laden with smoking incense mixing with the gladsome sound of bells. I would not be surprised to find much gold scattered here and there in a costly display of deep devotion by worshippers, who humbly followed a service that was precisely choreographed and perfected over the years said to trace back to the early days of the church. While some aspects of the services were true to my expectations, most of these expectations had to be set aside and I soon found myself on a high learning curve.
Culture shock might describe the feeling I had of being catapulted into another civilization, another dimension and time. It WAS an Eastern church after all, and while I stood in the incense-filled sanctuary listening to the psalms and ancient hymns sung and chanted in a zig-zag sort of rhythm, I realized it was very reminiscent of music from the Middle East where my husband and I had lived for a while. Incense was also burned in the homes of those we had visited there, while here it was representative of the prayers of the saints rising before God's throne. I began to relax upon finding something that was familiar to my ears and nose. This was only the partial denouement of my ignorance as to what the Orthodox Church really consisted of.
Never mind that the method of crossing oneself and the ability to follow the Divine Liturgy eluded me. There was more here than met the natural eye: there were spiritual riches that opened up to the eye of faith. Here was a family feeling; we were all gathered together in one unit made up of many smaller units making me feel included. Children were not shunted off to a nursery or Sunday School, but crawled or toddled about near mommy or daddy while making their sweet baby noises. There were those who had not made such sounds in many decades, their bodies now frail and elderly. Most fell in between. No matter our abilities to talk and walk, we were standing together to participate in a worship which included, by faith, that “cloud of witnesses” who had gone before us and were now very much alive and worshipping with us before the throne of God. A number of these “witnesses” were represented in the icons which are part of the iconostasis, a beautiful wooden wall separating the nave area from the sanctuary where the priest stood; others were scattered on the walls around us.
A very young saint was in line to venerate the icon of Christ. When it came her turn, she kissed her tiny index finger and on tip-toe reached up and touched it to the cheek of Jesus. My heart melted. I turned around just in time to see the two young sons of the priest, one sitting on a step behind him in the side area of the nave as he chanted a portion of the liturgy, the other standing with an arm around his legs. Into my mind flashed a verse from Psalms 84, “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—even Your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they will still be praising You”. Clearly this priest understood the truth of these verses and did not chase his children away while performing his sacred duties before God. Again my heart was strangely moved.
We stood in respect to God for most of the Divine Liturgy, and when the faithful had taken the Eucharist, the Blessed Bread had been distributed to the rest of us present and the final prayers said, we streamed with serious intent into the hall containing refreshments. This would be the first food and drink since midnight for those who had participated in the Eucharist.
This brings me to the “earthiest” part of my experience thus far. As we all ate and talked, some simultaneously, we also continued to stand. The new wing on the building had not yet been approved by the proper inspectors and so tables and chairs were not permitted to be used until such approval was granted. Chewing on a piece of celery, I saw the strangest sight. The same little Jesus-kissing girl, looking feminine in her floor-length dress, was moving slowly across the room in a diagonal line while trying to avoid clusters of people talking together. She was dragging one leg behind her, her face showing pure determination to reach her goal. The goal appeared to be her father, the Priest, who was deep in conversation with two parishioners. It became clear through observation that she came bearing a gift. The “gift” was a soiled diaper which had fallen and only remained attached to the one leg which she doggedly pulled along behind her. I watched as her daddy, garbed in his black priest's cassock, quickly sized up the situation when she came into view—his wife walking serenely behind their daughter while pushing a younger baby in a stroller—and acted. Reaching down, he quickly extricated the diaper from the child, closed it up and flung the offending appendage into a nearby garbage can just missing his wife, picked up the child and comforted her while continuing his conversation as if this were one of his normal duties! It dawned on me that it was. The same man who puts on the priestly garments and handles the articles used for divine service is the same man who rescues a maiden in distress of losing her diaper, calms and comforts that child, and sends her happily on her way.
As I exited through the double doors to return home, a series of impressions tumbled around in my mind. There was a message here for me and I didn't want to miss it. A final scene impressed that message indelibly upon me, carving out in flesh a seamless representation of the eternal dimension co-existing with common ordinary life. There is a great expanse of lawn in front of the church and on the sidewalk outside the doors was the gold bowl which held the Blessed Bread moments before. Now it sat in humble fashion on the ground surrounded by the children's discarded shoes and socks, its contents emptied by hungry little ones now happily running and rolling about on the lawn, laughing under a perfect Springtime sky.
Heaven and earth had met today and seemed to kiss, showing a wonderful unity between spiritual worship and the reality in the physical lives of our fellow worshippers. I couldn't wait to return.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4.7).