I’d like to say that my first visit to Orthodox liturgy was a homecoming – but it wasn’t.
I had more question that would have allowed me to worship that day. How can something that seems so wrong be so right? The beauty of the gospel I loved was being made holy before my eyes by priests in robes under the eyes of iconised saints. On the surface it looked like some kind of crazy idolatry, but when people asked me all I could say was I found it deeply Christian; deeply Christian in a way I had rarely known.
I felt conflicted; fascinated and conflicted. So I return for more.
The second time I visited, I entered nervously, but ready to listen for God. At the door of the church is the icon they call the anastasis. It is an icon depicting the resurrection. It captures the whole span of salvation history, from a moment towards the end of the three days in the tomb. In the centre of the icon is Christ, his white robes flowing in a rush of movement as he returns from his descent to hell. He is lifting Adam and Eve in his wake and casting Satan down. As he rises, the broken gates of Hades shatter beneath his feet, and fragments of broken locks and chains crash into the abyss. I know this victory and I want it for myself and I want it for our broken world. I start to pray.
Christ stands strong upon a bridge of rock. I look more intently at him and see that he grasps the man and the woman (Adam and Eve) firmly by the wrist. The heat in my eyes is tears that won’t quite come. I am receiving a truth I love, not as a preached word but directly to my senses, especially my sight. I can see how He grasped me, I did not grasp him. I know for sure he is grasping me now.
“Today salvation has come into the world. Let us sing to him who rose from the tomb, the author of our life. For destroying death by death, he has given us the victory and his great mercy” I am greeted by the choir’s song. The room is flooded with light. The faces of the painted icons shine and their brilliance is reflected in the face of the people there. Candle light softens the room, the sweet smell of incense flood the senses, hymns, prayers, robed-ones moving from the altar and out among the people, as all the saints look on.
The priest announces in a loud voice, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.” This is how the liturgy always begins. This charismatic-evangelical girl wants to raise her hands and jump and dance. The liturgy is welcoming us into a space of saving grace like no other space I have ever known. Here you can see it, hear it, smell it and as the liturgy reaches its climax the faithful will taste it on their tongues, the sweetness of the wine that makes the heart glad, the broken bread spilling abundance.
We stand for the whole of the liturgy. On Sunday’s we never sit or kneel, for no one can rest with so much glory in the house. Every inclination of the heart and all the sense are drawn into worshipping God. Our eyes are on Him and His eyes are on us. “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy”, we repeat the refrain and it isn’t just a plea, it’s a triumphal statement. We stand here because he has had mercy on us. He is having mercy on us. He will have mercy on us.
I cross myself deeply at his name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. My hand moves, nervously the first time, to draw the shape of the cross on my standing self. “As many that have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia,” the choir sing and the priest sings it back. The bread and the wine are made ready and the cherubic hymn is sung, “We, who in a mystery represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn, to the life-giving trinity, let us now lay aside every care of this life”, and that is what we do. We say the Creed and we pray the Lord’s Prayer in as many languages as are represented amongst us. We share in the bread and the wine.
Later in the church hall where the coffee is really good and the welcome warm, Antonio is telling me about his faith and his upbringing in the Orthodox Church. He is a Reader who has now removed his gold vestments. I am new and have so many questions and he can tell me what is happening behind that altar screen, the prostrations and the prayers, the fragments of Greek, the ceremony and ritual. Then part ways through the conversation, hand on heart (literally), he says, ” Once God is here, there’s no turning back.”
And this is how Orthodoxy speaks my language. Once we’ve tasted that intimacy, that sweetness, we’re spoil for anything but the pursuit of more. We are on course for worshipping in Spirit and in truth in ways more surprising than we ever guessed or imagined.