As a child i was raised attending a Russian Orthodox church, where God lived beyond a screen of gold gilding, and icons of saints and angels…. in a house steeped with the sweet smell of incense, and Gregorian chants. Church Slavonic was the language of heaven, i thought… for when the most important parts of the service happened they were not in English Icons helped to visualize events of the Bible, and immortalized patrons of the church in the faces on the walls.
I loved the flicker of the candles, the smell of that sweet incense, the sense of a priest escorting us to God’s presence. There was a clear sense of this being a sacred space, reserved for the act of meeting with a great God.
And Easter came to be the most sacred and wonderful time of the church calendar The long hours of church services felt like we lived in church for holy week. Thursday was one of my favorite – because the service was readings from all of the gospels, and recalled the events leading up to the death, and burial of Jesus. On our knees in honor of the word of God, we listened, we prayed, and we knew the story well.
And after that Thursday service the frenetic pace of activity began as the men of the church carted up large and ancient pieces of furniture that would be set up to represent the garden tomb. The women were gathering the huge amount of potted plants… hyacinths, tulips, hydrangeas, and white lilies The smell was intoxicating. Carefully and well choreographed everyone had a part in preparing the “grave”, which would be a visual representation of the crucified Christ, laying in state.
On Good Friday, in the early afternoon service the priest would bring the special textile shroud bearing the likeness of Jesus out from behind the icon screen and with much singing and incense would place it on the piece of the special furniture reserved for this purpose. Ancient by my young eyes, but probably created in the earliest parts of the 20th Century when the Cathedral was dedicated. I think i always loved Russian history because of the connection of my childhood church with the deep pockets of the last ruling monarch of Russia. He was integral in funding the construction and finding the appointments, including the huge clear prismed glass chandelier that hangs in the center of the church. A magnificent fixture that always caused me fear for the thought of the sheer size and weight of it.
I can almost hear some of you bristling at these images. Let me say several things here, because the orthodox church traditions are probably not familiar ways of worship for many, and might be viewed as idol worship. – No, I still am convinced this custom came from an age when a majority of the people were not literate… and this was the visual representation to help people understand, much like the custom of detailed stone carving of scenes in Gothic Cathedrals of Western Europe was once popular. Those who cannot read understand pictures. The more accurate and detailed the architect is the better the insight. I remember as a child reflecting on some of the large icons, thinking that I understood the picture so much more than some of the big words, or words not always in English. St Theodosius was founded by immigrants from Russia and Bylorussia.. so even the appearance of the written language was different than what their heart language. Pictures helped.
Another thought crossed my mind about this way of remembering the death and burial of Christ. It is so very sensory… the eyes see, the ears hear the songs, in acapella, and the nose takes in a bouquet of spring flower scents, mingled by the heavy incense, and Aunt Tillie’s strong perfume. The tone is dark… the world has not yet seen the resurrected Christ, and the hope of nations lay dead in a grave. Much like the funeral of a very precious family member, it is a dark and dim time… The orthodox church helped me to appreciate how deep a sorry this death of Jesus was… but indeed he did not stay there. And as sunday morning came the grave was gone, the lights were brighter than ever and the songs were loud and glorious. I learned to sense God in these things that seemed ritualistic to many.
Finally, as a follower of Christ, and born again, i must say that I understand that faith is simple. It is taking God at his Word, and no more.
So why am i writing this post? It is because a part of my perception of God was a part of this wonderful and sacred experience, and even though the church i attend loves Jesus, and proclaims the glorious news with wonder and power, a part of the sensory perceptions are missing. It is the special music, and the smells, and the sense of deep reverance that the protestant church does not embrace.
Several years ago i was in a book reading group and we read a book called Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas. The thesis of his book is that Christianity is not a one size fits all faith, but that each of us has different ways of sensing God. Some will stand on a mountain top and feel the closest to God, others find their faith invigorated by understanding difficult passages of the bible, or intellectual things. In total he speaks of 9 different areas that we might respond to God, and each are just as powerful and effective as the other.
When i reach seasons like Easter, and long for the breath and depth of the services leading to the celebration of Easter I thank God for his heart to make each of us different. And I thank him for those childhood experiences in incense, and gregorian chant. I thank Him for the opportunity to communally share in the deep deep sorrow of the cross, of this one solitary death that impacted all of humanity. And i thank God for the desire he put in my heart to sense him and seek him in these ways. I pulled the attached movie off my old church’s website and wanted you to just get a bit more of the insight into what i miss. Click on the lily below to see the movie.