#41 St. Helen’s Greek Orthodox

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Whenever I would tell anyone over the age of 55 about this project, they’d say, “Oh!  I can’t wait until you review a Greek Orthodox church!” Because of this, I always felt as though when the time came, I would undoubtedly marvel in the beauty of the Greek Orthodox experience.  I should have spent a bit more time thinking about other things retired folk enjoy that I don’t.  I’m not a fan of finely diced peaches and cottage cheese for breakfast.  I don’t particularly get excited when old episodes of The Donna Read Show air on Nick at Night, nor do I like speaking about everyone I know in terms of what ailments they now have.  And so, I don’t know why I would have ever assumed that I’d love a Greek Orthodox service just because every Grandma I know got excited at the mere mention of it.  I should have realized that when I told the very same people that I planned on attending a snake handling church in the sticks of West VA in November, and the common reaction was to put their hand on their chest, gasp and say, “Oh dear, I don’t think I like that” that our idea of an exciting church service might not be the same. 

A few Wednesday’s ago I attended the 10am Divine Liturgy at Saint Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral located on 30 Malvern Avenue.  I have to start off by just mentioning that the church was a ridiculous monstrosity.  Maybe it’s because of the fact that only 4 people were attending (not surprising 4 little old ladies) that this was so evident, but I couldn’t help but wonder why everything had to be so big?  I have to believe that just one of the chandeliers alone weighed over 300 lbs and cost nearly $2,000 dollars.  Of course I’m just guesstimating here but I couldn’t believe how garish everything in this church was.  Deep red upholstery lining pretty much everything and detailed stitching helped marry it together to the rich mahogany woodwork it accented.  I never actually made up my mind whether I thought the church was beautiful or hideous.  One moment I’d look at it and think, “Wow, what a soothing, beautiful fall-colored masterpiece.  The intricate carved wood working and gold tones create a serene setting for worship.”  The next minute I’d look at something that reminded me of the gaudy, Italian mafia-style décor that dressed my late Nana’s living room.   

The entire service, which lasted a couple of hours, was taken straight out of a prayer book.  It seemed as though the point was just to undergo one customary tradition after another.  The priest, who was covered in a floor-length vibrant blue robe with multi-colored sashes, and ropes around his neck would come out from behind these doors and wave around some incense and we’d all stand.  Then he’d read something in a really low voice from one of the Epistles and we’d follow along in our books with something like, “Lord have mercy” or “Glory to you, Oh Lord”  or some other statement from the assigned reading.  Then, he’d drape some cloth over some piece of wood and then this other guy would stand and sing something that was written in his prayer book.  Then we’d sit.  Then we’d stand.  Then the priest would go away again somewhere in the back so he was hidden from the 5 of us and the other guy would sing something out of a prayer book, we’d follow his statement with our assigned statement only to have the priest come back in and we’d stand.  Then we sit.  Then we’d stand. 

After we stood and we sat some more, and read our assigned line from the prayer book, the priest read an excerpt from the gospels, approximately 3 or so lines in song, and then, we followed up those 3 bible verses with an, “Amen” from our prayer book. Then we sat.  And finally, we were asked to sit and stand some more, and offer up an obligatory “Amen,” following the priests statement, making it the perfect end to a moving church service.   

If you like sitting, standing, and assigned reading, you might be Greek Orthodox.  Visit St. Helen’s on the web at http://www.vagocathedral.org/

Okay, so obviously one might detect a bit of sarcasm in my writing today.  I feel the need to explain what I’m feeling since I realize so many church services are designed this way.  Personally, I don’t get tradition.  I just don’t get it.  I don’t get reading something out of a book just to do so.  I don’t get wafting around incense because that’s what you do when you go to church. Or draping cloths in certain places, or lighting candles for all to see.  I don’t get standing and sitting at designated times just because that’s what we’ve always done.  What’s the point of all this? 

I guess when I go to church, I want a blessing.  I want to be fed.  I want to look at the life of Christ and become more like Him.  I don’t want to just read a Bible verse like it’s a taken out of an American history book or drivers manual without discussing the richness and beauty of it.  I want to tap into the Spirit of God, through authentic, personal heartfelt prayer, not something someone else conjured up decades ago and I just recite without giving any thought to the Spirit behind those prayers.  I want to dig into the Bible like there’s a hidden treasure in there because I believe there is!  Isn’t that what church is for, to learn about God’s Word and fellowship with others who want to do the same? I just don’t see how all this tradition lifts up Christ? 

I hope this doesn’t make me overly critical.  I know there are tons of people out there that just love their church traditions, and if this brings them closer to a relationship with God, hey, have at it.  But the entire experience just left me hungry for a good sermon.

Some things I found interesting:

  • Orthodoxy believes that the Christian Faith and the Church are inseparable. It is impossible to know Christ, to share in the life of the Holy Trinity, or to be considered a Christian apart from the Church.
  • Orthodoxy believes that we can truly participate in the Trinity through the life of the Church, especially through our celebration of the Eucharist and the Sacraments.
  • The Orthodox Church sees itself as the guardian and interpreter of the Scriptures.
  • While the Bible is treasured as a valuable written record of God's revelation, it does not contain wholly that revelation. The Bible is viewed as only one expression of God's revelation in the on-going life of His people. Scripture is part of the treasure of Faith which is known as Tradition. Tradition means that which is "handed on" from one generation to another. In addition to the witness of Faith in the Scripture, the Orthodox Christian Faith is celebrated in the Eucharist; taught by the Fathers; glorified by the Saints; expressed in prayers, hymns, and icons; defended by the seven Ecumenical Councils; embodied in the Nicene Creed; manifested in social concern; and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is lived in every local Orthodox parish. The life of the Holy Trinity is manifested in every aspect of the Church's life. Finally, the Church, as a whole, is the guardian of the authentic Christian Faith which bears witness to that Revelation.
  • The Church is content to accept the element of mystery in its approach to God.
    Only when the fundamental truths of the Faith are seriously threatened by false teachings does the Church act to define dogmatically an article of faith.  For this reason, the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient undivided Church are highly respected.  Orthodox faith does not hold the Bible as the ultimate authority like Protestants, nor does it hold the Pope as the ultimate authority like the Catholic church.
  • The Nicene Creed, which was formulated at the Councils of Nicaea in 325 and of Constantinople in 381, has been recognized since then as the authoritative expression of the fundamental beliefs of the Orthodox Church.
  • The Church, as a whole, is infallible, but it is not God-inspired to the extent that it has understood the entire depth of the truths and formulated and proclaimed them to the world.
  • By Baptism, the Church holds that all optional and original sins are cleansed by the Grace of God. The Chrismation of a newly baptized person is the confirmation of his faith which is "the seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost."
  • Greek orthodox will baptism children after 1 years old but only in full immersion.
  • The Holy Eucharist is the seal of the proclamation of the communion with God. It is the only Sacrament offered by the Church in which the elements of bread and wine not only carry the Grace of God, as a mysterion, but are "changed" into and "are" the very Body and the very Blood of Christ, being a propitiatory sacrifice.
  • The Orthodox believer should pray to Almighty God not only to free himself from emptiness, but also that he might do well with what he has. He should not ask for wealth, possessions, health, etc., but rather beseech Almighty God to make him as one of His servants, a strong believer, a fervent supplicator, a faithful servant of His Will. He prays to God as his Father after the fashion of the Lord's Prayer. He does not ask for perfect health, but beseeches God to grant Him the enlightenment and courage to accept even death as the threshold of everlasting life.
  • The highest authority for the interpretation and protection of the truths of the Revelation of God and for the preserving of those which were disputed is the Ecumenical Synod, the official council of bishops. The synods were modeled after the gathering of the Apostles who came together to discuss the truths which were disputed at that time (cf. Acts 15:22 ff)
  • The "Conscience of the Church-Ecclesia" is the highest authority of appeal in the Orthodox Church. It is, in reality, the common consent of opinions of faith, hope, and love by all communicants of the Church

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7 Comments

  • Zee

    Zee November 29, 2010

    heh… just the other day, i was talking with my friends who were “attacked” by Orthodox priests from a monastery… they asked if the girls went to Church, they replied “yes, we do. to a protestant Church” (Nazarene)... the priest groaned… i groaned when my friends told me that.

    one of the things i had to laugh at was when my friends said the priests told them not to imagine Jesus when they are praying. i was like “WHAT?!” that notion was quite ridiculous considering that they’ve got all the icons…

    *sigh* anyways… yeah, i have my grudge against the Orthodox Church (mainly ‘cuz it’s all over the place here in Ukraine)

  • Jessica

    Jessica November 30, 2010

    Hmmm…that’s random.  I wonder why they say we shouldn’t picture Jesus when praying? 

    I just had a fantastic prayer session the other day where I did just that.

  • Tony York

    Tony York November 30, 2010

    All I can say is that there is no Church without people and that the church gathers for prayer/supplication, fellowship(personality to personality), praise/worship, edification/teaching, and mutual support(physical needs).

    That is a very simple definition but one that can be used as a basic litmus test.

  • Dave VT

    Dave VT November 30, 2010

    What is “tradition”?  Where does it begin and where does it end?


    When instituting the Eucharist, Christ said, “Do this in memory of me.” As a Catholic, that is a tradition I could not live without. 


    Christ said, “Go out and Baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.  Is this a tradition we should pass over b/c it involves a “formal” ceremony?


    Christ commissioned his Apostles to teach the Gospel.  How does one teach the Gospels to a population which is largely illiterate?  I just heard a stat that even today 68 out of every 100 people in the world cannot read.  Is it not a great gift to read the bible to those that cannot read it themselves?  Should we stop that b/c it can be defined as a tradition?

    Yes, of course Church is about the Word and fellowship, but isn’t it for other things as well?  Church is also to show gratitude and thanksgiving to God for the blessings He bestows upon us.  It is also to show worship, rightly given to the God of the Universe.  It is also undoubtedly, to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ.  For thousands of years men have acknowledged God and kings by kneeling.  If Christ returned today would you not kneel before him?  (Indeed, I know you would as you have said that you have done so in other posts.grin  As you point out at the end of your post, the Eastern Orthodox believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  I suspect the time they kneeled was when the Eucharist was consecrated.


    Of course, “Tradition” can become an end unto itself.  In fact, an adherence to tradition led to a form of tribalism that led to the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches.  I suspect, even centuries later, some of this is reflected in what you saw.  Unfortunately, this has caused the Eastern Church to lose the hallmark of Universality.

    “I know there are tons of people out there that just love their church traditions, and if this brings them closer to a relationship with God, hey, have at it.  But the entire experience just left me hungry for a good sermon.”


    Everyone who goes to Church loves a good sermon but, like tradition, a sermon can easily become an end unto itself.  In fact, some might say that protestant churches have a “tradition” of delivering rousing sermons.  I certainly want to feel good when I leave Mass but I have come to realize that “feeling good” each week doesn’t always come solely from profound and moving insights brought forth during the sermon.  It also comes from seeking to humble myself before the Lord.  It comes from praying for the welfare and souls of others.  It comes from singing songs of thanks and praise.  It comes from being in the presence of the Lord.  In my opinion, a balance in all these aspects feeds the whole person.


    Big churches can have great traditional art, architecture, and organ music.  Great speakers can deliver great sermons.  Sincere devout and holy men may even be able to deliver great sermons on a regular basis in great Cathedrals or stadiums.  But can anything compare to being in the actual presence of the Lord Jesus Christ?  This is what happens every day when the Eucharist in consecrated and personally I am profoundly happy for the opportunity to kneel before the Lord and I know you are as well.  The “Tradition” of the Eastern Orthodox may obscure the real presence and purpose of the liturgy to some degree.

  • Jessica

    Jessica December 01, 2010

    Hi Dave,

    You bring up some good points.  Let me explain my distaste for “tradition” more clearly.  If there is an act that Jesus told us to do, then I consider that tradition a command and one definitely to be followed.  Like Baptism.

    Also, if there is a tradition that lifts up Jesus (for instance, kneeling is a great example of this.) that’s also an act that makes sense to me.  I don’t kneel though because it’s time to kneel and that’s just “what we do now” I kneel in prayer when I’m trying to humble myself before God.  If that’s why someone chooses to do it, then I get it.  Makes sense.  But what I don’t get are the acts done just because the church says so.  That’s what doesn’t resonate with me.  It’s doing an act without any intention behind it.  That seems pharisaic. 

    If someone in the Greek Orthodox church feels that their relationship with Christ is fuller by doing the following:  stand up, sit down, drape this cloth over this gold thing, waft around this incense, read the following line after I say this, wear this orange robe with a blue rope around your waist and then kneel.  Then, I can’t argue with what brings one closer to God, but to me, I find it hard to understand how this tradition strengthens their relationship with our Creator.  I’m not saying it doesn’t, I’m just saying I don’t get it.

    When you explained to me the tradition of the rosary, I felt like that made sense to me.  I could see how meditating on the events of Christ’s life could enrich the Christian experience.  It’s still a church tradition, but one I understand.

    Also, I couldn’t agree more that a great emotional sermon is not always enriching our relationship with God, and sometimes even severing it.  It’s not a great speaker that makes a “good sermon” for me.  A good sermon is one where I have a deep study of the truth found in God’s Word.  I have Tony Robbins for any emo stuff:)

  • Dave VT

    Dave VT December 01, 2010

    I think you are making a little bit of a distinction without a difference.  What acts are done, “just b/c the church says so”?  If you came to Mass w/ me and saw me kneel when I entered, saw me kneel when the Eucharist was consecrated and saw me kneel when Communion began and saw everyone else in the Church do the same thing you might suppose that it was b/c that is what the Church told us to do but in fact we do it b/c we are entering the presence of Lord, b/c the Eucharist is being consecrated and to prepare our hearts and minds before we receive the risen Christ.  Does the Church ask us to do those things? Sure, but that doesn’t diminish the profound meaning the events have for us.  If you ask your husband to drive all the way to the other side of town, to pick up your favorite takeout food, did he do it just b/c you asked or b/c he loves you? Or was it “both / and”?


    In the end, all Churches create and have their own traditions.  Some have a tradition of baptism by full immersion only.  Others like the Christian Scientists have a tradition of healing through prayer.  Others try to reject tradition but quickly this becomes just an outward appearance.  How many “non-traditional” Churches have you seen that became the Church were they “traditionally wear jeans and sing folk songs”.  It’s easy to pick a Church which has all the traditions you “like” but then who is the service really about?

  • Jessica

    Jessica December 01, 2010

    I agree.  It should be about Christ and if it is, it would be based on God’s Word. Those are the traditions I tend to like the most.

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