After a lifetime as a Bible-believing Baptist and a decade of trying to be a Pentecostal Christian, and after talking with a priest and researching online, I attended my first Orthodox liturgy in February of 2014.
I could tell you about the little shelves just inside the front door of the church, stocked with brochures explaining various points of Orthodox theology. I could tell you about the warm greeting from the gentleman that met us at the door, joking to put us at ease.
What I remember was the fragrance.
When we moved from the small antechamber through the double doors into the temple, my senses were immediately overwhelmed. The sweet odor of incense floated on the air. Smoke from a censer cast a faint haze in the room and made everything seem to be in soft focus. The warm flicker of candles danced upon the gold leaf of the innumerable icons covering the walls.
There were no benches and the gathered people stood for most of the liturgy. I could describe the magnificent prayers, sung with a heavenly beauty that made every praise band I’d ever heard seem like rank amateurs. I could detail the robes of the priest and his deacon that shimmered as they recited exhortations perfected a thousand years ago.
What I remember was the icon of Christ.
I spent much of the liturgy gazing at the large painting, mounted on the right side of the wooden partition separating the people from the holy area. This was not the frail, emaciated Jesus of Renaissance art. His furrowed brow and intense gaze bored into me with a masculinity and power I had never seen in depictions of Christ. In one hand was a book, the other hand was raised to bless the viewer. This was no fainting messiah. It was an invitation to know the God of the Universe.
I could tell you about the humility of the women, their heads covered with veils as they crossed themselves and bowed deeply before kissing icons placed on stands around the room. I could talk about the children moving and playing and giving a life and vibrance to the room, not tucked out of sight in a nursery somewhere else.
What I remember was the icon of Mary.
She too gazed at the viewer, her head gently resting against the face of the infant Jesus and cradling Him in her arms. Though her eyes seemed to seek mine, every line of her image and fold of her clothing pointed me toward the child in her arms. This was not the Mary I had been taught to think of as a mere delivery vessel. This was the Theotokos – the God bearer.
I could tell you about how friendly everyone was and how welcome we felt. I could tell you how genuine the fellowship seemed in the coffee hour that followed the liturgy. I could tell you that a woman chased us down in the parking lot to introduce herself and tell us that she had converted to Orthodoxy after a lifetime as a Protestant.
What I remember was the emptiness I felt at not being able to receive the Eucharist.
Taking a small cracker and a cup of grape juice was a symbolic act in the churches I had attended all my life. It was an occasional remembrance of a meal long ago. This was something different.
The reverence and awe with which this bread and wine was treated made me feel more of an outsider than anything that had come before. There was an immediacy to this ceremony, as if God Himself were offering us His energies in that very moment.
When someone offered me a small piece of bread as a sign of fellowship, I was grateful for the gesture while feeling even more separation from what was taking place at the chalice.
I could go on for a long time telling you about the sights and sounds I experienced at that first Orthodox liturgy. I’m sure as time goes on I will tell you much more about it.
What I remember was knowing that after a lifetime of searching I had found the true Church.
This post is where this particular series ends. I’ll be going into my journey from inquirer to catechumen to Orthodox in other posts.