Posted by: Shawn Ragan | May 23, 2008

Vespers

Vespers - Sunday of Orthodoxy

This photo was taken during a Vespers service in an Orthodox Church earlier this year, on what is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. My first real contact in an “Eastern” Christian Church was at a Vespers Service about a year and a half before this picture was taken. I remember it was darker then than it is in this picture. As I said before, even though I had been in liturgical church services and had been to Roman Catholic Vespers (I would go on retreat for prayer and to prepare for upcoming sermons once every few months to a Roman Catholic monastery a couple of hours away), none of that had prepared me for walking through that door.

Church of God Thanksgiving Service

Just to put things in some perspective, this second picture is the church I pastor. If you compare it to the first photo, you’ll notice some pretty big differences…

I would later be told that in the Eastern Church, known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, that God created us with all of our senses and that we are called to love God with “all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul.” The idea is that we approach and love and worship God with our whole being…it is not just an intellectual exercise…we come to Him completely. In Orthodoxy, as I understand (and please note I am a Protestant pastor right now, not an Orthodox theologian, priest, or even a lay person – from an Orthodox perspective I am an “inquirer.” Please do not take my observations on Orthodoxy and my explanations as authoritative speaking on behalf of the Church – if you want to know more, contact an Orthodox priest – there are several that even have blogs on wordpress) we are called to worship God with all five senses, sight, touch, taste, sound, smell. From this worship with the whole body – and your body can ache with your prayers – I have heard Orthodoxy called the Church of “smells and bells.”

Nothing I can write will replace someone’s first experience inside an Orthodox service, there just are not the words…but I will share some of my early observations – as many as I can from that first night…

Smells – when you walk into an Orthodox Church the first thing you smell, sometimes before you even get into the door, is the incense. Now, as Biblical as I know this is – you can find incense in almost every service mentioned in the Bible from the Jewish Temple (maybe even the Tabernacle) all the way through the book of Revelations…you can read this for yourself in the Bible to see it – my big concern was that I don’t like incense. Whenever I would be at a friend’s house and they would be burning incense, I wanted to leave…I’d get sick to my stomach, I’d get hot flashes, and smell would bother me. This was with this little stick incenses that one burns…often to cover up another smell…

However, the incense did not bother me here…in fact I like it (I still don’t like stick incense, and I have smelled some incense I have gotten from Orthodox sources that bothered me, but not the kind that is used in the church). The smoke and the smells, I would later find, made me think of God…it let my mind and my body calm down and begin to pray a little better…the benefits and impact of it I’d find later…but that first night it was just standing in amazement.

Sights – An Orthodox Church is anything but plain. The church I pastor has nice white walls, it is decorated a little in the photo above for Thanksgiving, but it is fairly plain. Not so in Orthodoxy…even in the photo above you can see lots of color! But it doesn’t end there, on the walls, on stands, all over the church there are these things called icons. Now, as a Protestant pastor and someone who had studied I knew before I walked in the door that icons were not idolatry. I even understood, long before I ever saw an Orthodox Church, that the veneration of icons (people kiss them) was not idolatry…someone may try to disagree with me, but I am not going to engage in argument about it…this is just me telling my story – my journey – and how I understood things. I am not trying to make theological statements, just sharing my perspective at this juncture.

Back to icons…while I knew about them, it was something to see people crossing themselves, make a bow, and kiss the icon. I had heard long before that kissing icons is really no different than me kissing a picture of my wife before I go to bed when I am traveling – my kiss is not to the paper – I don’t love the paper and the ink – but the woman in the picture. In the same way, the love expressed to the icon is to the person depicted. I believe it was St. John of Damascus who said it passed through to the prototype. So, love showed to the icon of Christ is love shown to Christ Himself. All of that I understood – and if you don’t understand it, there are much better sources than me to explain it 🙂 – but the thing was, I don’t kiss pictures of my wife…so my thinking was “It’s OK if they do it, I don’t fault them, but I can never see myself doing it”

Sound – there were the bells on the censer the priest carries at specific points in time in service – and the chanting – whoa, the chanting. I was overwhelmed in that first service, but I do recall the third or fourth Vespers I was at – it was in a church a couple of hours away, and it was the first time I put the book down and just listened. Wow. I remember very distinctly feeling like I was not in 21st century America, but rather that I was there in an Early Christian church service in Israel. Now I didn’t feel I was teleported or anything like that, but I did have the sense that this was ancient, and not Western.

After my first visit, Father Patrick shared with me about the service, and one of the things he shared was that one of the hymns that was sung, “O Gladsome Light,” was referred to as ancient in the 4th century. Needless to say, it was a very, very old hymn. What I experienced was ancient, but not ancient in the way that it has no value in today’s life – just the opposite. For eight years (as a Pastor, longer than that as a Christian), I have listened to people talk, even argue, about worship styles. Should we be modern and contemporary, or stay with the hymns of 100, 200, even 300 years ago?

There I stood on that night in the middle of a service that had not changed much in thousands of years (2 notes: it has grown up, but it is in substance the same; and thousands of years because this comes out of pre-Christian Judaism – as I mentioned earlier Vespers comes from the evening Temple Service).

I stood the entire time (one stands most of the time during an Orthodox service, but there is usually seating if you need it, and some congregations do have pews). Everything I experienced was so different, but it rang so true. It struck a chord, but I couldn’t put a finger on what it was. My mom would later comment on her first time in an Orthodox service – she goes to the Vineyard and has been part of charismatic churches for the last ten years or so. Her comment was that the service was “all about God, not about me.”

We argue about worship styles based upon our preferences and our wants. I like the guitar, I don’t like the guitar…I like the organ, I don’t like the organ…too fast…too slow…to loud…to quiet, etc. Here was a service that didn’t ask me what I wanted, it was simple and straightforward in its message – this is about God, not about you. You come here to worship God, not to focus on your wants.

I’ll probably talk about the conversation with Father Patrick next time, but I left that night now knowing anything it seemed. What I did know was that I would have to come back – there was something there, something that was real – and I wanted to see it again.

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Responses

  1. Hi Shawn. I’m an inquirer at Fr Patrick’s parish and found your blog through his. I’m an ex-professional pastor of 14 years and seem to share some parallels with what you’ve blogged about so far regarding your journey. I’m looking forward to reading your future posts and how God is leading you and your family.

  2. Pastor Shawn,
    Christ is risen!
    Very nice post–reminds me of some of the experiences I had when I first encountered Orthodoxy. I will never forget the awkwardness I experienced when I showed reverence publicly to the image of the Savior by kissing His pure Feet. I felt like the whole world was watching me!
    One correction: it was Basil the Great (4th century) who first gave clear expression to Orthodox piety in reverence to the ikon: “the veneration shown to the image passes to the prototype.” This was among the central assertions defending the veneration of ikons as decreed at the 7th oecumenical synod (Nicaea II), in the year A.D. 784.

  3. Hi Jason,

    It’s nice to hear from you…sounds like we have a priest in common 🙂

    If you have any questions, let me know…I look forward to visiting with you in the future.

    Shawn

  4. So let me get this straight you wanna stop thumping the bible in front of the Pews to go on a Lord of the Rings adventure? It seems like converts who become priests, catechumens or apologists seem to take their old Protestant baggage with them. Will you be apart of that ship wreckage of returning from a 5 year convert lifespan? Your journey is no different from the people who kept on searching long after being received in communion of the Church.


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