I grew up attending a traditional black Baptist church so Sunday school, tambourines and good ol' hymns were a norm for me. I also grew up surrounded by my friends' bar and bat mitzvahs. I went to a Catholic high school, and college landed me in a more charismatic self-proclaimed "Jesus Freak" church. (No, really–they sold bumper stickers that said that :-). When it came time to answer the call to the ministry God led me to a more conservative Evangelical home here in Dallas.
All of this to say, I've had a mixed bag of ministry experiences which have helped me learn to look for beauty among denominations no matter our differences, however deeply entrenched they may be. It is with this perspective the that I entered my mother-in-law's orthodox church last Christmas morning.
We slid through the snow and ice near her Pennsylvania home to arrive at the doorstep of a beautiful stone church whose grand doors opened directly into the main sanctuary. I couldn't decide what I wanted to take in first as I was met with an abundance of beauty. The altar was wood and ornately carved, the light of the Christmas tree mingled with the natural light peeping in from the stain glass windows–the stations of the cross, I think. The walls and ceiling were lined with icons–pictures of Orthodox saints. I walked in a little nervous, mostly because I had somehow managed to get my three small children into their Sunday best on Christmas morning and promptly bribed them to stay seated and quiet. But I was also nervous because I wasn't quite sure I'd know what to do. In the Catholic church, there's a lot of sitting and standing and standing and sitting and sometimes kneeling. I tried to distract my two-year-old with the curiosity of the kneelers that fold out from the pew in front of us, to no avail.
We nestled in next to our family as they began to sing and share readings from the Old and New Testament. There was a visiting bishop there that day and the whole place was buzzing with the special spark that Christmas provides. The priest offered prayers for the sick and gave a lecture. Then came the call and response period where I had absolutely no clue what to say. However, I was glad the church now experienced the liturgy in English. This was not the case when my husband, who speaks zero Romanian, was a child.
The whole experience was delightful but what impressed me most wasn't the singing, the fellowship or gold leaf icons; rather, it was what I observed as parishioners flooded out of the main sanctuary to enjoy the coffee hour. I didn't quite understand all of the movements and exchanges that the priest undertook during the service. Yet it was clear that each part of the service was like a well-worn path that had been walked many times. One could only imagine that the consistency and repetition of how one worships would lead to apathy; however, it was the opposite that I observed that day. With every deliberate move, the priest seemed to exude worship as if to say that each ritual or each tradition, no matter how many times he had done it, was forever sacred because he knew for Whom he did it.
As I hung back in the sanctuary to take pictures in front of the big tree, I noticed that even though everyone else was done worshiping, the priest was not. I didn't know if this was commonplace or if he had a special burden on his heart but when he walked past the altar into another little special place, he paused and labored over prayer. He prayed evermore as he folded up his vestments and the cloth that lined the communion table. It seemed to me that his laboring was one of thankfulness. I imagined he was thanking God for allowing him to lead his people that Christmas morning. It was then that I asked myself if I often remember to approach God with such deliberate thankfulness. As I go about the rote memory of ministering to people, am I as present in the moment as he seemed to be? In my own Church, Christmas is usually a time of pageantry, singing, and dancing. These are not bad things–in fact, I look forward to them every year.
But my first Orthodox Christmas left me with some valuable reminders that I hope you will grasp today as we celebrate Advent. Never take routine for granted, always remember the joy of serving the Lord even in the smallest of tasks. Simplicity can be as meaningful and as worshipful as any solo on Sunday morning. Thankfulness is one of the most beautiful forms of worship, and enjoying the gift of God is often best experienced by deliberately slowing down.
So as we ready ourselves for dinners and gifts and celebrations, remember to slow down, be worshipful in every moment, and take time to enjoy the season or as the Romanians say, "Hristos se Naste…Mariti-L" Christ is Born… Glorify Him.