So, this morning John and I left my house a little after 8:15 to head to St. John's Orthodox Church in Memphis. After some good discussions of concerns about the 'emerging church' and the Orthodox Church and how each of these line up or don't line up with our notions of biblical Christianity, we arrived at St. John's. Now, St. John's is housed in a previously-owned church building (I'm told the previous owners were Presbyterians). From the outside it doesn't look particularly Orthodox or otherworldly. But the inside was another story.
We apparently walked in at the very beginning of the Divine Liturgy, because the entire congregation was standing up. While standing there conspicuously observing the church at worship, I got to witness something neat: a little girl came in accompanying her family. As each person came in they would cross themselves and kiss an icon of St. John the Evangelist which was at the entrance. This sweet little girl stood on her tippety-toes to kiss the icon, couldn't reach, so she kissed her hand and planted one on the icon's foot. My kids would love the Orthodox faith.
Lately, encouraged by explorations in the nature of first/second/third century Christian worship, I have allowed and even prompted my kids to kiss the icon of Christ I bought at Annunciation. They love it. When I saw this little girl's participation in the faith of the Fathers, I knew my kids would love it.
But I digress.. Heheheh.. Next, John and (John my friend not John the Evangelist or John Chrysostom, the writer of the liturgy.. there's a lot of John's to keep straight-) found some seats (not that they got used much). We ended up sitting next to the Khouria.
The liturgy wasn't too surprising, since I visited Annunciation in June and listen to the Greek liturgy a lot online. Having it in English was a blessing and of course made it easier to follow along.
When it came time for the homily the priest really preached. This felt very evangelical, although I'm told St. John Chrysostom was a great preacher.
Afterwards John and I met the priest's daughter, who it seems like was married to the son of another priest in an Orthodox Church. We met him too. So, the priest's daughter showed us around the church a bit, and eventually we made our way to the fellowship hall where I gravitated to the book and icon store. I managed to refrain from buying any icons, but I did buy three books:
The Orthodox Church by Bishop KALLISTOS Ware
The Orthodox Way by Bishop KALLISTOS Ware and
Pocket Prayers for Orthodox Christians, which is a daily prayer book and includes the Divine Liturgy. Apparently it's translated an published by the Antiochian Archdiocese.
Then we visited for a little while with the Khouria, followed by a Deacon, who introduced us to one of the priests, who took us to meet the other priest. Along the way we also met an Inquirer who is of a Church of Christ background, and had an interesting conversation about the postmodern epistemological dilemma and how the Orthodox faith remedies it by being what it has always been and doing what it has always done.
We had a great visit with both priests, and walked around the nave a bit to look at all the icons I couldn't see during worship. This church building was gorgeous inside. Flanking the platform/sanctuary were massive fresco icons of the Annunciation and Pentecost. All around the walls were icons depicting a chronological view of the life of Christ between the Annunciation and Pentecost. They were beautiful, otherworldly, all the things icons have been described as. Behind the Sanctuary was a fresco of an icon I've never seen, presumably of Christ enthroned with Patriarchs paying homage. Above Him was an icon of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos, bearing Christ.
Atop the very ceiling was the Christ Pantocrator icon. I'm familiar with that one, because I bought a miniature version of it. I'm telling you this place looked, sounded, felt and smelt like worship.
Did I mention that the choir stood in a loft above and behind the congregation? It was another aspect that made the worship seem otherworldly.
"Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us" is better sung by an angelic-sounding choir above our heads.
Another thing that struck me is the family/informality of it all. While the worship is decidedly formulated and prescribed (they trace it to the worship of Israel, which was an icon of the worship that takes place in Heaven), the people were relaxed. Some people crossed themselves at certain times. Other people crossed themselves at other times. There seemed to some prescribed rule, but it also seemed to be highly personal. Some people knelt. Everyone stood. Some kids ran down the aisles to sit with different relatives or perhaps God-parents. They were all very comfortable.
Well, John and I already decided that we would visit St. John's in another month and we're making plans to take friends, especially Amy and the kids.