Saturday evening I went with friends to an Orthodox Christian Easter service. It started at 11 p.m., which suited the strangeness of things. I had never been inside their cathedral before, nor any like it, with its domed roof, iconography covering the walls and ceilings, the carved wood screen in front, the bishop's throne to the right. My friend explained the meaning of all these things, the deliberateness of them. For the first time since childhood, I experienced a Christian service as an almost complete outsider.
I often make the things of God comfortable. I skim my Bible, having heard this story before, or not wanting to dwell on exactly how the calf gets carved up to suit God's strictures. Like most Protestant churches, mine doesn't place many demands on worshippers; we sing a bit, and sometimes there is a responsive reading, but mostly we sit and listen. Occasionally there is toddler duty, which I've found gets inflicted less when one asks if one is allowed to spank them. It's easy to get comfortable. I suspect comfort may be the greatest danger to active faith.
So it was enlightening to view an entirely different kind of worship. The unfamiliarity of their worship made me consider how we Protestants have our own rituals, though in radically truncated form, and how maybe ritual can be a good thing. The Orthodox use, for example, voices in their service -- the choir singing or chanting, actual chanters, the priests themselves, all of them blending tones to outdo even the most elaborate multi-piped organs. Hearing the bishop chant John Chrysostom seemed somehow more right than an entire congregation warbling the latest Chris Tomlin song.
There were other things, like the way they all crossed themselves at the drop of a hat. And the way they knew when to respond with a phrase like "Lord have mercy," or even exclamations in other languages. The fact that they stood for almost the entire service. How they kept their arms crossed as they went up for communion, and almost knelt for the bishop to drop it into their mouths, many of them carrying sleepy children who also received communion. All of it -- even the rituals I didn't understand or care for -- felt holy, if one is allowed to feel one's way to holiness.
There were a thousand things for a dutiful Calvinist to get irate about, I suppose, but what struck me was the earnestness of this gathering, all shouting "Indeed He is risen!" at the top of their voices at 2 a.m., when the service ended. Afterwards, almost nobody went home, because there was a feast in their fellowship hall. People brought baskets of the things they'd forsaken for Lent, and the party began.
I ate too, because the bishop made clear that all faithful are welcome at Christ's banquet table. And even though I had already celebrated Easter, I left feeling full, not just with food, but with the sense that, though their rituals are not mine, I have 300 million brothers and sisters (the estimated size of the worldwide Orthodox Christian congregation) stumbling and grasping their way to God as I do, as I suspect many of you do.
He is risen.