My First Visit to an Orthodox Church
In 1987 the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to send missionaries to Korea. At first they were refused entry but three years later, after an improvement in Korean-Russian political relations, the missionaries were granted access to the country. On February 17th 1900, in a make shift chapel, the first Orthodox Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the Land of the Morning Calm. Three years later the first Orthodox church was built in Seoul and named in honor of St. Nicholas.
Over the next 50 years Korea experienced various wars and occupations and the Orthodox Church in Korea likewise experienced many hardships and suffered periods of intense persecution. During these many years of tribulation the church building in Seoul was damaged or destroyed and believers killed or scattered – the official ministry of the Russian Orthodox Church in Korea came to an end.
Between 1952 and 1954 believers from the Greek Orthodox Church reclaimed the property from the Korean government, sold it to purchase a new property and built an Orthodox Cathedral under the jurisdiction of Constantinople; retaining the name St. Nicholas. It was in this church, which has held services ever since it’s construction, that I experienced my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy.
While reading about the history of Orthodoxy in Korea I had excitedly discovered the existence of the Cathedral and immediately opened google maps to locate the building. Through an online listing of various religious services (Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc.) catering for English speakers I learned that the church held an English service on the 2nd Sunday of every month. Unfortunately the second Sunday had just passed and I waited eagerly over the next 3 weeks for the English service to come again. As it turned out 3 weekends later I was lying in bed with the flu and sadly had to wait another 4 weeks.
And so, at last, the day had finally arrived and at 7:15am on Sunday, March 9th, I jumped on the first of two buses that would carry me for a total of 40 minutes to the Dongducheon subway station. Once aboard a subway car headed for Seoul I settled into my small seat for the hour and 50 minute journey that would take me to within walking distance of the Cathedral.
As I travelled, listening to a couple of Orthodox podcasts broken by a chapter of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Surprised by Joy’, I couldn’t help but feel both excitement and apprehension. Over the past three months I’d listened to over 100 hours of Orthodox sermons & apologetics and read numerous church histories and doctrinal statements from Orthodox Theologians and had become more or less convinced of the truth of the Churches claims. But sitting in that seat, with the fields and villages, towns and cities rushing by, I had a sense that this service could make or break everything I’d encountered over the last 3 months.
At 9:45am I nervously climbed the steep hill that led up to the domed Cathedral. The small road, wide enough for a single car, ascended to the base of a fortified cliff-face. About 25 meters above me stood the Old Cathedral, like a watch tower standing guard over the neighborhood below. I started making my way around the back of the towering structure and it took me a few minutes of scouting before I finally found the path that led up to the main entrance.
Thankfully I had done enough listening and reading to be somewhat prepared for what I was about to encounter. I entered the church, which was much smaller than it appeared from the outside, and was immediately drawn to the painted icons that literally cover every conceivable surface of the nave and sanctuary. I also noticed a number of framed icons placed on wooden stands in various places around the building. The nave was separated from the sanctuary by a large wooden frame (called an iconostasis) which also held a number of painted icons – I really liked the effect it had on the building. You were clearly in a Christian place of worship and the Majesty of God in Salvation History was celebrated everywhere you looked.
I’ve often struggled with extravagant beauty in the church and have usually looked down on excessive spending on church buildings and décor. I never understood the need for fancy robes, crowns and scepters used in the Catholic Church – why all the luxurious gold, purple and red – wasn’t Jesus a homeless carpenter? It was one of my concerns when I started exploring Orthodoxy; the little I did know was that there were a number of similarities with Catholicism. But since then I’ve begun to understand the theology behind all the beauty and splendor.
In Orthodoxy the church building and liturgy is modeled on the Heavenly Worship of Revelation and the Beauty, while incapable of truly matching the Heavenly Glory, is an Image of the Majesty of God and His Kingdom. I’ve also realized that this is not simply a post-Constantine or medieval addition but has strong Jewish roots in the glory and majesty of the Temple. Solomon’s temple must have been one of the crowing glories of the ancient world, with its’ wall to wall cedar paneling, finely carved flowers, palm trees and cherubim, expertly crafted golden utensils and beautifully woven priestly garments.
The place where God’s people gather to worship has necessarily needed to be an image/icon of the Heavenly Kingdom. The Priests, as representatives of God, were to reflect their holy calling and spiritual ministry through internal piety and holiness but also through external dress and behavior. Jesus’ condemnation of Israel’s religious leaders was not that the outward manifestations of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Sanhedrin were evil in and of themselves, but rather that the outward acts had ceased to be icons of the inner realities and had therefore ceased to be embodiments of God’s Energies.
Also I’ve come to realize that God wants both…He is not simply a God of the inner realities but he is both the Creator of Spirit and of Matter and it is the joining of the two that best represents his intentions for His creation. (As far as I know) Orthodoxy alone teaches that Christ’s Incarnation was God’s plan for his creation irrespective of the fall. Adam and Eve and the entire cosmos were destined to be divinized through Christ’s incarnation. As such both Spirit and Matter must be celebrated in the Church. This reality was clearly expressed throughout the Orthodox Cathedral. People moved about the room lighting candles, kissing and bowing before icons and crossing themselves repeatedly.
When the service started there was chanting and incense, processions and bowing, communal creeds and prayers and the whole church was part of a Holy Ritual in which each member was an active participant. This ritual necessarily requires dedicated individuals to lead the activities and the priests, deacons and chanters fulfill these servant roles on behalf of the congregation. The priest is no authoritarian dictator, but rather a servant leading his flock in the worship of the Triune God.
The central focus of the morning was not a sermon – though there was a short teaching – but rather the entire order of events was like a symphony, or opera, in which the entire congregation participates in a slow build towards the climax of the Eucharist. Unless you eat My Body and drink My Blood you have no Life in you! The priest invoked the Holy Spirit, asking that He be sent down on the gifts. At this point it is believed that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and as the elements are brought out of the Sanctuary into the Nave the entire congregation fell on their knees.
After a time of prayer the people made their way to the front of the church where young (babies) and old alike were given communion by the priest using a golden spoon. I of course stayed in my seat – the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church is only given to those in full communion with the beliefs and teachings of the church and who have been accepted into membership through baptism and chrismation. With the climax of the service over everybody returned to their seats for a few final prayers and a final benediction. Before leaving the church the congregation again filled the aisle of the church to receive blessed bread, which may be consumed immediately or taken home to use during morning prayers – this bread is not the bread used for communion but rather it is the loaf out of which the communion bread is cut before the service. The loaf represents Mary, out of which the Body of Christ is taken.
I really enjoyed my first experience of Orthodox worship. I’m grateful for the 7 weeks of waiting since it prepared me for the striking differences between traditional Protestant worship and that of the Orthodox Church. I really feel that what I’d learned before the service helped me to appreciate was I was experiencing rather than judging or dismissing the theologically rich ritual and ceremony. I would definitely attend another service and I am sure that this journey is still far from over.
One thing I should add is that I had been misinformed about the English service and the majority of the service took place in Korean. I was a little disappointed by that as I feel I would have been able to participate more fully had I understood the words of the songs, prayers and creeds. But again, the preparation I made for the service allowed me to somewhat transcend the language barrier, but I’m looking forward to experiencing an English service in the future.