I kept Holy Week and Pascha with Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox church this year. The Orthodox Christian Church celebrated Pascha (Easter) on May 5. I did not make it to all of the holy week services. There were seventeen, beginning with the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the Saturday of St. Lazarus, the Righteous. The people and their priest, Father Joseph Longofono, offer their gifts and talents with generosity and devotion. They are warm and welcoming to this awkward Presbyterian who comes among them to pray and learn more about a faith tradition she has long admired from afar.
On Palm Sunday, (April 28 this year) at the end of the service we processed outside with our palms, songs, incense, and other regalia and holy items for which I do not know the words. I can tell by The Services of the Great and Holy Week and Pascha, the book of Holy Week liturgies I purchased, that most of these words are Greek. I learned enough Greek in seminary to pass the class and my ordination exams. Since then translation is an afternoon’s ordeal involving a concordance, Greek grammar book, Kittle’s ponderous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and trying to remember the Greek alphabet.
A few startled sparrows rose out of the shrubbery as we poured out onto the lawn. Cars buzzed by heading East on one-way Huntoon Street. Along our path I smiled to see at my feet a little shrine of twigs overlaid with narrow strips of green moss. Easy to miss, barely a foot or two in height, the shrine was a small construction of sticks stuck at various angles in a patch of moist bare ground. Tucked in the crotch of a branch was a white spirea blossom.
The happy procession wound back inside the small sanctuary, its walls alive with glowing icons of the saints. You can feel them all looking tenderly on from heaven, adding their voices to our prayers and songs and benediction. I read that Orthodox draw no distinction between the Body of Christ in heaven and those on earth. They view both parts of the Church as inseparable and in continuous worship together of God. Orthodox worship therefore expresses this unity of earth and heaven in every possible way so that the earthly worshippers are continually reminded through all their senses of the heavenly state of the Church. Wikipedia
It is as though for the Orthodox, worship is a continuous act since the beginning of the church. Everyone in heaven is there and we show up to join in the perpetual praise and leave and return as our lives allow. When we return we merely pick up where we last left off. And unlike many churches I am familiar with, nobody here is in any hurry. After all we have eternity.
The church was packed with more children than adults this day. Older children stood quietly with their parents, toddlers sat on the floor, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and aunts held babies crooked in their arms and nestling against their shoulders. Some kids sat on the few pews. (Orthodox Christians stand for worship. The pews are reserved for the elderly, children, and fainthearted visitors.) Toddlers wandered about. There was an ease about their presence, parents taking them in and out of the service as needed. The occasional cries, thumps, or exclamations formed a descant of baby babble to the chants and songs sung in four part harmony throughout the service.
After church I chatted with a little girl, admiring her cute flip-flops, and on the way to my car came upon the twig shrine with a red haired boy kneeling before it. The twigs and blossom had been kicked over.
I said to the boy,” Oh did you make this? It is very beautiful.” Nodding yes, he told me that his sister knocked it down.
“I am sorry. It is a holy thing,” I said.
His sister joined us and said, “Luke doesn’t like to sing the holy songs.”
“Hmm,” l said, as Luke worked on rebuilding his shrine, “sometimes people prefer to make holy things than to sing holy songs.”
“He doesn’t like to come to church,” she said in the irksome manner of sisters who broadcast a brother’s private life to strangers.
“Yes, there are people who feel that way,” I said to the little girl as her brother struggled to get the blossom to stay in the crook of the twig. I thanked Luke for making a holy thing and repairing it, and walked to my car.
His sister, shouted after me, “He is hypert,” as she, appearing a little hypert herself ran racing around the church yard in a holy dance of her own.
Luke, kneeling in the dirt with his offering, as brothers everywhere have learned to do, ignored her.
Hundreds of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground
The impulse to worship and to express the beauty and awe of our souls to the author of our being seems nearly universal in human experience. I believe this desire is placed in us by God in the core of our being, like a magnet, which draws us through our life experience to reach out and connect with the one who put it there. We may spend a lot of our lives seeking ways to express this sublime impulse. Yet if we trust our hearts, we will be led to places and forms of worship, as though guided by a God-given implanted GPS device.
There are many ways to worship God. Sufi poet, Rumi tells us, Let the beauty we love, be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I believe that our efforts at praise and worship are like building little shrines in the mud, each dear to God, each delighting the heavens, each precious.
When the beauty we love, becomes what we do, even the mundane may hold the potential of sublime worship: Lucille’s macaroni hot dish; the green and pink chintz curtains Elsie made for the ladies room; the deacon holding the door for you; your desperate prayer; a pile of rocks in the desert; your garden. In all kinds of ways we gather sticks, find a blossom, and put it out where someone will see it. Praise will be offered.
To be human, made in the image of the Creator, is to pour out our hearts on something we love which is greater and beyond ourselves. Our responsibility is to discover ways to kneel in reverence, which will express our deep yearning and connect us to what is good, true, beautiful, and free. For me that is worship of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ.
Luke’s Palm Sunday act of worship reminded me of another child’s offering. When she was around six or seven, my daughter, Diana, brought me a stick with dandelions, grass, and pink phlox wound around it. I wrote about it in my book Letters from the Holy Ground,
“This is a prayer stick, mom. I made it for you.” It was a large stick with flowers woven round the top. Could I let the stick pray for me? For I do not know how to pray aright. I lean the stick against my altar. “Pray stick,” I say. “Pray now.” I go off to other things, while the stick holds the offering pointing toward heaven. Dare I trust creation to pray for me, to bear my prayer? Here stone, pray. Here river, pray. Here moon, pray. Just by being what you are, a maple branch salvaged from last fall’s ice storm, wrapped round with pink petals, transformed by the touch of a child’s hand into something sacred.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? That is the question. For our hearts are heavy, and we, captive by this mortal flesh sit down and weep.
Loretta Ross (-Gotta), Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed & Ward, 2000, p 67
How shall you sing the Lord’s song? Find that gps device in your heart and let it point you in the direction of the worship of your soul. I would love to hear about the things which lift your heart to God in the comment section below.
I have experienced some times playing my violin when it is no longer about trying to make fewer mistakes, when it is no longer about the notes on the page, when it is no longer about how it may be received. It becomes the voice of my heart singing.
I know what you mean, Ken. 🙂