Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Los Angeles (My Greek Orthodox Experience)

Upon entering Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, my eyes were taken on a journey into the past. Absorbing the intricate symbolism and rich history hidden in these walls, I stood in admiration. Vaulted ceilings directed our gaze toward heaven, and chandeliers caught the light so effortlessly, splashing rainbows on the nearby walls. Gold embellishments, rustic scents, and the echoes of faint whispers all painted a memory; a memory that is not my own but of which I have come to know. This memory is deeply embedded into our every day, although often forgotten it is what connects us to this earth and one another. Although we were not present and our eyes have not witnessed, we have this recollection because we have faith. Our faith takes us back to that moment where everything ended and where everything began; the crucifixion.

A close friend of mine, Alexandra (Lexy) who is a member of the Greek Orthodox church allowed me to join her for a Sunday service at Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Los Angeles. To my favor, it was the first Sunday of the month, which meant that the service would be in English rather than its normal Greek. As we entered the foyer of the building, she ventured off to the side where she made a donation, lit a candle, and then approached a portrait that was located to the right of the main church entrance. Bowing her head she blessed herself with the sign of the cross three times and then kissed the portrait. As I stood by her side she noticed that I was watching intently and ventured to explain to me the significance of her actions. She described how the Greek Orthodox Church venerates icons, which serve as a symbolic remembrance of those who helped advance God’s Kingdom on earth. She also explained the signing of the cross, how Greek Orthodox Christians signs the cross differently than the Catholic tradition. Greek Orthodox signing is performed from the right to left shoulder (rather than left to right) using the thumb, index, and middle fingers to represent the Holy Trinity and the pinky and ring finger bent downward touching the palm to represent Christ’ dual nature, both human and divine. This rich symbolism of the Trinity continued throughout the service and increased tenfold around the time of communion. For most of the service we remained standing, an act of devotion that I found endearing. We listened to scripture readings as well as songs from the choir, which was interestingly situated behind us on the upper tier of the church. I asked Lexy why the choir was placed behind us rather than in front on the stage, as is usual in my own tradition (Churches of Christ). She detailed how the iconostasis (screen of icons) divides us from the altar where the communion is prepared, symbolizing the difference in sanctity. The choir does not stand in the front but sings from behind and above so that they may be heard throughout but not seen. She described how the Greek Orthodox church adamantly strives to create an experience that elicits harmony. The intentional positioning of the choir allows their voices to reverberate and cascade over the worshippers, providing a transcendental experience where we feel as if angels are calling out from above. The service increased in solemnity as time moved forward, leading up to the most vital moment, communion. Whereas Protestant church services tend to proceed in a manner that portrays the sermon as the apex, Greek Orthodox Christians revere communion as the most crucial facet of their church service. The service is designed in such a way that every decision, every action, every thought aggrandizes to this one moment, the receiving of communion. I unknowingly made the mistake of asking Lexy about whether or not I would be able to take communion (I was only able to receive a blessing because I am not Greek Orthodox) and she immediately corrected me and said that we don’t take communion, we receive communion. This slight modification in word choice resonated with me, prompting me to meditate on the way that I have understood the weight of communion. Admittedly, there have been times throughout my life where I have selfishly mistaken communion as a time of personal rejuvenation and have equated the Eucharist as a source of nourishment that I am able to take, rather than a humble affirmation of my commitment to Christ. I believe Protestant Christians like myself, come empty to the table each Sunday relying on communion as their own means for personal subsistence. We do not approach the table in a manner where we are reverently receiving God’s body and blood, but rather in a way where we take our fill halfheartedly. Somewhere along the line we have lost our understanding of the weight and depth behind the receiving of communion. As I came across this realization, my heart filled with contempt and remorse. As the priest prepared the Eucharist, he walked down the right aisle of the church cradling the chalice with both hands out in front of his body, close to his heart. He continued around the last pew toward the back of the church and proceeded to walk back up the center aisle. I asked Lexy what this procession signified and she explained how the priest was blessing the church. Every individual then stood facing the center aisle and as the priest walked by each pew, this was a cue that signaled the worshippers to sign the cross over their bodies. Each of his steps created a ripple effect, with all believers signing the cross in perfect unison until he had reached the last pew. In the midst of this dance between the priest and the worshippers, instead of fixing my eyes on the chalice, my eyes glanced across the adjacent section of pews toward the wall facing me. On this wall was an illustration of the crucifixion. It was in this one instance where I felt harmony, not only with this body of people but also with those of the past. A poignant fragrance of cedar drifted through the air around me. The candles lining the wall flickered dimly, casting shadows across the illustration. One deep breath filled my lungs with history and I was taken back in time. This wall was adorned with reminiscent affliction; an image of anguish that came alive. The suffering portrayed was palpable and I became overwhelmed with a sense of reverence. I found myself entranced at the scene lain before my eyes. The agony illustrated situated a knot in my throat that wouldn’t fade, but I could not turn away. It pained me to contemplate the image, but when I finally took the moment to really see, I was overcome with awe. I could sit and stare for hours, lost in this moment. I was able to relish all facets of time; past, present, and future. As my eyes glanced from detail to detail, I enjoyed a rich history where I became connected to this memory. Reminiscing on His death made time both obsolete and precious. It allowed an instance of reprieve where I could escape the world around me, but of which brought me nearer to it at the same time. Every aspect of this moment; its various sights, sounds, and smells intricately woven together brought me closer to reality but altogether pulled me away from it. From the moment my eyes saw the crucifixion painted across this wall I began to understand why the antiquated Greek Orthodox tradition has survived for so long. This moment when time stands still, where you can’t help but fall on your knees in reverence to a moment that connects you to an event from 2000 years in the past; that is what our relationship with God should look like. Although I am a contemplative individual with overwhelming amounts of sentiment and reflection; to consider the day where I will encounter God in person, is incomprehensible. The Greek Orthodox church seeks to create a transcendental experience where we can meet our Savior, and fortunately I was able to experience and know Him a little more, if only for a brief moment.

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