Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Do You Do With Your Holy Book, and Where Are You Going To Put All Those Icons?: The St. George Greek Orthodox Church on 54th Street

When nobody’s speaking English, how do you make sense of what’s going on in a worship service?

I decided to visit the Greek Orthodox church on 54th Street partly because it was very close to my apartment, and Fear Not The Gods does not love to travel long distances on Sunday mornings to pay tribute to foreign gods. But I also chose to visit the church because it advertised “Worship Service in Greek AND English.” That sounded just about right, I reasoned. Enough Greek to get the flavor of the time-honored tradition, but mostly it would be an English service with the familiar elements I would recognize from the Protestant services I have attended.

Not so. Fear Not The Gods, the Companionable Atheist, and the Grandmother of Fear Not The Gods took ourselves to St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s last Sunday for the morning worship service, which we managed to sit quietly and observe for approximately 70 minutes. Approximately three of these minutes were devoted to prayers or readings in English. The rest of the time, obviously, they spoke Greek.

Why This Church Is Kind Of Jewish

If you could ignore the architecture, you might be able to say that the Greek Orthodox Church is the most, um, Jewish of all the churches out there these days. They spend the first hour or so of the worship service singing a couple songs, listening to the Chanter(aka the chazzan). The “eastern” key and the ornamented single-voice melodies of these songs are very familiar to me. Then there’s some prayer, then somebody walks around and holds up a copy of a silver-covered book, which is second in importance only to the part where you eat Jesus's body and drink his blood (okay, that part is not very Jewish). They read a short excerpt from the book. Then comes the communion, and then it’s over and you can go have lunch.

Why it isn't
However, one cannot ignore the architecture, even in a church like 54th Street, which is in the grand scheme of Orthodox Churches, a very minor and modest single-room establishment. Truth be told, it had a sort of a King Tut’s tomb look about it – a lot of gorgeous, gilded, decorated things all jumbled together. The walls were covered with mural paintings of the Stations of the Cross, and Mary and Jesus and whatnot, and liberally ornamented in gold. The paintings were in that austere Eastern style, with Jesus and Mary very pale and thin and staring at you with wide serious eyes. Orthodox Jesuses and Maries also have very good posture, unlike those Roman Catholic Jesuses and Marys, who collapse against each other and against the crosses, in the dramatic fashion that was clearly very exciting to Italian painters.

This church had layers on top of layers of decoration. Icons and paintings of Jesus and Mary and the saints were propped against the painted walls. We guessed that maybe these were donations from the various parishioners’ families, and how could the church establishment refuse to take them, even if they were cluttering up the place?

The front of the room was just as elaborately decorated as the front of the Hare Krishnas’ sanctuary, and even more cluttered (though no life-sized wax statues). There was a screened off portion in the very back, covered in latticework, where we found out later in the service that some priests had been lurking, and in front of the screened off places were wooden and golden crucifixes of various sizes, wreaths of real flowers and fake flowers, a big Greek flag, a big American flag, something made out of evergreen branches, more paintings, more icons, several carved wooden podiums, a table with chalices and brightly covered cloths and other holy paraphernalia on it, several lecterns, and one incongruous microphone that one of the priests kept having to noisily move as he shifted his position. Other priests kept coming out and doing things on the altar table that we couldn’t quite see because they were facing away from us. We thought this was somewhat inconsiderate.

We Take Our Places
There were only about 20 people there when the service started, mostly older, and mostly women, and we were clearly the only first timers, because we were the only ones looking at the books and the only ones who weren’t crossing ourselves at appropriate moments in the liturgy.

When you can’t figure out what’s going on, first you try looking in the prayer book. The prayer book, in this case, was a three-ring binder with about twenty pages of prayers in it. The entire service in Greek was written on the left hand side of the page, and the entire service in English was written on the right hand page. As I mentioned, 95% of the time, the prayer leader was using the Greek, and when he used the English, he seemed to be using a different translation from the one printed in the book. We tried to keep up.

I know that sounds easy, but this worship service was complicated. The text itself was mostly your standard things about praising God (very little petitioning God, very little talk about peace for all humanity – the Greek Orthodox seem to stay very focused). We kept hitting new sections and losing our places when they started again in Greek. There was some call and response, where it was written in the text that the priest should say one thing and the worshippers should say something in response. In the religious services I’m used to, this is very simple, because the rabbi slows down and makes sure everyone’s on the same page. In this service, the guy who was singing most of the songs took the place of the congregation in reading the response. I mean, there was one old lady I saw who was doing the responses, but mostly everyone was just standing there.

Occasionally they’d stop and one of the priests would swing some bells and incense around (like the altar, the strings of bells were cluttered - there were about 20 bells on his string, of all different shapes and sizes).

The Father Is Going To Walk Through There
We had been sitting quietly for about fifteen minutes, minding our own business, when one of the old ladies got up and came back to our row and shooed us out of it, admonishing us in Greek as she did so. "English?" I asked meekly, and she said "The Father, he is going to walk through there." And soon enough, he did, processing to the back of the room and back.

There was a lot of choreography in the service. There was the chanter in black robes, who stood in one place for basically the whole service, sang all the songs, and read the parts marked "congregation" in the reader. There was the priest with a wrap around his shoulders, who made only guest appearances from his back room to read important prayers from the Greek. Sometimes he prayed out loud in a low voice while the chanter sang loudly over him. This was a very cool effect. There was a third priest in dark brown robes, who seemed to be doing most of the gofer work, and there was a fourth priest who only came out when things were getting very important with the communion.

There was only one guest star – a woman who got up and chanted – in English, but to a Greek melody – an excerpt from the Gospels, about how the Hellenes chastised the Hebrews for spending too much time in the study house and not enough taking care of the women and the poor, and some of the head honcho Hebrews said, you know the Hellenes have a point, and seven of them volunteered to go help out the poor and the women so that the ones in the study house wouldn’t get harassed about this kind of thing anymore and could go back to their studies.

Then the priest carried a big rectangular book around. It was covered with silver decorations. He read another excerpt from the text. Ah, the holy book, the CA and I said to each other wisely. We get this.

We left when it seemed that everyone was gearing up to take communion. We were just too dazed by the language barrier to keep going, plus we would be the only ones sitting in our row and refusing to take it...

As I mentioned, in some ways, I found this service to be the most familiar of any non-Jewish service that I have attended. The structure of the service was incredibly complicated, but it was stabilizing. There were candles and there was a holy book. There was Eastern music. The iconography and the communion, of course, were totally alien to my tradition. Plus, this was the least outwardly friendly service I attended. It was totally frontal, and almost no congregational members participated. The priests were busy! This wasn't about personal testimonial - there just wasn't time. There was stuff to get done. THe service was distinctly of and for people of Greek ethnicity, but not in the generic, schmaltzy way that Americans (as Matthew Jacobson explains in his brilliant book Roots Too) are used to expecting ethnicity to be presented to them. This wasn't about bringing new people in. This was about - they had 2000 years of approved traditional things to do, and they had to get through them. If you wanted to be there, that was great, but it wasn't necessary.

The church did seem to be conscious of how it would come across to outsiders. My three-ring binder contained an entire page of explanation of why non-Orthodox Christians, even those baptized in other churches in good standing, would not be able to take communion at the Greek Orthodox worship service. Basically, it said "our tradition is very old, we've been doing it this way forever, this is the right way to do it, and while we respect you and we're glad you're here, if you're not part of it we're not going to try to act like you're part of it." In a way, I found this extremely comforting. When people greet you at a worship service, whether you accept it or not, they're making you part of their religious experience. These ones said, we're not going to try to bring you in, so let's not pretend we are. Come, and witness, and leave. We'll keep doing our thing.


Fr. Andrew said...

As an Orthodox Christian priest myself, it's very interesting to read about our services as seen by Jewish eyes! You're right to spot our "Jewishness." Historically, our services do reflect Christianity's ancient roots in Judaism.

If you're at all interested in learning more about Orthodox Christianity (in English!), check out OrthodoxWiki.

There are, by the way, Orthodox churches in NYC who use mostly (if not all) English.

May the Lord bless you and keep you, may He cause His face to shine upon you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Mark said...

My three-ring binder contained an entire page of explanation of why non-Orthodox Christians, even those baptized in other churches in good standing, would not be able to take communion at the Greek Orthodox worship service.

I may be mistaken, but I think Catholics and other Roman and Eastern Rite denominations that practice "Old School Communion" are allowed to receive communion at an Orthodox Church. Or it could be the other way around. Can anyone back me up? Too lazy to research it myself right now...

Fr. Andrew said...


The Orthodox Church does not practice intercommunion with any other religious groups. Only members of the Orthodox Church in good standing who have properly prepared themselves through prayer, fasting and a recent confession may receive the Holy Mysteries at Orthodox churches.