So this is going to be interesting to write. I want to walk the line of being respectful to the traditions of the Greek Church and actually going through how I felt during the service.
So I went to the church after work and I was one of the first people in the nave (chapel or sanctuary would be the relevant Low Church term). I got to watch as folks came in to sit down. Some of them went to the front of the nave and sort of bowed in front of each of six icons (pictures) on the front wall. I see after some research this wall is called an Iconostasis and separates the Nave from the Sanctuary (different from Low Church sanctuary). Some bowed, touched the floor, and crossed their chest three times at the middle four icons, then only once for the outer two. After the bowing and crossing, they kissed the icon. Some only bowed and crossed once prior to kissing the icon. This was very interesting to see.
So at exactly 7pm, the service starts. It starts without introductions of any kind. Two men just started with chanting and I am virtually certain they were chanting in Greek. I had no idea what they were doing. I wouldn’t find out for about an hour and a half, but there were books in the foyer (Narthex if we’re being technical) that lays out the service word for word. VERY High Church tradition. So they chant for a little while longer, read some Psalms which were numbered in the book, but they didn’t announce which Psalms they were reading. After a fair amount of singing/chanting in Greek and English, I start to hear bells.
Once again, I have no idea what is going on. After 30 seconds or so, the Priest (I think he was the Priest, certainly a clergyman) comes out from the Sanctuary carrying an incense burner. I don’t know what this was called. It was handheld and looked something like a small kettle. So he walks all around the nave with this and goes back into the Sanctuary. He then opens some doors in the center of the Iconostasis, called Beautiful Gates, and sets up a podium. He begins the first Gospel reading, I wish I had a copy of the book that we all used, there was something very specific that he said prior to every Gospel reading. I remember part of it was “let us be attentive.”
The first Gospel reading was quite long, being the better part of four chapters in the Gospel of John. He finishes this reading and the folks in the choirs, two men on one side of the Iconostasis and one on the other, start reading and chanting again, in Greek and English. After they have started the chants, one of the men who had been standing on either side of the podium lights one of twelve candles that are in front of the Iconostasis. There were twelve, seemingly for the twelve Gospel readings, but I am not sure of the significance. This procedure, minus the incense, went on for the next 4 readings. After the fifth reading, however, something different happened. The priest came out again with the incense and walked around the Nave. After going back into the Sanctuary, he and others begin a procession out. There were two of the candle bearers in front carrying fans, a man behind them walking in reverse carrying a thurible, a chained incense burner, behind him is the priest who had been doing the readings carrying a large cross (about 7-8 feet tall) with the image of Jesus Christ nailed on it, behind him was an older man in a different set of ecclesiastical vestments. They walk around the entire nave as we all kneel on kneelers behind the pews and then place the cross in the center of the church in front of the Iconostasis and Beautiful Gates.
After this, we started with more Gospel readings and each of these took place in the same manner as before. Priest would read, candle would be lit, choirs would begin chanting other parts of the service. It should be noted, I forgot to mention this earlier, that the priest chants/sings the entire Gospel reading each time. Very, very interesting. Eventually, the Twelve Gospels were read to the congregation and the service was concluded with a liturgically defined prayer.
So, what did I learn? Well, this service was three hours long, first. There was no preaching of any kind. It was simply High Church readings of the Gospels with various interludes. The Gospels told the story of the last day of Christ. From the Last Supper, to His trial, to the cross, and finally to being placed in the tomb. The manner of service was quite unnerving at first because I lacked a liturgical book to follow along with the service. While this was certainly different, it was indeed spiritual. I honestly don’t know the symbolism of everything that went on. Once I had a book to read from and follow along, it became easier to follow. I’d actually like to get a copy of one and read it over again. Being from a church that is effectively a Low Church tradition, this was a very unique service. One day I may go back and try to sit through a more routine service. But overall, I had an enjoyable, if quite befuddling, evening.