I went to visit a Russian Orthodox church with a friend as part of my research into Eastern Orthodoxy. This reflection paper was written for my Theology class and I thought I’d just share it. The visit was very eye opening and interesting. I hope to continue researching more about Orthodoxy as it is an expression of Christianity which I am largely unfamiliar. However, it was quite a pleasant surprise to learn more about this! I hope you enjoy my brief thoughts on my visit. God bless!
My visit was to the Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral on 823 Manning Avenue, Toronto. I was taken there by a friend who grew up in the Russian Orthodox church. She very graciously volunteered to go with me to help translate and explain some of the history and what was going on. We attended both the English and Russian services.
Prior to Sunday services, they were expected to fast the day before in preparation for partaking in the Eucharist. The building was fairly new and its architecture not particularly Russian as it was previously an Anglican parish. The church is the oldest Russian Orthodox church in Toronto, and will be completing its 100th year anniversary next year. After World War II, many Russian immigrants came to the parish, of particular notoriety is the Great Duchess Olga Alexandrovna—the sister of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II. She and her family became members and purchased various icons—most famously the holy icon of the Mother of God of Pochaev, at which prayers for healing are offered.
When one enters the building, there is an immediate sense of respect and holy reverence. No one dresses casually, ladies cover their heads and all make the sign of the cross and bow as they cross the threshold into sacred ground. After a small foyer area where worshippers can purchase their candles, the area opens up into a grand sanctuary with high arched ceilings and paintings on every wall of various saints and biblical characters. The front is decorated with gold and there is an inner sanctum where the priests perform their duties behind golden doors adorned with beautiful paintings of the apostles, saints and Jesus. The whole feel is very regal and gives a feeling of the grandeur of an earthly temple attempting to imitate the heavenly one.
The church itself is small, which helps retain a homely feel. The people in the service are focused and do not converse much. They are there to meet with God primarily and not with others. There is a time after the service for fellowship and a meal together. Before taking their place, each parishioner walks solemnly up to the icon of Christ at the center of the church, bows, kisses it and prays to center themselves and prepare for worship.
The most notable thing about the service once it has started is that everything is sung. The liturgy, scripture and proceedings are all melodiously sung a cappella by the priest and then in awesome reply by the choir in the rear balcony and the congregation. The sound of the choir is incredible, the beautiful full harmony of powerful voices singing scripture and liturgical replies in Russian elicits nothing short of goose bumps for the first time visitor. The liturgy and procession of the service is followed closely according to a standardized book of Russian Orthodox services. The whole liturgy is very biblical, much of it as paraphrases of scripture. Also it retained some Greek words in their professions, and especially their reference to Mary as the Θεοτόκος or God bearer. Also it included appreciation for the saints before and their contributions to the faith.
The scripture reading was prescheduled, and this too was sung. The priest preached for about 15 minutes giving his exegesis of the passage and its application to the life of the parishioners which was delivered very passionately and with conviction. It was a call to invest in eternal things and renounce the pursuit of temporary earthly gain based on Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:13-21. Theologically, much of what was read, sung and expressed was very much in line with traditional Protestant Evangelical theology. There was a greater emphasis on God as the Trinity, as opposed to the primary Evangelical focus only on Jesus. They also sang the Nicene Creed and there was consistent encouragement to live a disciplined life. At the close of the service, the congregation formed an orderly line for confession and then the Eucharist. Several liturgical passages were sung expressing thanks for the sacrifice of Christ and contrition for sins, after which a line was formed again to receive the elements from the priest. The bread was soaked in the wine and fed to each person from a spoon. As this was being done, the priest warmly embraced and prayed over each parishioner briefly.
The overall impression of the service was one of quiet and solemn contemplation. There was a high regard for the respect of sacred space. The environment and decorations prompted feelings of awe and majesty. The dedication and focus of the parishioners was admirable, there were a few elder ladies who despite their advanced age would kneel and bow to the floor out of reverence for some parts of the service. At every mention of the Trinity, people would cross themselves with three fingers. Though the order of service was predetermined and regulated, it did feel as though it set up a rhythm of spiritual life. It managed to maintain a feel of authenticity as opposed to merely recited prayers. There was also a genuine warmth of affection between the priests and the congregation and to one another. They have managed to retain their cultural identity as immigrants in a foreign land and the church provided a shared common ground of community for them. There is definitely a lot of things which the Evangelical and Protestant church could learn from Orthodox churches, especially in the areas of spiritual disciplines, church history and holy reverence. I look forward to learning more about Orthodoxy myself.