A pack of five mismatched stray dogs pranced by our sides all the way to Kato Gatezea, the next town over. The friendly dogs had attached themselves to us after we gave them a pat in our town of Kala Nera. They were strangely thrilled to have someone to follow, so we all made the trek together. We were headed for a quaint church on the very last road in that next town. The church had a humble beauty with a nondescript outside, save the rainbow stained-glass windows. It was Sunday and service would be starting soon.
Another church sat conveniently around the corner from where we live in Kala Nera, but its creepy exterior warned us off. Besides the unhappy lady holding a baby (a baby throwing up weird hand signs no less) on the murals, my mom noticed the repeated use of an ancient, demonic symbol on the doors: a double-headed bird. That was obviously not a church built on the foundations of the Bible, or at least had deviated from it completely. So we happily took a longer walk to the plain church further away.
The kind lady who ran the campground we stayed at when we first arrived to this area had told us what time church started. “The Greeks arrive early to church,” she had said, “They stand around and talk. But you should arrive at 9am, when the service starts, as you don’t speak Greek.” The grocery store clerk (who had become a friend of ours, though he spoke but a little English) told us to show at 9am as well.
We knew beforehand that there wouldn’t be any English, but hearing a sermon wasn’t our aim. Culture is the most interesting aspect of travel to us, and since the Greek Orthodox church is a mainstay of Greek life, we wanted to see that side for ourselves. My mom had heard that Greek Orthodoxy was godly, so most of all, we were hoping to find Christian fellowship.
We arrived fashionably late at 9:20am, though, to our credit, we weren’t the last to arrive, as many popped in after us. We walked through a smokey foyer, past two young girls respectfully waiting for their grandfather. He was lighting candles before a large alter of another unhappy Mary and the ever-present babe she held. The service had already started. As we filed in, the congregants chanted away in a manner eerily similar to the Muslim call to prayer.
It was a reasonably small church, a good size for the tiny village of only a couple hundred residents or so. The ceilings and walls were colorfully tattooed all over with Greek-styled pictures of Mary and others. One large, aureate chandelier provided a soft yellow glow over the congregants. The brightest light streamed in organically from high windows that caught the sun perfectly as it rose throughout the morning. A few white fans, surely very necessary in the hot summers, were the only practical items I could find in the otherwise ornately bedecked building. All the seats were wooden and straight, perfect for practicing posture.
Even without my contacts or glasses on, I thankfully noticed the divided nave before choosing a seat. All the women sat to the left, and all the men to the right, just as the Jews do at a Shabbat dinner.
Since the service was preformed in Greek, we had about an hour and a half to people watch and pray.
After the chanting, we all did some standing up, sitting down, then standing up again. People crossed themselves vigorously at set times throughout the service. There seemed to be a very short, earnest sermon, some more singing, then an elderly man went around with holy water to drop on each person’s hands while the tithe offerings were collected. The man seemed a bit confused when I declined his offer to wet my hands with the holy water, but still smiled and moved on.
I was amazed at how well the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding depicted some Greek elements so perfectly, the hair and clothes specifically. Almost all the women in church were middle aged or elderly, with a few young moms and two young adults present. And as in the movie, almost every woman had short hair in one of two styles: either a curly bob or a boy cut. Black was the most popular color of dress and everyone’s shoulders and knees were covered.
About half way through the service, my posture getting quite good, my mom leaned over and pointed out the double-headed bird symbol proudly displayed in front of us. It seemed this church was the same as the one around the corner from us in Kala Nera, only its decorations and telling artwork had been kept solely for interior display. I learned later that the nefarious double-headed bird was the official symbol for the Greek Orthodox church.
We concluded from our visit that the Greek Orthodox church was simply religion, without the power or message of God. Everything was ritualized and ornate. Although religious, the feeling was not stoic. The women around us seemed heartfeltly pious, but their expression of reverence pained me. It was all done in the flesh, as if they could make themselves righteous with their own actions.
Didn’t they know that salvation came from Jesus, not from following man-made rules? Didn’t they have Bibles? Why did they not read them? I wondered.
I wanted to stand on the pulpit, miraculously speak out in Greek, and tell everyone about Jesus’ incredible mercy and grace. 🙂
Walking into a building, crossing yourself, lighting candles, standing at set times, none of these things have the power to save and none of these were we instructed to do in the Bible.
Jesus Christ took the wrath of God for our sins on Himself and paid our punishment on the cross. That salvation He gives to us freely is not something we can attain by ourselves, neither by ritual, the law, or good works.
No need to follow man-made rules, such as crossing yourself, when Jesus told us what to do. In fact His entire life on earth was an example for us to follow. Christians were originally just called “followers of Christ.” Everything He did, we can and should do. A Psalmist wrote: “More than sacrifice, I require acts of loving kindness.” Churches began as simple gatherings of believers to worship and pray together.
What good is holy water if Jesus already shed His blood?
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain. -Galatians 2:21
((How’s that for a sermon? 😉 Hope I’m not too preachy!))
Northeast of us here in Greece is the city of Philippi, the first European city to ever hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. I was reminded of Paul’s frustrations with the early churches while watching the ceremonies of the Greek Orthodox congregants.
Paul was the first to teach his new coverts the gospel, but he traveled extensively, so he often kept in touch with the these new Christians through letters. Largely for the same reason that we listen to sermons today, if left to themselves too long, the tendency of the converts was to return to their previous lifestyles in various ways. Here are a couple examples of Paul’s correction to the churches in Galatia and Colossae:
But then indeed, when you did not know God, you served those that were not gods by nature, but since you now know God, or rather are known by God, how do you return again to be subjected to the weak and impoverished principles, or heavenly bodies which you want to serve over again? You scrupulously observe days and months and seasons and years. (References to astrology.) I fear for you least I was toiling among you in vain. -Galatians 4:8-11
If you died with Messiah away from the elemental spirits of this world, why are you submitting to rules and regulations as if you were living in the world? […] [Worldly] rules and regulations are things which have a reputation of wisdom in self-made religion and in having an affected and ostentatious and humble opinion of one’s self and unsparing severity of the body, not in any honor to God, but for the indulgence of the flesh. -Colossians 2:20&23
The Colossians verses make a perfect description of modern Greek Orthodoxy, in my opinion. We need more Pauls today to bring the church out of man-made religion and back to serving Jesus in freedom.
I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I’m glad we went. It certainly gave us some insight into Greek life and an idea of how to pray while we’re here.
On the way out, two of our stray dog friends ran to greet us. Those faithful fidos had stuck around for almost two hours! The rest of the pack rejoined us one by one as we began the journey home. As we walked along the stunning coast and pebbled beach, through an olive grove, and amidst trees changing colors, the nature struck me as a profound display of God’s glory and goodness. I found myself agreeing with Emily Dickinson when she wrote, through poetry, that nature can be a more conducive sanctuary for worship than any bedazzled building. Here’s her insightful poem:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Thanks for reading! Especially since this was a long one. Let me know your thoughts! 🙂