One deep breath, then pull open the wooden door. That’s all it takes to slip into another world.
The wooden door swings shut behind me and my senses are flooded: sunlight, incense, curved arches, candles, pastel icons, voices chanting in harmony, embroidered robes rustling. I forget to breathe in the thickness of the air. It is my first time in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.
I am overwhelmed. I am amazed. I am uncomfortable.
Later, a deacon describes the Orthodox church to me as a sensory feast: “As soon as you walk in the doors it hits you. You leave with bread crumbs on you and oil on your forehead.”
Then I notice the people, and not only those standing next to me; icons of biblical scenes and saints fill the ceiling, walls and pillars. The church feels full. Later I will be told that in worship we participate in the reality of heaven. Part of this reality is that the Christians who died and are now before the throne of God worship and pray with us.
I am confused. I am fascinated. I am wary.
The Annunciation icon is to the right of the altar. Mary is seated. The angel is to her right, an arm outstretched towards her (see page 2). Mary’s arms move away from the angel in fright, but her face looks towards him. Something looking like an arrow comes at a diagonal from heaven straight towards her.
The Annunciation icon shows both Mary’s fear and her courage.
In a homily, I hear that this is a participatory church: “We’re there to participate through seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and feeling. That’s how the mysteries of God come to us.”
What does participation look like when no one carries a Bible, there is no bulletin, no screen to sing from, no times to stand and sit? The whole service seems to be a prayer but we never close our eyes. I watch the other worshippers standing or walking to kiss the icons and light candles.
I am here not to draw conclusions but to keep my eyes and ears and mind open. When everything is equally unfamiliar, it is also equally significant. The curious fact that the arches, the doors, the icons, the candles seem to come in triples. The elaborate metal wands carried by clergy. Dried roses next to the door.
I am here for a Cultural Anthropology class. My assignment: four visits to the same event in another culture, and one formal interview. No outside research is allowed, only observation and conversations. Above all: try not to jump to conclusions.
Stepping into another culture with openness can change your preconceptions, as well as your perspective on your own culture. I wasn’t expecting how much change would come my way when I begin asking questions about Mary, and why she is so important in the celebration of Communion.
I learn that, in a sense, each time Communion is served the Annunciation is re-lived. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary; the same Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The material world is indwelt by the divine.
God among and within us is the story of the temple and tabernacle. Going further back, it is the burning bush. That icon is at the back of the cathedral. A youthful Moses removes his sandals before the burning bush – a rim of green leaves undergirding red flames. In the flames is Mary, holding Jesus in a circle in her two hands. There are white flowers in the grass.
Just as the bush burned without being consumed, Mary contained God for nine months without being consumed. Communion bread is broken under a Nativity icon called Theotokos Platytera, “the womb is more spacious than the heavens.” When God entered the womb of a virgin girl, the holy presence of God was among us.
This is what the men, women and children expect as they form a line to receive Communion, chanting Psalm 23: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Today, again, the uncontainable God chooses to dwell in humans and the worshipers remember that they are, in a very real sense, “Mary” and they are “the burning bush.” It is a presence that sanctifies: the temple, Mary, us. It is a grace of frightening power.
It is a mystery. We ask how bread and wine can be divine; Mary queried how a virgin could birth a son. The Orthodox pray for the faith of Mary as they come to the bread and wine.
What was it like, for Mary? One deep breath, then say yes and the world trembles because God is stepping from heaven into the womb of a virgin girl.
Or for Jesus, to step from heaven into earth, accepting the confines of a human body?
What is it like for us to worship with those who see Mary herself as an icon of their lived experience?
Icons of biblical scenes and saints fill the church Maaike visited.
Openness leads to change
In his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer writes something we all know: as followers of Christ, we are called to serve others – and serving starts with openness.
“Openness is the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe,” says Elmer. He adds, “Practicing openness will require that we change.”
That is what stops us from pushing open those wooden doors and entering someone else’s world. Intentionally placing yourself in a situation where your ideas may change without the control of knowing how they will change is terrifying.
Yet there is no other way to be a child of God. The good news is that God’s love takes away fear, and love unifies the Body of Christ across differences. Openness is an ability we learn and grow in.
Why do we send our young people on mission trips, encouraging them to seek understanding in diversity, yet do not encourage them to learn in equal humility from the rest of the Body of Christ in churches nearby?
We can all pray for the courage and the faith of Mary.
Seeking understanding in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral changed me. A deeper belief in the power and reality of grace was kindled in my life. To understand that the uncontainable God has entered my life, breaking the hold of sin, transforming death and making me holy by the indwelling holiness of his presence, was incredible.
While Mary does not hold the same place in my theology as for our Orthodox brothers and sisters, and while there are still questions and disagreements I have with the Orthodox church, understanding more lets me worship alongside Orthodox believers with genuine respect. Whatever happens, I will forever be grateful for the powerful reminder of the reality of grace.
It would never have happened if I had not pushed open those wooden doors.