Christ is risen!
A new church opening is a major event in the life of a parish that gathers together the entire body of its members in the extraordinary joy of a mission well accomplished. The reason why parishes build such new traditional Church buildings, beside the obvious capacity requirements, is to bring the community closer to the ideal Orthodox way of worshiping, through spaces, shapes and finishes that are appropriate for its intended liturgical purpose. This means that a new church will not only host more people but will also allow them to worship in a more meaningful manner.
As a community gets closer to enter a new temple, it should also take into consideration if the things that will be brought in it are fit for the heightened sense of beauty that one expects from this undertaking. Some things may not be a good fit for the new space: furniture may be of inappropriate size or may be deteriorated, decorations may be of a different style, ecclesiastical items may be worn out etc. They will have to either be renewed or replaced altogether in order to preserve the spirit of improvement that this effort brings.
From a spiritual perspective the same type of critical evaluation should be considered by everyone that plans to step into the new church: to see if one’s life is fit for the deepened spirit of worship that one would envision in the new liturgical space that opens its doors. During Holy Week in the Bridegroom services we chant: “I see Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Savior, but have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.” This sets the spirit in which we should conduct our inner search.
I would propose to start this self evaluation with a question: why do we come to Church? The answer to this basic query will bring tremendous clarity on the state of our spiritual commitment.
Generally when faced with this question one gives a reply that sounds like this: I come to find peace, I come for fellowship, I come to recharge my batteries, I come to listen to beautiful singing, I come to hear a good message, I come to feel spiritually uplifted, I come to see nice works of art in the icons and so on. All of the above are part of what we experience during a regular church visit. But are any of these things unique enough for the Church that would make one prefer to be in Church over any other place in the world on any given Sunday morning?
A short answerwould be: not really, because we can easily reach these things in many ways. A sense of peace can be found on a nice hike in the forest or a fishing trip. Fellowship can be achieved by going out with some friends. A classical concert or a good recording can give us a great musical experience. A good comedy can uplift our spirit and ease our tension. An extra couple of hours of sleep can recharge our batteries. A museum would be a better place to admire art. A motivational speaker can give us excellent practical hints on living a full life. I am also sure we can find comprehensive experiences that will combine all of these, just as a visit to church would be.
Coming exclusively for any of the above would render our experience incomplete and our visit fruitless. If we are searching for the secular in the church we will always be disappointed because this is not what Church is for. Church is meant to be a revelation of the nether world, an entrance in the kingdom of heavens, not an extension of the fallen world. The exapostilarion of the Bridegroom service compares the Church with a bridal chamber not because we come here to feel good, be entertained or socialize, but because this is the place where we are united in a mystical way with the bridegroom of the Church: Jesus Christ. All other purposes are just secondary side benefits and they should not be considered goals in themselves.
The entire body of opportunities that the Church offers is centered around this goal, to make the presence of God real in the middle of the worshipping community, the ekklesia. The Church architecture, music, iconography and all that the church encompasses serve this very purpose. But they cannot work by themselves, we have to also be aware of their purpose and use them appropriately, without transforming them in idols by caring more about them than we do for acknowledging the presence of God.
From time to time we hear people saying:“I did not feel anything in church today because either the church was too crowded, the music was not good, the sermon was too long…” Looking for feelings and experiences is however starting on the wrong foot. The fathers advise us not to be moved by the senses because senses can be deceiving and the feelings they bring, many times carnal and sensual in nature, can be mistaken for spiritual ones and lead us into error. On the contrary we should be passionless and guided by the words of the prayers alone and a motionless spirit of awareness. One can say however: what about the visions and miracles of the saints? The extraordinary experiences and visions of the saints were indeed real, but they were never sought after by them. The saints were looking for salvation alone and in the process they received those extraordinary visions or abilities as gifts of grace. They are rather the exception, not the rule and for sure not the purpose.
Because our senses are aware only of the material, the Eastern Orthodox Church tries to transfigure them through shapes, colors, music, fragrances that transmit an out of this world experience that are not trying to fill the senses with carnal sensuality but to transfigure them to perceive the things beyond the obvious. Photios Kontoglou, a Greek iconographer and theologian of the twentieth century, says, “Orthodox art is for me the art of arts. I believe in it as I believe in (Orthodox) religion. Only this art nourishes my soul, through its deep and mysterious powers; it alone quenches the thirst that I feel in the midst of the arid desert that surrounds us. In comparison with Byzantine art, all the others appear to me trivial, ‘troubling themselves about many things, when but one thing is needed’.” (See also Luke 10:38-42). Church does not do art for art, but brings forth beauty for the glory of God using very specific tools and forms that makes it serve its unique liturgical purpose.
Any New Church is not a purpose in itself either, nor is an object of pride but it is a sacrifice to God intended to bring us closer to Him. What we should remember when we will make our first step into the New Church is only one thing: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Mathew 6:33).