For Fuller seminary course on Eastern Orthodox Theology, I had to document my experience. Here is what I wrote.
On Sunday, May 16th, I visited St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Kyiv, Ukraine. This was my first Orthodox liturgy service, and I was initially quite nervous driving up to the beautiful monastery grounds. I arrived 20 minutes early for the service, and immediately found myself a little lost among the network of stairs, and multiple church looking buildings. As I approached what looked to be one of the original church buildings, I still wasn’t sure I was in the place. There were several individuals gathered by the entrance, so I held my breath and walked inside like I belonged there!
I was disappointed to see a line of people gathered around what looked like a tourist-like
convenience store along the wall of this historic building. They were buying candles for the most part, but there were many other icons, and items for sale. I skipped the line, wondering where the service was? I soon realized that I wasn’t in the right church! I was in the original St. Michael’s building from the 11th Century, which had been restored a few times from fires and war, still revealing ancient icons on stone and brick walls. I highlight this because even though I wasn’t participating in a liturgy yet, I had plenty of time to enjoy the detail in the icons, and stations which included a number of very old looking relics. One particular station was lit with a dozen or so candles, displaying Christ on the hill of Golgotha.
Being in the confines of a much smaller, more intimate setting of the original church, I was able to pay attention to the believers as they worked around the various stations. I was noticing the ways in which they crossed themselves, some once, some three times. Some walked through briskly, as if they were completing an easy test, while others lingered for ten minutes, and seemed to be sincerely praying.
Though I’ve never really understood the lighting of the candles, and was initially unimpressed with the commercial aspect of churches selling them simultaneously inside the buildings, I experienced, I think, the Spirit of God at one of the stations. As I stared, mesmerized by the candles, I considered that each candle did in fact represent a living soul, valuable and made in the image of God. I felt a connection to them, their ongoing prayer, heard and bringing about action in the heaven-lies. How many prayers have been offered here? Over how many centuries? I was thankful for this moment as the Spirit encouraged me that my prayers are not over necessarily when I think they are over, but echo in the eternal heart of our loving Father.
As I left the functional museum, for lack of a better word, I then approached the massive, golden domed Church of St. Michael’s. I felt more confident entering this colossal structure after having spent time in the little Church. I was ready for the continuous crossing gestures, and visual feast that was awaiting me. This time, I was definitely in the right place. You could hear angelic, perfectly pitched harmonies, in minors floating across the entire landscape as you approached the building. At first, I honestly thought there were speakers somewhere, but after searching for them, realized these gorgeous sounds were coming from the church itself, one high definition speaker!
I was determined to get in without being noticed, but that was next to impossible. As I walked in the church, I entered directly into the nave. The magnificently detailed and wooden framed iconostasis was directly to my left, and the Priest was chanting something and holding a large Bible. The Word of God proceeding from eternity, through the barrier of material reality, and into the world of Creation. I had some catching up to do, and was late!
As I looked for the safest place to stand, I worked my way to the back of the Church, and
the music was even louder. The choir, on the second story balcony, were out of sight, and I
could barely count ten of them. Yet, the magnificent sounds flooded every inch of the cathedral. Where were they all hiding? Can this sound be coming from only a handful of voices? It was refreshing to think that the Orthodox singers were serving the Church, truly, not performing in front of it.
For the first twenty minutes, I honestly don’t remember what was taking place at the front,
because I was engaged in looking at the massive murals and trying to isolate particulars within many gospel stories. There was Lazarus to my right, and Christ the infant holding a scroll on the lap of the Theotokos. The visuals, combined with the surround sound angelic choir, worth the price of admission! I engaged in a few crossing gestures throughout the service, but found liberty to just open my hands, close my eyes at times, and feel my feelings.
Occasionally I could hear someone near me singing along, but for the most part, the choir engulfed all the voices. About half way through, I began to pick up on more of the liturgy. The iconostasis was at times hiding us onlookers from what was taking place in the back. Doors opening, declarations, and chantings intermittently left me wondering, as a simple onlooker, what are they doing back there that could be taking so long? The Eucharist, as I’ve learned, is being prepared, the central event which will culminate eventually in the invitation breaking through the eternal hidden realms, into concrete material reality for the Church, in the Person of Jesus Christ and His life, death and resurrection were clearly central to the service.
Finally, after a lot of singing, and a short sermon-like encouragement from a much younger man dressed in black, the Priest and his helpers, who were dressed in red and white, presented the bread and wine. Because of Covid, I can only assume, the wine was dispensed to each person on a napkin, which the believer would quickly touch with their lips, or suck in an effort to consume some of it. It was a strange site! The children went first, and then adults, but I would estimate only 30% of the crowd actually took communion. It was over fairly quickly.
After the Eucharist, an offering box was passed around, and almost everyone gave a monetary gift of some kind. It was the one familiar part of the service for this foreigner, everyone needs money! After this, another priest came out with a bucket of water, and what looked like a small wooden whip. I backed up, because I’ve seen this take place in my home town along our river at different events. The priest very liberally doused the congregants with water, spraying it in many different directions and chanting something I didn’t understand. There were a few smiles among some ladies that received a double portion!
Before everyone exited the building, I noticed a young man kneeling in the corner, by a statue of a small cross. He remained kneeling for quite some time. When he stood to his feet, he dried his eyes quickly, and left. It touched me. He has been obviously repenting, or deeply moved in a time of prayer that was sincere and heartfelt. I was encouraged to see this, because with all of the external focus on visuals and sounds, I was honestly curious who was being present and not simply outwardly performing rituals. This man was encountering God through his posture, his prayer, his emotions, and it seemed to breathe a fresh wind of hope in my perspective towards Ukrainians long and difficult heritage.
I really enjoyed my first liturgy. I recognize that to engaged the service more deeply, that I need to read over a full liturgical service in English. I also would like to attend a Russian Orthodox service, which I still have my reservations about. The Ukrainian service felt bright, the illuminated building, the bright priestly clothing, even a few smiling faces! I was anticipating more of a dirge-vibe, a somber procession of rituals, but there was surprising hope and enough continuity in my own faith to feel welcome in this other-worldly place.