Like most Christians I celebrated Christmas with our traditional Christmas eve service. At the end of the service we all lit candles representing the light of the gospel in each one of us. This is intended to show us how although one candle makes very little difference, many candles light the entire room even when all the lights are out. It is a powerful message of hope in a very dark time in our nations history.
But for me Christmas didn't end on the twenty-fifth. You see, for many Christians in the world today Christmas is celebrated on January 7th as well. I'm speaking here of the Orthodox Christians. Not all Orthodox celebrate on this day (although most do celebrated on the 25th), but for those who follow the old Julian calendar the 7th provides an extra Christmas day celebration.
I've been studying the Orthodox church for over thirteen years now and lately have gotten serious enough (or perhaps "curious" is a better word) about what I've learned to attend a few services. I decided it would be a great time to see what their Christmas eve looks like.
St. Basil. The prayers in the Orthodox church are sung or chanted. There are also a lot of Scripture passages read (chanted) and all told the entire service lasts almost two hours. This service ends with Communion (The Lord's Supper). Unlike a lot of Protestant denominations, if you are not Orthodox you are not allowed to participate. Some might find this offensive but I find it encouraging that the Orthodox take it so seriously. I feel we are way too flippant at times when it comes to the Lord's supper. I've heard jokes made and even once heard the Lord's Supper equated to the giving of a toast! So I'm perfectly fine sitting this one out and simply enjoying the sights and sounds and worshiping with my presence.
And don't forget the incense. O! the incense! It is everywhere and if you've never been a part of a service that uses it, it can be overwhelming at first. But once you get use to it having the sense of smell engaged in worship can be a wonderful experience. It is not an understatement to say that Orthodox worship truly is a multimedia experience. The incense mainly represents the prayers of the saints and we find its use all the way back to the Old Testament in our Bibles. I have also read that frankincense is typically used in the censors and so it can also serve as a reminder of the nativity when one of the "kings" gave a gift of frankincense to Jesus and the Blessed Mother of our Lord.
The next service is called a Vigil and includes even more prayers and scripture, chanting and singing. During parts of the service the lights are dimmed and then when speaking or singing of the coming of the Christ child the lights are turned all the way up. This cycle of light and dark happens several
times. At one point in the celebration there is the ringing of bells, which are passed out to many of the children, and the priest grabs the chandelier in the middle of the church and starts swinging it around in wide circles. I'll be honest I don't yet know why they do this. I haven't had time to talk to the priest yet but I believe it may serve a similar purpose as the lighting of the candles in the Protestant church I attended. Whatever the reason but the effects are amazing. The light shines all over the place, dancing off the walls, ceiling and worshipers. This coupled with the bells and the vibrant singing of everyone around me I can honestly say I was overwhelmed. So overwhelmed, in fact, I was still feeling the effects two days later!
I'm not going to stoop to pitting one church against another here. The Orthodox service was new to me and that newness gives it an unfair advantage over the service I've attended for the past ten years. But I must admit that I am looking forward to Easter in the Orthodox church this year!
[As time goes on I plan on sharing more about my adventures in Orthodoxy. So stay tuned!]