Written by| Cecilia Wong
Chinese translation| Catherine Chan
This summer, I was accompanied by a Catholic friend on a tour to St Petersburg and Moscow. It was basically a pilgrimage tour, with a major focus on Russian orthodox churches and iconography. We visited obviously many pilgrimage sites and of all the Cathedrals and churches (including cave monastery churches!) we visited one could hardly miss the many icons which adorned the walls and pillars and ceilings of the church interior. For me who come from a church which adopts minimalism in its interior decoration it was a visual treat to see these churches with their overwhelmingly decorated icons. And at the end of the tour I felt it was like an icon marathon, and even my Catholic friend was impressed by the huge role icon plays in the Orthodox faith!
For the Orthodox Christians, worship is directed towards Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven who is embodied in the church on earth as well as the saints in heaven which together represent the body of Christ. And as icons, or sacred images, are not pictures but represent the holy presences of those depicted on them, one would, understandably, find in every church icon depictions (or presence!) of Christ and venerated saints which are used as windows through which we see Christ and the saints.
Surrounded by, and in the company of, host of saints in every church that we visited, I was awakened to the eternal kingdom of Christ. What a wonderful thought that during worship we were met through icons with the Mother God, Moses, Saint Peter, Saint Paul (yes, the great apostle Paul who wrote the epistles that we read in the New Testament!) and all the other prophets and saints and martyrs and missionaries! I was reminded of this truth and vividly remembered what my pastor back home said at the beginning of a prayer meeting which happened to have a really low attendance. While all those present were greatly discouraged as they looked around and found only a handful people attending, to our great surprise, we heard our pastor say, “Tonight, we are deeply honored to be accompanied by a host of angels and the church in heaven.”! Certainly, only those with a Kingdom vision can say that!
Of special mention was the Divine Liturgy (or Holy Communion Sunday service) which we attended in the Cathedral of St Sophia in St Petersburg. It was my first ever Orthodox worship and it was eye-opening and inspiring! Unlike the congregants in Hong Kong who are normally seated during worship, the worshippers were all standing throughout the entire Divine Liturgy service. In fact, this is their normal way of worship. As all the Orthodox female worshippers do, I covered my head with a veil (which often slipped off my head!) and wore a long dress (well, it’s actually a beach wrap as I thought it would be easier moving from church to church!). Standing inside the hall (and in my funny attire!), my eyes were captured not only by the host of icon saints but also struck by the visual characteristics of the various acts of worship which drew upon all the senses of the worshippers — the burning of the incense, the swinging of the censer by the priest forward and bringing it back and sending a cloud of aromatic smoke, the kissing of the icons as they moved around the hall venerating the icon saints, the rituals with its many signs and symbols, the chanting and singing and bells, the sign of the cross, the bowing and prostrating and kneeling, the greetings and blessings, etc. To what appeared to me as random acts and even distractions, the Orthodox Christians found these acts of worship absolutely engaging as they worshipped with their whole being – body, mind and soul and interacting with one another!
On reflection, that made me wonder if at home we are too much focused on our intellects, neglecting our other faculties and thereby limiting ourselves from giving our full to God in worship. For those who are worship leaders, how should we conduct worship so that we can engage the worshippers more fully and give our best to God? How much reverence and fear and love do we have for Jesus the King who is enthroned in heaven, and yet humble enough to be present in our midst? What sort of attitude do we bring when we come before God every Sunday in worship? And how conscious are we of the glory of his eternal kingdom, and the unity we have with both the heavenly saints and one another?
I have heard people saying before about the difference between churches in the East and that in the West, that unlike pastors in the West who are mostly philosopher; pastors in the East are mostly artist. On reflection, perhaps there is some truth in that saying, something which MaHA, I believe, would agree, and be proud of!
Dated: 21st August 2017