Sunday, September 6, 2015

Russian Orthodox Church in Sitka

Today I went to a church service at St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka, Alaska. The church is Russian Orthodox, which I've never gone to before (despite studying Russian for about six years) and the oldest Orthodox church in North America.

My mom took pictures of some of the icons, when she went on a tour of the church earlier. I didn't feel like it was appropriate to take a bunch of pictures during the service of the icons. In the Orthodox faith, icons play a much greater (any) role than in Protestantism.

I grew up going to Protestant services, and Orthodox services are very different. First of all, in Protestant services, the preacher will say things, and/or the audience (congregation) will repeat things. These things can be prayers, affirmations, creeds, or all kinds of other liturgical statements. These phrases are said in what I would describe as an announcement voice, or a prayer voice. They repeat, announce, and state what they want in the orthodox service I went to, but instead they use a chanting voice or a singing voice. This was literally everything, except for a brief sermon (which was in an announcement voice.)

The sermon was good, and applicable to my life. It was about preparing yourself to go to church, and receive Christ's message. I felt like this was an especially good message for me, since I've been thinking about extracting myself from an unpleasant, low profitability, high stress, business arrangement in the best way possible. I was debating how to quickly leave this situation without screwing anyone over, instead of paying attention to the church service. This sermon helped me let that situation go, and focus on my present situation. I never really had a good understanding of Mathew 22:2, and it still seems kind of violent to me, but the priest had an interpretation of it that resonated with my life.

The next major difference was the constant standing. Everyone was standing, for basically the full hour and a half. I sat down during the last 25 minutes, during, and after communion. Communion is where you eat tiny pieces of bread and drink grape juice during church to symbolize (in Protestantism) the body and blood of Christ. I didn't participate in communion, since I wasn't sure if you were supposed to go through some kind of rite of passage (like confirmation in Catholicism) or not. PLUS, everyone was taking a sip from the same, common spoon out of a cup of juice. I always skip the communal communion in Protestant church too, since I believe in germ theory. The constant standing wore out my legs, and I felt like I was ready to collapse by the end of the service.

There was a ton of background movement going on, which was part of the service. During the first 30 minutes, people were walking to and from the icons, crossing themselves, kissing the icons, and walking back to their seats. This was during chanting/singing. Additionally, about three times during the ceremony the priests would go back into an obscured room that you could only see through a doorway and light candles, light incense, or sing/chant in the room that was disconnected from, but still somewhat visible to, the main room. The main priest would have his back turned to the audience while he was mysteriously preparing the obscured room.

In Protestant services, the church typically hands you out a flyer that says exactly what's going on throughout the service beforehand. One guy, or one musical group, leads or plays music, and everyone else either listens or sings along. About 3/4 of the service is sitting down, and 1/4 standing.

The last thing I noticed was that the priests look exactly like the Czars of Russia before Peter the Great tried to modernize Russia.

Peter The Great's Dad - Alexis I - Before the Czars stopped looking like Orthodox priests.

Orthodox Priest I saw today. Complete with the hat, and Christian beating stick. I did not see the cool globe. 

Overall, I'm happy I was able to check out a Russian orthodox church service while on vacation. 

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