"Well, if its a symbol, to hell with it."
(Flannery O'Connor responding to Mary McCarthy regarding the Eucharist)
Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Ralph Wood, p. 23.
In recent months, I have been making the transition from evangelical Protestantism to Orthodox Christianity. While the journey has been exciting and exhilirating, I realize that I need to curb my enthusiasm somewhat and resist the urge to pontificate on matters I am only just beginning to grasp. This goes against my nature, but I probably need to just be quiet, listen and learn. I also need to resist the natural impulse to disparage my former religious affiliation. A more productive course would be to recall my many years there and remember that the seeds that found fruition in Orthodoxy were planted in this very same church.
All that being said [my friends will recognize here that this is my cue that I'm going to go ahead and pontificate anyway!], I have recently had occasion to compare the worship in each. As I live over 100 miles from an Orthodox church, and my wife remains a faithful Protestant Christian, attendance can be a difficult proposition at times. For example, I recently attended the Feast of Theophany at my Orthodox church. Then on a recent Sunday, I found myself at the large, progressive Protestant church that I attend with my wife. The contrast could not be more striking. And it is here that I believe a few cautious observations are in order.
First, I'm still learning about the Liturgy--and know that I will be from now on. Also, the fact that about half the service is in Greek sometimes leaves me fumbling through my liturgy book. But despite this, there is no doubt in my mind what I am doing (worshipping). There is no doubt in my mind whom I am doing it with (the Body of Christ). The object of our worship is never in doubt (the triune God). I find the Divine Liturgy to always be fresh and exciting. If we were given to much sitting, you could even say that I would be on the edge of my seat :) Everything builds toward Holy Communion. As that time comes, I approach the altar, in the midst of the whole church, with a mixture of humility, joy and palpable excitement. And at that moment, time indeed seems to stand still. These are a few of my early impressions as an Orthodox Christian.
Now that brings me to my Sunday experience at our familiar evangelical church. Truth be told, this church is warm, welcoming and caring. I suppose though, as I become more and more Orthodox in my sensibilites, the more foreign this type of worship seems. The song service was actually well-done, though it now strikes me as sing-songy, sentimental and lacking in substance. We viewed a video presentation in which several of the teenagers spoke to how meaningful the youth group was to their lives. Then a couple of men gave testimonials about how a particular class or ministry had impacted their lives.
In due course, it was time for the communion service. This church is based in the Restoration Movement, so communion is faithfully observed every Sunday. The general practice is as follows: some men of the congregation come to the front, pray over the bread and the grape juice (which are viewed as only symbols) and then pass the trays up and down the pews as each individual partakes individually while supposedly thinking on the crucifixion. This particular morning, the speaker praying over the symbols also gave a short devotional beforehand. He compared what we were doing to a football scrimmage. That's correct--football. The fact that I despise our football culture and refuse to watch it made this particularly hard to stomach. The analogy had something to do with the fact that what we were doing in the "worship center" was just a scrimmage, whereas the real game would be when we left the building and started evangelizing. Our leaders were cast as coaches, and just like in a real football game, they would not be on the field with us. Incredibly, the football terminology and analogies continued into the prayers over the bread and grape juice, with some language about the Lord giving us strength to play the roles that He had set out for us. And this was my Protestant communion service.
I was dumbstruck. I'm sure the preacher had something warm and fuzzy and encouraging to say in the sermon afterwards. But frankly, I was so rattled by the communion travesty that I didn't hear any of it. In fairness, this is not usual, but next week it could be something completely different, in the never-ending effort to keep things new and interesting. That's the rub actually. There's no end to this sort of thing. Always seeking to be timely and "relevant," a church in fact loses what is timeless and ultimately become irrelevant. O'Connor's exasperated statement rings true.