For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.
In this season, we are both in the beginning of the Advent season for “western” Christians, and in the middle of the “eastern” Advent, the Christmas Fast, for Orthodox Christians. In this time of year, when we can tune out the noise of the commercial mercantile season, we hear notes of hope and waiting. This season is the time where we enter mystically, spiritually the experience of ancient Israel, as well as the entire cosmos, hopefully anticipating, waiting for, the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Although merchants focus us on the joy of the season, so that we’ll purchase their things, the Christmas joy is not yet. We’re in the time of hope and waiting.
It’s important to make sure we keep this distinction. Oh, yes, I know, even the Orthodox hymns of this time are already starting to “turn the corner” with their joyful hints and glimpses of what’s to come. And even though Orthodox traditions in the United States still try to keep a spare and penitential theme during the Nativity Fast, we’ll still celebrate St Nicholas’ day with gold-foil chocolate coins in the shoes of the children on December 6th, St Nicholas’ Day, and it’s not unheard of that Christmas stockings with candy, nuts, fruit and little icons will be passed out to the children near St. Nicholas’ Day. Yet, even so, Orthodox keep this season in fasting and almsgiving. We will feast. For twelve days beginning Christmas Day. But now we wait and hope.