Sunday #22 – St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, 2504 N. St. Mary’s Street, San Antonio
Why this Church?
At the start of this journey I knew I’d attend an Orthodox Church somewhere along the way. With a Google version of the Yellow Pages near the north side of town – a Romanian Orthodox Church. Not seeing service times, I picked up the phone and called. A few rings later, I had Father Julian on the phone, who told me that they were in the process of moving their church and not holding services. However, he wanted to talk with me further, so I got a chance to ask all of my stupid questions. I learned that an Orthodox Church can be Greek, Russian, Romanian, or a host of others (with the exception of Jewish, which means something altogether different.)
I asked if St. Sophia’s downtown might give me a good sample of an Orthodox church. He said yes and then helped me to know what to wear. He said my dress or skirt should cover the knees and my arms should be covered. He also said to cover my head (apparently this is a very traditional church.) Really? Now I was expected to wear the Greek version of the Muslim hijab? I wasn’t looking forward to that.
Preconceived Ideas about Greek Orthodox
My kids high school English IB teacher in Lakewood, CO was Greek, but we never talked about church, so at this point, I had no idea what I could expect. Therefore, my preconceived ideas were few.
- Probably very traditional and filled with ritual
- I know that I’m not allowed to partake of the sacraments, according to every website that I surveyed, but I still secretly hoped for some pre-service baklava or maybe a post service Gyro sandwich — they can keep the ouzo
Someone this week suggested that I skip the Greek Orthodox Church service, which can be long and filled with lots of standing and just go to the Greek Festival that is held at St. Sophia’s in October. Okay…I was tempted. I was!
Arriving with a minute to spare, I parked my car on the street and headed to the front steps. At the bottom of the stairs, I met Vanna and her daughter. Although I didn’t know them, I asked if I could shadow them in the service. Both were quite kind and tried to help me along. As we entered the sanctuary (or whatever the Orthodox call it), the service had just begun. We veered to the right picked up an order of service bulletin, then Vanna leaned in to say I could pick up a candle, light it and say a prayer as I placed it in the sand. I should have taken a picture right then, but I was juggling several different things, like my phone, car keys, bulletin, pen and paper.
I grabbed this shot, of only one candle left at the end of the service — not quite as beautiful, but gives a sense of the many that were there at the start of the service. I liked this part. To light a candle and say a prayer is a great way to begin worshiping.
As the Service Began
Vanna, her daughter and I grabbed a seat on a hard wooden pew and I glanced around to see if anyone had the head gear. NOPE! I’m glad I left my scarf in my purse; it was bad enough wearing long sleeves in San Antonio. Further examination yielded men in suits and women dressed beautifully and little children dressed to the nines. Kind of reminded me of the children found in the Latter Day Saints service earlier on this journey. In fact, children populated the pews buttressed by parents, grandparents and others. This service lasted almost two and a half hours, so you gotta give it to those kids; they were real troopers!
Then, I drank in the sanctuary itself. While the congregation and priest chanted in English and in Greek – none of which I much understood, looking up, I saw round picture of Jesus Christ on the ceiling and chandeliers. Jesus faced the altar and I sat behind that painting, so it looks a little funny.
Candles were also spread around the front of the altar, hanging high in the air. Something totally new for me was the front of this church that had a Iconostasis wall.
(I really didn’t know that word; it was written in a laminated brochure in the “pew back pocket” in front of me. Oddly enough, that extra material about the church reminded me of flying in an airplane for the first time. You have no idea what’s about to happen, but a little knowledge can make you a bit more comfortable. This Iconstasis wall had 12 photos across the top – I figured those were the apostles, then 12 photos on the second row. Most all these photos had halos around the heads.
Now you are all going to get a bit confused, because I couldn’t follow this service, even when someone was standing next to me trying to help me out. So I’ll just relay what I saw and what I felt, in no certain order.
First, like the Catholic church, the Orthodox uses altar boys, candles, and crosses. The priest in this church was dressed in a robe of green and gold with a cross that hung around his neck. He looked similar to one of the Roman Catholic Arch Bishops, without the crimson color.
CHANTING – This goes on throughout the service, usually the priest led this chanting with his back against the congregants and facing the altar that sat inside the middle dome area with one stained glass window in the very back. When the priest read at times, he went so fast that I began to think: if the Greek talk this fast then there’s NO WAY I’m ever going to attempt to learn Greek.
SLEIGH BELLS – These are used a great deal in the Greek Orthodox Church. Not sure what the Orthodox call them, but that’s what they sound like. As the priest swings the sleigh bells from one side to the other, little puffs of smoke come out. Had no idea of the origin of that incense, but I didn’t like it from the start. I was so afraid I’d start sneezing like one of the seven dwarfs.
SIGN OF THE CROSS – The Greek Orthodox do this often. It appeared that they do so at every mention of Spirit or the Trinity. The Orthodox cross from right to left, which I believe is opposite of Catholics, though I’m not for certain. The Orthodox do it often and sometimes in a succession of three’s. I do everything in three’s, too. I have no idea why, but it works for me, so this felt comfortable and didn’t seem odd.
ALTAR BOYS – Again, not sure if that’s what they are called, but they do a great deal in the service. They carry silver sunflower like things. Still don’t know what those were, but think they may have had something to do with halos. Jump in if you know! The altar boys also prostrate themselves, when the rest of us kneel for prayers. Yep, they assume something like the Simple Child’s Pose in Yoga.
DOORS – Not sure what that was about, but at the front of the church, two arched doors fit into the wooden wall and the priest and altar boys go in and out of these OFTEN. At one point, before the sacraments were given, the priest and altar boys proceeded down the opposite side aisle. As the procession proceeded, the congregation follows it with their eyes. As the procession continues, the people remain always facing the procession, then each bows and makes the sign of the cross as the priest continues back up to the altar.
OH MY ACHING FEET – After running/walking almost 5 miles this morning, the last thing I wanted to do was stand, but stand they did….A LOT…and of course, so did I. In a way, I was prepared, because some reading hinted at this, so I wore my flats.
THE SACRAMENTS – I knew I wasn’t to proceed with the others, so I stepped aside and used the time to take a few photos to share with you. As the congregation took their turns from the back of the church to the front, I stood mesmerized by the priest, who used a silver goblet and a teaspoon to offer the wine or grape juice concoction. The whole scene looked like a parent dispensing cough syrup to his children.
I had the unique and lengthy experience of visiting the Greek Orthodox Church on the celebration of Pentecost, which meant after an hour’s service, there’s yet another kneeling service. After many different kneeling prayers, interspersed with standing, the priest repeated a bunch of wording that sounded very similar to the end of a pharma commercial where the side effects are rattled off at “sports shutter speed.”
Then we got the final blessing, but at that point, it wasn’t over yet. Then came – a 40 Day Blessing of twin baby girls. The priest proceeded to the back of the church and gave the 40 Day Blessing for the two babies.
Get a load of the brothers of these two girls…..TWO identical twin boys!
Yes, this woman gave birth to what appears to be two identical sets of twins. Can you imagine? Two sets of twins. Pheww….now if you’ve run out of people to pray for, that’s a woman that needs your prayers.
Post Service Commentary
One of the special things about this church is watching the interaction between all the various families. It seems that everyone in the church knows everyone else’s children. Hugs and kisses abounded and you could feel the love in this church community. While this was one of the more different services that I’ve been to, I learned a great deal. Although I hated the standing and the incense, Vanna told me after the service that Greek Orthodox services are designed to appeal to all the senses: touch, sight, hearing and smell. Okay…they can keep the smell — too much for me.
Would love to check out a Romanian and Russian Orthodox Church to see if they differ much from this service. Who knows, if I don’t run out of weeks, I’ll give one of them a try at some point..
I’m definitely seeking a church without incense next week, so it’s unlikely to be Hindu. I’ll also be looking for a church where I can sit. I’m thinking it may be Jehovah’s Witness, though I don’t have a clue what they do during a service. I could be in for more standing. OH MY WORD!