Sunday, February 9, 2014

Icons, incense, chanting, and candles

I just got back from the Greek Orthodox service at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Again, I mentioned I used to attend this church long ago. So, did the Greek Church stir up the same sort of nostalgia and inspiration that the Catholic Church did in me?


The Orthodox do atmosphere as well as the Catholics. I have to say that I'm partial to the look of many Catholic churches vs. many Orthodox churches, but Orthodox churches are beautiful and it's only a personal preference of mine.

The outside of Holy Transfiguration Church is nothing to really write home about. On the outside you'd never guess the splendors that await you inside. The outside I've always referred to as the Greeks present the 1970's.

However, once you get inside, you're transported to another time and another world. The whole church is filled with the perfume of sweet incense. There is chanting (granted from a tone deaf choir, but chanting nonetheless) and bells jingling, you light a bee's wax candle and place it into sand, kiss icons, and feel as though you have stepped out of the Utah and out of the United States.

Behind this wall of icons (sacred paintings that are not intended to be realistic but depict spiritual realities to their faithful) is the high altar. I wish I could have gotten a picture of that, because it's beautiful, but I didn't want to photograph the service and the doors in the center are closed off when services are not in progress.

This icon hangs from the center of the ceiling. It is known as Christ the Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All). It represents Christ looking down upon the Earth from his throne in Heaven with the Book of Life in his hand blessing the whole Earth.

These are known as the Royal Doors. The icon in the center slides to the side like a sliding door. It depicts Christ as the High Priest. Below it are two doors that have the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Directly behind these doors is the high altar of the church, considered to be the most holy place in the church.

A couple more icons. The top one is the event for which the church is named for, the Transfiguration of Jesus. Couldn't get a great picture of it because everything is in the way. The one below is an icon depicting the Resurrection of Jesus. It depicts Jesus trampling down the doors of Hell and Death and raising Adam and Eve from their tombs.

One final note on atmosphere, I used to work for a stained glass studio. Long before I worked there, they did the stained glass windows for this church and I still think they're very beautiful.

If you follow the stained glass windows around the church, they actually depict the entire life of Christ.

The atmosphere is fantastic in an Orthodox church and I highly recommend checking one out for that reason alone.

The People:

The community at the Greek Orthodox Church in Ogden is amazing. That was always one of my favorite things about attending this church. Coffee hour afterwards was sometimes better than the service. Today was pretty plain compared to other coffee hours I've been to, just some doughnuts and Greek cookies, a Greek dessert I've always loved but can't remember the name of (pine nuts are actually good in dessert believe it or not), and some coffee.

Several people introduced themselves to me. I mentioned how I knew the old priest who used to serve there and his family and that was a good icebreaker. The current priest was very fun. He came over to the table and greeted us. Talked about how the coffee hour would be better with scotch and overall was just a hoot.

The Greek community of Ogden is a wonderful community. I miss them very much.

Side note, every September they hold a food festival with traditional Greek dancing. Check it out sometime if you're ever in Ogden at that time.

The Service:

I had forgotten this being away from the Church for such a long time. The Greek Orthodox liturgy is equal parts awe inspiring and boring. It is a beautiful service. In Ogden it's half in Greek and half in English and the whole thing is chanted. The service is essentially a dialogue between the priest and the congregation with the choir doing the responses for the congregation. It is breathtakingly beautiful and filled with rich imagery and chanting. Every single gesture is symbolic of something greater.

Yet, the service is insanely monotonous and repetitive. There are many points in the service where virtually the same prayer is repeated. The responses to the prayers are quite repetitive and the prayers go on in very long litanies. I realize this service built up over thousands of years, but there are times where all I do is focus on the pretty icons around me rather than what's going on because I have heard the same prayers just moments ago.

Overall, the service is very beautiful, but the repetitive nature of it drags it down a bit.

One thing I really do love is at the end everybody lines up and receives a piece of bread from the priest as a sign of fellowship. The bread is really good. It's leftovers that aren't consecrated during communion and baked fresh the night before by a member of the congregation.

The Message:

The Orthodox are not known for their long sermons. The sermon lasted literally like three minutes. The priest basically told the congregation that they should be reminded that human beings are small in relation to the grand scheme of things. In God's eyes we're tiny and we are insignificant in so many ways. But we are not all bad and we should approach God knowing we are sinners but there is good in us.

Not a bad message, keep in perspective that you're a good person, but you're not the center of the world and you have flaws.

Overall Experience:

I enjoyed the community and the sense of tradition that came along with it. But it wasn't as spectacular as I once remembered it to be. It is a beautiful church and a beautiful tradition, but it was never my home and in the end was never meant to be with me. I do still quite love the Orthodox Church and the Greek community of Ogden will always hold a very special place in my heart, but I don't know how long it will be before I go back.

Additional Comments:

This entire adventure is really giving me so much to think about. I am learning a lot about myself, my community, and my country from this as well as seeing a lot of diverse things I don't think I would otherwise see. I want to thank you all for your feedback so far. I want to hear more of your thoughts either in comments below, messages or comments on Facebook, or some other communication with me, because I want to know what you're learning, what questions you have, where you think I should go from here, etc.

Can't wait to hear from you.

Join me next week when I go and visit the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden.

Until then, peace be with you.


  1. I've skipped around a bit in this blog, but in each post I've read a lot about "community." For me, that's an essential part of my church experience. THE essential part, probably. I can learn a lot from the sermon, take comfort from rituals, be at peace in the space, but without the support from the community, it would not be something I'd return to over and over.

    Your one-per-week adventure keeps you from experiencing this aspect of any of the churches, yet I read in your comments a deep longing for it. I wouldn't discourage this quest--your research and reflections are so interesting!--but I also hope that you can find a path to community for yourself. As you mention here, historically these churches have split and merged and some have traveled quite far from their roots. What's going on in them, right now, right (t)here is what's important to the members. Not important whether the communion is grape juice or wine, but what happens when the congregation is in communion with each other.

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