St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, 401 Lewis Ave.
Service: 10 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015
Length of service: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Length of sermon: 7 minutes
For the first 20 minutes of this service, I was mesmerized. My senses were assailed by incense, icons and Oriental rugs, and by the incantatory singing that went on almost continually.
The officiant, Father Moses Hibbard, was wearing a magnificent golden robe and he stood at the altar with his back to the congregation, praying and chanting and singing, mostly in English but sometimes in Latin. On the altar was a large crucifix of gold or bronze, more icons, costly looking ornaments and a Bible in an embossed silver case.
Separating the altar from the congregation was a partition (technically, an iconostas) bearing six large, beautiful icons. These two-dimensional paintings with their brilliant golden backgrounds depicted Jesus and the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker, St. Nicholas of Zisa and the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.
There were more icons on the walls of the church, and still more icons resting on lecterns between the congregation and the partition. Some people, as they entered the sanctuary, went to the lecterns, genuflected and kissed each of the icons. I was impressed. It seemed like a strong show of faith, particularly in late January, the height of the flu season.
The singing, unaccompanied by instruments, was led by a small choir of six people and a choir leader, a young man with a beautiful, deep voice, whose rapt attention to the liturgy—since it was always necessary to come in at just the right moment, at the proper pitch—was a wonder to behold.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
There were four altar boys and another priest, dressed in a simple black cassock, who appeared a few times, emerging through doors in the partition to perform various rituals. And behind the partition, visible only as he helped to open or close the doors, was yet another priest, this one quite ancient.
The congregants were crowded into nine or 10 small pews, with some people standing in the back or along the sides. Most of the men, I have to say, were dressed informally at best, slovenly at worst, while almost all the women were in dresses, some of them also wearing black scarves. There were maybe 15 children on hand, including 10 little girls, all of them adorable and well dressed.
About half the congregation joined in on the parts of the service that were sung, held in tune by the small choir. And most everybody seemed to know when to make the sign of the cross or to genuflect, when to respond to spoken prayers and when to make a curious sort of Arabic bow while touching their forehead, lips and breast.
For those first 20 minutes, standing there trying to follow everything that was going on, to absorb all the sights, sounds and scents, I was, as I said, quite lost. Also, I did not want to intrude on the solemnity of the scene by pulling my notebook out, so I was trying to remember as much of the proceedings as I could.
I felt like an outsider but also very much at home. Having listened to so much music I did not care for, and having sat through so many sermons that left me unmoved, I loved the experience of simply sitting in contemplation, enveloped in sensations that encouraged me to look outside myself and well as within. There is something ennobling about pure ritual, pure worship, without all the lecturing, hectoring and blaring music.
The spell was broken by Hibbard when he delivered his short homily, which was on a Gospel reading from Luke, about the tax collector Zacchaeus, who climbed a sycamore tree to gaze upon Jesus as he passed amid a crowd of people.
He began on an unpromising note, saying he had preached on Zacchaeus so many times that “I’m not sure what’s left to say.” He went on to deliver some perfunctory remarks, punctuated by little bursts of nervous laughter, as if to signal how much more comfortable he was singing the liturgy than actually addressing his congregation.
I couldn’t blame him. Speech, in the midst of that ancient liturgy and exotic ritual, seemed completely unnecessary. After the sermon there was a very long period during which Hibbard apparently was preparing the communion. Several times he drew a golden curtain between himself and the congregation.
It was obviously done to preserve the most mysterious parts of the ceremony, but I could not suppress impious reflections on the Wizard of Oz. And I admit that my attention began to wander as the service stretched on, though there were times when the music and the incense worked their spell on me and I found myself, again, lost in thought.
When communion came at last, I was confused. There was a table bearing bread and wine, but the communicants did not partake of that fare until genuflecting before Hibbard, who carefully extracted something from a golden chalice and put it on their tongues. (And everyone kissed the chalice and drank wine from the same cup; I’m surprised they weren’t all home sick.)
Overcome by curiosity, I got in the communion line. Thankfully, a woman I know, who came in late with her children, politely informed me that communion was only for members of the Orthodox Church. But she also told me that the chalice contained little pieces of wine-soaked bread, which was all I wanted to know.
Though not many people were at the service, maybe 45 or 50, the communion took quite a while, what with all the ritual. When the service ended shortly thereafter, and after a few short announcements, I was more than ready to leave, but quite happy I had come.
Previously: Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.
Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.
Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.
Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Chapter 5; First Baptist Church.
Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.
Chapter 7: Faith Chapel.
Chapter 8: Eagle Ministries Inc.
Chapter 9: First United Methodist Church.
Chapter 10: Pilgrim Congregational Church.
Chapter 12: First Christian Church.
Chapter 13: Victorious Word Church.
Chapter 14: Oasis Church.
Chapter 15: Harvest Church.
Chapter 16: Billings Association of Humanists.
Chapter 17: Word of Life Fellowship.
Chapter 18: Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Next Week: Faith Evangelical Church.