This weekend was the annual Greek Festival in Winston-Salem. I'd never been before, though I'd wanted to for several years. This year, my friend Mona, who is Greek Orthodox, invited my family to meet her at the festival so she could show us around and treat us to a hearty dinner. So we did! It was tons of fun - great music, dancing, art, food, everything oozing with this rich culture.
We also went into the sanctuary (it was all located at the Greek Orthodox church) for a presentation and tour. The room was so ornate, with brilliant colors and all the icons for the sacraments. I was so distracted by the paintings of the life of Christ and all the saints, trying to figure out who was who and wondering at the significance of each. A deacon of the church came out and explained as much as he could in a half hour about the traditions of the church. The thing that amazed me the most was that this orthodox tradition is steeped in symbolism... everything they do and experience is symbolic, to remind them of things Jesus experienced, the history of the Bible, and their own responsibilities toward God. Everything is meant to be a symbol of their "journey toward God." I see this symbolism in the Jewish culture as well, and in a way I wish we had more of it in our Protestant churches today, because God put such emphasis on remembering for his people, and the paradox of it is the remembering was supposed to point people to the future, and what Jesus would do when he came to earth.
As I pondered it over the past couple days, it made me a little sad for the orthodox people. It seems that the symbols are their way of connecting with God. When does it stop being a symbol and become reality? We don't need incense and candles to know that God hears our prayers... We don't need to present offerings to a crucifix, because we are living sacrifices, offering our very lives to the Lord as our act of worship... We don't need to go through the priest to confess because Jesus is our high priest and his sacrifice gave us full access to him... We don't need to do things that act as "steps on our journey toward God" because God is the one who has come near to us. While ritual is a good discipline of faith, does it sometimes replace true worship? While traditions help us to remember, does it bind those who really need to experience daily, authentic relationship with the Father?
I don't mean this as a harsh criticism of the Orthodox church... I do respect and appreciate the history of it and admire many things about their devotion to God. But I think this icon and ritual approach to the Christian faith can be a danger to many Christians, regardless of denomination or background. I am so thankful that we are free to approach the throne of grace with confidence, but how often do we take the safe way around, through packaged prayers or spiritual "superiors"? Or how often do we sing the songs and quote the verses we know without applying them or considering the power of the truths they hold? How often do we offer "sacrifices" that cost us nothing?
As true believers and followers of Christ, we are set free from the law that condemns and the prescriptions that limit us... We are not freed in order to become lazy and forgetful, though. We are freed so that our service and surrender can be genuine and complete, overflowing from contagious joy and compelling love. We don't need to try to reach God because he's already reached out to us; now we are free to run to him out of sheer desire and delight to be with him, just as he delights to be with us.
At the Greek Festival, we were told that during the music and dance performances, if we experience something that we enjoy, we should shout, "OPA!" How about our freedom in Christ? OPA! How about our personal relationship with the Creator of the universe? OPA! How about giving our lives to the One who gave his life for us? OPA! How about the faithfulness of God from the beginning of time to the end? OPA! How about the day we can look forward to celebrating and worshipping in Spirit and Truth - all of us who believe and love him - together forever in the presence of our Lord? OPA!!