This is a guest post from Karen Girgis, a valuable member of STSA Church in Arlington, VA. In her own words, Karen is "a lover of all things coffee-shops, but prefers tea. Her hobbies include singing, reading, and pretending like she knows how to play guitar." You can follow her on twitter @karenwgirgis. And if you too are interested in guest posting, please visit my Guest Post guidelines for more info.
In the Orthodox Church, we are now in the period known as the "Holy Fifty" – a period of feasting where the church celebrates Jesus’ presence with the disciples after His resurrection – and yet, my heart is still meditating on Christ’s last week on earth before the crucifixion.
Throughout Holy Week, as I attended daily liturgical worship services, I reflected over the mode of worship in Orthodoxy, which emphasizes outward expressions of piety and devotion. I don’t mean this in a negative sense. Consider. Almost every part of the Orthodox Church is intended to lead Christians through a physical act of worship in order to model for us the posture that our hearts should be taking.
For example, during Lent, we fast in order to remind our hearts that Jesus truly is all we need. During Liturgy, women who cover their hair with lace scarves take the physical posture of humility, a reflection of the humility they are experiencing within. For me, sometimes I’m so moved in worship that I feel led to place a scarf over my head so that my body is aligned with the posture of my heart. Other times, I use the scarf to lead my heart into deeper prayer and reflection.
During the Sacrament of Confession, we tell our priest - a real person - the deepest agonies of our heart. And when he prays over us and encourages us, he demonstrates, a little more concretely, the assurance of forgiveness that Jesus gives us every day when we pray. The priest speaks loudly what we can sometimes only hear whispered in our individual prayers, but are no less real.
These examples of outward expressions of worship where the church uses common elements for holy purposes are just a few; they are everywhere if you look.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ last days on earth, you ask?
Well, I didn’t always have this wonderfully inspiring view of the Orthodox Church – and, in some ways, I had good reasons.
Throughout the Scriptures, but particularly during Holy Week, we are warned against empty expressions of worship that lead to unchanged hearts and unjust actions. In Isaiah 58, the prophet warns:
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.” (emphasis mine). Jesus, speaking of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, reminds us again that our outward expressions of piety may indeed just be self-serving, saying that the Pharisees “preach, but do not practice. They do all their deeds to be seen by others… they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”
And again, the prophet Samuel, after King Saul deliberately disobeys God’s commands in battle and takes the plunder to burn sacrifices to the Lord, says:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Because of these warnings and the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on offerings and sacrifices (fasting, prostration, head coverings etc), I have had the tendency to disregard all outward expressions of worship.
But to do this would ignore another part of Jesus’ teachings that He calls good and right -- the expressions that come from a broken and contrite spirit, or that are done in pursuit of a broken and contrite spirit.
In Matthew 26, a woman anoints Jesus with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment. The critic in me echoes the disciples saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold of a large sum and given to the poor.”
Isn’t that what Isaiah 58 would have us do - use our resources to serve others? But Jesus reminds us that sometimes, the call is just to sit with Jesus and adorn Him in love. May we all live to hear Jesus’ next words to her:
“But Jesus… said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me’” (Matthew 26:10).