There is joy in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, deep joy. Faithful believers coming together to pray, to reorient their lives around the Holy Trinity, around the love that is our God.
The Liturgy itself is a choreography, a kind of dance. The priests follow steps practiced as far back as the Church’s memory goes. Processions with the Gospel book, and then with the unconsecrated bread and wine become the Lord Jesus bringing Good News to the World, and then the Lord Himself going up to Jerusalem, to the cross for the sake of the world that God so loved.
And there is the response, the constant response of the faithful, singing their ‘Amen,’ adding their ‘Lord have mercy’, singing the great ancient hymns of the Church.
It doesn’t matter that people sometimes don’t see this, that sometimes the Orthodox themselves give the appearance that they don’t believe what they are saying or what the Church around them is singing. The Church is the outstretched hand of God to every person who comes, giving to each one of us yet another opportunity to touch God, to meet with God, to listen to God, to be transformed by God.
Sometimes protocol is mistaken for theology. And we Orthodox are very good at protocol. Sometimes propriety is mistaken for goodness. Sometimes decorum is mistaken for spirituality. Sometimes the form seems more important than the content. Sometimes joy is overlooked as a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives. But then, sometimes not.
This past Sunday, I was in the middle of a celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The Bishop had just come through the Royal Doors with the Holy Gifts for God’s people. The brightly dressed choir launched into a call-and-response riff of praise, with drums and guitars, the choir ladies in their bright blue blouses and their sensible navy skirts and the men in the back row singing their hearts out, and everyone swaying back and forth. And the people lined up, first the children and then the grownups, a long, long line of people waiting their turn to receive the Holy Gifts, the Body and the Blood of our Lord. And as I was watching, I noticed that people in the line were, in fact everyone in line was moving with the music. Young mamas carrying babies, old mamas with their grey hair covered by bright scarfs, young men jiving, old men stepping – I suddenly realize that everyone is dancing, two-stepping up to the Bishop, dancing before the Lord, dancing for the Lord. Even I found myself moving, dancing, such was the scene, it was contagious, such was the joy around me.
And it continued. Once the Liturgy was finished and the offering was being collected. We take offerings here by having people bring theirs up to the front. And the people came with their offerings to the Lord. And they came dancing, unselfconsciously dancing. And the Bishop came down for the final blessing, and he was dancing. We didn’t want it to end.
Life is hard in rural Kenya, a scramble to come up with enough. There is none of the bling and glitter that beguile so many in the West. No granite countertops here, or three car suburban garages. No Tablets for children. No retirement plans for the grandparents. But I’ve seen joy. Plain, ungarnished joy.
Joy is wonderful, and it overflows. Joy makes some to cry, and others to shout. And some just have to move their feet. I found joy this past Sunday, in an unexpected place, in this land that has so little. Little did I know as I drove down dusty bumpy roads, past small farms with their maize and chickens and goats, past the tidy mud-walled homes with tin roofs and the occasional round hut with a thatched roof, little did I know that there might be joy here. But there is, in this land where the faithful pray, in this land where Bishops dance.