I just came back from a very exciting and fulfilling week in New York City. I saw all my favourite musicals including Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and indeed, even Hamilton. But the best musical in town didn’t cost hundreds of dollars and didn’t take place a few blocks off Broadway on a Thursday night. No, the best musical experience of my NYC trip happened at St. Nicholas Carpatho Orthodox Church on Sunday Morning on the Lower East side of Manhattan.
Now I realize that calling an Orthodox Church service the best musical in town is liable to offend both churchgoers and musical theatre fans alike, but here are 3 reasons why I think this is true.
An Orthodox church service is a bonafied musical experience
Before attending an Orthodox church service I had heard that they sing a lot in their liturgy. Upon attending in the flesh, however, I learned that they sing nearly the entire thing. From the prayers for others, to invocation of the Eucharist, to the Gospel readings themselves; the entire liturgy (with the exception of the homily) was sung, quite excellently I might add, by the Priest, elders, deacons, and indeed by the entire congregation.
It is an egalitarian experience
Church, and the Greek Orthodox church in particular, often comes under a lot of scrutiny for its hierarchical structure. Many secular Musical Theatre attendees will reject outright the shame and feeling of being “less than” that came from their religious upbringings. Yet those same Theatre attenders will fawn over every little detail of the talent of their latest celebrity crush, sitting worshipfully in their seat hanging on Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, or Lin Manuel-Miranda’s every note. And how often do Protestant churches, who rejected Catholic/Orthodox hierarchy in the Reformation in favour of the “Priesthood of All Believers,” present the knowledgeable pastor on a pedestal (or even a stage) espousing his gospel fact without so much as a question period afterward?
Church at St. Nicholas Carpatho instead had magnificent paintings of Jesus up on the walls. The beauty of the paintings drew your attention up, not to a church leader, nor to a very expensive pipe organ (as my Reformed tradition too often would have it), nor even to an image of bread and wine. Instead, the priest, with his back toward us for 90% of the service, joined us all in staring worshipfully up at an image of Jesus Christ, not as an idol, but as leading us up to meditate on the real presence of Jesus himself among us, captured only in part by this tremendous artwork and iconography.
The only two times I recall the priest turning around to face us was (a) to humbly and joyfully proclaim the word from the lowest place in the sanctuary, and (b) to ask the congregation to forgive him for his sins.
Not escapism, Incarnation
Church in secular NYC can often fall to the criticism of being “so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good.” This is an especially frequent critique of the Orthodox church. But it’s interesting that the tremendous lightshows and pyrotechnics of both our musical theatre experiences as well as our megachurches fall short of the beautiful simplicity of the sweet-smelling incense of the Orthodox mass. The glowing screen of time’s squares as well as the Hillsong NYC Jumbotron cannot hold a candle to the humble glowing candles in the sanctuary or the gorgeous oil paintings of Christ in standard definition found at St. Nicolas’ parish.