Today was the start of the Ascension festival for orthodox Greeks in Crete and we had the unexpected pleasure of hosting said festival at our hotel, which incidentally happens to have the oldest Greek orthodox church right on its grounds. Even now as the kids sleep they are being serenaded by the beautiful melodies of Greek worship,said to go on, on this particular night, into the early hours of the night. We don’t mind, it sounds lovely. And the kids are snoring soundly through it.
The festival happens each year here. 40 days after Easter, hundreds of worshippers descend on this church that is smaller than my children’s bedroom to gather and celebrate Ascension.
Priests in their colourful garments together with dedicated nuns from the various monasteries and convents emerge and converge here, ready to lead travellers from near and far into communion with God. The stage is prepared early; the day before decorators come and repaint the white church and everything else around it; banners bearing the cross go up, bunting is hung and the statue of the virgin Mary is brought out by the gate.
On ceremony day as the doors of the littlest church fling wide, the priests begin to take centre stage in their impressive attire, singing in latin to the spiritually hungry congregation gathering quickly around them with barely enough room to make the sign of the cross, which seems to be necessary every so few minutes..as we stand among the worshippers, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty in this type if devoted worship. People seeking after God with reverence. Men, women and children sign the cross as they arrive, then line up towards the offering box and pick up a candle, or two and enter the small church to light them and say a prayer, perhaps for themselves or for loved ones.
We watch in awe as somber faces emerge, no doubt contemplating the seriousness in the act of their worship. It is beautiful and moving. But it is all completely unnecessary. As i watch these wonderful people my heart is moved deeply by the spirit and by the sight of Jesus who is so desperately close to them, right now in their rituals. I wonder; do they see him? In the ceremonies of robes and intonated songs- of lost Latin tongues and beautifully laid tables- where is Jesus?
I close my eyes and i can feel him so so close. And yet here, in this place, he feels so far away. I wonder, when did it get like this? When did we move from a Jesus who walked with the disciples hand in hand, who sat and ate with people, who touched theur ailing bodies and washed their feet, to a Jesus who we worship like THIS- dressed in special robes and using languages no one can understand? Have we done that? Have we overcomplicated the simple gospel? Would Jesus walk into our beautifully decorated churches and feel welcome? I’m not at all criticising the authenticity of the worshippers hearts.
Far from it. I see hearts desperately searching to connect with God and to have Him smiling down on them in approval. Like beautiful children longing for the gentle touch of their estranged father. Except he’s not estranged..he’s desperately close, so much so in fact that he became man so that we could finally relate to him.
To see him and touch him. To know that he LOVES us. In our ritualistic worship- how close is he? My prayer tonight as i listen to the dwindling voices of dedicated worship is that each heart here, my own included, will remember that Jesus so loved us first. He us not angry or in need of our veiled worship he wants us to come as we are and see him. May we remember to worship that Jesus. Because he’s not too far away. He’s so close.