It happens all the time. I look out from the Holy Altar at the People of God, and wonder if anyone is even glad to be in Church. I first noticed this more than twenty years ago, when I was still a lay person, but it never fails. Based solely on the faces of those in Church, being Orthodox Christian is a burden and way to sad to attract anyone to the faith. It could be one of the reasons the Church hasn’t taken a stronger hold in America.
Compare the faces in our Orthodox Church to those in the Protestant west, and you will (based on my limited experience) find a different picture. Other Christians are filled with so much joy they are singing with gusto, smiling, and even ON TIME for services. They regularly invite their neighbors and friends to join them in Church. Have you ever wondered what “they” have that we don’t? It is joy!
Too often Orthodox Christian mistake piety with lack of joy. Too often we think we have to sit in the pews, silent in prayer, contemplating our sins, too scared to crack a smile, lest others think we don’t take the faith seriously. Even worse, many do in fact feel burdened to attend Church, admitting only to themselves and God, they would rather be somewhere else.
Now contrast that with the joy felt by St John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth when they heard the greeting of the Virgin Mary.
“Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled the with Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1.39-41)
Joy filled the house to the point that even the not-yet-born John the Baptist leaped for joy. Can you imagine if our Churches were filled with such joy that we even wanted to leap up and down? I know Great Lent can be a difficult journey, and I often speak of the struggle of our way of life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t endure that struggle with joy. It doesn’t mean we must resent sitting in Church, preferring instead to be somewhere else on Sunday morning. It is possible to be filled with joy and still pray contemplating our sins.
The difference isn’t whether we actually jump for joy, although there are examples of such joy in Orthodox Africa. The difference will be visible in our face. You can’t hide joy, but neither can you hide boredom or sadness. As we approach the final week of Great Lent, I invite you to attend Church with joy rather than resentment. Sing the hymns of the Church with gusto and a smile on your face. Invite your friends to join you in Church. And when your friends ask why you wouldn’t rather be somewhere else on Sunday morning, remind them that Christ defeated death so that even when you struggle, it is only temporary.
Finally, remember we ‘get to’ commune with God. God invites US to come spend time with Him. God greets US at the door of His Church, and He’s not just any host. He is THE Host, and would much prefer we join Him with joy.