“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty”
-- Envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, after attending the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia Cathedral, Constantinople, late tenth century.
Shortly after we returned to Banja Luka, we learned that we would soon be hosting two volunteer groups from the United States, whose primary activities would include observing the work we were doing, helping us see what other ministries we could be involved in, and praying for our work. Both groups would be with us for a whole week, and so I wanted them to get a good overview of both the town and the life and culture of the people there. Part of the “education” that I had planned for them was visiting the Divine Liturgy at one of the local Orthodox parishes.
Before the groups arrived, I decided to check out a Liturgy myself, so that I might be better prepared to explain what was going on, and to make sure that I was aware of any protocols or rules of etiquette that might exist. In short, I wanted the groups to be able to fit in as best as possible and to not stick out like a sore thumb. So, on the Sunday before the first group was to arrive, I headed for the Church of the Holy Trinity, the largest parish in town at that time.
I was totally unprepared for what I saw! It just so happened that the Sunday that I chose to attend was a triple celebration. The church was celebrating 2000 years of Christianity, 1000 years of Christianity among the Serbs, and 100 years of the Banja Luka archdiocese. As I entered the church grounds, I noticed a large crowd gathered outside, waiting for I knew not what. There were TV cameras and large video screens for the overflow crowd that was expected.
Soon, there came a procession, the likes of which I had never seen, and which I have not seen since. The procession contained several bishops, dozens of priests and deacons, and countless altar boys bearing candles, fans, icons, and banners. They were singing loudly, triumphantly, and beautifully. They processed into the church, and I and the few hundred others waiting outside followed them in.
And then the Liturgy began. Sweet-smelling smoke filled the room. Icons covered every square inch of the walls and ceilings, reminding me of the great cloud of witnesses that worship with us in heaven (Hebrews 12:1). A beautiful choir gave me the sense that the room was filled with angels. The pomp and solemnity, together with the non-stop prayers and expressions of worship, reminded me of the scenes of heavenly worship revealed in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. In short, I was stunned. Like the Kievian envoys a thousand years before me, I did not know whether I was in heaven or on earth!
The richness of the Divine Liturgy contrasted greatly with the dryness off the Baptist service in Banja Luka, with its few short prayers, its generally superficial songs (when there were songs!), its interminable sermons, and its four bare walls. When I left the Liturgy, I thought “Wow, now THAT is worship!”
When the volunteer groups were in town, I was more than happy to accompany them to the Liturgy. Between my reading and my previous visits to the service, I was able to explain some of the aspects of the church building and the service itself. By the time the second group arrived, I found myself actually defending the church against their Protestant objections. I also found myself crossing myself and making metanias along with the other worshippers. That group must have thought that I had lost my mind! There was definitely a change taking place in my opinion and practice of worship.
After the volunteers had gone, I continued to attend the Liturgy, going nearly every Sunday. When possible, I took Jennifer with me. I would attend the Liturgy in the morning and the Baptist service in the afternoon. Whereas my attendance at the Baptist service was done totally out of obligation, my participation in the Orthodox Liturgy was done out of pure joy. Although I wanted to, for various reasons I never spoke to a priest in Banja Luka. Still, through the Liturgy alone, the Serbs were beginning to convert me!