Recently, our parish began holding week day services for certain of the special days in the church year that fall during the week. This is something typical of most Orthodox Churches, but something we have not really done much of in the past. Two weeks ago it was for St. John Chrysostom. Last week was the Feast of the Entry of the Virgin Mary into the Temple. This week is the commemoration of Saint Andrew, the First-called of the Apostles. The evening before these special days we pray the Services of Vespers, followed by Matins, and then the following morning at 7:30 a.m. we have the Divine Liturgy, the main service of worship of the Church where we partake of Holy Communion.
The evening services have a decent turnout. The early morning liturgy has not been a big success if you judge success by the number of attendees. But, perhaps strangely, I think I get more out of the weekday liturgy than those we hold on Sunday for that very reason – there is hardly anyone there.
In the early morning the world outside is relatively still. The church is quiet and the rising sun shines in through the stained glass windows, illuminating the face of the priest with its light and warmth as he stands in prayer before the altar. The incense sweetens the morning air and the songs are chanted simply and reverently, without instrumental accompaniment. There is nothing to come between the imperfect voices and their creator. And, in between the songs and prayers is a shared stillness.
In reflecting on what appeals to me in the morning liturgy, I think what I am responding to is the intimacy. The attendees are usually only 2 or 3. We all stand close together, just a few feet from each other, including the Priest who leads us. We can hear each other breathe in prayer, and we respond to each other’s voices singing softly along with the ancient hymns. We share the service with each other and there is nothing else to disturb or distract us.
I find that my response is not the same on Sunday morning. Ironically, where the congregation is larger I find it harder to focus on prayer. I suppose I should see the larger crowds as a sign of success. But, there is so much going on around me, more to pay attention to, and I discover that where more people are praying and singing I hear the voices but not the prayers. In the crowd I become distracted by movements, and whispers and an off key note here, a cough there, and the myriad of things that take place in any large group of people. I am not sure what all this means. But, what I think I am coming to understand is that the Kingdom of God works more through the few, than through the many. Large crowds do not seem to be God’s chosen medium.
In my limited experience and very incomplete understanding, God does not seem to move on the macro level, but the micro. While thousands of people flocked to Christ in the early stages of his ministry, he entrusted the Gospel to twelve. The thousands who followed him left him in droves as the difficulty of his message grew more and more apparent. And, he did not run after them begging them to stay, or change his message or start a new program or type of worship service to appeal to the masses. He let them go of their own free will, and in the end he was not even able to keep all the twelve. It turns out that God is very seeker insensitive.
In Texas we tend to think that bigger is better. But, after experiencing the smallness of the Kingdom I begin to wonder. God does things and moves in his own way, in a way that does not follow the pattern and way of thinking of Texans, or human beings either. God does not judge success as man judges success. What I have discovered is that I find more spiritual success from a quiet morning liturgy with two worshipers than from any of the large praise services, with hundreds and thousands of people, I have ever attended.