Lights, Incense, Action! A Greek Orthodox Encounter

  By: Lauren Martin         

          Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong! Bleary eyed, I groaned to myself, “What ungodly hour of the morning is this?” as I checked my phone. 7 AM my phone reported. Resigned to the fact that my wakefulness was inevitable, I sat up in bed and realized that these were church bells I was hearing. “Wow, perhaps not such an ungodly hour of the morning,” I mused to myself. “Well, of course,” I reasoned, “I would hear the church bells go off, since we were staying in close proximity to a local church on the island, Aegina.” I silently forgave the church bells for disturbing me, so long as they did not make a habit out of it. Guess what they did? They made a habit out of it. Every morning, whether we were on Aegina or in the small town of Nea Kios, I awoke to the persistent ringing of church bells. I found it quite impossible to ignore, much less to sleep through, the toiling of these bells. I decided to act upon the old phrase, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” Seven o’clock in the morning is a little early for my own Catholic Masses in Baton Rouge, but we were quite a long way from there.

I had promised my devout father that I would make my greatest effort to attend Catholic Mass on Sundays while abroad, but a Greek Orthodox service would have to suffice. As it turned out, I was actually an endangered species, since Greece is 98% Greek Orthodox! So, on the Eve of the Solemnity of the Epiphany, I marched myself across the town center in Nea Kios promptly after I heard the church bell’s first ring. Herein lies my first error in Greek Orthodox etiquette: no one is ‘on time’ for Greek Orthodox Mass or service, not even the priests! Realizing I had already identified myself as an ‘outsider,’ I discreetly and respectfully sat down in the small, ornate chapel, and quietly waited for the service to unfold. Slowly, as the church bells cycled through their second and third round of chimes, the local peoples trickled in. It was during this time that I observed a peculiar ritual: each person, upon entry, would kiss an elaborately decorated book or icon (it was difficult to discern what it was from a distance) displayed in the center of the chapel, kiss a small cross, placed next to it, multiple times, and then made a small loop around the perimeter of the church’s interior to kiss various icons of Mother Mary or other Saints. The walls and ceilings of this church were covered in Byzantine style mosaics and framed icons. My own ponderings led me to conjecture this was some method of paying respects, but I verified this with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of America1 to make certain. Their website explains that the kissing of icons is an “acknowledge[ment] that the icon is a reminder that the link between the icon and the person it represents in heaven is real.”Orthodox belief holds that the veneration for the icons (kissing them) will be received by the holy person it portrays.


[Icon of Mary holding the baby Jesus in a small mountainside chapel near Nea Kios, Greece]


[Icon of St. George on presentation table]

As the various worshipers entered and made their icon veneration rounds, the presiding priests and deacons carried on the service with much chanting and wafting of heavily scented incense throughout the small chapel. The many candles, the intoxicating burning incense, and the richly colored iconography covering the inner walls from ceiling to floor created an environment distinctly removed from the natural world on the other side of the chapel walls. Indeed, our service was well underway. There were three different men conducting this prayer service. Our guide while exploring Nafplio and Nea Kios, Takis, related to me that there were three major orders which required a special ordination process in the Greek Orthodox church: the diaconate (deacons), the presbyterate (priests), and the episcopacy (bishops).

The deacon ministering during the service wore an ornate gown with a narrow stole over one shoulder and across his body, which the Orthodox Deacons Organizationterms an orarion. The main roles of a deacon during Mass are coordinating and leading liturgical worship, music, and church order. Takis told me that the diaconate was an intermediary stage of joining the presbyterate (priesthood). Though I reserve that it is possible the faith is practiced in this fashion in Nafplio, where Takis is from, the Orthodox Deacons Organization explains that the Orthodox diaconate can actually function as a life-long vocation as well, and that the conception of the diaconate only functioning as a stepping stone to priesthood is a common misconception among their faithful.2

Another presiding minister whose vestments were particularly fascinating was a man wearing a floor length, beautifully embroidered red cape with shiny gold trimming, called a phelonion3. The man vested in this phelonion was a priest, whose primary duty during a Mass is to perform the rites during which transubstantiation (the changing of bread and wine to the body and blood of Jesus Christ) occurs. The third man I observed was an additional, older priest, who wore similar vestments to the man just described, although in white rather than red.

While no bishop was present during the service I attended, there was a bishop present for the traditional Blessing of the Water ceremony on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, a special holy day within the Greek Orthodox tradition. Bishops can be distinguished most easily by their omophorion, a scarf-like vestment worn around the shoulders which symbolizes a bishop’s spiritual and ecclesiastical authority, and the mitre, which is an elaborately decorated headdress.4 Unlike priests and deacons, bishops reserve the ability to ordain other holy ministers. Additionally, although deacons and priests are allowed to marry before their ordination, only priests who elect to remain celibate may be ordained as bishops.









[Bishop mitre]

If there was anything lacking from this intricate service, it was silence. Never was there a moment when one of priests or the deacon was not chanting. In fact, quite often two of the men were chanting separate prayers or readings in ancient Greek simultaneously! (Add this overlapping speech to the fact that I possessed extremely limited vocabulary in Modern Greek and absolutely none in ancient Greek, and you have one confused LSU student!) Congregational participation was limited to standing and sitting according to appropriate reverence for the duration of the service. For example, towards the end of the service, the congregation stood up while one of the priests, accompanied by the other priest and deacon, walked around the space of the chapel to flick specially blessed holy water onto the congregants. If this holy water were to land upon a Greek Orthodox, he or she would make the sign of the cross three times, starting at the forehead, then the chest, and then the right shoulder followed by the left. Many of the activities the priests and deacon performed occurred behind a wall with a single, centered doorway the congregation could see through. During such activities, we (the congregation) sat respectfully. Occasionally, one of the three ministers would come out from behind the wall to join us in the larger area, to either chant facing us or facing the same direction we were in front of the same book (or icon) each of the congregants had kissed previously. When this happened, we all stood.


                 [Ex. of wall which separates priestly activities from the congregation. Taken from church located in Nafplio, Greece]

          Throughout my experience, my primary pondering was whether or not this was a Mass or some other sort of prayer service, since there was no indication to either at first. As it turned out, I was partaking in a special prayer service and blessing ritual associated with the Solemnity of the Epiphany. Instead of administering the Eucharist as during a regular Mass, at the end of this approximately two hour service, the three ministers came out from behind the wall with some branches and the same small cross I’d seen the people each kiss upon entering the church. The congregation lined up single file to be individually blessed by the elder priest with this branch, and then step aside to kiss the small cross held by the younger priest three times before either exiting the church or remaining towards the back to mingle with other prayer service attendants.

I attempted to query many of the congregants about what kind of plant this was that the priest was blessing people with. However, none of the individuals who were kind enough to attempt a conversation with me spoke enough English to answer my specific question. In fact, the man who spoke the most English was actually a scholar of the German language. Unfortunately, he was also incapable of answering my question in English, and I certainly was incapable of conversing with him in Greek or German! Though I was concerned my presence would be considered a rude intrusion on their religious practices, I was joyfully and kindly reassured by several of the participants that they were pleased I had ventured into their local church, and especially so, since my intent was to learn more about Greek Orthodoxy’s role in their daily lives. As a gesture of respect, I refrained from taking photographs of the inside of their church, since our language barrier prevented me from asking a priest’s permission to do so. However, I have featured below an image of the outside of the church along with several images of other churches’ and chapels’ interiors open for tourists to photograph that were similar architecturally to this particular church I visited. As I bid many people while leaving this church service, Chronya pola! (Many years!)


[Exterior of Greek Orthodox church at which I attended the prayer service in Nea Kios, Greece]


[Interior of chapel within Palamidi fortress in Nafplio, Greece]


[Interior of small chapel built into side of mountain outside Nea Kios, Greece]


[Ceiling of Church covered with iconography found in Nafplio, Greece]


[Icons paneling wall separating priestly activities found in chapel within Palamidi fortress]

Additional Sources:





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