A Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow

I recently had the opportunity to worship in a Russian Orthodox church, which has a very different practice to the informal protestant style to which I am accustomed.  The entire service was liturgical, with plenty of chanting, incense, robes and icons.  Their tradition is full of majesty, drama, and symbolism, something which many western churches with a ‘low’ tradition have lost.  Talking afterwards to the faithful believer who was my companion, she explained that she was unable to take communion on this occasion as she had not had sufficient time to prepare.

Apparently she would have had to spend about 2½ hours in private prayer following a prescribed liturgy reflecting on the gravity of her sin.  She would have had to fast for 5 hours beforehand so that she could take communion on an empty stomach, and prior to (or during) the church service she would have needed to make confession to a priest.  Only then was she ready to receive communion.

Many protestants will be challenged, or even angered, by this lengthy procedure.  They may be muttering about people putting stumbling blocks in the way of the penitent coming to Jesus for forgiveness.  They may be thinking that Jesus would have had harsh things to say about such apparently pharisaic behaviour.  Surely, they will say, the whole point of Jesus’ complete and perfect sacrifice was so that the sinner can come to him and find forgiveness easily, because there is nothing the sinner can do to earn it?

My Orthodox friend’s response to this suggestion is to point out that our sin is truly awful, and that we should take time to remind ourselves of the terrible price it cost Jesus before taking advantage of his free grace.  Only when we contemplate how our thoughts, words and actions have placed an impassable barrier between us and God which only Jesus can remove, are we ready to enjoy the fruit of this lavish forgiveness.

Perhaps she has a point.  Whether we are high church or low, sacramental or symbolist, what we all have in common is that we believe that communion is something special.  In many traditions it is specifically called Holy Communion.  Yet we often fail to treat it with the respect and awe that I saw in that Orthodox church.  It seems that the more informal our church meetings are, the less time we give to contemplate our sinfulness.  Many churches deliberately avoid reflecting on our human depravity because they prefer to emphasis the fact that we are saints by God’s grace than sinners by nature.  So we come to communion with nothing more than a quick ‘Sorry Lord’ to prepare our hearts, which can cultivate the impression that our sin doesn’t really matter.

Our sin matters hugely.  It is our sin that led Jesus to the cross on our behalf.  It is our sin that hammered huge nails into his innocent flesh.  It is our sin which caused him to surrender his life so that we can be reconciled to God and purchase our forgiveness with his blood.

Forgiveness is free, but it is not cheap.