Orthodoxy is known for its pomp. Or rather (as our apologists and partisans like to say) for “its glorious worship”. We like to share the old story of the delegation from the then-pagan land of the Rus who visited an Orthodox Liturgy in Constantinople in the tenth century and who were so impressed with its liturgical pomp that they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth”. We try hard to imitate that Byzantine glory, even though Byzantium is long gone. As the old song says, “it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. So if you’ve a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting in Istanbul”. It’s true, of course, but try selling that in the world of Orthodox jurisdictional politics. There, Byzantium is still alive, and your date will be waiting in Constantinople. Our parish praxis also still longs for the good old days of Byzantine glory, and takes the ordo of the Great Church of the Hagia Sophia in the Imperial capital as its own. We aspire to the slow and heavy pomp that filled that mighty cathedral in its glory days, and try our best to reproduce it in our little local parishes, even though that parish might consist of only twelve people, led by a choir of three. They can’t even cover all the parts of a four-part harmony, but they do their best. That pomp, after all, is what Orthodoxy is all about. The delegation from the land of the Rus said so.
I was thinking of this liturgical and Byzantine standard when I read a little book called simply Jerusalem, written by Colin Thubron about his sojourn in the Holy City and published first in 1969. He describes the Holy Week ceremony of the Washing of Feet in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in these words:
“Censers swing through a foggy redolence, and out of the Church of St. James the bishops, vested in gold and purple like Russian fairy-tale kings, process in hieratic calm, inflated and portentous. At the church door the Blessed and Holy Patriarch appears, stupendous in a globular Muscovite crown glittering fat jewels, and beneath his jewelled fingers the pastoral stave, taps its way slowly to a dias carved with little golden angels. He sits with his twelve bishops, symbolic of Christ among his apostles, but cushioned in agreeable state like a Byzantine emperor convening ministers. As the Gospel account of the Washing of the Feet is read, he is divested of his more extravagant garments and is girded in a towel while a golden basin is filled from a silver ewer. With the aid of four priests, the Patriarch arises. “Wait,” murmurs a deacon. His jewels are rearranged on his chest. The apostles look nervous and fidget their feet under their robes and one by one, with god-like solemnity, the Patriarch gives them a desultory wipe”.
Byzantium indeed, and still alive in Jerusalem in the late 1960s. I mention this account not to heap any blame on the Patriarch or his bishops, but to contrast it with another ceremony of the Washing of the Feet held in a little suburban parish that I know of. It was held after an evening Holy Week service, and most of the people, especially those with little children, had gone home. A few remained in the nave, awaiting the all-night vigil when they will keep awake with Christ and chant psalms. A dozen or so people, including some brave children up late past their bedtime, sit on the pew, all having removed their shoes and socks. The priest reads the account of the Washing of the Feet from St. John’s Gospel. He then removes his cassock, takes a towel and a large bowl of warm water and kneels before the first person. He puts first one foot of the seated parishioner in the bowl and gently washes it, then the other foot, and then dries the feet without a word. They both rise, and embrace. The one who had his feet washed then takes the towel and bowl and kneels before the next person, silently washing their feet also, and so on until all present have both washed their neighbour’s feet and been washed in turn. They then all join hands and say the Lord’s Prayer, the priest concluding with the customary exclamation. The basin was not golden, but aluminum; at the last church meal, it held salad.
Here, I submit, is the true glory of Orthodoxy—the glory of brothers and sisters united in familiarity and love. The service described by Mr. Thubron had the glory of Byzantium, the glory of spectacle, and it was rooted in visual splendour. The latter ritual had the glory of shared humility, and was rooted in relationship. The former was not wrong, but the latter is better. Ardent defenders of the Typikon may object that it was not done according to the dictates of the liturgical rules, that it was at best para-liturgical and at worst simply wrong. But for those who experienced it, it was life-giving. They were not observing a Byzantine spectacle; they were transported to the Upper Room. And the children there, who had their feet washed by their parents and who washed the feet of others in their turn, will never forget it. Cathedral pomp has its place. But let no one despise the little local parish for lacking it, for in it a mighty secret is hidden. Its humble life is not a deficiency, but its glory. Anyone who has read about the Christmas cave and the manger should find that easy to believe. This does not mean that little local parishes should not aspire to pomp and glory. Golden basins and silver ewers and glistening jewels are all wonderful. But not as wonderful as humility and shared love. In the rush to obtain the former, we must not forget the latter. We may not be able to afford the gold and the silver, but we can surely and easily afford the humility and the love. And after all, that was what the washing of feet was all about.