The Greek Orthodox Church

The Greek Orthodox Church
Flag of the Greek Orthodox Church

Gavalochori has 12 churches, many of which date their origins to ancient times. Most are owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, but some were built by private persons on their own property. These churches are ordinated by priests just like those owned by the church, but those who build them must take care of the maintenance of the buildings and courtyards themselves.

All of the churches in Gavalochori are Greek Orthodox. Adherents to the Greek Orthodox Church believe that the church that exists today is the church that the apostles set up in the New Testament of the Bible. Officially, the history of the Church began at Pentecost in 33 AD, when the Holy Spirit was said to have descended on the apostles, and they began to speak in tongues, speaking in languages they did not know in order to reach the people who had gathered there. The Pentacost thus marked the beginning of the mission of the church to the world. Today, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates this event with a Feast of Pentecost 50 days after Easter. 

Greeks are proud of the fact that their church originated with Jesus Christ and not with a human teacher or group, a code of conduct, or a religious philosophy. Key beliefs in the faith are that God was revealed in Jesus, Jesus is the incarnation of God, and Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The Bible of the Greek Orthodox Church is the same as that of most Western churches except that its Old Testament is based not on the Hebrew but on the ancient Greek translation of books from the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (Εβδομήκοντα).

Although a formal separation of church and state is part of the constitution of Greece, religion is a fundamental pillar of the Greek nation. Around 90% of the Greek population identifies as Christian Orthodox. The Greek states pays the salaries and pensions of the clergy—salaries that are comparable to those of teachers. Religious marriages and baptisms have the same legal value as civil ones, students attend religion classes in school, and religious holidays are civic holidays. 

Priests in the Greek Orthodox Church typically do not receive a university education but complete two years in seminaries run by the Church and financed by the Greek state. Following their graduation, they may be ordained as deacons and eventually priests. They are allowed to marry before their ordination as deacons but not after, and most priests in Greece are married and have children. Priests are not called by their first names alone but are referred to as Father (Πάτερ), followed by their first name. They are greeted not with a handshake but by kissing the back of the priest’s right hand, showing respect for his office. The wife of a priest also holds a special role as parish mother, and she is given the title of Presbytera (Πρεσβυτέρα), which means “priest’s wife.” Another option for men who seek a religious occupation is to enter a monastery and take monastic vows. Similarly, women may take monastic vows and become nuns, but they are not ordained. Altar service is restricted to males, although women participate in every other aspect of church life—leading congregational singing, painting icons, teaching classes, reading the Bible, and serving on the parish council. 

The interior of a Greek Orthodox Church is considered to be sacred space designed to lead worshippers closer to God. Ideally, an Orthodox church is relatively small in order to enhance the sense of community in worship. It is generally divided into three areas—the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary. The narthex is the entrance area, and in many parishes, the narthex is the area where individuals make an offering, receive a candle, light it before an icon, and offer a personal prayer before joining the congregation. The nave is the center area of the church where the worshippers gather for the service. On the right side of the nave is the bishop’s throne from which he presides as a living icon of Christ. Even in the bishop’s absence, the throne reminds worshippers that the parish is a part of the diocese that the bishop heads. On the left side of the nave is the pulpit from which the priest preaches the sermon. 

The sanctuary is considered the most sacred part of the church and is reserved for priests and their assistants. It contains the altar, which is separated from the nave by an iconostasis, a screen made of wood, stone, or metal that displays icons or representations of saints. On the right side of the iconostasis are always the icons of Jesus and Saint John the Baptist. On the left side are always the icons of Mary and the patron saint or event to which the church is dedicated. Other icons may be added, depending on custom and space. Behind the altar is a large cross with the painted figure of Jesus.

Anyone is welcome to attend Greek Orthodox services. The pale yellow church that stands in the heart of Gavalochori, the Church of the Nativity of Mary, is the church that is used for regular religious services in the winter. In the summer, these services are held in the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus near the Folklore Museum. Services begin at 7:30 on Sunday morning and end around 9:30 or 10:00, depending, for example, on whether the priest delivers a sermon or if it is the remembrance day of someone who has died. If you would like to participate in a service, the following gives you an idea of what to expect. 

During Orthodox services, everyone faces east toward the altar and the icon of Jesus, even the priest. He turns to face the worshippers only to bless them, to give the sermon, and to perfume them with incense. 

Visitors to Greek Orthodox services are usually struck by the length (it can last for several hours) and by the heightened sensory experience of the service. The icons that tend to be abundantly displayed contribute to this experience. These are two-dimensional images that can be made of paint, mosaics, embroidery, stone, or other materials, and they are likely to adorn the walls, ceilings, arches, and iconostasis of the church. They depict figures such as Jesus, the saints, and angels, or they may portray events from the Bible or the history of the church. Greek Orthodox Christians see the icons as a window that links heaven and earth because they signify the presence of the individual depicted. In a Greek Orthodox service, you are likely to see worshippers crossing themselves and then kissing icons. This does not mean that they are worshiping them or the people depicted in them. Instead, they are venerating them—honoring, respecting them, and showing their love for them. 

Singing constitutes about 75% of a Greek Orthodox service. Traditionally, no instruments are used, although some large churches do have organs. Instead, a small choir leads the worshippers in a cappella singing. In some churches, the congregation does very little singing and allows the choir to do most of it. The same prayers and hymns are sung at the same moments in the service, so they are not difficult for Greek speakers to memorize. 

Another part of the service is the Eucharist, the ceremony commemorating Jesus’s Last Supper, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed, representing the body and blood of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox Church practices monogamous communion, which means that only individuals baptized in the Greek Orthodox faith may receive communion. A round communion loaf, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with a seal, and in the preparation service prior to the service, the priest cuts out a section of the seal, called the Lamb (Αμνός) and sets it aside. The rest of the bread is cut up, placed in a large basket, and blessed by the priest. He then places the Lamb in the chalice of wine, and the people who want to receive communion file past the priest, who gives them a portion of the wine-soaked bread from a spoon and prays over them. They then pass by an altar boy holding a basket of blessed bread and may take portions of it for themselves or for non-Orthodox friends or visitors. This sign of fellowship is meant to welcome everyone into the community in that even those who do not receive communion can share in the common loaf. (As you might imagine, the fact that one common spoon is used for dispensing the wine-soaked bread from the same cup during communion caused a great deal of controversy during the COVID-19 pandemic.) 

In the Greek Orthodox Church, worshippers stand a lot—often throughout nearly the entire service. Some churches have chairs or pews, but some have an open nave with no seats, so everyone stands (although there usually are a few chairs at the edges of the room for the ill and the old). You also may see worshippers prostrate themselves, but this is not like prostration in the Catholic tradition, where the individual lies flat on the floor. Prostration in the Greek Orthodox Church involves kneeling, placing the hands on the floor, and touching the forehead between the hands. Prostration is not required, and some worshippers will kneel, stand with heads bowed, or sit crouched over. All individual expressions of worship are seen as acceptable.

A Greek Orthodox service also involves making the sign of the cross. Individuals typically cross themselves when the name of the Holy Trinity is invoked, when they are venerating icons or the cross, and before receiving the Eucharist. There are no strict rules about when worshippers should and should not cross themselves—no one has to make the sign at a specific time. Greek Orthodox worshippers make the sign of the cross by joining their thumb, index, and middle fingertips and resting the other two fingers against their palms. They touch the joined fingertips to their foreheads and then their abdomen, followed by touching the right shoulder and then the left (the opposite of Roman Catholics). The three fingers held together represent the Trinity, and the two fingers against the palm represent the two natures of Christ—divine and human.

Worshippers in Greek Orthodox churches dress for church services with a goal of worshiping God and not making a fashion statement or calling attention to themselves. Men typically wear dress pants and collared shirts or sweaters. Women avoid tight clothing, low-cut and sleeveless tops, and short skirts or dresses. Women now may wear pants to church services, but they should not be shorts, jeans, or sweatpants. Some women choose to cover their heads during worship, but this is not required. 

The art, architecture, and the service of a Greek Orthodox church are all designed to contribute to the total experience of worship, which involves senses, feelings, and intellect. An adage summarizes what the totality of the elements that make up the church is designed to accomplish: “Let the Christian consider well when he enters the church that he is entering another heaven. That same majesty of God which is in heaven is also in his church, and on this account the Christian must enter with reverence and awe.”

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