In 603 A.D. St Augustine of Canterbury, who had landed in Kent some six years earlier on a mission from the Pope to convert the East Saxons, arrived in Wales to meet with the Welsh bishops. What happened is recorded in St. Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English people.” St Augustine sat on his throne in the church waiting for the arrival of his brothers. These men reverently entered church with great expectations and stood before the Archbishop. St Augustine, sadly, remained firmly seated in his chair and refused to stand to greet these holy men. This was as we say today a public relations disaster and soured the relationship between the Celtic and Saxon hierarchies, both of whom of course acknowledged the jurisdiction of Rome. For all the fact that St Augustine was a saint, on this occasion he lacked all humility and respect and the consequences were not good. This is not just a question of protocol but rather of Christian charity and respect for God and his saints. The Welsh bishops entered the church well; this emissary from Rome did not.
Later this week we shall celebrate another entry, that of the Theotokos into the Temple in Jerusalem when she was a young girl. The account of this event in the Protoevangelium of St. James mentions that the Mother of God entered the Temple to the singing of Psalms and the carrying of lamps. Her parents, St Joachim and Anna knew full well what this entrance signified. Their daughter was being prepared for some great work of God and where better for this preparation to take place than in the Temple where the Lord of Lords and King of Kings had His throne?
In like manner whenever we approach the church, enter and walk inside, we should do so reverently and prayerfully knowing that the Lord awaits, high and lifted up on the praises of His people. Sadly some Orthodox have the very bad practice of keeping Him waiting by arriving late, presumably measuring out the time so that it is not too long. Is this not disrespectful? Is this not how St. Augustine behaved? Happily we are improving our practice here at St. Aidan’s and most people now are here to hear the word of God sung and preached. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God and if we are to receive the Heavenly Bread we must first also receive the Heavenly Word, for the two are the One and the same; Christ - the Bread of God and the Word made flesh.
Perhaps we should now also look a little more closely at how we enter church, at what we do and why we do it. Many of us are now so accustomed to these things that it can be helpful to refresh our understanding so that our prayer and our preparation for Divine Worship can become more fervent and sincere.
On approaching the church, certainly no further in than the narthex, (that is the outer chamber), we should make the sign of the cross three times and utter a silent prayer to God thanking Him that we have the freedom to enter His holy temple to worship Him. We should enter without fuss and without undue haste. We then move to the holy icons, reverence them and a light a candle or candles as we offer prayers of intercession and mercy for ourselves and for others. Only then are we ready to take our place, preferably standing and prepare ourselves for the start of Divine Service. If we are parents this is a wonderful witness to our children of what the Lord means to us and the holiness of His house. If we are casual about such things we should not be surprised if our children later bow to the pressures of this godless culture and drift away from the Church. We must always lead by example.
I suppose I am saying that humility and respect ought always to be cultivated in our hearts and minds when we approach both the King of Kings and His servants, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus had a very specific teaching on these matters when he confronted the mother of Zebedee’s sons who tried to elbow her boys to the front.
“But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.“ (Matthew 20:25-26)
Worship, humility and service are inseparable in the Christian life and we inculcate those by our attention to the little things as well as the great. Even the manner in which we make our entry into the Temple with Our Lady the Mother of God speaks volumes of the things that really matter to us, and ultimately thereby our capacity to become living temples of the Word of God Himself - who came to serve and give of His life as a ransom for many.