I was fascinated to read recently that the Russian army is training a group of Russian Orthodox priests to be dropped by parachute, complete with a mini-Russian Orthodox church, to hold services for Russian troops around the world. Apparently the mini-church includes “replica icons, crucifixes, chalices, and bells, as well as an air-conditioning unit and a generator.” Quite interesting, I think, that the Russian army would spend the money to build such a mobile church unit and to train the priests to parachute in with it in order to provide services…particularly interesting given the obstacles chaplains in the U.S. military are facing these days.
However, there is a part of this story that is as sad as the other part is fascinating. Mikhail Vasilyev, head priest of the Airborne Troops, told U.K. newspaper the Guardian that the Russian Orthodox chaplains need the portable church in order to do their jobs. He said, “Orthodox Christianity has many rituals with many religious items which makes catering for the flock without a physical church impossible.”
Why is this sad? For one, Jesus Christ Himself rarely ministered in a “physical church.” Forget a physical church, Jesus did not even have a physical home; Luke 9:58 records Jesus saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus ministered in homes, in the street, in the wilderness, in a boat…even hanging on the cross. He needed no special surroundings in order to minister to anyone.
Thus, it is sad to think that the accoutrements of religion have obtained such an important role in the Russian Orthodox church that caring for members of that church is “impossible” without them. I have no problem with physical church structures, and I can appreciate the beauty of many of the symbols utilized in many churches, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. But when the symbols themselves reach the point of being the focus–when ministry is no longer possible without them–the attention is definitely in the wrong place. Rather than symbols which can help to direct ones attention to God, they can become idols, and rather than directing ones attention to God they can draw ones attention away from Him.
So, parachuting priests and mobile mini-churches…that’s kinda cool, I guess. But it breaks my heart that the Russian Orthodox church believes ministry without them to be “impossible.”