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Liturgy October 22, 2006

Posted by Seraphim in Liturgy.

Christ is in our midst!

It is perhaps fitting that the first essay I write be about liturgy, since it is, after all, so central to the practice of the Orthodox Christian faith.

First of all, what is liturgy? It derives from the Greek leitourgiā, coming from leitos “public” + ergo “to do.” We might translate it most literally as public action. It is not used in an exclusively religious sense; any kind of public service is considered to be leitourgiā. However, in the religious sense, it means a predefined, codified form of worship. The worship in the Jewish Temple is referred to in Greek translations of the Bible as leitourgiā, in both Old and New Testaments, which is perhaps why we refer to this style of worship in English as “liturgical.” The characteristics of the Jewish liturgy are rather distinct. There are many, many prayers, all sung; the priest wears vestments of a specific pattern with specific symbolic meaning; incense is used; and most importantly, the function of the liturgy is sacrificial in nature.

Now, to most Protestants, this type of predetermined worship is anathema. Sure, one has to have an order of service, but praying the same prayers at every service? Heaven forbid! After all, Matthew 6:7 warns against “vain repetitions as the heathen.” As is typical with these Scripture soldiers, they take only one tiny portion of a verse, out of context, and ignore the entirety of the other evidence. To answer this objection (which also answers the objection against the use of prewritten prayer in the Orthodox Church), let us first consider the verse it its whole context:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.

In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Now, first, let us consider Christ’s message. It is clearly against vain religious practices done for the sake of self-aggrandizement. He is condemning hypocrisy in prayer, those who pray for their own glory rather than for God’s. He describes those who stand in full view of men and pray before them for great lengths of time (the word “vain repetitions” is battologeo, “to be excessively long-winded”), as though God is impressed by the adulations of flatterers.

However–and this instantly flattens the opposition of form-prayers–the Lord immediately thereafter gives a set, defined prayer! There are only a very, very few Christians who would argue that the Lord’s Prayer is a “vain repetition like the heathen,” which in effect concedes that it is possible to sincerely pray a predefined prayer.

After all, no right-thinking Christian could possibly argue that the rites of the Jewish religion were divinely instituted, and hence, emblematic of the way God wanted the Jews to worship. Of course, the Jews, as God’s chosen people, were deeply liturgical, prayed predefined prayers, and what have you. The Protestant position is that, because of the legalism into which Judaism evolved, any form of fixed worship is flawed, forgetting that God Himself instituted fixed worship, and also forgetting the example from the fourth chapter of Revelation:

The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.”

Note that the worship of God is fixed, patterned, and repetitive. The Protestants are throwing the baby out with the bath water when they decry liturgy, casting aside the very order of God on earth and in heaven.

Though this is admittedly a subjective argument, I would contend that can instinctively recognize Truth and Beauty when we see them. What is a hymn, if not a set, sung prayer to God? And do we not recognize hymns as praises before the throne of God? Who here has not been moved almost to tears by hearing “Amazing Grace” in a lonely glen? Is there not something moved in the soul by the solemnity and reverence of liturgy, stretching timelessly back into the past and forward into the future, unchanging in spirit? Is not this a wonderful reflection of God’s eternal nature? Would He, unchanging Himself, prefer a more “modern” form of worship to the one He Himself laid down?
For an answer, let us look at history and consider how the early Christians worshipped. Surely the Apostles themselves, if no one else, knew the practice of Christianity as Christ Himself would have desired. If they did not, there is no hope for the Church against whom Christ promised the gates of hades would not prevail.

What do we find? Why, exactly what we might expect to find from a study of the Scriptures: patterned worship, sung and chanted, resembling the Jewish traditions but equally emulating the heavenly worship. Take a look at the Divine Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem, which dates from the earliest days of Christianity (as early as 60 A.D.), and is, as the name implies, attributed to St. James the Apostle, the kinsman of the Lord. Very different from your average Mass or Sunday service, isn’t it? In fact, it is rather precisely an earlier, longer version of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is the worship service used every week in every Orthodox church in the world. No other Christian tradition can claim to so precisely emulate Apostolic practice… and no other Christian tradition can claim such sheer sanctity and glory in its practice.

It is said the Russian Prince Vladimir once dispatched emissaries throughout all the known world to observe how they worshipped, thereby hoping to find the True Faith. This was their report…

“When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God. We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

May you all one day know that unforgettable beauty that makes manifest the total glory of God.

In Joy,




1. Jonathan - October 24, 2006

No arguments from me so far.

If something is worth saying once, it’s worth saying again. So long as it is not simple parroting or broken record syndrome, the meaning of something is not lost merely through repetition. If one says to one’s friend that he loves him, and then says it again another time later on, what is wrong with that?

On the other hand, I personally find variety and change stimulating and it help me focus on the main thing. I also like things that I can grasp the significance of without needing to learn a new language or become appreciative of ancient music styles.

2. Invictus - October 24, 2006

To answer one of your objections, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is typically always conducted in the national vernacular except for specific culturally referential purposes which in actuality technically have no place within the Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is always supposed to be understandable.

To answer another of your objections, one could well argue that the ancient musical styles have a certain universal appeal. In addition, while composed with a traditional, reverent form and sound, much of Orthodox church music (especially in the Russian Church) is of relatively recent inception; in choir, I sing part of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” every Saturday.

Finally–and understand that I do not mean this in any provocative manner–what you personally find is a highly erroneous, dangerous way to go about deciding what is appropriate for religion. I might personally find highway robbery stimulating, too… but that doesn’t mean that’s what I should do. Yes, you might find variegated services stimulating, but what’s more important, stimulation or obedience?

In Joy,


3. Fate - October 24, 2006

I have no “objection” to Liturgy in the Biblical sense. Order is necessary in the Church, and I have no desire for churches to go about having no order in their worship. Protestant churches do have a set order of worship, including a recitation of the Nicene Creed. I’m quite sure the Orthodox don’t repeat the exact same Scripture readings every single Sunday.

In my church (I hate that phrase, by the way. “In my church.” Makes it sound like a faction or something.), we follow a set pattern of worship as well. I have it memorized, and we don’t deviate from it. The details, such as the different hymns and scriptural readings, however, do differ, as do the content of the different “sermons,” though in my church (there it is again) one would better describe them as “mediations on God’s Words shared with the congregation.”

As for your report from the emissaries, I’m not convinced. I do know there was more to the decision of the Russians to follow the Orthodox Church other than the good report of a few servants, though I can’t and shouldn’t discuss that without first researching the matter myself. It seems they are commenting on aesthetics more than anything else. I can agree with them on Islamic worship, but I find it strange that they are in awe of “beauty” alone. What of the words actually spoken? Worship is not designed to be a flashy show of “glory.” I’m quite sure the early Christian worship services were not flashy, since they were either poor economically or hiding from persecution from the Romans. Why exactly did the worship surpass all others? It seems far too vague of a description to be a solid piece of “evidence” for the Orthodox Church.

No offense, but my first experience in an Orthodox church was not one of great awe and appreciation, though it wasn’t one of walking on molten iron either. 😛 You’ll forgive me for being cynical about that quote.

*goes back to plotting and scheming*

4. Seraphim - October 28, 2006

Fate — You don’t sound so awfully different in terms of order as the Orthodox. I’m sure the theology behind your order of service, however, is totally different. Yours is probably primarily pragmatic, while the Orthodox Liturgy is intended as a manifestation of the deeper spiritual reality underlying all creation.

Re: The report from the emissaries. I think you’re focusing too much on what they said about “beauty” (which is a naturally insufficient human attempt to explicate a Mystery) and not enough about “that God dwells there among men.” What the Russian emissaries experienced was not something beautiful in the earthly sense per se, but rather an encounter with God. The entire purpose of the Orthodox worship is to draw the soul into union with the deep spiritual reality of God’s Kingdom. The motto of the Church is, “Christ is in our midst…” and the worship of the Church reflects this.

And yes, Holy Trinity is not quite the be-all-end-all of Orthodox services. You shall have to visit me sometime at an OCA church… I think you’d find it more to your liking. You might also want to study a bit of liturgics to gain a better appreciation of what exactly is going on. I highly recommend the book “The Eucharist” by Alexander Schmemann. Whether or not you’re Orthodox, you will gain a whole new appreciation of God and His creation by the end of that book.

In Joy,


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