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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,