Christ calls us to meet with Him, and to be united to Him with cleansed hearts. The Orthodox respond through obedient and reverent worship, which brings praise and honour to God. Let’s discover a little more about the beautiful, reverent worship of the Orthodox Church.
Liturgical worship has been used since the Church’s infancy. The word “liturgy” comes from two Greek words which mean “public work or duty”. In the case of the Church, it refers to the worship of Almighty God, using written text. “Divine Liturgy” refers to the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist (Communion).
The first Apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, led the Church to worship in this way. In Acts 13:2 we read that the brethren “ministered to the Lord and fasted”. The Greek word for “ministered” is “leitourgeo”, and is the root of the word liturgy.
The chosen people of Israel worshipped liturgically, therefore it would have been the only kind of worship the Apostles knew. The part that changed was the part that Christ Himself instituted making the celebration of His Eucharist the centrepiece of Christian liturgy.
The first Liturgy for Christian worship is attributed to St. James, the brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem. The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is a condensed form of this and is still in use in the Eastern Church. The most common Liturgy used today in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which is a slightly shorter form of St. Basil’s.
Experiencing the Liturgy
The beauty and power of the Spirit-inspired liturgy is that weak human beings cannot get in the way of our receiving blessing. The experience of God and the work of the Spirit in our hearts does not depend on the quality of the music or the originality of the sermon. The power of the liturgy is not found in the talents of the priest and singers. The power is in the sacramental acts performed. All the priest and choir have to do is present the Liturgy, opening the way for us to come to the sacrament with faith and obedient adoration.
Entering Church should be an experience of heaven, mystically. The sanctuary of an Orthodox Church is patterned on the description of heaven found in the books of Isaiah and Revelation. The altar represents the throne of God with incense and lamps as described. Surrounding God’s throne in heaven are angels and saints, these are represented in the icons. Entering the sanctuary is like entering a holy river of worship which requires great humility. The priest faces the altar to focus on the worship of God; he is not addressing the people but leading them to address God, in worship.
The first words spoken are not of welcome to the people but are addressed to God. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the service begins with these words: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto the ages of ages.” The whole congregation responds with “Amen.” Thus begins the sublime worship, which is often chanted and sung.
Orthodox worship consists of the priest and congregation singing beautiful prayers, the priest making supplications to which the congregation responds with “Lord have mercy” or “Grant this O Lord”. Ancient hymns are chanted with holy joy, and on feast days there are special ones appropriate for the season.
In the Eastern service the Gospel book is carried in, held high, symbolising that it contains wisdom above man’s mind. The homily or sermon may follow the reading of the Gospel. The emphasis in the homily is on teaching the people how to live according to the words they have heard read.
Now we move into the Eucharistic liturgy. The focus is on the holy event about to occur. We say prayers of deep repentance. The prayers used have proved themselves effective, over hundreds of years, in opening the hearts of those who offer them to the transforming presence of God. They contain words that are perfect in their humility, selflessness, love and gratitude. “We stand before God with unveiled face beholding His glory and being transformed into His image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). We profess the Nicene Creed as Christians have done for the past sixteen hundred years. The faithful go forward to receive from the common chalice the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Presence.
Thanksgiving follows and, under a multitude of blessings those empowered by the enlivening Spirit go forth to live their lives, which are more pure, more prayerful and more holy. Lives that are closer to God.
The Aim of the Liturgy
At this point it is important to remember the difference in emphasis between Protestant and Orthodox. The Protestant believes Spiritual growth occurs through continual learning. Their focal point is the pulpit, not the altar. The main thrust is preaching and teaching. In many Churches the details of the service are changeable according to the tastes of those who create them. The service’s “success” is judged by how well those who officiate perform in pleasing the congregation. This rationalism is driven by the desire for new information, so in this frame of mind a service is judged by how inspiring it was or how much we learnt, whereas the questions we should be asking ourselves are: “Was God exalted? Did we offer the obedience that he asks of us?”
Orthodox liturgical worship is like a refining fire. God shines forth in it, in all His glory. There is no concern over “myself” or “my wants”. Illumination is part of it as the gospel is read and the homily is preached, but also the cleansed heart and the fresh empowering of the Spirit to aid us in our life’s journey towards becoming more like Christ.