Archive for January 7th, 2009

The Longest Liturgy

January 7, 2009

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It is not uncommon for visitors and members alike to comment on the length of an Orthodox liturgy. Sunday liturgies are often an hour-and-a-half or more (longer still in monastic communities).  Many of the services surrounding feast days such as vigils and the like take more than two hours (the version used in local parishes are extremely shortened in comparison to the literal “all-night” vigils for which some of the great monasteries are famous). I tell people that are new to Orthodoxy that they have to get past the internal clock that wants things done in an hour or less.

However, the truth of things reaches far beyond the general experience of liturgical chronology. There is a liturgy that is far longer than any of us imagine. It is not separate from the liturgy of the Church, but is often not seen by those in attendance: it is the liturgy of the heart.

The life of worship among Christians has taken many forms, particularly over the past 500 years. Driven by various factors, both cultural and ideological, the act of worship has morphed into enough disparate manifestations that the word “worship” cannot be used between two Christians unless accompanied by great elaboration.

In an effort of clarity I offer some suggestions of what worship is not.

Worship is not:

– a service of outreach by which we seek the lost…

– a hymn-sing in which we lift our voices with our favorite hymns…

– primarily for the benefit of those who attend…

– designed to make me feel closer to God…

I could make this list much longer, but to little good effect. The point, I think, is sufficiently made. But if worship is none of these things, then what is it? A small quote from Archimandrite Zacharias’ Hidden Man of the Heart:

The Divine Liturgy is worship; there is prayer and a whole life there, the life of Christ. In the Holy Eucharist, we accomplish the exchange of our limited and temporal life for the unlimited and infinite life of God. We offer to God a piece of bread and a little wine, but in that bread and wine, we place all our faith, love, humility, expectation of Him, all our life. And we say to God, ‘Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee in all and for all.’ We offer to God all our life, having prepared ourselves to come and stand before Him and do this act. And God does the same: He accepts man’s offering and He puts His life – the Holy Spirit – in the gifts, transmaking them into His Body and Blood, in which all the fullness of Divinity is present, and He says to man, ‘The Holy things unto the holy.’ God accepts our gifts and fills them with His life, and He renders them back to us.

His small definition of worship as exchange says far more about what is essential in worship than any possible outward description. The exchange which takes place within worship is a communion, a participation, the engrafting within us of the life of God and the engrafting of our life within Him.

It is perhaps possible to give an objective description of the service of worship – but to do so will have missed the point. To reduce the liturgy purely to the act of the consecration of bread and wine, the transmaking of bread and wine into the Divine Body and Blood – is an impossibility. Nothing can be reduced into the Body and Blood of Christ. The reduction of worship to a thirty minute collection of certain “necessary” elements, towards the end of which believers are given the sacrament not only misses the point of liturgy but threatens to misrepresent worship in the extreme. “Worship” that has no intention of exchange may be many things – but it fails to rise to the level of true worship.

Bearing these things in mind, I return to the earlier description of the longest liturgy: the liturgy of the heart. There are many outward details that comprise a Divine Liturgy (particularly in its Orthodox form) and yet they all share in common this Divine/human exchange. The exchange takes place not only in the gifts (bread and wine) that are offered and received – but simultaneously in the heart as well.

There is a long series of prayers, generally called the “secret prayers,” that are traditionally offered silently by the priest during the prayers led by the Deacon and Choir, or at other key moments in the Orthodox liturgy. They contain a wealth of theological piety – being directed particularly at the heart of the priest and his effort to rightly serve and pray. Two examples come to mind. The first is the prayer offered silently just before the Great Entrance (the bringing of the bread and wine to the altar). The choir is singing the hymn: “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.” The priest prays:

None is worthy among those that are bound with carnal desires and pleasures to approach or draw nigh or to minister to thee, O King of glory, for to serve thee is a great and fearful thing even unto the heavenly Powers. Nevertheless, through thine ineffable and immeasurable love of man, without change or alteration, thou didst become man and didst take the name of our High Priest, and deliver unto us the priestly rite of this liturgical and bloodless sacrifice, for thou art Master of all. Thou alone, O Lord our God, art Master over those in heaven and on earth, Who on the throne of the Cherubim art borne, Who art Lord of the Seraphim and King of Israel, Who alone art holy and restest in the Saints. I implore thee, therefore, who alone art good and ready to listen, look down upon me a sinner and thine unprofitable servant, and purify my soul and heart from an evil conscience, and, by the power of thy Holy Spirit, enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this thy holy table and to perform the sacred rite of thy holy, immaculate Body and precious Blood. For thee do I approach, and bowing my neck I pray thee, turn not away thy face from me, neither cast me out from among thy children, but make me, thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer unto thee these gifts, for thou thyself art He that offereth and is offered, that accepted and is distributed, O Christ our God, and unto thee do we send up glory, together with thy Father, who is without beginning, and thine all-holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

And again, after the gifts are placed on the altar, while the Deacon and People pray the Litany of the Offering, the priest prays:

O Lord God Almighty, who alone art holy, who dost accept the sacrifice of praise from those that call upon thee with their whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bring it to thy holy Altar, and enable us to offer unto thee both gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the ignorance of the people, and vouchsafe that we may find grace before thee, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto thee, and that the good Spirit of thy grace may abide in us and upon these Gifts set forth, and upon all thy people.

Were I to begin quoting the words of the pre-communion prayers, those prayers that are to be prayed by all Orthodox Christians before a liturgy, this same theme would resound repeatedly. The point of all of these prayers is the “liturgy of the heart.” The exchange which takes place in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, is itself a constant liturgy that should take place at every moment and in every place in the heart of every Christian.

This is the longest liturgy – for it is the liturgy of our whole life. If the heart is rightly occupied in this “inward” liturgy, the length of a service will be of little consequence – other than those that are forced upon us by our physical existence (and not even always then). Responsibilities as parents can also offer interruptions of the outward liturgy, but need not interrupt the liturgy of the heart. Serving Christ in the least of His brethren is not an interruption of the liturgy, but part of its proper offering.

The great barriers to the liturgy of the heart are those that are familiar to anyone who seeks to have communion with God (true prayer). Distractions of the mind and emotions, temptations of the flesh and a host of other things seek to carry our mind away from the heart and center it outside of Christ and the exchange to which we are invited.

It is deeply important to note that the liturgy of the heart is constantly being offered and received (or not). In every action and word the liturgy is either a part of us, and we a part of it, or we are standing outside the life of God. It is indeed the longest liturgy – whose “Amen” will resound at the appearing of our Lord. Then everything will be “Amen.”