I have been involved in Christian liturgical life for most of my adult experience. The first part of that experience was as an Anglican – a liturgical experience that is both Western and reformed. I have been involved in the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity on one level or another for the past 16 years or so – and as an Orthodox priest since 1999. The two experiences are difficult to compare.
There is something “linear” about the reformed liturgies of the West (and by “reformed” I do not mean “Reformed” but “redesigned after 1500 and some after 1960”). The linear character of these liturgies is the simple fact that they tend to do one thing at a time, and in a manner in which actions are simplified and straight-forward. Orthodox liturgies are, in contrast, frequently engaged in several actions at the same time and often bring together varieties of images and events in a single service.
Principles that have driven reform over the centuries, and particularly in the 20th century, have often been quite rational and even sloganeering. My Anglican training reduced all ritual motion by a priest to things that could be seen and easily interpreted by the congregation. Actions only had meaning as they amplified the accompanying words and only had meaning within the mind of the people observing. No action had significance within itself (thus ritual became “pantomime”).
Despite efforts by some to reform the Byzantine heritage of Orthodoxy, it remains largely immune to the rationalizing and pantomiming principles of Western liturgies. Actions often occur out of sight of the congregation (even behind closed doors). Such actions can only have meaning because something is actually supposed to be happening. There is also a mammoth non-linear aspect to Eastern liturgies. Though liturgical texts are necessarily written in a linear fashion (unless you’ve ever seen the old Hapgood translations) what is described is a service in which many things may be happening at once. It is quite normal for choir, Deacon and Priest to all be doing things in a fairly simultaneous manner (which means that if you are not familiar with the service – a book can be more confusing than helpful).
More than the non-linearity of the service text is the lack of simplification in the liturgical event itself. One of the simplifying principles of the modern West has been the elimination of liturgical aggregates (you only celebrate one thing on a day). Thus it is frequently the case that feasts are moved away from Sundays in order to maintain the focus on the resurrection (notable exceptions are All Saints’ Sunday and the like). According to the Orthodox Typicon (the book which contains the directions and reasoning for liturgical practice) the greatest possible liturgical celebration is the concurrence of Pascha and the feast of the Annunciation on the same day. When this occurs, the Annunciation is not moved to a later or earlier time but is celebrated alongside and within Pascha itself (the rules for this being fairly complicated). This coincidence only occurs under Old Calendar usage since the “New Calendar” mixes the Old Calendar reckoning of Pascha along with the Gregorian reckoning of fixed dates.
The thought of celebrating both the Annunciation and the Lord’s Pascha simultaneously is utterly foreign to Western liturgical usage. What becomes impossible under a regime of liturgical simplicity is the dialog that occurs when the Annunciation and Pascha are able to speak at the same time. This “polyphonic” character of Eastern liturgies is quite common. Every day of the week has a particular dedication (Monday for the angels, Tuesday for St. John the Forerunner, Wednesday the Betrayal of Christ, Thursday the Apostles and St. Nicholas, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the Theotokos and the Departed, and Sunday the Resurrection). Each day also has its saints (of whom there are very many each day). A day may also be a particular feast. It is not unusual in the course of the services for a particular day (which would include Vespers, Matins, as well as the Divine Liturgy) to have touched on all of these liturgical aspects rather than simplifying everything to a single point.
The result (particularly over a period of years) is a richness of experience in which each thing in the faith is brought into contact with everything in the faith. There is a fullness expressed in this experience that cannot be duplicated in another manner. This manner of liturgizing is reflected in the Orthodox resistance to separation and codification as a means of knowledge. The habits of a millennium in the West have been to break things into separate components and to seek to understand the whole by understanding its parts. The result is often an impoverishment of the faith and the experience of the faithful.
To know something in its fullness by experiencing it in the context of everything instead of in isolation is a difficult path. It requires greater stretches of time and often results in a knowledge that cannot easily be spoken. If such knowledge could be spoken in simplicity then it probably would be – but it cannot. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is inimical to reductionism.
The knowledge granted to us by God which is unspeakable is just so because it is too large for words. Liturgies which are less are just that – less.
Liturgy is a primary means given to us in the Church for encountering God. Why should such a thing be reasonable and simple and easily understood?