The trouble with writing my reflections on the Orthodox Church liturgy is that so much of it is taught through experience. If one has not been absorbed in the Orthodox liturgy for quite some time it’s difficult to really say anything about it. Don’t misunderstand, I have plenty of books on the Orthodox Diving Liturgy, I even have the service book (which Fr. George let me lift from St. Anthony’s a few weeks ago. I’m going to buy my own copy soon, Father. I promise). But, like traveling to your favorite vacation destination, book descriptions of the place are a pale shadow compared to the actual experience. Saying that you had a Guinness at the Guinness factory in Dublin is a lot different than reading a list of ingredients off the bottle. But since knowledge of Guinness greatness is a forerunner to ever stepping foot in the factory, likewise, some knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy is needed before appreciating the service.
As mentioned in the last article, the Orthodox service is set up so that all the attention is on the presence of God rather than strictly on the preaching of the Word. This focus on the Lord’s presence is amplified at the pinnacle of the service—the Eucharist offering. But for the Orthodox the Eucharist (i.e. the consecration of the bread and wine) is not an isolated sacrament, nor is it merely the elements used in the service. The Eucharist is only understandable through the liturgy; a liturgy that has been performed since the earliest times in Church history.
Indeed (as a side note), the use of liturgy in the Church predates the canonization of the New Testament, and was one of the measures the Church Fathers used when deliberating over which books were ‘God-breathed’ and which were not. If the book presented for canonization contradicted the liturgy, off with its head.
So what is the liturgy? It is “Eucharist.” The Church Fathers understood the Eucharist as not just the bread and wine of the offering, but as the entire procession of the liturgy. The whole liturgy gives its individual elements meaning, the whole point of which is to journey to the Kingdom. This journey is not symbolic, but is a reality of the whole Church—past and present, local and universal—coming into the presence of God as the ‘Body of Christ.’
The Divine Liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages.” The declared goal, so-to-speak, of the Church is the Kingdom of God. The acceptance of the goal is expressed in the respondents answer to the doxology: “Amen.” This ‘Amen’ is of great importance, as Schmemann said so well:
“It [the Amen] expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man…upon this Amen the fate of the human race is decided. It reveals that the movement toward God has begun.”
From there the liturgy moves to the entrance: the coming of the celebrants (congregation) to the altar. This “entrance” has symbolic applications, but it is not a ‘symbol.’ It is the very movement of the Church from the old into the new, from ‘this world’ into the ‘world to come,’ and as such, it is the essential movement of the liturgical ‘journey.’ Christ is Himself the altar and the passage from the old into the new.
From there the liturgy continues through the Eucharist offering. I love what Schmemann says concerning Christ in the revelation of the Eucharist: “The Eucharist of Christ and Christ the Eucharist is the ‘breakthrough’ that brings us to the table in the Kingdom, raises us to heaven, and makes us partakers of the divine food. For eucharist—thanksgiving and praise—is the very form and content of the new life that God granted us when in Christ He reconciled us with Himself.”
Later he says: “As we stand before God, there is nothing else we can remember and bring with us and offer to God but this self-offering of Christ, because in it all thanksgiving, all remembrance, all offering—that is, the whole life of man and of the world—were fulfilled.”
This is why the liturgical treatment of the Eucharist is so important. When the Eucharist is isolated from the liturgy—when the Eucharist is treated as an isolated sacrament, and not captured within the whole sacramental movement of the liturgy—it is easy to reduce the Eucharist to categories of time and space, as a single moment, a particular ‘phenomenon.’ The liturgy resists such treatment and understands the Eucharist as an all-embracing sacrament of the Church’s new life in Christ; a sacrament that extends to every nook and cranny of a believer’s existence.
In my experiences in Orthodox liturgical services I can say that I have never left a service without a profound feeling that I have left ‘this world,’ in a sense. The idea of ‘this world’ versus the ‘world to come’ is understood by the Orthodox as a change that happens within a person. The created world is still the “exceedingly good” creation that God claimed it was. But this exceedingly good creation is only realized once a person has been joined with Christ’s Body. It’s the infilling of the grace of God which comes from being joined to His Body that makes the heaven within you (which Christ spoke of) come alive from the inside out.
Thanks again for reading. I know these articles are lengthy but these subjects are difficult to discuss in short article form. Please feel free to comment. I really benefit from my readers when they ask questions and/or criticize the content. It helps me to learn along with you.