A Series of Articles for Ongoing Adult Christian Education to help
“strengthen the religious and moral life of our parishioners...”
The Purpose of the Divine Liturgy
Recently our parish updated our Bylaws. In order to help us remember why we are here, we included a mission statement for our All Saints Church. It is listed below:
The mission of our parish is to keep, practice, and proclaim the Word of God and strengthen the religious and moral life of our parishioners in accordance with the Holy Traditions and Canons of the Church in its fullness as faithful members of the Body of Christ.
Orthodoxy 101 is one of the means by which I as your priest would like to use for the part of our mission statement that says to “strengthen the religious and moral life of our parishioners...”.
In this initial installment I must first share a pastoral frustration with you. In recent weeks (months?) we have had a noticeable decline in timely participation for the Divine Liturgy. A short while ago, I moved the sermon to right before the Lord’s Prayer so that I could speak to everyone about coming on time, especially the parents... Since then, I felt compelled to address the issue again at the regular sermon time since over half of those present for the sermon were not in church from the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, and the church was still only about one-third full. Again, most of the children and their parents were not present... Many of those who heard this sermon were upset with the tone I took. Some thought I was angry with them. If you were there, however, you should remember that the Gospel reading was from Luke 14:16-24 – the story about those who made excuses for not attending the master’s banquet. So I asked the question, “What’s your excuse?” I believe the message hit too close to home for some...
Please allow me one more point of emphasis before I share the heart of this month’s article with you. A pitcher of water can fill only so many glasses before it needs refilled itself. If it is never replenished, all the glasses will remain dry. If the pitcher remains at distance from the source it doesn’t matter how much water is available. In the same way, we cannot quench the spiritual thirst and need of our children, our Sunday School students, or ourselves, if we are not present to receive the spiritual water from the Source - Christ. And let me be very clear on this next statement: it is not possible for anyone to come to church right before Holy Communion and be properly prepared to receive the Body and Blood of Christ! Not only does this incorrectly “teach” our children that Church is merely a place for the dispensing of sacraments, but it can cause great spiritual harm to our childrens’ souls, and twice the condemnation to ours for leading them into error.
I truly believe that the reason so many come late to the Divine Liturgy (and think they have a “good excuse” for not being there on time...) is that we don’t really understand what the Divine Liturgy is. We may know what the component parts are – we have petitions, we have readings, we have hymns, we have a sermon, we have Holy Communion... – but we have missed the essence of what worship is all about.
In his book, Essays in Theology and Liturgy: Aspects of Orthodox Worship, Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, professor emeritus of Liturgical Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, tells us that in the Divine Liturgy, we encounter God in worship. This encounter is not a static action, like reading a biography about someone; it is a personal encounter with God. The following quotation is a bit extensive, and the emphasis in the text is mine, but I believe once you read this, you will have a different opinion about coming to church, and coming on time!
In chapter three of his book, Fr. Calivas states,
The fullness of revelation is Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son and Word of God. The Church, which is his Body, has been appointed to be the guardian and custodian of revelation and the permanent witness to the fullness of truth. The perennial message of the Gospel is reflected in the life and structures of the Church. It is kept alive and summarized in her creeds, dogmas, canons, and liturgy, which constitute in part the living apostolic tradition. The liturgy of the Church is the doxological expression of “the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Thus, we can say that the liturgy is the essential context for the reception and transmission of the truth, which the Church believes, formulates, and reflects upon.
In worship the Church encounters the living God. Through worship God is present to the Church. Stated in another way, worship - the liturgy - constitutes the fundamental way by which the Church stands before God. And the Church’s stance before God is always one of joyous-sadness, watchfulness, and expectation. The liturgy is the very expression of the Church’s life and at the same time a manifestation of the age to come. Through the liturgy the Church becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, actualizes herself as the Body of Christ, and becomes the witness to the eschaton, the age to come. The sacred rites of the Church celebrate the Kingdom of God already come and already given as the very pledge of salvation.
Through age-old rites we keep vigil before God, in order to celebrate in faith the glorious mysteries of his divine economy and, according to the capacity and desire of each, behold the glory of God and the coming splendor of the redeemed and transfigured cosmos. Thus, the liturgy - in its setting, content, and ritual action - becomes the gateway to heaven, a place of mystery, flooded by the presence of God. It brings us to the threshold of another world. The earth encounters heaven; God embraces his creation. This was the way, according to the legend recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle, that the emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev experienced the Orthodox liturgy at the great Cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople (ca 987):
And the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
Our children know us, our families know us, our friends know us, because we spend time with them. And it is that time with them that builds our relationship with them. These are our “loved” ones in the world. In the same way, our relationship with God can only grow when we spend time with Him. And the primary time God has set apart for us to spend time with Him is in worship – especially within the context of the Divine Liturgy.
You have heard me say this before (well, if you were in church to hear the sermon, you heard me say this before...): we have built and maintained a beautiful edifice as a legacy to our children, and to our childrens’ children. But what good will that be if in the next two generations we don’t have any children who want to come to church because we didn’t bring them to be able to encounter God in the first place? Telling someone about the richness of ritual, tradition and heritage won’t keep them in the church, nor will it keep them honoring our ethnic roots. But helping them encounter God in worship within the context of our Holy Tradition will give them roots that no secularization can take away.
God has given us the Divine Liturgy so that we may fully know and personally experience His great love for us. Let us honor Him with our full participation and presence.