On the Bookshelf

i just finished reading Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple and the Early Church a revised edition of the book by Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstall.  Written with the average lay reader in mind this modestly sized (199 pages) book offers a history and explanation of the Divine Liturgy. 

The book explains how early Christian worship developed out of Hebrew worship as demonstrated by the descriptions in Acts and other New Testament references. Antiphonal singing of the psalms, a practice that comes from Jewish worship practice is still a feature of the liturgical churches of numerous denominations.  The eucharistic focus becomes the dominant feature of Christian worship practice. After the legalization of Christianity under Constantine vestments distinguishing the clergy develop along with church architecture. 

By the latter part of the third century the structural change had concluded and the recognizable form of the Divine Liturgy was complete. The movement from Jewish worship in the temple or synagogue, followed by an Agape meal culminating in the celebration of the Eucharist in private gathering had become a divine joining in the heavenly worship in a beautifully adorned Church filled with rich fragrance, and glittering icons. 

Liturgy means work of the people. We were created to worship, thank and praise God. In the Fall, our worship became self-centered. As the royal priesthood of believers worships, they join the heavenly worship with the communion of saints. Linear time is transcended in the Divine Liturgy and the worshiper co-celebrates with eternal worship. “…we join with those in heaven before the Throne of God and offer Him praise and blessing.”

 In the second section of the book entitled, “A Journey Through the Liturgy” the reader is thoughtfully led through the entire process of the Preparation Service of Matins, also called Orthros to the Divine Liturgy. This is particularly instructive since many people arrive after the process is underway and never experience the Orthros. The authors clearly show how the service grew out of the original practices of the first Christians. Each part of the worship as celebrated by the first Jewish Christians is still present in the Orthodox service. The vesting and preparation of the Bread and Wine in the Orthros is clearly explained. 

The Liturgy of the Word will be the most familiar to Protestants, although most Lutherans will also be well acquainted with the Liturgy of the Eucharist along with the Roman Catholics. The differences between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western Rites is striking. i for one love the power of the scripture evident in the Western practice and the music in western churches can be hauntingly beautiful, but St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil packed a theological depth and richness into their liturgies that stagger the careful reader. Those accustomed to “high church” worship in western churches will be able to see an echo of what they see on some Sunday’s but the processions of the Gospel and the Communion elements are often simplified drastically or eliminated altogether even in traditional services. The dismissal of the catechumens (no one is sent away) harkens back to when Christianity was illegal and those who were not baptized were sent away before the Liturgy of the Eucharist began. The reminder of the ancient past is still included in the Divine Liturgy. In Eastern Christianity time is transcended in many ways and the past, present, and future are all joined together in the worship of the Lord Eternal.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the Cherubic hymn which says, “No one bound by fleshly desires and pleasures is worthy to approach …You, the King of Glory…Yet because of Your ….immeasurable love for mankind…You became man…our High Priest…” The great entrance then processes the Eucharistic gifts. “Your own of Your own we offer you…” the priest sings.  Orthodoxy adamantly declares the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Unlike in western theology, the Orthodox do not offer speculation on how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Mystery is embraced. Holy Communion is called the Mystical Supper. 

The Nicaean Creed is proclaimed by the Orthodox in its original form as agreed upon in the Ecumenical Councils of 325-381. In the West the “Filioque,” Latin for “and the Son” was added to the creed. This has been the subject of heated debate among theologians for 1000 years and i will not enter the fray here. The statement of Faith which the creed represents is incorporated into the Liturgy in both Orthodox and western liturgical churches. 

The Great Anaphora follows. Anaphora means elevation or lifting up. In all liturgical traditions, we are told to lift up our hearts. In Orthodox Worship, we learn that we are lifting our souls to join in the Heavenly worship. The original Greek word for remembrance that Our Lord requested in the Gospel carries with it a sense of process and continuing. Christ offered Himself for the whole world, for all time. There is an “Eternal, eschatological dimension of the Kingdom of God to which we ascend spiritually.” The Holy Spirit transforms the simple bread and wine into the very Body and Blood which the faithful will receive. 

The Church Militant, “earthly,” joins the Church Triumphant before the Holy Gifts in the eternal. The saints throughout time are present and remembered including the Virgin Mary the “Theotokos” or “bearer of God” in the next prayer. Then, “… with one mouth and one heart we glorify and praise Your all-honorable and majestic name: of Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit, now and ever unto the ages of ages. Amen.” The Lord’s Prayer follows as we dare to call God our Father.

The entire Divine Liturgy is included and clarified in a way that is accessible to anyone, teenager or adult. The sacrament is placed in the mouth of the faithful by the priest directly from the chalice on a spoon. Having received the Divine Mysteries, “…turning wholly to Christ, that we may perceive the world as it really is, the full glory of God’s creation in the reality in which it was made. In Communion, Christ comes to dwell within us, and we partake of Him.” Thanksgiving is next, for it is in receiving Communion that we become capable of real communion with one another.  We “… go forth from the Church, having partaken of heaven, to live out the Gospel.”

Those interested in the Divine Liturgy succinctly and simply explained will enjoy this book, which i was pleased to receive from the publisher.

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