The Meaning of the Divine Liturgy
“0 Lord, how manifold are thy works:
In wisdom hast thou made them all”
The opening chapters of the Bible make an astonishing declaration. Creation, the text sings, is the work of a loving hand, fashioned in divine delight for the purpose of enjoyment and loving communion. This declaration was as astonishing in the ancient Semitic world as it is in our own world. Creation is not the battleground of competing forces, good and evil. Nor is creation, as many in the ancient world and our own would have it, a field to struggle through in order to win some spiritual victory on the other side of life, a paradise offered only to those few souls who have the purity of character necessary to enter the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God. Creation is not to be over come in order to enter a reserved sacred world of which this one is only a shadow, a preparation. What the Biblical story proclaimed as the purpose and meaning of the gift of life, the Orthodox, more than most other Christian traditions, laid hold of and articulated. Life is fashioned by a loving Creator. When we dwell at the centre of life, we dwell in the presence of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, the place of communion, delight and wonder.
The only real sin is “to miss the mark of life”; and the only choice human beings face — their freedom — to dwell in life or abandon what is real for that which steps outside of the creation, outside the world of loving communion.
While the Biblical hymns beautifully declare the glory and wonder of creation, most, if not all, human beings often experience the world as a place of struggle if not battle, and, all to often, as a place of agony and alienation. Yet, deep within the human spirit and often in the story and song of human cultures we hear the distant echoes of another way of knowing the world, echoes of an endenic (the Hebrew word for Eden means “delight”) past or a paradisal future. Even modern poets sing of it:
“For me the initial delight
is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.
There is a glad recognition of the long lost. . . . “
What the American poet Robert Frost is “remembering” which brings him to “a glad recognition of the long lost” is also the work of the Orthodox Church, the liturgy, the art of arts, and for that reason the “art of arts” as it has been called is the “remembering,” the “glad recognition” at the heart the art of God incarnate in human experience. Liturgy tutors the faithful in this art.
The early Greek Fathers of the Church were very deliberate in their choice of the word “liturgy” for the work of the community of pilgrims who lived present to the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, at the heart of creation. The Greek word leitourgia, which they used to describe the work of the Church, signified a public duty, a public work. Just as those who teach the young or those farmers who provide food for communities far and wide are engaged in work for the whole of society, so the Church in its central act is doing what is essentially a work on behalf of all creation. Liturgy is not private prayer, not the personal outpouring of the longings of the human soul, although personal prayer and longing are called forth in liturgy. Liturgy is not a sacred duty performed to insure the soul’s salvation or to mark the faithfulness of the community of believers, winning them an eternal reward beyond the frame of this life. Rather, to use a phrase from the ancients, it is recognition of “heaven on earth,” of life lived in compassion and communing love. Liturgy is the art of coming anew into the presence of the Creator and the art of restoring creation to herself. Orthodoxy in its liturgical practice, a cosmic religion, remembering creation as the grace-filled world so easily forgotten, the playground of God’s delight. Liturgy calls the faithful out of alienation to a life of loving communion. Liturgy is the art of remembering.
What is remembered through this art of arts is not a past state or a vision of the future. What is remembered in the Divine Liturgy is the Presence through which the past and the future come to have meaning in this life, now. This life and this world are what the Bible and the Orthodox tradition call the place of the Presence of the Commonwealth (Kingdom). “Heaven on Earth” is in no sense a nostalgic dream or a utopian vision. On the contrary, the living tradition of Orthodoxy understands the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, the life of loving communion, as the fullness of creation. This world, scripture and the mothers and fathers of Orthodox tradition tell us, was made in joy and for joy.
The Journey of the Liturgy
“For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. “
-The Gospel of Luke –
The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom was first chanted in North American on the shores of Alaska two hundred years ago. The First Russian monks from the Valaam Monastery led by Archimandrite Ioasaf arrived in September 1794. A remarkable spiritual lineage followed in men such as the martyrs Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenal (Iuvenalii), the righteous father Herman, the Aleut elder Smirennikov, the hierarchs Innokenty, Nikolai and John, and in this century the holy great-martyr and enlightener Tikhon. Russian and Aleut alike were proclaiming the joy that flows from the recovery of the sanctity of creation.
The Liturgy is the art of arts because it both models and makes present the joy that is the centre and purpose of creation. It does this by placing the gift of creation back into a relationship with God, who gives and sustains life and, as the lover of the world, calls life back to itself when it falls into darkness and death. Liturgy is not the enunciation of a theological position, although it has a highly articulated theology. Rather, it is the prayer of the Orthodox Church, and the prayer is a journey back into a communion in which the faithful are joined again “with the long lost,” their deepest self, creation and the Divine. It is that journey into communion and the joy of a sanctified creation that we see in the shape of the liturgy.
Offering, thanksgiving, communion and adoration as the tradition teaches, characterize the liturgical journey, the journey to life itself. The path of the journey is a spiral, not a straight line from starting point to goal, and in the Liturgy offering, thanksgiving, communion, and adoration are pattern of a faithful life encountered daily.
Offering includes the holding up both of that which diminishes creation and of the joy and wonder of human experience. One simply cannot recover the joy of a life of communion without bringing those experiences which fracture our relationships into consciousness, recognizing and confessing the divisions they have created in our life, and asking to be forgiven for the failure to love aright. The offering of confession shaped by the liturgy calls forth from the faithful recognition of how they have missed the mark of life, their failure to live and act in loving communion. The acts, which diminish life, are uncovered and brought openly, held up to the Divine for forgiveness and healing. The fractured life of the world that all human beings live is also brought forward from the darkness of pride and self-interest. Confession, an initial step on the path of the art of arts, is the primary act of making conscious. Its goal is clarity, the starting point that makes healing possible.
The faithful also offer the joys and gifts of life, life’s wonders and loves, holding them up in a moment of contemplation, recognition, remembrance of “something I didn’t know I knew. ” Even the joy and gifts of life, even that which is loved, can grow remote when we fail to offer them to “the giver of all good things.” In offering, wonder is recovered, restored.
It is a curiosity of the human spirit that both spiritual masters and modern psychology have pointed to that when acts of confession — acts of consciousness — are real, the human being is often filled with thanksgiving and gripped by the sheer wonder of creation. It is here that the Liturgy, both in its words and actions, gloriously expresses the gratitude which flows from the heart moved by glimpsing again the wonder of being. The priest and the gathered faithful chant Psalm 102
Bless the Lord, O my soul;
blessed art Thou, 0 Lord. Bless the Lord, 0 my soul,
and all that is within me bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, 0 my soul,
and forget not all that he has done for thee:
Who is gracious unto all thine iniquities,
Who healeth all thine infirmities,
Who redeemeth thy life from corruption,
Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion,
Who fulfilleth thy desire with good things;
thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s.
Bless the Lord, all ye His works,
In every place of His dominion,
Bless the Lord, 0 my soul.
The sense and act of thanksgiving reach a crescendo with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the very heart of the Liturgy, and at its centre is communion. “Eucharist” is the Greek word for thanksgiving, and for Orthodox Christians it flows through the whole of the worship service to the act of offering the gifts of bread and wine. Built on the blessings over the bread and the wine that welcomed the Sabbath in the home of Jesus as they do to this day in Jewish homes, this ancient Christian prayer speaks of the transformation of the most common gifts of creation, bread and wine, into the body and blood of Christ. The Christian revelation about the incarnation of God in Christ speaks both of the love of God and of the sanctity of creation. Creation is God’s and the human being is called to be as Christ. Within the Gospel texts we find Jesus referred to over and over again as the Second Adam and as the Son of Man. The Incarnation unveils the mystery of the human nature in its fullness as God created it, as well as the mystery of Divine love. This insight was captured by the Church Fathers in a refrain that runs through the Orthodox theological tradition. Over and over again we read, “God has become man so that man may become god. ” But what sort of god, what sort of spiritual being does this suggest that human beings are? We get a glimpse of the answer in another Orthodox saying first articulated by Saint John Chrysostom, the Church Father who gave his name to the form of the Divine Liturgy used throughout the world to this day: “You may be the only Christ the stranger ever meets. “
Communion is the culmination of the Eucharistic prayer at the heart of the Liturgy, and it is so because Orthodoxy is proclaiming communion as the character of human life. Creation is, in its true nature, the life of communion, free of alienation and death. Just as communion was the character of life in the Garden of Eden in the Genesis text, so it is the character of the presence of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God. Human beings are called, not out of their nature, but to the fulfilment of their nature in acts of communing love. Communing love is the divine nature, “the Christ likeness” at the heart of the recovery of our humanity.
All that we know of God, we know through Christ. To be deified, to experience theosis, is not to become powerful, as power is normally understood. Christianity is curious in this way. Its understanding of the divine is rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus and as such it has nothing to do with power and achievement. Glimpsing the wonder of creation, remembering the “long lost,” the communing love that is central to life, engenders a profound compassion in the faithful, a compassion that leads to a life of service to the world. The Christian is called in co-suffering love to restore communion where there is alienation, restore life where there is only darkness and death. A life in service, bringing about communion midst the terrors and disappointments of history, is the vocation of those who receive that communion, which places them in the presence of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God.
The adoration which flows from the faithful’s mind and heart to the Creator of all life is given its highest expression in the Second Antiphon , Psalm 145, of the Divine Liturgy:
Praise the Lord, 0 my soul,
I will praise the Lord in my life,
I will chant unto my God for as long as I have my being.
Adoration, as the historian of religion Mircea Elided has pointed out, is the essential act of human nature and, consequently an expression of the deepest human feeling.
The Liturgy and the Temple
When we examine the liturgy, its words and actions, we see a ritual journey shaped around the entrance into the Presence of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God where all things are united in love through forgiveness. As a spiritual discipline the liturgy cultivates the priestly dimension of the human nature, the vocation of men and women alike for blessing and healing all that they encounter in their life in the world. The environment of the Orthodox church, its purpose and function as a temple of the presence of The Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, and all the actions of the liturgy are leading the faithful back into the creation as, it essentially is.
When one enters the Orthodox Church one is entering a microcosm of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God. In this sense, the Orthodox Church is not simply a meeting house, a house of prayer, a place for the reading of scripture and teaching through sermon as the church is in most Protestant traditions. Rather, the Orthodox Church is a temple, an iconic pattern of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, a place where all those men and women whose lives were grace-filled are present. The icons that fill the church speak to the faithful of the presence of the transfigured lives of the saints, reminders that all human beings were created in the “image and likeness of God,” created in and for communing love. Icons also make clear to the faithful that they are not alone in the world but rather share the life of the Commonwealth (Kingdom), “the Kingdom that has no end,” precisely because it is a Commonwealth (Kingdom) which calls life to itself and banishes that which diminishes life. The symbolic shape of the Orthodox temple, the nave or body of the church and the sanctuary bridged by the iconostasis, speaks of the Presence of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, creation restored to herself when lived in love, and the dynamic movement of life toward the Fullness of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, open to the future. That is why the action of the liturgy is a movement between the nave and the sanctuary, the world of Presence and of Fullness coming to be. The iconostasis is not a barrier but a bridge articulating the dynamism, which characterizes life when it is lived openly in friendship with God. Priest and deacon move through the doors in the iconostasis bringing the gifts of God’s Word — The Gospel Book – and the gifts of bread and wine consecrated into The Body and Blood of Christ, gifts that unite the present world in which the faithful live with the coming fullness of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God.
Along with being a theophany, a showing forth of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God, the Divine Liturgy is also a spiritual discipline, a pathway to holiness. When the faithful enter the church they greet the icons with lie kiss of friendship and with prayer. This greeting is a recognition of the “image and likeness of God” in the grace filled life of the saint and an act of identifying with all those who dwell in the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God. Just as the saints struggled to let go of those illusions which diminish life, so the faithful discipline their lives in the struggle to recognize more deeply the wonder of creation and respond to the whole human family in compassion and love. The spiritual disciplines — prayer and praise, confession, veneration icons, listening to the Word of God, and opening oneself to the gifts of the Eucharist — are all part of the journey to the recovery of “the long lost,” the recognition that the human nature is only finally itself as “image and likeness of God. ” Recognizing one’s fellow as created in the image and likeness of God calls forth in the faithful the response of love and the desire for friendship.
It is this response of co-suffering that shapes the Orthodox tradition’s understanding of the human vocation. The Icon of the Theotokos, the image of Mary the birth-giver of God and the Christ child, is at least on one level, the icon of the human vocation. This is the image of what all human beings are called to do in their life in the world: to be birth-givers of divine love. It is for this reason the Theotokos is so prominent in the iconography and so central in the liturgical prayer of the church. In the classical Eastern Orthodox Church the Theotokos fills the apse in the sanctuary and, in all Orthodox churches, even the most humble, her icon graces the iconostasis along with the icon of Christ, and one side of the church is dedicated to her. Throughout virtually all the liturgies of the Orthodox, the Theotokos is invoked to assist the faithful on the path to opening themselves to the Divine, a path of which she is the exemplar. The Theotokos calls the faithful to bring forth divine love in midst of the vagaries and terrors of history. She calls them to become workers in the wonder of life. Orthodoxy and the Russian tradition particularly, is crystal clear in its sense that all human beings are capable of being wonder-workers. To identify with the holy Theotokos is to recover that dimension of one’s own nature through which divine love flows. It is in such actions that the experiences of life are revealed as the often misconstrued pangs of that which is life-giving, struggling to be born. The Divine Liturgy is showing the faithful what creation is in its original blessing and what shall be known: the place of the Commonwealth (Kingdom), the place of communion and joy. Liturgy invites the faithful to discipline their lives in service to the restoration of creation and the recovery of the fullness of the human nature in a life of loving communion. Liturgy is the art of arts precisely because it is the art of restoring human beings to their nature as the “image of God” and to a life which is increasingly one of co-suffering love, a life moving towards the “likeness of God” which is glimpsed in the Christ.
(A version of this paper was originally published in Heaven and Earth, Orthodox Treasures of Siberia and North America, edited by Barbara Sweetland Smith of Anchorage, Alaska – Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 1994 )