Worship

This will be brief..Orthodox worship is a package deal.  Almost all Orthodox still use the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  While we have Western Rite congregations, there is not much diversity.  I don’t want to get into how we worship.

The more interesting, and fundamental question is: Why do we worship?  Orthodox and Evangelicals both consider worship to be important, but what is its purpose?

If I can make a brash statement: God doesn’t need our worship.  Think about that.  To say that God needs our worship is to say that God is lacking something, that he needs us to make himself complete.  Theologically I don’t think any of us want to go anywhere near that line of thinking.

So why do we worship?  I think it is because we need worship.  I would venture to say that worship is the way that we learn about, and learn how to live with God, in His Kingdom. This is what the author of the book of Hebrews is saying; the instructions to Moses on how to build the tabernacle and conduct worship were to give the Israelites as a pattern on what is happening in the Kingdom so they could learn to live with God.

The Apostle  John, in the book of the Revelation records a vision of prayers and incense,  of the eternal heavenly worship as a pattern for earth.  If you enter a traditional Orthodox church you will see this pattern; there will usually be a dome in the middle of the sanctuary, and in the top of the dome will be an icon of Jesus, or more properly, the Pantocrator, the creator of all things.   Around Christ will be angels, cheribum and seraphim, as well as the apostles and saints.  The vision of heaven is portrayed in our worship on earth.   As we say in one place of the Liturgy: “Let us, who represent the cherubim and seraphim …”.  We learn by doing.  To use a traditional metaphor: when we worship, the distance between the reality of this world and the kingdom gets worn thin.  This is why altars are holy places, they are where the incarnate Christ meets us here on earth, without leaving the Kingdom; the two become as one.  (We need to be careful here, because it is possibly for such holy places and things to be abused and become idols; but let us also not become Platonists who deny that this is God’s good creation through which he works sacramentally).

And this raises the question I am interested in, the problem we both share: how much is worship of this world, and how much is it of the kingdom?  How much do we need to be contemporary to our time and culture, and how much is it eternal and unchanging?  There is no clear answer to that question.

Where synagogues traditionally faced toward Jerusalem, the center of the universe, where God was located in the Temple (I Kings 8:30  when pray, pray toward the temple..).  The tradition of the Church was to have the altar facing East – we gather in worship, awaiting the shining appearance of the Risen Son. The temple is wherever we find Christ-God, on the altar of the Church, and in us.  Synagogues were divided front to back.  Men were at the front, closest to God, and women were at the back.  In the Church the division was to the right and left, there was equal access to God for men and women.

During the first millenium of the Church, there were six different liturgies.  Most Orthodox today use the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century.  And while the chant is a bit different between Russians, Romanians and Greeks – they all follow Byzantine tones.  Chrysostom did not create this liturgy, he just edited it a bit for use in the Imperial Capital.  If you are familiar with Roman liturgy of the Catholic or Anglican worship you will find the structure of worship familiar.  Our worship is relatively unchanged, though there is a lot more flexibility than many Orthodox people want to acknowledge.   I don’t think John Chrysostom had polyester vestments and the warble in the Greek chant is actually an influence of the Ottoman/Turkish captivity.  On the other hand, at times the small traditions keep us from needed change: when we are taught in Sunday School that  the 12 bells on the censer represent the 12 disciples, and the two parts represent the Church in heaven and the Church on earth, it is hard to use more modern censers (or even a more ancient one). There has been change, but to a fair degree, Orthodox can be ‘gun shy’ of change.  After watching the reforms of Vatical II, and some of our own faltering steps at change, we have tended to pull back and play it safe. Visiting an Orthodox worship service can be a strange cultural experience, but if you look below the surface you will recognize much of it.

We all deal with this tension of old and new, we cannot learn when we lack the humility to learn from others, when we insist in making up our own lessons; yet if we follow form for the sake of form, or tradition for the sake of tradition, we are in danger of becoming a mere historical re-enactment detached from the kingdom.  Or worse, a gnostic mystery religion.  The temple in the Old Testament was always in danger of falling into rigid formalism, but then occasionally God would send a prophet to call out that He would” have mercy and not sacrifice”; the Church today is no different.

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