“Vain repetition, that’s all it is!” My friend was absolutely horrified by my shift from my Pentecostal roots to the Greek Orthodox Church. He came to a service where I was presiding as priest and he simply shook his head in disbelief. “How could you do this?” he wondered to me afterwards. All the ritual and read prayers and prescribed movements were seen by him as nothing more that the empty “traditions” of men and their self righteous “performance” of religious acts as ends in themselves.
Try as I might to explain to him the beauty and power and depth of this normal Christian practice of worship, he refused to see anything but the ritualism he wanted nothing to do with and compare the “exciting” world of his “praise bands” and “worship experience” with the “boring” and “man-made” liturgy he felt I had fallen into.
And do you know why he felt that way? Because he had every right to feel that way, that’s why. The truth is there is nothing more cold, more lifeless, more off putting to anyone who longs for genuine intimacy with God than the faithless practice of liturgy. Nothing is more ugly, more unfaithful, and more insulting, than timeless liturgy and beautiful ritual practiced by empty hearts and merely nostalgic habit. The truth is we who practice the faith as it has been practiced from the beginning are duty bound to always make sure we embrace the wisdom behind the liturgy or we turn this life-giving faith into something more hideous than even the most shallow and entertainment-oriented TV “worship” we reject.
This is exactly why the Prophet Isaiah writes what he does in today’s Scripture Lesson. Isaiah leaves little doubt about how God feels when He sees His people doing all the rituals WITHOUT the love and faith that is meant to fill the rituals with true devotion and meaning. There is simply nothing more ugly than empty religious practices.
Listen to the Prophet’s words:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies — I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:11-17
The opposite and equal mistake to our empty repetition of beautiful liturgy is to then assume that the answer to this poverty means we shouldn’t do these ancient rites. No, not at all. There is no virtue in abandoning wisdom for folly simply because wisdom has been abandoned. The answer lies in the more courageous path of recapturing the wisdom and intimacy and power and love that was always meant to undergird these beautiful and timeless acts of worship.
And that’s why the Prophet goes on to extend an offer from God Himself to Israel and, by extension, to us today on this Clean Monday: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 1:18-20
Today is Clean Monday! Today, as we begin the spiritual struggle to repent, to fill up our religious practices with true focus, devotion, and intimate love for God during Great Lent, let us keep practicing these ancient ways AND add to them the fresh and always new devotion that flows from a life of true repentance, humility, and love for God. Because it is only through this dual path of timeless practice and always new devotion that make the unassailable defense of our hearts from the darkness of selfish living. The opportunity of added services, extra prayers, more liturgies and daily devotions with the Prayer of St. Ephrem all conspire to protect us from empty religious practices and work to fill us up with our true selves. This is the day our hearts desperately need! We dare not miss it, especially if we ever hope to be Orthodox on Purpose!