Ugly, Empty Liturgy! Really?

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“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!

P.S. All of us at Faith Encouraged Ministries invite you to see these daily devotionals as a tool to help you keep a spiritually profitable Great Lent. Please share this tool with others and drop us an email so we can know how to serve you better. Email us at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

11 comments:

  1. My heart echoes & is beating faster b/c of the words you wrote. Amen & amen! I concur! Your approach, delivery & intent are enlightening & frankly, refreshing…again, a wonderful balance. Thank you for sharing & pouring out God’s wisdom. I will keep praying for you & yours.

  2. I was raised a Roman Catholic and left at age 18, even though I removed myself emotionally long before that. I spent 25 years searching for the feel good religion, full of emotionalism, tounge speaking, Holy Ghost sprit filled faith. I did a 360 degree turn around and became a Mennonite for many years, finally when all was said and done, I got down on my knees and asked the Lord please show me. Everyone out there says their church, there denomination is the right one. The next day I found Orthodoxy, we have never been happier. I believe in the dressing modestly and wearing a head covering, but walking into the Orthodox church, that is an indescribable emotion I will never be able to explain. Like you many of my friends, have called me names, and said I am going to hell as a idol worshiper. I believe and always have believed that God sees the heart, the beauty of the Orthodox church is not found anywhere else in any other denomination. It is tradition, faith, holy, spiritual, it is perfect unlike the ever changing doctrines of mans church, it stands steadfast unchanging, I could never go back to any other place I have been.
    I can understand though your friend. The false emotionalism, and the music bands, all feed the emotional side of worship.. We live today in a society that constantly demands to be entertained. I don’t want to go to the Lord to be entertained, I want to come to church to worship, connect and be holy unto him. I want to hear scripture, I want to experience the holiness of God, and yes also the respect due him, when I pray. I don’t want the branches, I want the tree where the foundation is solid. Orthodoxy or Death!

    1. Beautifully put, Benita. We, too, were looking for the “right” church when we experienced an Orthodox Divine Liturgy and knew immediately that we had found true worship and reverence for God. What really struck me was the seriousness with which the Church approached the whole service, and especially Communion. Yet with such joy!

  3. I was raised Lutheran. Converted to Catholic. Back to Lutheran. Then found a nondenominational church with my family. We stayed there and grew in our Spiritual life. However, I can not put my finger on it exactly. Loved the church, loved the leadership and the body there. But something made me stop. It was very empty. I thought it was just me going through a dry spot. Then I started searching for something more. I found the Eastern Orthodox Church through a friend who had converted. I will not place any of those choices I made down as they each carried me to a place God worked in me and through me. However, I believe God at this late stage in my life has brought me to the Ancient Faith. I forgot how much depth and meaning there is to ritual and tradition. He is where two or more are gathered. Let Him be with us all.

  4. I was in an evangelical tradition for many many years. It actually makes me angry now to think about all the times issues like this were brought up and pounded into our heads: the evils of “Vain repetition” and empty rituals. Then the pastor would clearly indicate another denomination without saying names, but of course we all understood which denominations he was talking about.
    I try to not be angry about it, because honestly i feel as though I was being brainwashed for so many years, but I guess I understand the WHY behind their warnings. However, this happens in evang/prot churches too! I was DEAD in my old church. EVERYTHING I did there was a vain repetition to me towards the end before I found orthodoxy. This strikes a huge nerve with me. Forgive me if I’ve been too harsh. =(
    Thank you, Lord, that you answered my prayers to find a genuine and earnest faith.

  5. Father, I appreciate the way you handled your Pentecostal friend in that you listen to him and valued his opinion of what he experienced. My wife and I have been in the Orthodox Church for 31 years and our background was Pentecostal. The first Liturgy I experienced was not life giving to me as well and I left in the middle of the Liturgy! I was not ready nor was I open at that time to a ritualistic church as I was ignorant to the Orthodox Way. I was treated with understanding and respect even though I did not want anything to do with this church at this time.

    I too was concerned this was not a living and personal faith however those whom I met were sincere and seem to have a personal relationship with Christ. My wife and I are now forever members of this Holy Orthodox Church and still believe it is important to have and maintain a living and personal relationship with Christ Jesus the Lord the founder and Head of the Ancient Orthodox Church. In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages Amen !

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