In the 1970’s, the BBC did a series, “The Long Search,” in which Ronald Eyre explored various religions. To my mind, it remains the best such series I’ve seen. When it came to Christianity, the series wisely presented three separate treatments: the Orthodox, the Catholics and Protestants. In its program on Orthodoxy, Eyre traveled to Romania, which was then under the boot of Ceausescu and official “atheism.” The persecution only allowed the Church to shine brighter in Eyre’s examination. The Patriarchate assigned one of its spokespersons to accompany and guide the filmmaker.
In an early conversation, Eyre asks a particular question about “What do the Orthodox believe…” The answer was enlightening:
You would do better to ask, “Whom do the Orthodox worship?”
It is a commonplace to explain the meaning of the word “Orthodox” as “right-believing.” However, depending on how the word is derived, it can also mean, “right glory,” i.e. “right worship.” The Orthodox are those who worship the true and living God in the right way and manner.
Many people would be surprised to learn that in the history of the controversy between East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, among the most bitter disputes was the question of whether the bread for the Eucharist should be leavened or unleavened. This was not much of a problem for the West (you can do what you want), but was a major question in the East. This reveals a very different attitude towards worship itself, something that, through history, has played itself out in a very telling manner. The difference has been a tendency in the West to say, “It’s the thought that counts,” while in the East it’s what you actually do that matters. The tragedy of the Old Believer Schism in Russia is rooted in this aspect of Orthodoxy.
My own Western roots have tended to make me a little skeptical of the Eastern approach. Time, however, has made me think that it is both correct and salutary.
In ancient Israel, right worship seems to have been a careful point within the Scriptures and Tradition. Of course, if there is only one Temple, variations are hard to come by.
A difficulty with the Western approach is its movement from the outward to the inward, and then the inescapable morphing of the inward. In the 8th century, the Fathers in the East offered a careful definition regarding the veneration of icons. The actions of that Council were badly translated in the Latin version, and roundly condemned by the Carolingians. In their condemnation, they said some positive things about images (mostly statues), but, importantly, described veneration as being “in the mind’s eye.” It was the 9th century, and in the West a turn towards the psychological was already beginning.1
The truth is, we can never tell what someone intends by their actions. We cannot see intentions. It is not that our inward disposition has no particular value, but we are beings who are truly enfleshed. Worship is never merely inward.
There is a classical phrase regarding worship: lex orandi, lex credendi. It means: “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It is generally applied to the Church’s treatment of worship. Liturgy is primary in the life of believing – our actions should and ultimately do express and determine what we believe. You might say that you believe this or that, but your worship reveals the truth of the heart.
Discussions of worship in Western traditions generally center around intention and subjectivity. For one group, liturgical worship can be solemn and reverent. For another, worship is raucous, electronic and ecstatic. And in both varieties, there can be many variations. And when Western attention is turned towards the Orthodox, we are often accused of “worshipping” icons and saints. The most common Orthodox response often turns to subjectivity as well, protesting that the actions directed towards icons are not intended as worship, but merely as veneration. It is a conversation that often seems circular – we say we don’t and they say we do.
Returning to the approach of the early Eastern fathers changes the nature of this conversation. Following the Biblical pattern, worship is primarily understood as sacrifice, an offering of praise and thanksgiving, as well as the fulfillment of the Old Testament model, the “bloodless sacrifice” of the Eucharist. In Biblical terms, worship of a false god was obvious to everyone: you were offering sacrifices at the wrong altar with the wrong god.
In Orthodox understanding, the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist is the primary act of worship. It is not something we do while we worship: it is what worship truly is. And this is a very helpful distinction. Honor and veneration are given to many things, many of them having no religious character at all. In our culture, we honor movie stars, rich people, generous people, and many things as well: documents, antiques, historical monuments, etc. In classical Christianity, many things and persons are venerated: saints, relics, holy places, clergy. All of these are honored in some manner or another. But in no case does the Church ever offer sacrifice to any other than God.
It is worth considering that Christ does not give us a merely mental version of the faith. The clear commandment to “do this for the remembrance of me,” instead of simply, “remember me,” retains the place of a true offering and sacrifice at the heart of worship. For that matter, He gave us Baptism, a sacramental action, as the initiation into communion with Him. Worship is something we do, not something we simply think or feel.
Of course, Protestant thought, primarily through its anti-Catholic polemic, has become anti-sacrificial. Verses in Hebrews that refer to Christ’s sacrifice “once and for all” have been misconstrued to attack the notion of the Eucharist as sacrifice, despite the fact that this was a very common teaching of the fathers. Orthodoxy (and Rome as far as I know) have never taught that the Eucharist is a re-sacrificing of Christ, a repetition of what can only and ever have been once and for all. There is, however, a firm and continual teaching that the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made present in the Divine Liturgy. Indeed, that is the meaning of “this is my Body…this is my Blood.”
This is in keeping with the understanding that sacrifice is the primary and distinctive form and the very heart of worship. In the Scriptures, sacrifice is so primary that praise and thanksgiving are referred back to it in order to gain their meaning: “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
One contemporary Orthodox elder has said that “exchange” is the very heart of worship. This is inherent in sacrifice. Sacrifice is not, and never has been understood as payment. God cannot be paid. Worship is an offering in which we give to God a portion of what He has given us, and, receive life in return,
“Thine own, of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” It is an exchange the establishes and nurtures communion.
O God, our God, Who sent the heavenly Bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, to be our savior, redeemer, and benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us: Bless this Offering, and accept it upon Your heavenly Altar. Remember those who offered it and those for whom it was offered, for You are good and love mankind. Preserve us blameless in the celebration of Your divine Mysteries. For sanctified and glorified is Your most honorable and majestic Name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
When worship as sacrifice is rightly understood, veneration and honor assume their relative positions. When, however, the sacrifice loses all concrete meaning and is purely interiorized, the distinction between worship and veneration becomes blurred. It is strange indeed when we live in the metaphor and cease to have any relationship with the roots of meaning.