I’ll admit it. Recently the liturgy felt longer than usual, even though my FitBit told me it wasn’t. I had been unable to corral my wandering thoughts during worship and had difficulty focusing. No spiritual or temporal crisis loomed. I believed the words, I appreciated the service and those who ministered, but going through the motions left me disconnected, stifling yawns. And yet…
The thought of worshiping elsewhere, of looking for more contemporary music, more practical preaching, a better facility, maybe a coffee shop and jazz combo in the lobby (yes, that’s a thing) never occurred to me.
Why not? Clearly the service wasn’t “meeting my needs.” It was repetitive, and the melodies weren’t particularly hummable. Maybe Orthodox worship just isn’t my “style.”
All these thoughts—which, at base, are centered on the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I—circled back to an important question: Why bother with Orthodox worship?
Obviously this is a huge question, impossible to answer in a short blog post. Scholarly textbooks and seminary courses in liturgics are devoted to the subject of worship. I am not struggling with questions of what is true and right, however; I believe that Orthodoxy contains the fullness of the Christian Faith as the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
But to be honest, Truth with a capital T does not always get me out of bed in the morning. Sometimes I attend church more out of raw obedience than out of heartfelt desire. On those days, certain aspects of the Orthodox worship experience settle my heart, if not my distractible mind, reminding me why I keep returning to the nave. Here are three of them that help me to persevere. I’m sure you can come up with many more.
1. True Worship Transcends Time and Space
The Divine Liturgy is not simply a “high church” expression of formal religious experience. In the Orthodox understanding of worship, when we enter the nave, we are not only standing in a particular geographic location down here, doing our thing. We actually ascend to heaven and join those in Christ who have gone before us. We are both here and there; we stand simultaneously in the temporal world and in eternity.
This entrance into heavenly worship is reality, not mere sentiment. It is also a primary reason why the Divine Liturgy does not change or try to entertain us. Worship begins in heaven, with the angels and saints who stand continually before the throne of God. (Wait—they’re standing, too? Revelation 7:9 and 8:2 say yes. Okay, I’m wearing flats next week.)
The priest’s opening blessing in the Liturgy proclaims, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Together we embark on a journey with the Kingdom of God as its destination. The Church invites us along, leading us to humble ourselves, repent, and believe. I can do that, even when my thoughts and emotions won’t cooperate.
2. Orthodox Architecture Communicates Spiritual Reality
Although I frequently forget this heavenly dimension, the architecture of an Orthodox Church reminds me where I am and who is with me. The iconography surrounds us with saints and angels because the saints and angels actually surround us. Icons are not mere artwork illustrating the truths of Scripture; they are “windows into heaven,” allowing us to perceive the reality of our resurrected brothers and sisters in Christ who are worshiping along with us.
This is very different from many Protestants’ experience of a church as “four bare walls and a sermon.” What do those bare walls communicate? Usually they bring focus to what is happening on the stage—the music and the sermon, a concert and a lecture. Traditionally, Protestant churches have also featured a large cross on or above the stage.
But even the tradition of a physical cross is falling by the wayside in some places. One OCA altar server, a former elder in a well-respected Evangelical congregation, told me that in that church, the prominent cross on the stage was moved to a wall at the side of the sanctuary. Eventually it disappeared altogether from the church. (So did he.) This change was intended to make the church more “seeker-friendly,” but the result was an auditorium that could easily house a business conference or a New Age meditation workshop.
Bare walls communicate the primacy of the sermon in the worship experience, whereas Orthodox icons lead us to communion with Christ in the Eucharist. Wherever we rest our gazes, we are invited back to Christ and His Church.
Architecture and adornment communicate a message, and the message in an Orthodox church, whether a cathedral or a hallowed space in a shopping mall, is Christ with us, coming to meet us where we are—heaven meets earth. We are part of the Church here on earth and also one with the Church Triumphant in heaven. We are one Body in Christ, not two separate groups separated by an unbridgeable chasm. We are not alone, and even when the worshipers have left, the nave is never truly empty.
3. Liturgical Worship is Crammed Full of Theology
Protestant churches tend to feature very clear statements of faith on their websites, but with the exception of the more mainline, liturgical denominations, the services themselves can be theologically hazy.
In retrospect, I think this is because the services are subject to frequent change—in music, in biblical interpretation, in the latest discipleship methods. The entirety of a church’s belief system might be expressed over the course of a year, but in most churches, the theological content is contained solely in the subject matter of the sermon series. (The lyrics of modern worship songs are mostly emotional, not doctrinal.) Creeds are not in vogue, and Communion is often served without explanation—worshipers fill in the blanks on what the grape juice and crackers mean, according to their backgrounds and personal preferences.
However, if you attend a Divine Liturgy without knowing what Orthodox people believe, just wait a minute. We’ll spell it out for you in the hymns, the prayers, the Creed, and the homily. We’ll illustrate doctrine through the senses in clerical vestments, in iconography, in incense, and, most importantly, in the chalice, through the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This clear teaching, passed down through apostolic succession over the centuries, gives me solid ground to stand on, even when my feet are weary and restless. Unchanging doctrine requires no defense. It is eternally relevant and needs no updating.
Note to Self: Liturgy is Supposed to be Work
I remain a faithful Orthodox Christian in spite of my off days. When I’m honest, I know the problem is with my heart, not with the Church, and certainly not with God. After all, the word liturgy, from the Greek word leitourgia, means “work of the people.” We sing, we recite, we respond with “Lord, have mercy.” We stand, we sit (in the West, at least), we kneel. During Great Lent, we do lots of prostrations (also known as “Orthorobics”). The service is definitely not a spectator sport.
Sometimes Orthodox worship is a sublime, otherworldly experience; at other times, I am all too earthbound. But regardless of how much I comprehend, regardless of how “present” I am in each moment, I trust that as I continue to immerse myself in the timeless truths of the Divine Liturgy, some of them are bound to soak in.