Worship, as an offering made to God, ought to be the offering which God wishes to receive from human persons. This is seen immediately in Genesis, in the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, one of which is accepted by God, the other of which is rejected. Consistent with this, extremely detailed instructions were given for the design of the place of worship, and the structure and patterns of worship itself, in the Law. In terms of order, these commandments even take precedence over many of the moral commandments given in the Law. In fact, the commandment to celebrate the Passover precedes the actual Passover in Exodus 12. These commandments regarding worship are taken incredibly seriously by the text, with Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu suffering death for choosing to offer incense at the wrong time and in the wrong manner.
Despite the clarity of these commandments, and the seriousness of their application throughout the Old Testament, for the most part, in our present day, Western Christianity believes that the vast majority of these commandments have been abrogated, or at least their force has been removed. In general, the Protestant position on worship has been to weigh seriously in this regard only the commandments of the New Testament regarding religion. This is based on grouping together all of the commandments of the Law regarding worship under the heading of ‘ceremonial law’ and then arguing that Christ’s fulfillment of the sacrificial system does away with them. Next week’s article will deal directly with Christ’s fulfillment of the sacrificial system, but this grouping of commandments under one head within the Law is completely artificial and not found in the text. In Roman Catholicism, the shift here was more subtle, with human imagination, and therefore input in the form of religion becoming gradually more and more allowed and even emphasized since the schism with Orthodoxy, culminating in Vatican II’s relativizing of order in regard to forms and places of worship.
Over against this, the Orthodox Church has consistently continued to apply the commandments of the Law to the life of the church in this area, just as in all others, but seen through the fulfillment which has come in our Lord Jesus Christ. A key scriptural text for understanding this transformation of worship is John 4:19-24, a passage often used by proponents of the opposing view. The Samaritan woman asks Christ a question regarding the proper place of worship, the Jerusalem temple or the Samaritan site on Mt. Gerizim. Christ’s ultimate answer, that in the future God’s people will worship him “in spirit and in truth” is then interpreted to refer to the idea that in the future, God may be worshipped anywhere, at any time, by any person. Often it is taken further to argue for the complete individualization of religion, as this text is seen as invalidating the Old Testament commandments regarding the places, times, and ordained persons involved in worship. This understanding of the text, however, ignores the details of the text, and a close reading reveals something very different.
In his full answer to the question, Christ speaks specifically of worship of the Father, not merely of God in a general sense, as a Samaritan worshipper would have been used to. He immediately dismisses the issue of which of the two places is correct, by stating that it will not be long before the Father is not worshipped in either place. The Samaritan temple had long since been destroyed by John Hyrcanus, and the Jerusalem temple was soon to fall to Titus in 70 A.D. Christ then reframes the question, by pointing out that the Samaritans worship what they do not know, while the Jews worship whom they know, because it was the Jews who have received God’s revelation of himself. It is this situation, of the Jews knowing God and those outside not knowing, which Christ then says will be remedied in the future worship of the Father. The Fathers, in commenting on this passage, note two things. First, that when the word ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual’ is used in the New Testament, it almost always refers to the Holy Spirit. Second, and more directly related to the Gospel According to St. John, in St. John’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself as ‘the Truth’ (cf. John 14:6). In Christ, the true revelation of God’s identity, the Holy Trinity comes into the world, and not only to the Jews, but to all nations, such that now all of humanity, when worshipping the Father, worships him in the Spirit and the Truth, in the Holy Trinity.
Christ does not abolish the commandments regarding worship. but fulfills them in bringing the true knowledge of the Holy Trinity, which transforms and deepens them in a new context. We see this borne out in the practice of the apostles, who do not reject the existing Old Testament worship which still existed in their times. St. Paul did not shun the synagogues, but rather went to them first in all of his missionary journeys, participated in their worship, and preached Jesus there as the Christ, the fulfillment of the scriptures which were read and taught there. Even more tellingly, despite their understanding of Christ’s sacrifice in relation to the sacrificial system, the apostles did not abandon the other worship of the temple in Jerusalem while it still stood. In St. Luke’s Gospel, the events surrounding Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven culminate with his followers being continually in the temple. In Acts, St. Paul indicates his desire to return to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he is unable to, he commits to being there for Pentecost. At the same time, however, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but with the transformation that now “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us” (5:7-8). It is worth noting that this letter is addressed by St. Paul to a primarily Gentile community.
This mode of applying the Law’s commandments regarding worship, begun by the apostles, is what lies behind the patterns and structures of Orthodox worship. Just as the Passover (Pascha in Greek) was the ‘first of days’ in the Law, around which the Israelites structured their year, so also Pascha, now the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is the first of days for Orthodox Christians around which we structure our year. Just as in the Law, that year is structured around a cycle of feasts commemorating the great events in the history of our salvation. Just as in the Law, one day in seven is set apart to the Lord, though Christ having rested in the tomb on the seventh day has fulfilled the Sabbath, and so that day is now the day of his resurrection, the first day of the week. The Tuesday and Thursday fasts have moved to Wednesday and Friday connected to Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion. The most basic structure of our worship remains the offering of incense at morning and evening with prayer and the lighting of lamps (Exodus 30:7-8). Our worship spaces are adorned on the sides and the iconostasis with images of the hosts of heaven, just as the tabernacle was, though now these hosts include the saints in resurrected glory due to the resurrection of Christ. We distinguish between a holy and most holy place, though now, consecrated in the blood of Christ, all of the faithful enter into the holy place as a kingdom of priests.
Because in Western Christian circles, worship has come to often be regarded as little more than a matter of taste, Orthodox worship, indeed, traditional Christian worship, is often presented as just one more preference. “Smells and bells” as it were. It is assumed to be some kind of Greek or Russian or Middle Eastern cultural expression of Christian worship. This however is far from the truth. The patterns, and even details, of Orthodox worship are founded in a consistent interpretation of the commandments of God in the Law, as they are now understood more fully and deeply in Christ. When the commandments of the Law regarding worship are consistently applied in the way in which the apostles applied them, and all of the other commandments of the Law, Orthodox worship is the result. This is the worship which God has given to us to allow us to make a pleasing offering to the Father, united to the Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit.