by V. Rev. Paul Yerger
Most Orthodox Christians, if asked what they would miss most if they attended another Church, would probably say, “the worship.” Although we highly value our Church’s theology, moral stance, and stability, somehow what is closest to our hearts is the worship.
At the same time, many visitors and seekers find Orthodox worship the most difficult aspect of Orthodoxy to appreciate. To be sure, some visitors are immediately touched by our worship and can’t get enough of it. But many others, although they also value the Church’s theology, moral stance, and stability, can’t imagine themselves worshipping as Orthodox do.
Some visitors have doctrinal concerns. Do we “worship” icons or the Virgin Mary? Aren’t our services “vain repetitions?” Do we imagine we are earning favor with God by all this effort? Others just find the services long and repetitious and twin, wouldn’t Jesus want us to sit down, get comfortable, and “be ourselves”? What do we “get out” of these services anyway?
Part of the problem is that most Americans don’t have much sense of what worship is. It is understood mainly as a vehicle for teaching or even entertainment; thus the question, “What do I get out of it?” For many Americans, the Sunday School class is far more important than the worship service. And why is our worship so physical? Modern people think of “religion” as belonging to the head or the heart, not the body.
But the Bible devotes a lot of space to worship — physical, bodily worship. There are whole books mainly concerned with the Temple, its architecture and furnishings, its priesthood, sacrifices and rites, days and seasons, feasts and fasts, vestments and lamps and incense, curtains and carvings, bread and oil. This worship is complex, difficult and demanding. It is said to be commanded by God, down to its smallest details. It is not done for what the worshippers “get out of it’ but simply as what is due to God. Everything else is referred to it; kings are judged not on their outward accomplishments, nor even on their personal virtues, but on whether they worshipped the God of Israel properly and exclusively.
Some will say that all this is only in the Old Testament. They imagine that somehow immediately after Pentecost the Christians, who were, after all, mostly Jews who had grown up steeped in all this complex culture of worship, suddenly decided to hold simple, informal prayer meetings and Bible studies instead. But there is no evidence for this. A generation or so after the New Testament books were written we find detailed written accounts of Christian worship not very different from Orthodox worship today.
And the New Testament does not reject ritual worship. Our Lord frequents the Temple and the Synagogue. He condemns the hypocrisy of those who perform the prescribed worship while lacking love and obedience to God, but He does not condemn the worship itself. He will destroy the Temple and raise it up in three days (St. John 2:19) because He is Himself the fulfillment of the Temple, the one perfect Sacrifice that all the others were yearning for. The Epistle to the Hebrews explains how all the worship of the Temple in fact points to Christ. In the Revelation, St. John sees the whole mystery of the Kingdom of God revealed in complex imagery of worship. What St. Paul founded at Corinth and other cities was simply another synagogue, one that confessed Jesus as the Messiah. But the patterns of worship were not replaced: Christians believing that Jesus Christ is the real content of all Jewish worship, enhanced it to reflect this.
In fact, people have a need to worship – if they don’t worship God they will worship something else. And people are embodied creatures; we need to worship with our bodies as well as our minds. Those who participate in Orthodox worship find that it communicates at a deeper level than words. To enter the Church building, kiss the icons, light a candle, hear the familiar (and Scriptural) songs, smell the incense, bow and make the sign of the Cross, and above all to receive together the Bread which Christ gives “for the Life of the World” (St. John 6:51) – all this defines who we are, knits us to Christ and each other. To live in the rhythm of the recurring seasons and holy days enables us to transcend time in God’s eternal memory. Furthermore, even young children can experience this; it does not require intellectual understanding (A side benefit is that it doesn’t depend on the talents of the clergy!).
Yet we must confess that Orthodox worship is culturally “strange” to Americans. Although our worship begins on the lips of the Apostles, it has been handed down by 2,000 years of Christians in many places. Orthodox worship has its roots in Jewish worship, it developed in the Greek language in a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean setting, it took much of its present form and appearance in the Byzantine Empire, it was enriched by Christian monastic communities, and it was further flavored by Arabic and Slavic and Russian cultures. So even in the English language Orthodox services can seem “foreign.” The Orthodox services are like a visit to Grandmother’s house; there are things there from many places and generations and each has a story. The rationalistic American impulse is to “clear away the clutter and get down to basics” or “get back to the New Testament Church.” But this is simplistic and dangerous. Having converted to Orthodoxy 26 years ago, I can say that many things that I then thought were meaningless clutter I now find to be among the dearest and richest parts of the services. And many things once thought to be medieval have been discovered to have roots in New Testament times or in Judaism.
As Orthodox worship takes root in America, certainly it will to some extent be influenced by American culture, as earlier it has been influenced by Greek and Russian culture. This process has already begun. But it will take place organically over generations, as the Holy Spirit produces consensus, not by sudden “reforms.” Let us consider that when the eternal Son and Word of God became human, He did it only once, in one place and time for all times and places. He could have chosen to be born a nineteenth-century Englishman or a twenty-first century American. But He chose to be born a Jew, in the Middle East, in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world. This is an inseparable part of His revelation of Himself, His deified Humanity to which we are joined by grace. So to some extent, the culture of the Liturgy is the Lord’s culture and part of what He communicates to us.