Growing Spiritually through Liturgy

Liturgical Catechesis Presentation-Introduction

Presentation given by Teva Regule on Sunday, December 30, 2007

(I invite you to turn to the post communion hymn, "We have seen the true light".  In the 1987 edition of the Service book {Antiochian}, it is on p. 123.)

We have seen the true light!  We have received the Heavenly Spirit!  We have found the true faith!  Therefore, let us worship the undivided Trinity who has saved us.[1]

These are the words of the faithful immediately after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy.  We sing this stichera [verse] from Pentecost at almost every Divine Liturgy.  But, what does it mean?  We know that light is necessary for our physical survival in this world.  But is the light to which we refer merely physical light that we can see or a much deeper reality?  St. Gregory Palamas, a 14th century theologian of the Church, speaks of the vision of light as the "uncreated energies of the Holy Spirit," the "garment of deification [emphasis mine]."  The vision of the uncreated Light is union with God.  Union is communion and this communion offers knowledge of God.[2]

God, the eternal Other, is beyond space and time.  In His love, He created the world out of nothingness.  Union with God is what is life.  Even though we live within the bounds of space and time, we have the opportunity now to embrace this true light.  In doing so, we enter into a never-ending relationship with God.  Of course, we can never really fully know God, just as we can never fully know other persons.  We can know about them, but never really truly know them in totality.  It is a never-ending process.

This relationship formally begins at our baptism.  However, with any relationship, we must nurture it in order for it to grow.  We have the opportunity to do so throughout our lives within the community of the Church.  The Divine Liturgy, in particular, is replete with the opportunity to know God, to enter into this never- ending relationship with God.  God has given us the invitation in both its horizontal and vertical dimensions.  In January, there will be a series of short talks (of which this is only the introduction) that will highlight opportunities to know God in our liturgical celebration through Scripture, Tradition, our relationships with others, and our reception of Holy Communion.  (Of course, there are other ways to learn about and encounter God through our liturgical expression (e.g. iconography and hymnography, etc.), but, for now, we will focus on these areas.)

So, let us begin....  We might start by asking a basic question, "What is liturgy?"  In its basic terms, liturgy can be thought of as "a living tradition that provides the means by which we actively unite in celebrating the sacred mysteries of life and our faith."[3] This is a rather dense definition and warrants repeating: (so I repeat) Liturgy can be thought of as "a living tradition that provides the means by which we actively unite in celebrating the sacred mysteries of life and our faith."[4]  Liturgy is the context in which we actively unite and become Church, the community of believers. This can be seen in the original Entrance prayer of the Liturgy of Chrysostom that was said as both the clergy and the people entered the church (building) as the ‘C'hurch.  A similar entrance prayer is said in most early liturgies, including the Liturgy of James that we hope to celebrate this February.   It reads,

Benefactor and Creator of all creation, receive the Church [emphasis mine] which is advancing [together], accomplish what is good for each one: bring all to perfection, make us worthy of your Kingdom [emphasis mine]; by the grace and mercy and love for [us] of your only-begotten Son, with whom you are blessed, together with your holy good and life-giving Spirit, now and always...[5]

(Today, we have retained only a remnant of this movement (and an alternate prayer)-known as the "Little Entrance.") 

Secondly, liturgy is catechetical.  It is an opportunity to learn and grow in our knowledge about and relationship with God-to get a taste of this Kingdom to which the entrance prayer refers-from our experience.  This opportunity is available to us on both the vertical (i.e. personal-"me and God") and horizontal (i.e. communal-"me and God through my neighbor"-our relationships with others) levels, as well as through the Church community throughout the ages, what we call the revelation of Scripture and Holy Tradition.  We do not know God generally.  We know Him by how he has revealed Himself to us.  The Anaphora-the great Eucharistic prayer that we hear at every Divine Liturgy (which begins in the Liturgy of Chrysostom, "It is truly proper and right..." continues with "With these blessed powers..." and ends after the commemorations of the living and the dead, immediately before the Lord's Prayer)-celebrates this revelation.  It summarizes all that God has done for us-our Creation, our fall, and the history of salvation from a Christian perspective.  In response, we offer God thanksgiving and worship.  In this worship, we involve our whole being-mind, body and soul.   As the liturgist Hugh Wybrew says in his book on the Orthodox Liturgy,

The conscious, reasoning mind must be involved in worship.  But so must the senses and the emotions, and all that lies beneath the reasoning surface of human beings, for worship should draw into its Godward movement and penetrate with God's sanctifying grace, the whole person. [6]

Thirdly, liturgy is formative.  It builds faith and forms identity, both individual and corporate.[7]  It helps to form us as persons-those in relationship-in this world and informs our worldview.  In turn, we help to form our children.  It is the primary way by which the Church's faith (the Church's theology-how we understand our experience of the revelation of God-and praxis) is passed on from one generation to the next. Our faith is transmitted through our worship.  As Bishop Nazarii of Nizhnii said during the liturgical reform movement in Russia at the turn of the 20th century,

The Orthodox faith is acquired, strengthened, and maintained chiefly by means of liturgical worship.  Liturgical worship is properly considered to be the best school for teaching faith and morals, for it acts abundantly and salutarily on all the powers and capacities of the soul.  But if worship is to accomplish all this, then all [emphasis mine] the faithful must participate in it directly, consciously, [and] actively...[8]

This invitation requires a response on our part.  So fourthly, liturgy is "work."  The word leitourgia comes from the Greek laos (people) and ergon (work).  Quite literally, it is the work of the people.  It is inclusive.  It involves all the members of the community-the Body of Christ-and requires our active participation.  For example, it is up to us to listen to, assimilate, appropriate for ourselves, and finally give our consent-our "Amen" [So be it]]- to the prayers that the priest intones, almost all of which are the prayers of the people.  It is up to us to give our consent-our "Amen"-to not only the words of Institution ("Take eat this is My body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins..."), but to the words of consecration ("And make this bread the precious body of Your Christ-Amen...And that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Your Christ-Amen.  Changing them by Your Holy Spirit-Amen. Amen. Amen.") and the words of the fraction.  It is the entire people of God who call on the Holy Spirit to be present with us.  In fact, in Orthodox ecclesiology (i.e. how we understand ourselves as Church), a priest cannot serve the Divine Liturgy alone.  He needs the people!

Ultimately, liturgy is transformative.  It is a privileged space where the grace of God is communicated to us.   The Divine Liturgy, in particular, is the sacramental actualization of God's presence in the world-the most intimate union with Christ and one another. It points to the ultimate unity of all in Christ. (i.e. and thus, is eschatological (concerned with the "end times".)  In the Divine Liturgy, we experience God through the person of the Risen Christ (e.g. receiving of Holy Communion).  This indwelling can have a transformative effect on our lives.  Christ, as both God and human, is the unity of the uncreated with the created, the bridge from the created world to God. He is the archetype of the true human person.  As St. Athanasius says in his work On the Incarnation, "God became [a human person] so that we may become gods."[9]  Our goal as Orthodox Christians is to become god-like-to become by grace, what God is by nature (what the Greeks call, theosis).

The future is a gift from God.  It sustains God's people in hope and empowers us to create a future in the present.  God invites all of us to participate in this future at every liturgical celebration.  It is up to us to respond, to enter into that synergistic relationship with God that gives us a taste of the kingdom while we are here on earth. 

Over the course of this series, I hope that our understanding of liturgy and what we do when we gather as Church will increase and we will be ready and willing to respond actively to the call to know God more fully, not only in our communal celebrations, but in the liturgy of our lives.



[1] The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, (Grass Lake, Mich,: Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, 1975),  p. 107.  Henceforth, The Divine Liturgy.

[2] Gregory Palamas, "On the Holy Hesychasts," in The Triads, www.pelagia.org/htm/b16.en.saint_gregory_palamas_as_a_hagiorite.03.htm.

[3] The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness. (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company), p. 210.

[4] Ibid, p. 210.

[5] Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, (Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), p. 77.

[6] Ibid, p. 177.

[7] Report of the Consultation on Orthodox Liturgical Renewal and Visible Unity.  Held at New Skete Monastery, Cambridge, New York 26 May-1 June 1998.  Accessed via www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/vilemov-07-e.html.

[8] Quoted in Paul Meyendorff, The Liturgical Path of Orthodoxy in America, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 40 (1996)), p. 43-64.

[9] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, (Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, 1982), p.93.