St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Growing Spiritually through Liturgy: The Inheritance of Tradition

Presentation given by John Daly on Sunday, January 20, 2008

We live in a day and age where we don't like to memorize things.  In fact, even if we wanted to memorize things, we have a hard time doing so.  We're not really trained for it.  One of the "gotcha" questions many reporters like to ask political candidates is "Who is your favorite philosopher?" or "What is your favorite poem?" immediately followed up by "Could you recite a few lines for us?"  Even the most intelligent or educated among us sometime struggle with this.  It's hard for us to imagine how people could have committed the ancient Greek epics to memory -- thousands of lines, able to recall and recite them on command -- but they did. 

The ancient Israelites also placed a great deal of emphasis on memorization.  They had a very strong oral tradition with regards to their scripture.  Old Testament Hebrew is a little like Arabic.  Neither language originally had vowels.  It was assumed that you were familiar with a given text and that the written form was almost a sort of guide to help jog your memory.  Making things even more difficult, getting something to write on and something to write with was much more challenging back then as well, so there were practical reasons not to write down everything.  For people to write something down back then, it had to be really worth remembering.  It had to be important.

The Apostles knew that the words of Jesus Christ were important.  They felt very strongly that the words of our Lord had to be written down so that they would not be forgotten.  Amongst the words that they felt were the most important were those said by Christ at the Last Supper.  "Take eat.  This is My Body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins.  Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins."  Does this sound familiar?  It should.  We hear it every Sunday during the Anaphora, the prayers leading up to Holy Communion.

The Apostles must have felt that these words were extremely important for the Church.  All four of the Evangelists repeated them, with slight variations between them, and all of them connected these words with the Eucharist.  In fact, it's pretty safe to say that these were the words that they themselves used when celebrating Eucharist.  There are several instances in the New Testament where prayers are recorded by the Evangelists, such as the Magnificat of the Theotokos, the Benedictus of Zachariah, and, of course, the Lord's Prayer.  They must have believed there was something important and worthwhile to pass on in these prayers.

The Church, too, must believe there is something important and worthwhile in our anaphoral prayers today.  The prayers we use today are ancient.  On most Sundays, we celebrate the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  The reason we name this particular liturgy after him is because he wrote these anaphoral prayers.  That means the Church has been passing down these prayers for 1,600 years!  Other parts of the liturgy may have shifted around a little bit over the centuries, but we have always a great level of respect for these special prayers.  The prayers from the Liturgy of St. James that we will be celebrating in a few weeks are even older still.  They go back all the way to Apostolic times.  

So why does the Church, and us by extension, place such an importance on these words?  Why give so much importance to these prayers?  Because, just like the Apostles, the Church places the words and teachings of Jesus Christ at the very center of its life.  The words of our Lord at the Last Supper form the basis for every Anaphora of every liturgy in the Orthodox Church.  If these prayers aren't grounded in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, then we aren't interested in them.  If what we are doing today is not somehow connected with what He did, it's not worth doing.  

Christ is how we understand Holy Tradition in the Church.  All of Holy Tradition begins with Jesus Christ.  Why do we celebrate Eucharist?  Because Christ showed the Apostles how to celebrate it.  He then told them, "Do this in remembrance of Me."  He didn't give an conditionals or stipulations.  He didn't say "Do this if time allows" or "Do this as long as it doesn't conflict with family or work."  I read an article not too long ago by an Orthodox Priest.  In it, he said that no matter how many times he read his Bible, he didn't see any commands by Christ to do anything other than preach the Gospel.  I was really troubled by this, especially because it was Orthodox priest saying this.  But Christ really did tell us to celebrate Liturgy!  And He does so out of love.  Everything within Holy Tradition has been given to us out of God's love for us.  And everything we do in Holy Tradition should likewise be done in love for God.

In a few weeks, when you celebrate the Liturgy of St. James, I hope everyone pays close attention during the Anaphora.  Right after the gifts have been consecrated, there is a part where the priest will read off a great list of people.  The list includes priests and deacons, the whole nation, our community, monastics, those who are in prison, those who suffer from terror and oppression, the sick, the suffering, and those who have died, amongst many others.  After each group of them, the choir will sing "Remember them, O Lord, our God!" in response.  The first thing we do after the consecration of the gifts is pray everyone under the son, an act of immense love.  The petitions conclude: "Let them all enjoy the peace and happiness of Thy reign where the light of Thy countenance shines forth forever.  By the grace and compassion and love for us of Thy Christ, with whom Thou are blest, together with Thine all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages."  That is certainly something worth writing down.  It's something worth remembering.  But more than that, it's something worth doing.