Unlike ecclesiology, Scripture, epistemology, and the gospel, the subject of worship was not one of the reasons why I chose to become Orthodox. Rather, it was an interesting surprise for me as I started to visit an Orthodox church service (called the divine liturgy) last year. So don't hear this post as an explanation of why I'm fed up with evangelical worship (though there are some Orthodox who are very critical of it), but as an explanation of why I have come to think Orthodox worship has more to offer and is at least worth seriously thinking about.
|This isn't my priest, but still an amazing picture.|
I pretty quickly realized that Orthodox worship doesn't share the common evangelical concern for "user-friendliness" or "seeker sensitivity", for being as nonthreatening, welcoming, and accessible as possible to someone who has never set foot. The meaning of the actions performed and the words spoken is not always immediately obvious, which is a big shift for me. So much so that a 12-point article explaining some parts of worship is frequently shared with inquirers like myself. Having done my homework, I was excited and nervous for my first visit to a divine liturgy last May. I still didn't really know what to expect.
Upon entering the church, I was immediately hit by the rich smell of incense. I heard indistinct chanting coming from a distance. After being warmly greeted and handed a program, I made my way towards the main part of the church. I pretty quickly noticed people doing things I wasn't used to: bowing, crossing themselves, kissing icons (more on that later), and so on. I took a seat and tried to be as invisible as possible, taking everything in. I'll talk about my visual impressions of the cathedral later: for now, I'll focus on the order of worship, and what everyone was actually doing.
The result is that the worship is simply off my scale of "traditional" or "contemporary". Rather, it feels completely and totally other to what I was used to—and I think that's a good thing. I genuinely appreciate how not just the general message but the actual style and content of the liturgy are not left open to individual churches' creative interpretation but are received and enjoyed as a treasure. I felt connected to the countless other Christians who shared in this same liturgy both around the world and into the early history of the Church. Additionally, there is much less of a distinction between "worship" from the rest of the liturgy; except for the sermon and a few other small parts of the liturgy, everything is sung or chanted. This makes it easy to see that worship is more than just singing.
I'll try to explain the theological and ecclesiological basis for these features of Orthodox worship as best I can.
Liturgical Worship: "According to the Pattern"Orthodox don't believe that traditional worship is just a matter of personal preference (as is implicitly admitted in the multiple styles of service held in many Protestant churches). The reason for this is one of the central points of Orthodox theology of worship, which will be the basis for much to come: Orthodox view worship as "heaven on earth", the redemptive meeting of two worlds, where worshippers are "taken up to the heavenly places" (in Bishop Kallistos Ware's words, The Orthodox Church, 265) or, equally, heaven comes down to fill the church. During worship, Orthodox believe that the whole universal Church—not merely fellow believers elsewhere on earth, but all the saints throughout history, the angels, the Mother of God, and Christ himself—is mystically present, worshipping alongside the parishioners. The Greek root of the word "liturgy" means "work of [or for] the people"; it is our participation in the heavenly worship and in the work of redemption God is doing in and through us. This point is tremendously significant.
For this reason, Orthodox worship intentionally seeks to reflect heavenly worship in all its glory. When Vladimir, the prince of Kiev who converted to Christianity, sent representatives to Constantinople to see how eastern Christians worshipped, they reported, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty." (Quoted in Ware 264) I have experienced and am already learning to appreciate that beauty for myself.
This is the reason for a lot of Orthodox worship practices that Protestants may find odd. Orthodox worship is informed by biblical depictions of the "pattern" set by worship in heaven which often go unnoticed in Protestant theology. It is not merely an imitation of the worship in heaven, it is a participation in heavenly worship. When the Eucharist is first brought out, the people sing a hymn beginning with "We who mystically represent the cherubim..."; the cherubim, that is, who surround God's heavenly throne and never cease to sing his praise. This article by an Orthodox convert from a Reformed background explains pretty thoroughly the ways in which Orthodox worship is based on the heavenly pattern. I will simply try to summarize:
- Acts 7:44 and Hebrews 8:5, 9:23-24 speak of a heavenly pattern for Israelite worship given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, in Exodus 25-31, which is repeatedly referred to as God is giving the specifications for the tabernacle. (Exo 25:8, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8) For the Israelites, worshipping God rightly meant conforming to his prescriptions for worship as well as having one's heart in the right place.
- Orthodox worship (and the basic layout of an Orthodox church) is patterned after worship in the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon. It is also patterned after the biblical glimpses of heavenly worship such as in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4-5. (This article gives more examples from Revelation of heavenly patterns for elements of the liturgy like altars, incense, candles, vestments, sacred writings, and prostration)
- Specific elements of worship like vestments, incense, and images (more on this later) are also directly based on analogues in the Old Testament.
- Malachi 1:11 predicts a universal worship of God (through incense) which is fulfilled by the Church.
- Hebrews 13:10 refers to worship involving an altar.
- Numerous verses (like Isa 61:4-6, 66:21; 1 Pet 2:5,9) refer to a continuing priesthood.
So from an Orthodox perspective, it is not traditional, liturgical worship that is strange and in need of explanation, but contemporary worship. Orthodox worship is guided and shaped by its purpose of conforming to and partaking in the worship of heaven. But central to contemporary worship is an assumption not shared by liturgical churches: that the form (or "style") of worship is a matter of personal preference and a passive vehicle distinct and fully detachable from the content ("message") of worship. This results in worship that seeks to convey "timeless Christian truth" in a manner that is accessible, attractive, and engaging. Contemporary worship is also highly experiential; another motivation for pursuing a certain style of worship is to produce an appropriate feeling or attitude in the worshipper.
Brett McCracken, the author of Hipster Christianity, disagrees with the assumption that form and content are so cleanly separable. He argues (in a quintessentially Orthodox way) that the nature of the Incarnation speaks against this dichotomy; the gospel did not come to earth as a formless spiritual message to be packaged in a way determined by the culture and preferences of each recipient, but in the form of the God-man Jesus who lived in a specific time and place. He further argues with examples:
“Be Thou My Vision” is a different experience when sung a capella by a group of Christians in a house church than when performed by a loud, seven-piece worship band in an arena megachurch or on a tiny bar stage by a somber David Bazan. The Apostle’s Creed is a different thing when an individual silently reads it on a page than when a church stands and recites it corporately. The words may be the same, but different forms necessarily imbue them with slightly different meanings. There is plenty of truth in Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the medium is the message.”
Given this, we must admit that the particular shape and style Christianity takes has some bearing on what people perceive it to mean. Does the gospel message conveyed in a glitzy American suburban megachurch equal that which is conveyed by the beleaguered churches of Iraq or Syria? Does the fact that a church meets in a bar, or a cathedral, or a gutted shopping mall, or someone’s living room, make no difference whatsoever in how the church’s faith is understood?The form-content dichotomy is ultimately dualistic, in stark contrast to the thoroughly incarnational nature of Christianity. So while contemporary worship is not entirely without value (oftentimes it more closely resembles corporate prayer and devotions), insofar as it is shaped by this dualism, I believe it falls short of the biblical vision of worship and that liturgical Orthodox worship, with its focus on partaking in the form (not just the message) of the worship in heaven and its joyous use of all five senses, is much more in keeping with the mystery of the Incarnation which is commemorated weekly in Orthodox churches around the world.
I also no longer believe that the purpose of worship is simply subjective, to meet our needs and preferences or to engender a certain feeling or experience in us. If form really is inseparable from content, if the truth of the faith is expressed not only through some disembodied "message" being conveyed but through the concrete, sensory details of the liturgy, then changing the style of worship is no longer merely a matter of opinion or producing the right attitude in us, but of Christian truth. If you would rather worship God with contemporary hymns to rock music than according to the heavenly pattern because you find the former more enjoyable or conducive to a "religious experience", what needs to be changed is not the worship style but your heart. We rightly shudder at the thought of changing the doctrines of the faith to suit ourselves; why should worship be any different?
About those Icons...I am addressing the visual aspect of Orthodox worship separately because it is a major point of tension with Protestant Christians, especially those of a Reformed disposition. The incarnational nature of Orthodox worship is expressed in its adherence to the heavenly pattern: the incense, the vestments, the altar, the candles, and so on. But it is also reflected in the church itself, which is covered in and filled with hand-painted images (icons) of Jesus, Mary, other people from the Bible, and saints from the history of the church. Here is a picture of what the front of my church looks like.
This one, taken from a different angle, shows something like what a worship service looks like, with all the decorations out (though not actually taken during the liturgy).
As an initial point, the second commandment does not prohibit the use of all images in worship but the construction of pagan idols. The KJV/RSV translation "graven image" is highly misleading; the Hebrew word used here, pecel, basically means "idol" and its usage in this manner is evident throughout the Old Testament. The Greek word used in the Septuagint, eidolon, is even clearer. As well, the use of images can't be generally prohibited because God goes on to instruct the Israelites to build them for tabernacle (and later temple) worship. The ark of the covenant has two golden cherubim above it (Exo 25:17-22), and the curtain of the tabernacle also has images of cherubim (Exo 26:1, 31-33). Solomon made two giant cherubim for the inner sanctuary of the temple and carved more images onto the walls and doors of the temple (1 Kings 6:23-35, 2 Chr 3:10-14). The prophet Ezekiel, in his prophetic vision of the heavenly temple, again sees carved images on the walls. (Eze 41:15-26) In the Old Testament, at least, the use of images in worship, far from automatically constituting idolatry, is actually commanded by God and appears in depictions of heavenly worship. However, before Christ those images are simply of the created order, as a means of praising and honoring their creator by way of his handiwork.
Has the situation somehow changed in the New Testament and the Church age? Quite the opposite! The rationale for the prohibition against idols in Exodus 20:4-5, besides the need to set Israel apart from her pagan neighbors, was because God was spirit and bodiless, unable to be depicted in physical form, so any attempt to depict him could not be anything but idolatry. Well, not anymore. Through the Incarnation, God has taken a physical, flesh-and-blood body and graciously enabled himself to be depicted in images (though not, of course, in his divine essence). As I have already described, the Incarnation is hugely consequential for Orthodox theology. They take it as an authoritative divine declaration that matter as well as spirit is good and able to be redeemed, and so Orthodox worship with their bodies, with their five senses as well as in their spirits. John's refutation of the Gnostics in the beginning of his first epistle, that the incarnate Word is "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands", applies also to the puritanical logic which sees idolatry in physically manifested worship. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:
God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed: 'The Word made flesh has deified the flesh,' said John of Damascus. God has 'deified' matter, making it 'spirit-bearing'; and if flesh has become a vehicle of the Spirit, then so—though in a different way—can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God's creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed or glorified. (The Orthodox Church, 33-34)Though the Incarnation of the Word of God is a truly unique event with cosmic significance, Orthodox also view it as a type for the deification (union with God) of all of creation, including his image-bearers. As St. Athanasius said, "God became man that we might become god." So the Incarnation is the basis for the use of icons in worship. They are made possible by the mystery of God taking on human flesh, and they serve as revelatory "windows to eternity", as eschatological glimpses of the new, deified creation bursting out from the old. Nicolas Zernov beautifully writes:
[Icons] were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man's spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper "Image". The [icons] were pledges of a coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one...The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory–it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured cosmos. (quoted in The Orthodox Church, 34)And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that icons are not a late corruption of worship, but have been in use since the early Church and were well established by the fourth century (besides the aforementioned use of images in pre-Christ Jewish worship).
Enough about the principle of using images in worship. Do Orthodox then worship images, since they kiss them, prostrate themselves before them? Absolutely not. This concern is much older than Protestantism; it was the rallying cry of the iconoclasts (icon-smashers) of the eighth and ninth centuries. They believed that to pay honor to a religious image was to worship it rather than the one true God, and thus to commit idolatry. To which Orthodox Christians responded that there is a real and important difference between honor or veneration and worship. This distinction was eventually dogmatized by the seventh ecumenical council in 787, which rejected the implicit dualism of the iconoclasts and continued to grasp and apply the profound theological implications of the Incarnation (as the sixth council did for monothelitism). St. John of Damascus was one of the leading defenders of icon veneration in this time. This article summarizes his thought on the issue as follows, tying it in with the previous point about the deification of material creation through the Incarnation:
The icon stands for something other than itself. An icon is a representation of a real sacred person or event, and is designed to lead us to it. An idol lacks this authentic symbolic character. Icons are based on the same principle as the theophanies of the Old Testament and the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. All spiritual revelations have to use material media. We honour the icons just as we honour the Gospel or the Cross. Things made by our own hands can be holy if they are set apart for the use of God. Through matter, they can lead us to the invisible God. We do not venerate the icons as God but only as filled with the energy and grace of God. The veneration of icons belongs to the tradition and many miracles are wrought through them. Hence, to depart from them is a sin. John of Damascus also quotes St. Basil the Great who said, 'The honour which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype.' The prototype honoured is, in the last analysis, God, as God created man in His own image.In the case of icons of Jesus Christ, we do worship the one depicted through the icon, not of course worshipping the physical icon itself. In the case of other icons, we honor (or venerate) the one depicted and, therefore, worship the God who works wonderful things through them. The central point is that it is possible to distinguish between the icon and the person(s) it depicts without rejecting icons as worthless distractions from "true", purely spiritual worship, so that rather than becoming an object of worship the icon serves as a sort of physical conduit for our worship of God, the redeemer of all things, and our apprehension of his presence and his truth. As Jesus said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jhn 14:9); if Jesus' disciples could glimpse God through his human face, then why not through other material means as well? Ware summarizes more briefly: "When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted." (32)
The concept of icons as symbolically representing a deeper reality is used in other ways as well. The Bible is called a "verbal icon" of God and is likewise venerated in worship services. Jesus himself, in his humanity, can be considered an icon (of sorts) of the Father, whom he represented to the people of Israel during his time on earth. And Orthodox believe that human beings are also living icons, since we bear the image of God. This helps explain how the Lord can say, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. ... as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." (Mat 25:40, 45)
The use of icons in Orthodox churches is also an application of the communion of saints, the Orthodox belief that earthly worship is a participation in heavenly worship and that the whole catholic Church is present. The presence of icons of the angels and saints from throughout the ages visibly affirms this. Ware writes:
The icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As each local congregation prays Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by the figures of Christ, the angels, and the saints, these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the Liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity, and they are helped to realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of 'heaven on earth.' (271-272)And finally, icons can also serve in a teaching role. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; so icons are able to depict spiritual realities in an immediate and intuitive (not to mention visual) way that words of theology alone cannot. (This is also an advantage for children and, in former ages, illiterate people) For example, in the first image of my church you can somewhat see that a larger-than-life icon of Mary with arms outstretched in the hindmost part of the cathedral (technically called the "sanctuary"). Is this because Mary is more important than Jesus? No! Rather, because the sanctuary ("holy place") is where the scriptures (the Word) are kept, and where the elements of Jesus' body are prepared for the Eucharist, Mary is traditionally depicted in the sanctuary because, like it, she also acted as a physical vessel for Christ. This is one example of the symbolic, intricately interconnected way in which Orthodox iconography works. Icons depicting events in the life of Christ (such as his birth, death, and resurrection) are especially informative of the Orthodox faith.
Also, notice the ornate wall covered in icons (apparently made in Russia and shipped here over a century ago) partially separating the sanctuary from the rest of the cathedral; this is called the iconostasis. Is this a return to the curtain in the Jewish temple separating the Presence of God from everyone, which tore in two at Jesus' death (Mat 27:51)? No! The iconostasis has three doors which are usually kept open, allowing worshippers to see into the sanctuary; though worshippers aren't exactly free to go back there, there is little secrecy involved. Generally the two side doors are used for access into the sanctuary; when the center door is opened, closed, and used, it is for a symbolic purpose. When the scriptures are brought out through this door, it represents the divine inspiration that gave birth to them. When the elements are processed out through it, it is a weekly depiction of the cornerstone of Orthodox theology, the incarnation by which God became man and dwelt among us. Through Orthodox worship, the drama of the gospel narrative of redemption is reenacted weekly.
Though it wasn't one of the reasons I originally sought after a different kind of Christianity, Orthodox worship came as an answer to a journal entry I wrote a year before learning about the Orthodox Church, after visiting some beautiful Anglican churches in England.
God coming down to our level is only half the story. The other is Him bringing us up to His, and I see that in these magnificent churches, once the center of community life—all of life—in their villages. ... [My church] recognizes the danger of a sacred-secular divide and so does away with "sacred spaces" like Christchurch Cathedral, to try to pervade the everyday with the spiritual. But maybe all spaces are supposed to be sacred spaces. (2013-4-24)I think that last statement describes the intent of the Incarnation: to transform human hearts, human bodies, human societies, the whole world, the cosmos into "sacred space". But this transformation has a definite starting point in the proclamation and practice of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Lewisian terms, Orthodox churches are beachheads for the divine invasion and ongoing redemption of the material world.
Further ReadingHipster Christianity, revisited
Orthodox Worship versus Contemporary Worship
Christian Worship or Pagan Worship
Let's Get Physical
Puritan Sacramentalism (by the ecumenically-minded Protestant Peter Leithart; the next three articles are Orthodox responses)