Theme: “Time for the Lord to Act” Reflections on Liturgy
by Deacon Jason Ketz
by Father Sean Levine
by Father David Wooten
by Deacon Jason Ketz and Andrew Boyd
More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.
Theme: “Time for the Lord to Act” Reflections on Liturgy
by Deacon Jason Ketz
by Father Sean Levine
by Father David Wooten
by Deacon Jason Ketz and Andrew Boyd
More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.
by Deacon Jason Ketz
I recently chaperoned at a summer camp for pan-Orthodox youth of the upper Midwest, and one of the highlights of my experience was a “Question and Answer” program. Each evening, I was invited to speak with the 8th grade men and women, of whom there were perhaps 30, and answer whatever questions they had on their minds. The questions ran the gamut from ecclesial to social, technical to simple, difficult and personal to silly and superficial, and overall I was struck by both the candor and the maturity with which these young Christians attempted to relate their faith to their everyday experiences. No doubt some of the subjects that we discussed will be fodder for subsequent writings. But one question struck me as particularly relevant to this month’s topic of Liturgy.
During one of our Q & A sessions, the discussion turned toward the Divine Liturgy, as one young man asked a very astute question about the preparatory dialogue between the priest and deacon immediately before the “Blessed is the kingdom…” that begins the Divine Liturgy. Knowing I was a deacon, the student confirmed my familiarity with the dialogue. “Say, you know at the beginning of the liturgy, there’s that conversation that you have with the priest, right?”
“And you say something like ‘it’s time for the Lord to act,’ right?”
“Yep…” (at this point, I knew that this student was Greek, as the OCA churches in our area prefer the more passive, though episcopally sanctioned STS translation “it is time to begin the service of the Lord.”)
The young man finished his brilliantly incisive question in typical middle school fashion: “well…what’s up with that?”
So what is up with that? What are we suggesting with such a phrase as ‘it is time for the LORD to act’ (καιρὸς τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ)?, especially in a context where the clergy are clearly the actors in the ensuing liturgical drama? I would suggest that this small dialogue, only said when a deacon serves, and often inaudible to the congregation, completely encapsulates our theological understanding of the Divine Liturgy.
Of course, such a bold statement is not immune to challenges. As I told the middle-schoolers, this portion of the liturgy developed centuries after the anaphora and communion rites. Accordingly, we need to weigh the meaning of any particular prayer, hymn or petition in the liturgy against our broader tradition. In so doing, we encounter again this question of whose action the liturgy is. While “it is time for the Lord to act” seems to operate in conjunction with a celebration of Christ’s self-sacrifice (“thine own of thine own”), we could just as easily contrast these statements with our own responsibility in the liturgy: to offer a “sacrifice of praise;” our sacrifice of thanksgiving (εὐχαριστία, from εὐχαριστέω), similar, perhaps, to the cereal offering of Leviticus 2.
So is it even appropriate for us to suggest that the Lord is acting in the Divine Liturgy? Surely any action that is being taken by our Lord has, in fact, already been taken by Christ’s incarnation. We might ask whether it is necessary that we have a weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection for his sacrifice to have continued meaning. If Christ has died once, for all, then what need is there for a continued remembrance of this event?
Most of us would be perfectly content to consider that God’s great revelation was in the crucifixion and resurrection, preserving the most ancient understandings of Christ’s theophany, the moment he is revealed to us as Lord of all (cf. Phil 2:5-11; Matt 28:18; or the famous confession of the centurion in Mark 15:39). Along these lines, we can also recognize Jesus’ birth, baptism and transfiguration as theophanies, too. In each instance, we see how “God has revealed himself.”
But while God has revealed himself in history, has he revealed himself to us? Or to me? This is a bit of a logical riddle, like the tree falling in the woods out of earshot: If we weren’t there to witness the revelation of Christ, on what basis can we confess our faith? Fortunately, experiencing the revelation of Christ is independent of physical observation of Christ’s miracles. Scriptures very rarely credit witnesses of Christ’s epiphanies with understanding what they saw. Thomas’ confession in John 20:28 (Thomas identifies the risen Christ as “my Lord and my God” – the highest Christological confession of the New Testament!) is rebuked by Jesus for being dependent on the physical senses, while Peter’s confession (Mk 8:27-33) inappropriately precedes the crucifixion, earning Peter a similar rebuke for wishing to separate Christ from His Cross. Meanwhile, a positive definition for the revelation is offered through Matthew’s rendition of Peter’s confession (Matt 16:17). Here, Jesus explains that our recognition of him as Lord is a revelation from “my father in heaven.”
And the Church serves a very important role in this revelatory, epiphanic process. The Church becomes the locus for the Lord’s continued revelation to us, on two levels. First, the Church is the keeper and the interpreter of the historical revelations of scripture. The New Testament is the Church’s story to tell, and the scriptures are hers to interpret (cf. 2 Pe 1:19-21). Second, the church is the community that preserves and remembers the past events of Christ’s historical revelation, and re-presents them in context. It is only through such deliberate, repeated and controlled anamnesis that we can be connected to the past, and the Church is the social group that stores and presents this collective memory. The collective memory and the scriptures of the Church facilitate our encounter with the revelation of Christ, and both are accessed in one way: through ritual – specifically, through the Divine Liturgy.
It is important to realize that, as humans, we are still not in control of the revelation. Our Lord God has revealed himself to us (Ps 118:27) entirely on his own initiative. Our Lord has taken the initiative historically, and our Lord continues to take the initiative with each of us, internally. Only by the Spirit are we able to cry out, “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6). Therefore, we can state unequivocally that each Liturgy is the renewed time for the Lord to act.
This notion of the Lord’s action through ritual draws on an even deeper theme – a sublime belief that at the center of creation is a ritual. Large sections of the Old Testament advance such a view, suggesting that the cornerstone of creation is essentially the temple at Jerusalem, with all of its divinely appointed rituals. While our Christian tradition has redefined both sacrifice and sacred space in light of the resurrection, both notions exist at the core of our beliefs. The liturgy, like the temple rituals of old, is a controlled interaction between God and man. For us, it is an encounter with Christ. Therefore, it is entirely fitting that we should choose to start our liturgy with such a statement as: it is time for the Lord to act. There is, in fact, no more objective standard of time for the Christian believer.
The Liturgy’s opening dialogue carries a hidden punch as well, because the deacon is reciting only half of a psalm verse, leaving the other half to echo silently in our hearts. It is time for the Lord to act, for thy law has been broken! (Ps 119: 126) One might ask (and the students at Church camp certainly did): which law? There is no reason to look beyond Deuteronomy 6:5 for an answer: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Christ himself confirms the centrality of this command in his own interpretation of the Law (cf. Mt 22:37-38).
So we set our liturgical stage by recognizing that here and now is the place and time in which God acts, in response to our violation of his commandment. God’s action, of course, is Christ’s incarnation, the events and consequences of which we celebrate during the ensuing Eucharistic ritual. Thus, we are the immediate recipients of God’s revelation – of Christ – during the course of the Divine Liturgy. Consider the implications of this statement: I suggested earlier that at the center of the universe is a ritual, and we are now we see that our entire universe is constructed around the revelation of Christ, which we come to experience through the Liturgy.
Liturgy, therefore, is a bit more than just a “Sunday morning” thing. It is the clearest understanding that we Christians have of all of creation and the cosmos, including our understanding of paradise. Scripture confirms this: the more detailed the scriptural accounts of heaven, the more organized and ceremonial they become. The prophets’ visions (cf. Is 6:1-7; Ezek 1:4-28; many parts of Daniel; etc.) are only a preview of what is described in the Book of Revelation (see 4:1-5:14 and throughout), and it is no accident that our Divine Liturgy intentionally evokes these heavenly visions through our prayers and actions. At the Little Entrance, the Cherubic Hymn, and the prayers of the anaphora surrounding the “Holy, Holy, Holy” hymn, we refer to the parallel liturgy being conducted eternally by God’s angels in heaven.
I allowed my discussion with the summer campers to turn this direction. The students at camp had many questions about heaven, and after some brief speculation about pets and deceased loved ones and happier times ahead, I suggested to them that perhaps heaven is not puffy clouds and pearly gates, but just maybe, heaven is an unending liturgy.
The students were stunned, and rightly so! Liturgy is hard. Our service creates unbearable tensions. Some are physical, some are emotional, some are rational, but all of these tensions stem precisely from our overriding belief that our liturgy sits at the crux of the temporal and eternal. In the liturgy, the creature encounters the creator; the human encounters the divine. We are lucky enough to survive the encounter (and for any who are skeptical of such a mythic view of approaching the Lord, please take a moment to read the prayers the priest says immediately before the Great Entrance!), and it is a hard idea to process these tensions alongside our romanticized views of heaven.
But what other conclusion can we possibly reach? Liturgy is both relevant and significant for all of us, because the Liturgy is the controlled environment in which the earthly and the heavenly can safely meet. I say this not to limit the power of the Holy Spirit (God forbid!), but because we do not have another repeatable way for us to encounter our Lord and to benefit from such an encounter. The liturgy is an accessible revelation, containing the necessary elements of our faith, in the proper sequence for us to process it (essentially, the sequence experienced by the disciples on the road to Emmaus. cf Lk 24:13-35). The liturgy, then, becomes not only a passive theophany, but our invitation to participate in God’s saving plan, and to witness the manner by which God has revealed Himself to us. What a splendid celebration to be a part of, and solely by virtue of our choosing to be present when the time comes for the Lord to act.
 Explaining the Evangelists’ different accounts of Peter’s confession will lead us far afield, but the point can be summarized briefly. Mark sees Christ’s theophany on the Cross. Therefore, recognition of him as Lord before his death would then make his humiliating death unnecessary. Matthew, accepting the first principle of the crucifixion, nonetheless presents Christ as a recognizable Lord and Savior during his earthly ministry, and indeed from his very conception and birth.
By Fr. Sean Levine
It is 6:00 AM, Sunday morning, on Forward Operations Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. The Divine Liturgy begins at 7:00 AM, and I stand in a 10 foot by 10 foot square room that was designed to be a small office, but was converted to a Blessed Sacrament Chapel by a Roman Catholic Chaplain during a previous cycle in the deployment rotation. With some minor adjustments, I now use this space as an Orthodox chapel. It is the only dedicated sacred space on the entire base, and the only place where any beauty regularly resides.
Since the room does not have a Table of Oblation, I stand at the “north” side of a small square “altar” that is slightly higher than waist level, the top of which is about one quarter the size of the Holy Tables at which I once served in parishes in the United States, and it is here that I serve the proskomede. For bread, I have simple slice of white sandwich bread from the dining facility because there is nowhere to bake prosphora on the base. A small hand censer (there is simply no room to swing safely a censer with chains) holds half a charcoal, glowing and ready for the covering of the gifts.
To my back, the Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross hang in order on the wall. On the “eastern” wall hang icons of Our Lord, the Virgin Mary, and St. Demetrius, the patron of the chapel and protector of the base. On the altar itself, all the standard furnishings have been placed; they are smaller than usual to facilitate ease of transport to the remote locations to which I might be called to offer the Liturgy. When I finish the prayers and preparations of the prothesis, I will take the covered gifts in hand, very carefully turn around, and put them on a small and short table until the time comes to transfer them to the altar.
None of the elements of this worship environment that I have just described seem ideal to me. Everything is smaller than it should be. None of the furniture is designed for use within the context of the Divine Liturgy. Even my vestments are “wash and wear,” and lack some of the resplendence that typically characterizes this service. Instead of towering candles, I burn one tea light on the altar and one on the table where the prepared gifts await the “Great Entrance.” The entrance will be little more than a pirouette accompanied by the standard commemorations.
I struggle, each time I go through these motions and prayers, to ward off the sense that I am not doing this Divine Liturgy justice; that somehow, with my small chalice and small paten and small star cover, small spear/spoon, small Gospel Book, small table, small room – everything in some sort of miniature version, like a child’s tea set – that somehow I am making a mockery of the glory of God and the splendor of this service. In a sense, I battle a hovering sense of inadequacy as a priest and I miss the grandeur of “real” Orthodoxy. It is a bit of liturgical home sickness coupled with a bit of fright that I am defiling this blessed service.
Yet, as we sing the prayers (I usually have four Romanian Orthodox Soldiers behind me, one of whom can chant the hymns and responses in Romanian), I sense a growing awareness of a powerful reality— one that appears almost imperceptibly at the beginning of the Liturgy. In one translation, when deacon and priest serve together, the deacon prompts the priest with perhaps one of the most important phrases in the entire Liturgy – “It is time for the Lord to act…” – and then the deacon requests the priest’s blessing to take his post in front of the Royal Doors and initiate the corporate and public prayers of the service. [i]
Further Reflections on the Liturgy
“It is time for the LORD to act . . . .”
This reality first called to me seven and a half years ago when I stood on the outside of the Orthodox Church looking, through the lens of the Divine Liturgy, into the Orthodox Tradition. As I experienced my first Divine Liturgies, I recall being struck by the question: Who is the Master of this liturgical service? It was clear that, in the words of the Apostle John while he and Peter fished on the Sea of Tiberias on the day after the resurrection— words which caused Peter to leap from the boat and swim ashore— “It is the Lord!”
Before discovering Orthodoxy, as a Protestant pastor and chaplain, I had become tired of being the one “to act.” I was weary of always trying to make something happen and to re-create constantly an environment where people could “feel God’s presence.” Through years of service in various ministries, I had spent everything I had to give, and my reservoirs had long since run dry from the constant pressure to build better programs and entertain a constituency that was growing increasingly intolerant of unexciting worship. On the other side, there grew a crowd known as the “liturgical Protestants” and, among them, the ecclesio-social phenomenon called “the emerging church.” Not quite Roman Catholic, nor Lutheran, nor Episcopalian/Anglican; not quite anything, really, this group espoused a strange amalgam of low ecclesiology, Protestant theology with a taste for some catholic/patristic seasoning, and ritualized ceremony with the trappings of traditional liturgy but without any real substance or consistency. My brief experience in this camp showed me that this was the same old thing draped in cheap vestments. At this point in my journey, I was tired and lost. When I experienced my first several Orthodox Divine Liturgies, a light began to glow in the not-to-far-away distance leading me to Orthodoxy.
Having been embraced by the Orthodox Church and having been catechized, baptized/chrismated, further taught and formed at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and ordained as a Deacon and then Priest, I now serve as a chaplain, deployed to Afghanistan in the most volatile area in the whole country, and in this setting I am again confronted and comforted by this reality: I am not the one called “to act.” The power of the Divine Liturgy does not come from me, or from the vessels, the tables, the candles, or the utensils (though these valued means are integral and important). Nor am I charged with infusing the ordered words and motions of the Divine Liturgy with Divine Energy. As a Priest serving the Divine Liturgy, I am simply called to lead God’s people by means of simple obedience. “It is the Lord!” He acts. He commands. I obey. He leads. I follow. He sends me to Afghanistan to serve the Orthodox faithful in whatever room and with whatever furnishings are present. I go and serve. The ministry belongs to Him. I am but a steward. And in that, I am called to a place of rest in Him. The pressure is off; all I have to do is point to Christ through the words and actions of the Liturgy. He is the Master. I am the head servant at the Master’s Table. Why do I fret?
A Gospel Paradigm
On the day that he saw the tomb of Jesus empty, Peter, having slumped his shoulders in defeat and with a sorrowful sigh, said to the others, “I am going fishing” (John 21:1-14). Several of the others joined him, and they fished all night without catching a single fish. The next morning, a man from the shore said, “How’s it going?” They replied, “We have caught nothing.” The man said, “Cast your net over to the right side of the boat.” They did. And they instantly caught a huge load of fish; one hundred and fifty-three of them. “It is the Lord,” said the disciple whom Jesus loved, and Peter dressed, jumped into the water and swam to shore while the others brought the boat. When they had all arrived on the shore, they saw Jesus tending to a charcoal fire and preparing fish and bread. Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught,” and Peter brought the fish-filled net out of the boat and onto the shore. “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus said, and He served them bread and fish. “It is time for the Lord to act . . . .” Jesus speaks, the disciples obey, then something amazing and nearly inexplicable happens, and then Jesus serves and feeds his disciples. Throughout, the “one in charge” is Jesus, the Lord. Peter heard, believed, vested, and jumped into the water because the Lord waited on the shore.
Serving the Divine Liturgy is no different. During the Entrance Prayers, the priest stands before the Royal Doors and recites, “O Lord, stretch forth Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling place on high, and strengthen me for this, Thine appointed service, that standing without condemnation before Thy throne I may offer the bloodless sacrifice. For Thine is power and glory forever. Amen.” It is His service, and it is the Lord who, in the ultimate sense, acts. Certainly, we must obediently cooperate with Him, but the initiative rests with the Lord who acts on behalf of His people.
As a once Protestant Christian minister turned to Orthodoxy who has been graciously given the grace of the Holy Priesthood, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that there is One High Priest who “acts,” and He acts in divine, yet merciful, judgment. In the Divine Liturgy, the High Priest acts, and the bishops, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, and laity together stand judged in the face of His Holiness; they stand together in obedience awaiting His sanctifying activity among them. He commands “cast your net to the right,” that is, “do this in remembrance of me,” and bishops, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, and laity assemble themselves together, cast the net in obedience, and He fills it and serves all of them the real food and real drink of His Word, His Body, and His Blood. We don’t make that happen. We gather in obedience and pray to the Lord that He might act among us.
With this in mind, it seems silly to suggest that any context could diminish the significance and the power of the Divine Liturgy. No facility—however simple—and no furnishings—however small or plain— can possibly interfere with the Lord’s actions. So, with renewed confidence in the Lord whose Supper I have the privilege serving, I pack my Orthodox Chaplain’s kit—a truly wonderful set provided by the Holoviaks—and my chaplain field vestments—thank you, Kh. Krista West—and board helicopters or Stryker Assault vehicles to go forth to find and serve the faithful Orthodox Christians serving in the armed forces of the United States and our International Coalition. We stand together in tents, huts, chapels, and, monthly, in the Romanian Orthodox Church at Kandahar, and we offer to the Master that which already belongs to Him, and pray for Him to act in our midst.
[i] Some translations of the service read, “It is time to begin the service to the Lord . . . .”
By Father David Wooten
“No me importa la iglesia que vayas…si detrás del Calvario tú estás…”
I stood facing the congregation, singing the song that led off every Sunday service at Iglesia Bautista Parkview, the Hispanic congregation I attended in Tulsa, Oklahoma while in college. The praise band Gloria a Dios played behind me, the bass line punctuating every other beat in the song. The members of the congregation turned to one another and shook hands, then began clapping and singing along with the rest of the song. Beside me, the senior pastor sang, too, and following the conclusion of the song, welcomed everyone to the service, after which Gloria a Dios sang one of the songs they’d written. Then I led the congregation in some traditional Baptist hymns that had been translated into Spanish. Then the offering was taken, then the sermon, and so on.
It was, well, pretty set. From one Sunday to the next, it was a very similar service. We wouldn’t have called in liturgical in an Orthodox sense, but much of what we did was not only not spontaneous, but also very similar from week to week. It was also one of the first experiences I ever had leading a group of Christians in worship.
A second experience of worship was the Spanish-language service and outreach group our university organized. Once again, I was “doing music,” but since this was a charismatic Protestant university, the music was more “contemporary”—I played the guitar and sang choruses—and it could go on for different lengths. Once again, however, I found myself in a rhythm of worship, with a pattern of songs emerging that worked well with the group’s meetings, and so on.
I had been told that the early Church was “alive” and “vibrant,” filled with the joy and the movement of the Holy Spirit. So I began to wonder why services in any church seemed to move into a routine, why things went on the same, week after week.
It wasn’t until I started reading Orthodox authors that I came across the idea that humans are actually liturgical beings. What does that mean? It means, in a nutshell, that man was created to encounter and live with and in God at all times. When I read this, I was attending Orthodox services as a catechumen, but I thought about my worship experiences in the Baptist and Charismatic services. All of these forms of worship were movements by groups of human beings to approach God the Father, through His Son, Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ways of worshipping varied greatly, but this was the common desire of all of them.
I saw, however, a major difference between Orthodox worship and Protestant worship that made being a liturgical being make so much more sense. In a word, Eucharist. If liturgical beings approached the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, it seemed the Orthodox actually had a concrete way of doing that. And, come to find out, they always had, since the first days of Christianity.
How do we approach the Father? St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility…For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
In order to have access to the Father, we have to have access to the Cross, to His Body and Blood, in a way that involves the Holy Spirit. As a Baptist, we would sing about how the blood of Jesus never lost its power. We would preach about how the blood of Jesus stood before the Father as a justification for our transgressions of His Law. Charismatics, when interceding for each other in prayer, would often “plead the blood of Jesus” over a person or situation, asking God to intervene on behalf of His beloved Son. These all seemed to be requests to God to act on behalf of the blood, but they never seemed to address how people were supposed to access that blood, a thought that had never entered my mind as a Protestant.
Now I stand as a priest, every Sunday, before the holy altar table, asking (still in Spanish!) for God to send the Holy Spirit down “on us and on these gifts here set forth,” so that the bread might become the Body of Christ, and the wine might become the Blood of Christ, shed for the life of the world and its salvation. When the people come forward in this familiar liturgical act, they’re actually doing what St. Paul says: They are finding the very peace with God that Christ made for us on the cross, giving us access through the one Spirit through the Father.
I thank God for my experiences with the very loving, sincere Protestants from my college days. Their worship experiences weren’t so much wrong as they were incomplete. As the late Archbishop Dmitri of blessed memory said, “I wanted the rest of my faith,” or rather, it’s logical end. The desire to make contact with the blood of Jesus was and is fulfilled when, every week, “con el temor de Dios, y con fe y con amor,” we draw near to the only thing that will give us peace with God: the body and blood of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
By Deacon Jason Ketz and Andrew Boyd
We proclaim every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy and gather in the Eucharistic assembly that God has revealed this service to us as a means of communion with him and each other, and an access point to the Kingdom of God. This is something held as simple truth in our tradition and attested to in our liturgical texts (“We thank Thee for this liturgy…”). Our liturgical celebrations are a divine gift and revelation. The content of this revelation is not necessarily the liturgical actions themselves, but rather Jesus Christ Himself. The liturgy is not the revelation, but the process of revealing Christ to us in his word, in praise, thanksgiving, and in his mystical presence.
How and Why Can our Liturgy Change?
If the liturgy is the process of Christ’s revelation to his people, then why does it change and develop? What are we to do with the now very concrete historical evidence that our Liturgy has evolved substantially over the past two millennia, through planned, non-spontaneous and repeatable reforms that are unquestionably the creative output of a small group of human beings? The historical reality of the liturgy appears, then, to stand in conflict with the liturgy’s claims of divine origin. How can it be a divine gift and revelation if specific individuals (John Chrysostom, Theodore the Studite, Patriarch Nikon of Russia, Basil the Great, etc.) deliberately change it?
Robert Taft, the eminent liturgical historian answers this question by presenting the Liturgy as an ongoing dialogue between the Lord’s gift of revelation to us, and the human response. It seems, though, that the Divine Liturgy deliberately constructs a tension on a deeper level, which cannot be resolved through Taft’s answer. The tension created in the liturgy is the result of the Liturgy’s primary function. It is an encounter between the temporal and the eternal; the human and the divine. Therefore, as much as the liturgy can be described as the human response to the Lord’s revelation, it should also be seen as the context within which the revelation is given. Thus, the revelation of Jesus Christ does not evolve, but is merely encountered anew at every iteration of the Divine Liturgy. He who “makes all things new” (Revelations 21:5) is encountered in a unique and new way every time we all gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
The content of the revelation, that is Jesus Christ, of course does not change, for Christ is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Rather, the changing process of revelation is the context in which it is offered. The context involves the response of men and women; the organic Church, which, like all creation, is in a constant state of change. This human engagement with the revelation – our liturgical action – is dependent upon context, upon time and place. We are the slate upon which the revelation is written. But none of us is a tabula rasa. We have our personal and social experiences, and it is only through these earthly experiences that we are able to hear the Gospel and understand. Therefore, The Church cannot be static and lifeless, but always strives to communicate the eternal truth of the Gospel – the revelation of Christ – in the ever-changing context of society. Christ our God is not the clay idol of a lifeless body of static believers, but the God of the living (Mark 12:27), organic Church, and our Liturgy struggles to preserve this relationship, although the tension continues to exist.
The Divine Liturgy is a ritual re-presentation of the revelation of the divine economy realized through our Lord Jesus Christ, which we know also from scripture. Both the scriptural and the liturgical epiphany suffer from the ‘scandal of particularity’ that accompanies the Incarnation. Christ was a Jewish man from Nazareth in the first century, who spoke Greek, was friends with fishermen, etc. The Epistles and Gospels narrating his life and death are recorded in the Greek language, written in a time and place, by a person, for a specific audience, etc. These facts – these particulars – form the context of the revelation. Again, this social context is absolutely necessary for memory and for text. The Lord can only make himself known to us through some medium – some context – that we will understand, beginning first with the medium of creation.
The Liturgy is Flexible, but Still Eternal
So history shows us that the Liturgy is somewhat malleable, and changes on occasion in order to better communicate the Gospels to the present generation. But our experience of a single Divine Liturgy leaves us with no such impression of flexibility, but instead a profound sense of eternity in the ritual. Like the texts of scripture, the Liturgy presents itself as authoritative, autonomous, and independent. It is a closed system with its own encoded method of interpretation. And the Liturgy, being a complete event, needs to retain no memory of past instances of rituals. The revelation is re-presented anew at each altar each week (or day). Both the autonomy and the singularity of the Liturgy are brought to the foreground at the Cherubic Hymn. The liturgy does not expect people to bring ideas to liturgy from the outside, but the faithful must “Lay aside all earthly cares” in order to “receive the King of all…” Shortly thereafter, the priest introduces the anaphora (in Chrysostom’s Litugy) by giving thanks “for this Liturgy, which [the Lord] has deigned to accept at our hands…” Thus, the liturgy is able to present itself as true and eternal because it brokers an encounter with truth and eternity, while it does so through the within time and space, and within the social context of the participants.
It is also important to note that the Divine Liturgy does not overtly authorize liturgical reform or change. However, the changing social context inevitably works itself into the service as a creative and often theological response to the Liturgy, for various reasons. The reforms can be introduced by edict, as Justinian demonstrated with his introduction of the hymn Only-Begotten Son, or even by a charismatic leader like John Chrysostom who likely introduced his new anaphora to Constantinople after arriving there from Antioch. And once reform occurs, it is ratified by the priest’s and congregation’s completion and re-enactment of the reformed rite once a change has been introduced.
Why do we Hold Onto Old Stuff?
Our awareness of the creative human influence on the Divine Liturgy leads us next to questions of obsolescence. Why do we still keep obsolete vestiges of a defunct society? The incorporation of the Imperial Court into the Hierarch’s liturgical garb, for instance, has lost a great deal of relevance since 1453, and particularly in democratic political states today. The principles of liturgical conservation serve not to explain, but only to label this conservative phenomenon. The explanation for Orthodox conservation lies in our steadfast affirmation of the apostolicity and catholicity of the Church. In part, elements of the past are retained in our liturgical worship as a symbolic index of our adherence to Tradition. But the anaphoras of Chrysostom and Basil each witness toward the ritual value that our Liturgy accords history. The anamnesis, of the Last Supper is not merely a recitation of a myth, but a commemorative re-presentation of the events being narrated. The boundaries of time are collapsed, and we are no longer temporally separated from the events of the Last Supper, from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and ultimately, we are ritual participants in the manifestation of God’s saving plan. It would be premature of us to extract prior additions to the service, because these additions once served to bring a people into communion with our Lord.
Furthermore, we maintain a belief of God’s constant, guiding, action within the course of history, and affirm this with our prayers thanking him for “this [iteration of the] liturgy.” The liturgy is not valid in theory, any more than one can call a prayer book a liturgy: it is not; the liturgy must be performed. But if the performance is to be ritual and not drama, it is dependent on the belief of the faithful, that through the current Divine Liturgy in which the faithful are participating, our Lord can be encountered. If we accept this basic proposition on faith, then the liturgy is allowed to change over the course of time so that we can experience it, not because the revelation has evolved, but because the context has changed, in which the revelation occurs.
Liturgy, our Vehicle to Christ
The gospel – in writing and in ritual – has left both Palestine and the Greek language, and each hearing of scripture and each celebration of liturgy allows the participants an encounter with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, in fulfillment of the great commission (Matt 28:19). The gathering of the Eucharistic community in liturgy is the vehicle for the revelation of Christ in our world, through his scripture and through his mystical presence. Even though the vehicle (the liturgy) can adapt, evolve, and develop, the content of that revelation remains always our Lord Jesus Christ, and the great mystery of his incarnation, death, and resurrection.
Deacon Jason Ketz is a recent graduate of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a B.S. in Microbiology, and worked as the Quality Manager at a printing company for several years in his home town of Minneapolis, before answering a long-standing call to theological studies. He and his wife Elizabeth have three children; Sophia, Patrick, and Natalie. He is attached to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Deacon Jason is a frequent contributor to this blog.
Fr. Sean Levine has been serving the men and women of the Armed Forces, first as a Chaplain’s Assistant and later as a Chaplain, for nearly 14 years. Recently ordained as an Orthodox Priest (OCA), he currently serves as a chaplain in the army assigned to Fort Lewis, Washington and is often deployed to serve in Afghanistan. We are thankful for his article submission directly from the front lines this month and pray for his safe return.
Father David Wooten is the rector of Iglesia Ortodoxa de los Santos Apóstoles, a new, Spanish-language parish of the OCA in Miami, Fl. He graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary this past May, and he and his wife, Matushka Natalia, and their three daughters currently reside in Hollywood, FL.
Mr. Andrew Boyd grew up in Guilford, Connecticut and is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Business. He is also a recent graduate of the Master’s of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. His home parish is St. Alexis Church in Clinton, CT. His is the managing editor of this blog and director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries for the Orthodox Church in America.