When the word “liturgy” comes up people tend to think of a form of worship, or some sort of algorithm of actions (“first you put on the robes and walk around the maypole carrying the scythe and then you kneel and mutter in old English, making sure to pronounce the Lord’s Prayer as you would a Shakespearian soliloquy, then you…etc”). This understanding is certainly a corrupted one, but as an Orthodox Christian it is important to acknowledge that it is still a common and understandable concept for one foreign to the worship of the Church. For the Orthodox it is hard to imagine worship without the Divine Liturgy, and liturgical corporate prayers. This isn’t a matter of “high church” or “low church” as people are fond of terming it – it’s a matter of worship in spirit and in truth.
Only a year ago I would have seen worship as something flexible – something that emerges out of the loving and fearful person. Worship therefore can be preferential, or at least a product of your environment and personality. The intellectuals have their “heady” sermons with their hundred year old hymns, while the urban youth sing of Extreme Awesomeness or some other such passing forms of worship. By this conception worship is anthropocentric: it comes from the man. Here the Orthodox doctrine cuts against the popular American concept of worship, for worship is not primarily coming from us, but from Creation and we are but joining in the chorus. Worship is as much about forming us as humans as expressing our current thoughts and opinions.
In a recent conversation with an Evangelical I was blessed by reconsidering the basic questions about liturgy itself. “Doesn’t it get old?” he asked. “How real can your worship be if you say the same things over and over again?” My immediate response was of slight frustration at the basic nature of the question, but when I considered my reply I found the response to the question far more compelling that I initially realized.
For us Orthodox a question like this lacks specific interest but still has general appeal. The thought of us being the sort of people that “move beyond” the liturgy is ridiculous to us, but how can we not share the concern that the everyday and repetitious activities of our life become ever more hollow? Is the liturgy we celebrated today just an echo of when we first meant it?
Chesterton asks this question brilliantly in The Man Who Was Thursday. At the very beginning two poets argue about which is the more poetical, the expected or the unexpected. One claims that it is fantastic to perform an ordinary event (boarding a subway) and get an extraordinary outcome (end up in fairyland). The other claims that what is truly fantastic is that reality which Hume doesn’t trust: that you can get on the subway and end up at your destination. Truly life is neither predictable or lawless, but Chesterton in asking this question is fighting for his young soul – which is why the book is subtitled “A Nightmare”. Rejecting the romantic appeal of anarchy in favor of the endless depth of the laws of God’s universe may have made life a little more predictable for jolly G.K. but certainly not more boring, dull, or lifeless.
There are some things of such depths that everyday is a suitable day to chase the corners and crevices of its being. These things can be abstract – Love, Mercy, Friendship – or quite tangible, like a glass of cool water or the dawn of a summer day. In as much as you are human you will never tire of these things. It says something about the person if they are not interested in the activity, not about the activity itself. Sex is always interesting; and it gets deeper when you share it more and more with the person you love consistently. To be bored of making love with your spouse speaks to the state of your soul, not to the act of marital intimacy itself.
It is not easy to be a person with the constitution to find the mundane and deep joys, which is why there’s a bit of a lack for them. First you have to overcome boredom, then selfishness, then complacency, then expectation, and then you might be able to love. There aren’t that many people that can stomach a full Shakespearian play (a pity for sure) or even a good long movie (King Kong should have won Best Picture®). To be able to read a book from start to finish or to follow a question in conversation for several hours requires work. The same applies to worship. Worship is always in the context of relationship, and we all know that relationships certainly take work – they cannot survive on “expressing ourselves”. Now we have come to the real meaning of liturgy, for the word liturgia means work, not form or rite. That is what we do when we worship God; it is the Bride of Christ putting the work into the relationship with the Bridegroom. The work I put towards my beloved molds me into a fuller lover, and so I bear the yoke happily. Woe to me if I do not.
Some things are deeper than others. Some words speak better to truth and reality. As a Protestant I can certainly say that I have heard some boring sermons, and I probably had the right response by being bored. But to be bored of the Divine Liturgy is to be bored with Heaven on Earth, and when my mind wanders I am wandering away from the Kingdom of God. The cynic will ask me how I know that I will be formed, or tell me he just doesn’t have the same confidence. Though I sorrow for the cynic I rejoice at what he shows me; that this is a Christian endeavor requiring faith.
We’ve all had the experience of hearing the words that you mean coming from someone else’s mouth. When that happens we are relieved and enlightened: “That’s what I’ve been trying to say! That’s who I am!” Today, as we work in the body of Christ, loving He who first loved us, may we become people who mean what we say.