One cannot read the Book of Revelation and its description of the eschaton, the eternal life with Christ, without recognizing its inherently liturgical character. Consider, for example, the following passage:
And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne. And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. (Re 5:6–8).
In this passage, we have a Lamb who is worshipped by the holy luminaries and the twenty-four presbyters with music and golden vials of incense. Does that sound familiar? It is what we do every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
Anyone who reads the Book of Revelation carefully finds before him a detailed heavenly picture of all the different kinds of liturgical rites that accompany the prayers and praises offered in the church every day, along with the eucharistic mystery. He sees white robes, censors, incense, and a burning coal on the altar, golden crowns, candlesticks, an altar and “a lamb as it had been slain,” cherubim, archangels, angels, heavenly powers, twenty-four elders and the hosts of redeemed, general and particular praises and responses and hymns of rejoicing, lyres, prostrations, new names and crowns and consolation in no small measure.
The Book of Revelation stands as an eternal witness to the spirituality of all the principles and types of liturgy and sets an eternal seal on its prayers, its praises, its incense, and its sacrifice. It declares and bears witness that the traditions of prayer, praise and service given by Christ to the disciples, and the order and system received by the holy apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are eternal and not subject to time. They are based not on symbols, but on realities, which we shall continue to live even in the next life, when each of us will take his rightful place around the divine throne and be taught the mystery of angelic praise, so that we may serve the same liturgy, perhaps even in the same words, but in indescribable glory.
In light of this, we need to strive more to appreciate exactly what we are doing every time we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. It is not a formality. It should not be shortened or abbreviated under any circumstances. We best serve ourselves and our children by teaching them to stand reverently throughout the Divine services so that they, too, may experience the transcendental beauty of Orthodox worship.
1. Transfiguration of the whole being
Human mind is provided with conscious, sub conscious and unconscious layers. Worship is not only the transfiguration of the conscious mind. It transforms the whole being . St. Paul expresses this process as follows: “ And we all, with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory , just as by the spirit of the Lord”. ( 2 Cor.3:18). The three representatives of the Apostles could experience this glory of the Lord in their Taboric Transfiguration. Christian witness is not only to see the glory of God, but also to become glorified. Human beings , created in the image of God are transfigured from glory to glory through incessant prayer and worship. This process is not intellectual but experiential. The whole being is involved in this process. In other words, worship is infinite growth in goodness. It is theosis or Deification.
2. Communication with the five senses.
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” – Mark 12:30
The five sense help us in human communications. The same is applicable to our communication with God. In real worship we see, hear, smell, taste and experience the divine communion. Preaching the word of God and listening to it are not the exclusive factors of worship. Take the example of the three fold colors by which the Holy Altar is decorated. The red covering at the altar indicates the universe and the solar system. The green coloring denotes the earth with the greenish variety of biological species. The white covering indicates the Church made sanctified and pure through the blood of the unblemished lamb of God , Jesus Christ. The blood and body of Christ were given to the Church and the whole creation is sanctified through the Church. In worship we listen to the word of God , smell the odor of incense ,touch the hands of our brethren in Kiss of Peace and taste from the divine chalice perceiving the mysteries of the liturgical scenario.
We have to leap into faith through the senses — from the natural to the supernatural . The music speaking to the ear, the incense to the sense of smell, the appeal of color to the eye, stained glass, ikons and statues, the bread and wine to the taste, the touch of rich vestments and altar linens, the touch of holy water, oils, the sign of the cross, the beating of the breast.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” – Matthew 6:22
Well, in church, our eyes are bombarded with stimuli: vestments, decorative furnishings, but especially icons. Icons are not just pretty pictures – they call to mind the individuals or events that they represent and remind us that these people are worshipping with us, and ultimately direct our thoughts to God.
The entire Liturgy itself is a symbolic representation of the life of Christ. So, when we see the different parts of the Liturgy taking place, these are visual cues to remind us of what Christ did on Earth, as well as what He is doing for us now.
Christ used this phrase several times:
“He who has ears, let him hear.”
The most important thing we hear during the Liturgy is the Gospel. Jesus Christ is the Son and Word of God; when God became man, He could be amongst us and teach us Himself. This reflects a very powerful way in which we are to understand God. This is a point in our worship where we are given a clear chance to Love God with all our mind. As the priest instructs us:
“Wisdom! Stand up! Let us listen to the Holy Gospel!”
Also, nearly the entire Liturgy – and any service – is chanted. The hymns of our worship are to our ears what the icons are to our eyes. They fill our mind and our heart with praise of God and remembrance of His works. They reinforce our theology and convey our doxology. But, we shouldn’t just listen to the hymns – we should chant them together. In this way we imitate the Angels who ceaselessly sing hymns to God – think of the Cherubic hymn:
“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn to the life-giving Trinity…”
For many, the beauty of Orthodoxy can be found in its’ Liturgical life. The Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Syrian Church (MOSC) is proud of her worshiping heritage. It is through the worship that the faith, tradition, and practice of our fathers are passed down through the generations. The West Syrian form of worship, language, and music was introduced to the Church in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and we continue to practice this tradition in our Church today. The church uses the tonal system which consists of 8 tones or modes, each of which can be attributed to a Sacrament/Feast Day (i.e. Baptism- Tone 2, etc). The modal cycle consists of eight weeks. The ecclesiastical year starts with Qudosh `Idto (The Consecration of the Church), a feast observed on the eighth Sunday before Christmas. The first mode is sung on this day. The following Sunday makes use of the second mode and so on until the Sunday before Christmas when the eighth mode is used. The cycle then repeats itself. Some of the more significant holy days and feasts have fixed modes (i.e. Christmas- Tone 1).
Incense has been used in worship for ages. When we smell the incense in our services, this is a physical reminder that, like the smoke, our prayers rise to God, and hopefully are pleasing to him like the fragrance of the incense. As we chant during Vespers and the Presanctified Liturgy:
“Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee.”
Also – and this is probably most prevalent for Orthodox Christians at Pascha – when we smell the burning wick and wax of candles, or the burning olive oil of a vigil lamp, we are reminded of the light that these produce and why we light them in the first place, as symbols of our faith.
As we hear the priest repeat Christ’s commandments:
“Take, eat. This is My Body, which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins,”
“Drink of this, all of you. This is My Blood of the New Covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins,”
our heart and mind should be focused on what we are about to do: receive Holy Communion. When we receive Holy Communion, our mouth is the gateway to the rest of our being. As soon as we taste of the Gift, our entire body and soul are saturated with Christ Himself. Just like the Apostles who saw Christ give them bread to eat – and yet He said,
“this is My Body”
– and gave them wine to drink – and yet He said,
“this is My Blood”
– we partake of this Mystical Supper as well, experiencing God in a very unique way.
In our worship, our sense of touch is constantly engaged. More broadly, “touch” can be expanded to mean any physical activity. We kiss icons. We are sprinkled with Holy Water. We are given blessed palm crosses. We carry crosses in procession. We kneel and make prostrations. We seal ourselves with the sign of the Cross. We are anointed with blessed oil. And, the clergy who officiate these services are ordained by the laying on of hands.
Our sense of touch is more subtly engaged when we recall the Passion of our Lord and how He suffered bodily and died nailed to The Cross for our sins, and when we recall the fate of the many Martyrs of our Faith. As one of our hymns states:
“I suffer for Thy sake that I may reign with Thee; for Thy sake I die that I may live in Thee.”
So, we see that worship in the Orthodox Church is engaging on all levels of our being – not just spiritually or mentally, but physically as well. This is an important aspect of our worship because it is probably the first one we will forget about. It should also be a reminder to us about what Christ said about our eye being the lamp of our body. If we allow our sight – or any of our other senses – to be used in ungodly ways, then our spiritual health can begin to deteriorate.
We see, then, that part of the proper engagement of the senses is positive (i.e. liturgically), and the other is negative – that is, we can only fully engage our senses in worship of God if we fully disengage them from idolatry. Christ clearly tells us that no man can serve two masters.
Our senses are the doorway between what is inside of us and what is outside of us.
3. Rituals, offerings and incense
God became man. He took flesh, matter was used in the redeeming process of incarnation. . Rituals offerings and material objects were given sufficient role in the ministry of Jesus. St. Luke chapter 5 verse 14 states , “ And he charged him to tell no one : but go and show yourself to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing as Moses commanded for a proof to the people”. Thus Jesus commanded to give offering and rites of thanks giving. Jesus is serious towards those who disobeyed the commandments. Jesus taught that offerings and rituals must help to be firm in faith and for the glorification of God. Jesus was respectful towards priesthood , offerings of thanks giving and vows . Even St.Paul cut his hair at Cenchreae, for he had a vow ( Acts 18:18) .Bread , wine , water, oil and soil are all seen used in the redemptive process according to the Bible. “ You do this in remembrance of me, this is my body and this is my blood” commanded Jesus. The offering of the incense is practiced in Christian worship ( See Rev. 8 : 3,4 Rev. 5:8, Heb 9:4, Mt.2: 11). Offering of the incense is to get rid of the plagues to remove the foul smell of sin, to please the Lord with complete dedication and to keep the Biblical commandments ( See Num. 16:46- 50 ) . Ex. 35: 8, 2 Chron 2: 4, 1 kg 9: 25, Malachi 1:11 etc.) With the offering of incense we are mingling with the prayers of all the saints. ( Rev, 8:4)
We have to acknowledge our linguistic limitations. Words and language alone fail to reflect our gratitude to God Almighty. Symbols speak volumes and help us for meaningful communication with God. The early Church developed symbolic art in the Catacombs.Symbols used by early Christians include , lamb, dove ,fish, shepherd, vine , bread, cross and the like. The dove represents holy Spirit, Christ si the Good Shepherd,and the Lamb of God. The Greek word “ikhthus” which means fish denotes “ Jesus Christ, son of god, Savior” when alphabetically expanded. This was the creed and declaration of faith used by ancient Christians. The symbolism of salt, lamp, etc. are inspirative and educative for a Christian. They are parts of the Christian devotion. The cross speaks out the sacrificial acts of Jesus. Signing of the cross is also silent , but meaningful worship. The icons first came into existence in Syria and Egypt. The Byzantine Church developed icons and iconostasis with a sound theology of symbols called iconography.
5.Fasting, Feasting and Festivals
In worship there are factors beyond human reasoning and intellect. Through the particular cycle of prayers, rites of purification and courses of meditation together with lent, fasting and deeds of charity we find amalgamation with such factors beyond our reason and intellect. In our worship we bow our heads, kneel down and pray to the Lord. ( See Gen 24:26, Gen 24:48, Ex 4:31, Dan 6:10, 1 king 8:54,Mt. 2:11, Rev.7:11, ps,95:6. Etc.) Fasting is pleasing to God Is 58:6-8) , God asked his people to observe fast . Joel 1:12-15. The evil one can be overcome by fasting. Luke 2:37, Mt. 17:21, Esther 4:16 , . Moses observed fasting Ex: 34:28, Mk 9:29, Acts 14:23, , fasting is mentioned in 1 king 19:18. Also we see 21 days fasting of Daniel ( Dan 10:2,3) 14 days fasting in Acts 27: 33,35 . 7 days fasting of David in 2 Sam 12:16, 1 Sam 31:13, 3 days fasting of Esther 3:13, 4:16, Acts 9:9, Dan 9:3-21 , Ezra 8:3, people of Nineveh Jona 3:6 etc. Jesus is the best example Mt. 4:2, Feasts are observed as days of special honor and reverence. Jn.7:2 , acts 20:16, 1 Cor 16:8. The Jews observed feast of Passover. ( Ex. 12: 14-17) ,Pentecost ( Ex. 19:20), tabernacle ( Lev 23:24 ), Purim ( Esther 9:26) , Trumpet ( Lev 23:24) , Feasts and Festivals of Christianity commemorate events related to Christ , saints, and martyrs sharing the experiences in and with so great a cloud of witness ( Heb 12:10)
6. Conformity with the mind of the Church
We are bound to hold fast the traditions transferred to us through the Church by our Lord, the Apostles and the church Fathers. The Greek word paradosisused in the Bible means “ that which is transferred” or “ traditions” ( see 2 thess 2 : 15, 3:16, 1 Cor 11:2 etc.) The continuity and apostolic authority together with the rich spiritual fragrance behind these traditions are to be counted. Tradition is the mind of the Church . It is difficult to write down everything that we see , know and experience . The canons, faith declaration and textual formations of the liturgical practices form the spiritual code of conduct made by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles , gospel- writers and Church Fathers. These traditions (oral and written ) act as catalytic agents for our spiritual upbringing . These tradition are not be ridiculed , misused , and misunderstood. See 1 Cor, 11:34, Phil 4:9, 2 Tim 2:2, 2 Tim 1:13, Heb 2: 1, 3 Jn. 1 :13 , 2 Pet 3:16.
7.Communion with the departed ones
The Church is the communion of all believers in the past , present, and future. Both the living and the departed are members of the church. A believer never dies.Jn.11:26. The departed ones stand around us like clouds today. Heb 12:1. They live 1 Pet 4:6. They speak Luke 9:30,31. They please God 2 Cor 5:8,9. They pray for the world. Rev 6:9,10. Death is not capable of separating us from the love of God. Rom 8:38. The departed Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus Mt. 17:3. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effect. James 5:16. See also Prov 10:7, 1 Cor 6:2, Rev 2:26, Luke 16:27,28. The departed ones are alive in paradise. Luke. 23:43. St. Paul prayed for the departed Onesiphorous. 2 Tim 1:16-18 . We commemorate and unite in prayer with the departed ones who form the larger part of the Church.
8.Intercession for the whole creation
Intercession for the living and the departed was practiced in the Church from the very beginning. If it is alright to ask a living person to pray for us without violating the principle of one unique Mediator , it cannot be wrong to ask a departed saint to pray for us. We also pray for them. Even the relics of the departed saints can do miracles. See 2 kings 13:20, 21. The rich man in hades prays for his five brothers who are living Luke 16:27,28. The Orthodox Church believes that the range of Christ’s saving activity is the whole creation at large. The creation is based on the will, wisdom and power of God. Purpose of the creation is to glorify God. With our prayers and intercession we transfigure the world for the glorification of God.
9.Liturgical hymns with diversity of tunes
The highest form of worship is to use hymns with diversity of tunes as in the Psalms. Through liturgical hymns we are getting into the horizon of the fact of incarnation. We are exploring the divine mysteries through our hymns. Music is the human response to divine love. Music transforms human mind. It is the highest form of devotion and the strongest mental shock absorber. With the heavenly angels who stand in rows and repeat the chanting of melodious prayers, the earthly beings participate in the worship with melodious songs. In the book of psalms there are directions to lift up the voice of the choir. The word “sela” means “lift up” . In the communal worship and singing , the choir members are reminded here to raise and lower down the voices and tunes. Worship is our state of being immersed into the ocean of God. We feel relaxed when our burdens, problems, afflictions and aspirations are submitted before God. Worship is the state of our relaxation before God.
10. Strong Biblical basis
The apostles and the early disciples described the mystery of early Incarnation based on the law of Moses, prophets and other writings. See Acts 28:23. The worship and liturgical practice of the early Church were developed with the contents of Synagogue worship and Temple worship. The worship in the Jerusalem Temple followed morning and evening sacrifice , offering of the incense and Hanukah processions with lighted candles. The synagogue worship followed readings from the Old Testament, verses of blessings, singing of Psalms, exegetical sermons by religious scholars and Aaronic benediction. Assimilating these ancient practices of worship , the Church developed and regularized readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, songs, offering of incense and the holy Eucharist which is the liturgy of the sacrifice (Jn 6:53 ,1 Cor. 11:23-32, Heb 9: 15-22,). The worship of the Orthodox Church is saturated with verses from the Holy Bible.
Fr.Dr. Mathew Vaidyan