The Divine Liturgy and Personal Prayer
July 14, 2011 Length: 48:06
Some say they go to church to "pray," but is that why we gather together as a Eucharistic Community? Fr. Tom explains the differences between our worship together and our personal prayer life.
We’ve come now to the point where we really want to start speaking about the Divine Liturgy very specifically, very directly, and particularly the Divine Liturgies of Ss. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, as now celebrated or ought to be celebrated, supposed to be celebrated, in the Orthodox Church. When we think about the Divine Liturgy, which is the formal gathering of the Church of God in Christ, the Church of Christ, in the Spirit, to enter into communion with God as a community and within that community, within that ekklesia, the qahal Israel, the assembly of Israel, to hear the word of God, to proclaim the word of God, to meditate the word of God, to sing the glories of God, to hear the word of God, to ruminate the word of God, particularly the psalmody, to sing the words that God himself gives to the community to sing, and then of course to offer oneself as a member of the community, as a baptized person, chrismated, sealed with the Holy Spirit, to offer oneself in sacrifice to God, together with Jesus Christ and his sacrifice to God his Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in order to enter into communion with God.
We can even say that the Divine Liturgy is where we enter into the activity of the Holy Trinity itself. We already referred to this in our previous podcasts, that there is this leitourgia, this common activity of the Trinity, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, resting in the Son. And you have this communion, this koinonia of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that is what we enter into as baptized and sealed believers, those who accept the Gospel, those who have been evangelized and who have made a profession of faith. We enter into that reality, into that communion that Christ himself shares with God the Father in the Spirit before the foundation of the world.
Then we have communion with God through Jesus Christ as the Word of God, the living word of God, and as the Lamb of God and as the bread of life and as the perfect sacrificial victim. And we enter into his high priestly offering to the Father, not only entering into his prophetic teaching as the rabbi, the teacher sent from God, God’s own Word, but we enter into communion with God through his broken body, his spilled blood, by the activity of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we can really experience the reality in mystery, in sacrament, to use that language, of the future age, the coming age, to experience and to taste already now of the kingdom which is to come, to enter into that kingdom. That’s the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed in proclaiming the Gospel. The Gospel of God and Jesus Christ is the Gospel of the kingdom.
What the Divine Liturgy is is a celebration of the Gospel. It’s where those who believe in the Gospel gather together to form the one body of Christ, God’s own people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a kingdom of prophets and priests, and to celebrate their reality as the Church of the final covenanted community in the Messiah, anticipating already and entering into the coming kingdom by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God, the presence of Christ, among the believers, where God himself is acting, Christ is acting, the Holy Spirit is acting, and there’s a synergia, a co-activity, between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and [us] the believers: God in us, through Christ in us, by the Spirit in us; and we in God, by the same Spirit, through the same Christ, realizing who we are.
Therefore also we can say, not celebrating the Gospel, proclaiming, celebrating, experiencing, realizing, actualizing the Gospel, that the new covenanted Church is the proclaiming of this Gospel. So the Liturgy is a celebration of the Gospel. Here also therefore, that means that it is a celebration of all of the mighty acts of God, from creation, in the old covenant, in the Law, in the Prophets, and then ultimately in the Messiah Jesus and those final actions of God, as we will say in the Liturgy:
We remember this our Savior’s commandment in everything that has happened for us: the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the sitting at the right hand, the second and glorious coming, and the outpouring and giving of the Holy Spirit to those who belong to him until he comes again in glory at the end of the ages.
The Divine Leitourgia is the action of the Church. It’s [an] ecclesial action; it’s a corporate, common action. That word “corporate” is very good, because “corpus” in Latin is “body.” It’s an action of the body of Christ. It is not an individual, personal activity of a bunch of people simply being gathered together. It is the realization and the actualization of the kingdom of God on earth in the Church which is also, then, an actualization or a realization of creation itself as God’s kingdom.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to like to say that the Church is the world as kingdom of God. The Church is the experience, the knowledge, the vision, the tasting of what creation was created to be from the beginning but was not completed because of the sins of man. But once those sins are redeemed, once the sinners are redeemed, once the sins are forgiven and remitted, once the Messiah has come and the Gospel of God’s salvation is given, then in the Church the world itself is experienced as the kingdom of God.
In the Church we have everything that belongs to the world, absolutely everything physical. In the Church we have space, we have time, we have matter, we have our bodies, we have our hearing, our seeing, our smelling, our touching, our tasting. Someone once said you can’t go to Orthodox liturgy, certainly the Divine Liturgy, without aching, crumbing, chewing, dripping. Aching because our bodies participate; it’s a very physical things, because we’re physical beings. We’re not just angels. It’s not merely a noetic or spiritual exercise. It is, but the noetic, spiritual, reasonable activity is a consecration of the flesh, the flesh and the blood.
Then in the Church you have everything participating. You have light, you have smell, you have incense, you have all these physical properties [which] are there in this particular gathering. It’s very important to realize that when we’re speaking about worship in spirit and in truth, this is the total worship of all of creation in the Church of Christ, anticipating the coming kingdom of God, where everything will simply be worship. Everything will be holy Communion. In the age to come, everything will be worship, everything will be praise, everything will be thanksgiving, everything will be filled with truth and wisdom, knowledge, understanding, insight, and everything will be holy Communion. The very existence—life itself, existence as life—will be communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, glorifying and worshiping God through the Son in the Spirit, and worshiping and glorifying God and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what is the Church, the Qahal, the Liturgy.
So the very word “leitourgia,” it means a common activity, a common work, a work of a polis, a work of a city, a work of the people. Here it would be the work of the city of God, the city that has foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God, which is to come, the new heavenly Jerusalem already now experienced in the midst of the earth in sacrament and mystery and proclamation and word and in spirit. It’s a Divine Liturgy; it’s God. We will see that when the Liturgy begins, the first line will be, “It is time for the Lord God to act.” It’s God’s activity in us. And everything in that Liturgy, like everything in the Church of Christ, is divine. You have the divine Father, the divine Son, the divine Spirit, the divine Gospel. You have the holy, divine Scriptures. All these things are divine, meaning that they are of God, and therefore they are holy.
Everything there is holy, holy, holy. The altar is holy, the gospel is holy, the icons are holy, the people who are gathered are saints. They are consecrated by God; they are made holy. We commune with the saints, as we heard already in the New Testament Scriptures. We enter into the assembly of the firstborn and the souls of the righteous made perfect and so on. This is what the Divine Liturgy is. It’s an ecclesial actualization, actualization of the Church as kingdom, or we might even say the actualization in the Church of creation and the world as God’s kingdom.
Having said that, we want to just reflect now on the relationship of the Divine Liturgy and liturgy generally to personal prayer, because, first of all, what we have to say is this: In ancient Christianity, in Orthodox Christianity, there is liturgical worship which is always the common, corporate worship of the Church as Church, and the Divine Liturgy is, as St. Maximus said, “It’s the Liturgy of liturgies; it’s the Mystery of mysteries, the Sacrament of sacraments. It’s the worship of all worship. It’s where everything comes together.” But there are other liturgical actions of the Church of Christ that are actions of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in and among his people, and God’s people entering into the communion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The sacraments are liturgical acts: baptism, chrismation, marriage, ordination to the priesthood, praying and healing and anointing sick people, consecrating men and women to monastic life, even funerals were considered commending the life of a person to God and sanctifying the remains by burying them in the earth and so on. All these are considered to be liturgical actions.
Then, of course, there are the liturgical actions of the consecration of time in God’s community, and this comes from the old covenant, too. We pray three times a day: in the evening and at morning and at noonday, as we say in Church, or seven times a day we glorify God for his righteous ordinances. There are the prayers of the hours: the prayer of the evening, vespers; the after-dinner prayer, compline; there are the prayer through the night, that’s the orthros, the matins, ending with the lauds, the singing of the praises at the rising of the sun and the chanting of the great doxology; then there is the prayer, the psalmody and the [hymnody] of the first hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, through the hours of the day. That would be early morning, that would be nine a.m., that would be noon, and that would be about three in the afternoon. We’ll speak about that more specifically later.
So you have this whole liturgical reality of Church, the liturgical worship of Church, the Church as worship, as a community in worship. That is very different [from] simply praying. So we want to say now, well, what is the relationship of liturgical worship, liturgical activity, to prayer? Or and even to psalmody or to hymnody or to lectio divina, reading the holy Scriptures or contemplating the word of God? What can we say about these things? And what we want we to say right now, as we begin now to focus exactly on the Church’s liturgy and the Divine Liturgy of the Church, what we want to say is the following. Liturgy is a common action, and it involves all kinds of activities, and it is not simply prayer.
That’s very, very important, because you could ask people and say, “What do you [have] to go to church for?” “Well, I go to church to pray.” Well, you go to church to pray. Then you’ll have some, you know, witty person will say, “Well, what do you [have] to go to church to pray for? Can’t you pray everywhere? Didn’t Jesus Christ himself even say:
When you pray, go into your room, shut the door, pray in secret, don’t appear to people to be praying, don’t pray in many words, be very simple in your prayer, when you pray say:
Our Father who art in heaven, may your name be holy, may your kingdom come, may your will be done, as in the heavens in the risen Christ, so also in us on earth, give us this day the super-essential bread of the coming age, forgive us all that we owe as we forgive those who owe us, let us not fail when we are tempted in the final tribulation but rather deliver us from the evil one.
Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say when we say the Lord’s prayer? And isn’t prayer supposed to be done in secret? Are you not supposed to appear to people to be praying? So what do you have to go to church to pray for and to be with all these other people? Why does that have to happen?”
And then people will say, “Well, can’t you just go out into a field and pray, you know, pray where the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming and the trees are shading and it’s just so gorgeous. You’d be alone there and you’d say your prayer. Can’t you just let God know what you want at any time? And didn’t the apostles say you have to pray without ceasing and be constant in prayer, pray literally without ever stopping? And don’t you pray in your heart? Isn’t it a personal matter when you pray? Isn’t it a kind of very intimate relation with God?” and so on.
The answer is: Sure, yeah, that’s right. That’s perfect, that’s true. And every Christian and every human being has to do that. Our life has to become prayer. The holy Fathers will say prayer is not just something that you do; prayer is something that you become.
However—and here’s the point for today—the Divine Liturgy is not a prayer service. And the Divine Liturgy is not a service where people come together to express their own personal private petitions together in a group. We’ll see that that’s part of it, but that’s not the essence of it at all. In fact, even in language, if you take ancient Christian writings—let’s say the writings for the first, I don’t know, millennium of the Christian history—the Liturgy was never even called prayer. Prayer was something you did in your cell, it was something you did in your room, it was something that you did in your heart, it was something that you did constantly, and everybody had to do it. It wasn’t that you simply went to church, which of course is a modern expression, “go to church.”
Actually, the earliest Church would have said, “You don’t go to church. You go to gather as Church. You go to constitute Church. You go to be the Church.” Church is ekklesia, qahal; it means an assembly of people. For the new covenanted people it means you go to constitute the body of Christ, the people of God, the kingdom of prophets and priests. You go there to actualize the community of humanity in that particular place, which understand itself as those who believe in the Gospel and belong to the kingdom of God, who have died with Christ in baptism, were raised with him, were sealed by the Spirit. And you go there to show that you are members, one of another. You go there to show that one Christian is no Christian, just like one human being is no human being; that we are persons in communion with other persons, and you can’t live a live, a personal life, without being in communion with other persons.
The Liturgy is simply not a prayer service. It is not word and praise. It is not, as one Russian philosopher said after he went to some church services in the Western Europe, he said, “They don’t have worship. They have a lecture and a concert.” A concert and a lecture, and every once in a while they have a symbolical common meal. On communion Sunday or something, several times a year. But prayer is not a lecture and a concert. It is not from time to time having fellowship through eating and drinking bread and wine or grape juice and whatever. That’s not what it is. It certainly is not what it was in the earliest Church, and it’s certainly not what it is if it is completing and fulfilling the sacramental worship of the old covenant, which it is in the Messiah. It’s not a prayer service.
When we go to church, we do pray. We say prayers, we say litanies, we say, “Let us pray to the Lord.” We pay attention to the prayers; we say Amen to the prayers. Sure, there are prayers there, because the whole life of a creature has to be prayer. In the Liturgy, we have the various kinds of prayers. We have the prayer of asking, we have the prayer of praising, we have the prayer of thanking, we have the prayers of interceding and praying for one another, we have the prayers of letting known our needs to God—but that is one aspect of the gathering. It does not exhaust the whole meaning of the gathering at all, not at all.
Those are things that can be done alone, and should be done alone in one’s room, and they are things that even families or groups of Christians can do together when they meet. You could have a prayer group come together and say some prayers, intercede for each other. That’s not very traditional in Eastern Orthodox history, but there’s probably nothing wrong with it, as long as you’re not simply gathering together to inform God what he already knows and then to tell God what God ought to do about it. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to quote his spiritual father, Archimandrite Cyprian Kern, who used to say, “Many people think that prayer is informing God what he already knows and then telling God what he ought to do about it.”
Well, that’s not prayer. Prayer is not naming it and claiming it, either. Prayer, in fact, does not even begin in one’s own words. If you follow the Scriptures, you learn to pray and you begin to say, as St. Anthony the Great said in the desert, using the words that God provided for his own glorification. And that means, fundamentally, the psalms, and then it means the Lord’s prayer, it means the doxology, it means the trisagion—the “holy, holy, holy.” These are prayers that are given to us that we repeat, by the Scriptures, by the Holy Spirit, by God’s will put into our mouth.
Here St. Benedict, the great monastic leader who was very, very important for Western liturgical history, he said, “When a Christian goes to church”—or rather, gathers as the Church, constitutes the Church, realizes and actualizes the assembly as Church for the sake of worshiping God—he said, “we do not put our mouth where our mind is; we put our mind where our mouth is!” In other words, when we go to church, the words are given to us; they are put on our lips. That’s why you will see we will even begin the Liturgy with the psalmic expression, “O Lord, open thou my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”
A person can definitely share with God what’s on their mind. We can tell God what we think. We can tell God what we want. We can make known our needs and our anxieties and so on to God. But we do not go to the Divine Liturgy for that purpose. In fact, we go to the Divine Liturgy to learn what we, not only ought to say to God when we talk to him, but we go to the Divine Liturgy and the Church’s liturgy generally to learn how we ought to think, to learn what our mind should be really on, what our heart should really desire. In that sense, the Church’s liturgy and the Divine Liturgy par excellence is a school of prayer. It’s a communal act in which we go to be shaped and to be formed as human beings and as Christians in that community where God himself is acting, teaching, preaching, offering, consecrating, blessing, and giving himself to us for holy Communion as we give ourselves to him for the sake of that very same holy Communion.
So it’s very important that we can pray. Here I would say, if we just put it in the simplest form, if we took all of the writings of all of the holy Church Fathers and put it into simplest form, I can actually tell you what we will discover is what my own mother told me when I was a boy, when I was a little child. My mother, she used to say, “There’s three things that you’ve got to do. Number one is you’ve got to go to church.” Well, using that expression: “Go to church,” but it meant: go to the assembly, go where the priest is, go where the leader of the community is, go where the people gather, sing the songs and the hymns and hear the Scriptures and hear the preaching as a member of the ekklesia of God, the Church of God. So: “Go to church.”
But then Mama would also say: “Say your prayers,” and we are given prayers. We even have to memorize prayers. You have to memorize the Lord’s prayer. You have to memorize the trisagion: “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” We have to memorize the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed to make a statement of faith: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” We have to memorize certain psalms, like 50 (51): “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy, according to the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my iniquities.” So we had to say our prayers, and we had to do it at home. We had to do it certain times of day. We had to do it when we ate.
Our life was consecrated, but how that life was consecrated, we learned in church. We learned when we went to the Church gathering. And all those things that we learned to say, to do, and think were given to us, and we were formed by our participation in the leitourgia, in the common assembly worship in spirit and in truth of the body of Christ, the kingdom of God on earth, which is the Church of Jesus Christ, which in the New Testament is called the household of God, the living God, the pillar and the bulwark of the truth, or the Church which is Christ’s body, the Church which is God’s people. So we’re a member of that people, that laos.
As we will see later on, both the lay people are part of the klēros, the clergy, as God’s selected people, and the clergy in the Church—the bishops, priests, and deacons—they are first of all members of the laos, members of the people. So we’ll discuss laity and clergy later on, and it’s very important that we do so, when we try to understand the Divine Liturgy and how the clergy who celebrate and who head and who lead the Liturgy relate to the people who gather and what their respective ministries and liturgies are in that particular activity. That’s what we’re going to be commenting on. But what we want to see right now is that personal prayer in our room, saying our prayers that we learn in the Liturgy, that’s part of Christian life. It’s essential.
Then Mother used to say: “Never forget God. Don’t forget God.” In fact, there’s a company in America today, in Orthodoxy, that makes t-shirts and things, and I have to—I can’t resist telling you—there’s a t-shirt there of my mother’s sayings. It doesn’t say “Anna Hopko” on the t-shirt, but you can get a t-shirt; you can buy it. I can’t remember the exact address and so on, but there’s a group of Christians who make these t-shirts, and they have one that says, “Go to church, say your prayer, and remember God.” The priest who designed that t-shirt heard it from me when I said it in class when I was teaching at the seminary, that that was my mother told me when I was a boy, 5, 6, 7 years old; that’s what she said.
Now, remembering God is actually ceaseless prayer. You keep your mind constantly on God. Here that would be certainly a Christian teaching: the ceaseless, continuous prayer of the heart, the prayer of the mind, the mental prayer, the spiritual prayer, the cordial prayer, the prayer of the heart. That’s absolutely essential to the Christian life, never to forget God. We are even taught by our holy Fathers the best way to do that, and the best way to do that is to have a short prayer that we constantly repeat, like the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Or simply: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Or simply: “Lord, have mercy.” Or there can be other little verses.
In the earliest Church, we find in the various writings, especially of the monastic writers, other verses. For example, the verse of the psalm 70, “O Lord, make haste to help me; O God, make speed to save me. O Lord, make haste to help me; O God, make speed to save me.” We could just repeat that all the time. Or we can say other things. We can say, as Macarius prayed, “O Lord, as you know and as you will, have mercy on me.”
But we begin by praying with our lips, even in our private, personal prayer, even in our constant memory of God, it begins externally, it begins physically. The holy Fathers will teach us: if we don’t pray first verbally, we’ll never learn how to pray spiritually in the depth of our heart and reach the ultimate, perfect, individual, personal prayer as far as Christianity is concerned. That would be the prayer without words, the prayer of total silence, the hesychia, where we are in God and God is in us, and as St. Isaac of Syria said, St. Seraphim of Sarov said, we actually reach a state which is beyond prayer, when we stop praying, so to speak, because the Spirit himself is giving us communion with the living Father through Jesus Christ raised and glorified, where there are no words, where you are just ravished and reduced to silence. That’s the ultimate communion with God that we should all pray and hope that we might achieve in this life.
But that is also patterned for us in the Church’s Divine Liturgy, because the crowning point of the Divine Liturgy is the communion with God, beyond all the words that we say, when all the words lead us into that holy communion. We’ll talk about this more and more as we continue to talk and to think.
But: Go to church. Go into your room. Say your prayers. Have a rule of prayer. Never forget God. Pray monologia, with simple words. Use the Our Father, seven times a day: in the morning, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, supper-time, after supper, before going to sleep. Seven times a day we can have a rule that we would remember God by. Of course, the monastics actually do pray seven times a day in their liturgical services. If you go to a monastery, there’s seven services during the day. We who are not in monasteries should be consecrating that same time. We’ll talk about that more and repeat that again.
However, that’s prayer, that’s evchē, that’s prosevchē; that’s not leitourgia. That’s not leitourgia. You could say it’s our personal leitourgia as what we do as members of the community in our lives with every breath every day of our life as we try to actualize in our everyday life what is given to our experience in the liturgical life, particularly when we gather and participate in the Divine Liturgy. You could even say that the personal pietistic prayer life of a Christian is the actualization individually in what is given in the Liturgy; it’s the actualization all the time in one’s own person to what is given to the entire community when it gathers at the church for the Lord to act at the Divine Liturgy of the Church.
Here, of course, you could also say: And that’s why personal prayer always begins with psalmody and with reading the holy Scripture, just like the Divine Liturgy will begin with psalmody and reading the holy Scripture and proclaiming the Scripture. Then you go on to deeper communion and to praise and to thanksgiving: evcharistia, doxologia, and so on. All this can take place and must take place in an individual person’s life but that’s not what is happening in Divine Liturgy.
Here we can see very, very simply: if a person doesn’t participate in the Divine Liturgy—go to church, constitute the Church, be a member of the Church, and take their place within the Church—they will never ever have a deep, serious, godly individual prayer life, never. They will always be at the whims of their own thoughts, their own mind, their own desires, and they’ll be blown around by devils in an unbelievable way. They will be lacking discipline, they’ll be lacking focus, they’ll be lacking attention. You’ve got to go to church and you’ve got to participate in the Liturgy to pray properly in our private personal lives.
But at the same time, the reverse is true. If we’re not struggling to pray in our room, going there and shutting the door, if we’re not struggling to pray constantly in the depth of our heart where our mind descends to our heart and we call out to God, we won’t get anything out of going to church. We’ll just go there, there’ll be a bunch of words, lot of activities, external ritual, we’ll get bored, and we’ll say, “Why is it always the same?” Here you could say very clearly, “Why are a lot of people simply turned off and bored when they go to church?” The answer is: because they’re not really believers, they’re not struggling to take up their cross, they’re not wanting to glorify God, and they are not trying to remember God and to pray to God and to read God’s Scripture and to ruminate on the Scripture all the time. And if you’re not trying to do that all the time, you certainly will not be able to do it when you go to church for an hour or two a week. I mean, just nothing will happen. It’s just ridiculous to imagine.
So there is this deep connection between the Church’s corporate Divine Liturgy and the various liturgical office, and there is with the inner prayer of a person’s life in their discipline, their rule of prayer in their house, in their room, and then also their spiritual, mental prayer in their own mind and in their own heart, which has to be ceaseless, even when we’re sleeping. The holy Fathers say, when you’re sleeping, your heart can be awake. So there’s this deep interconnection between Liturgy and personal prayer.
We could also mention what we already mentioned: psalmody and reading the Scriptures, what is called in Latin lectio divina. Here we definitely go to church to sing the psalms. We’re going to see that 75% practically of liturgical words in the classical Christian Church, the Orthodox Christian Church, are psalm-lines. As John Chrysostom said, it’s always David: in the morning it’s David, in the evening it’s David, at night it’s David, in trouble it’s David, in glory it’s David; when sorrowing it’s David, when doubting it’s David, when really angry it’s David, when feeling abandoned by God it’s David—it’s always David. And by “David,” he meant the psalter, because David is like a symbol for the psalms, because traditionally they’re called the psalms of David, although even the psalms themselves clearly state that David did not write all of them himself.
But psalmody is an essential part of Christian life also, and we will see that it’s a very central, essential part of liturgy, including the Divine Liturgy. Not only the psalms that are sung normally, but the songs that are sung at various festivals and various seasons, the psalms that are sung at various services and various offices, like vespers, matins, the hours, and so on, compline, and also the psalms that are the prokeimena and the alleluia verses and the entrance verses that we use at the Divine Liturgy. We will talk about that when we get to it, that part in the Divine Liturgy. But liturgy begins with hymnody and psalmody; it begins even with certain petitions to establish ourselves in the presence of God, like the Great Litany will do; we’ll talk about that later.
But psalmody is neither prayer nor liturgy. In fact, the holy Fathers would say: we should sing psalms when we’re tired, we should have David on our lips at all times, but at some times we don’t psalmodize: sometimes we pray. Then that means we say prayers and that means, then, we repeat prayers in the depth of our heart, like the hesychast holy Fathers did, the Jesus prayer or something. So prayer is one thing; psalmody is another thing. These are done personally and they’re done liturgically, and they relate to each other, but you cannot simply say that you go to church to sing psalms—well, you do, but not only—and you can’t say, “Well, I can sing psalms in my room at home.” Well, sure you can, and you ought to, but you will never place those psalms, you’ll never have a sense of the focus of those psalms, the use of those psalms, and you certainly will have a very, very limited understanding about how those psalms speak about Jesus and how they’re all the words of Jesus to God the Father in the Spirit and how every word of the psalter and every word of the holy Bible is about the Gospel of God in Christ Jesus, ultimately, that is fulfilled in the spirit-and-truth worship of the Christian community, the new covenanted Church in the Messiah.
So psalmody is certainly part of it, just like prayer is, and then you have, of course, Scripture. Now, again people can say, “Well, I could read the Bible myself. I could read the Bible in my room. I could read the Bible at a Bible study. I can go and find out how to understand the Bible by discussing it with other people in a group.” Well… you can. Probably not bad to do, but if you’re doing it without having the liturgical experience of the Scripture, the liturgical use of the Bible, and how the Bible is used liturgically in the worship of the covenanted community itself in the Messiah, you’re going to go wrong. You’re going to mess it up. You’re going to screw it up. You’re not going to understand it.
It’s a very, very different thing, at least in ancient Christianity. It was a very different thing, to read the Bible by yourself in your room or to read the Bible with other people in a group, or even to read psalms by yourself in a room or to say some psalms with other people in a group—that was very, very different [from] hearing the psalms in the context of the Church’s liturgy, where it shows how those psalms are used, how they apply to Jesus, how we are to understand them. It’s a school again, where we learn how to interpret the Scripture. Of course, the psalms are kind of the whole Bible in miniature. They’re the whole Bible in songs, if you want to put it that way. When we sing the psalms, we’re singing the entire Bible, all the might acts of God in history for our salvation, and every word of those psalms is a prefiguration and a type and a foreshadowing of what is fulfilled in reality in the Person of Christ, and therefore must be fulfilled in us as Christians who belong to Christ and are members of Christ.
Psalmody is very, very important, and you can’t be a Christian without psalmodizing. I’m doing now on my other podcast series, Speaking the Truth in Love, a series about bishops and clergy and Church structure. I’ve done, I think, already like 20 podcasts, and I don’t know how many more to go, but I’m going through the canon laws of the Church, the canonical regulation. The Seventh Ecumenical Council has a canon—I think it’s canon number two—that says, “No man can become a bishop and lead a community of Christians unless he can recite the psalter by heart.” That was actually a rule of the Church. You couldn’t be a bishop unless you could recite the entire 150 psalms by heart. Of course, the monastics were just singing the psalms all the time, day and night, and twice through during Great Lent. The psalm was their food, the psalm was their drink, the psalm was their word. It had to go through their veins like the blood in their body. It had to provide their bread and their food, without which you will starve.
Lectio divina, reading the Scriptures, and then Genesis and the Prophets and the psalms, that’s certainly essential to the Christian life. Absolutely, and it has to be done by individual believers if they can read, and if they can’t read then they at least have to love to listen to it. I had parishioners in my church when I was young who couldn’t read, but they knew large portions of holy Scripture by heart, because they had heard it read in church all the time; they had heard it sung, and when something is sung it’s a heck of a lot easier to remember than [when] it’s just said. Especially if it’s sung always in the same translation, and that’s a great, great problem that we’re going to get into when we get into the Liturgy, this problem of translation, and various translations, which basically the only thing they do is drive people crazy, in my opinion.
How lucky are those churches, like the Greeks, the Russians, Arabs, whatever, who always have exactly the same words when they go to church. Then they can be committed to memory and become part of a person’s very life. But if you go there and you don’t even know what’s going to be said, and when it’s said you can’t even recognize it, you’re in big trouble. We’ll talk about that later, especially in countries like America where you have translations, and many different translations, some worse than the others.
But in any case: psalmody. Let’s also mention with psalmody, hymnody. We have hymns that we sing. We can sing “O Gladsome Light.” We can sing “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal.” We can sing “A new commandment I give you: to love one another.” We have plenty of songs in the Church. And then, of course, really committed Orthodox Christians, they know the major songs of the major feasts by heart. You can sing the main song of Pascha: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” You could sing the psalm of the Nativity of Christ:
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom, for by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore you, the Sun of Righteousness, to know you, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to you.
We can sing all of the troparia. And I, as a 72-year-old priest, I can do lots of stuff by memory, especially since I, in my parishes and at the seminary, we always had the same translation, so it was easy to commit it to memory.
But there are these songs that Christians know by heart. And there were even para-liturgical songs. My own grandfather wrote a book of 161 para-liturgical songs, very simple, Bible-line type psalms for the various seasons and festivals and fasts of the Church season. 161 of them; he wrote them by hand. They were Carpatho-Russian religious folk-songs. So the song—and “psalmos,” by the way, means “song”—St. Paul speaks of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” so singing is part of it. You can sing at home, you can sing in your room, you can sing in your family, you can gather people together to sing—but that’s not liturgy. That’s still the action of isolated individuals, even though they happen to be gathered in the group, but it’s not an act of the Church itself.
So then we ask ourselves, “What Bible verses are read in church? What Scriptures are read? How are they used? How are they sung? What songs are made up about them? What do the songs teach us about how to interpret them? Where do the psalms come in?” When we come to church we have a gathering—a gathering, a coming together, synerchomai en ekklesia, to use St. Paul’s expression—we come together as Church to do all these things: to be together, to constitute Christ’s body, to sing the psalms, to sing the hymns, to hear the Scriptures, to recite the Scriptures, to meditate the Scriptures, to hear teaching and explanation and exegesis about Scriptures. And when we get to it, we’ll see we have a lot to say about the liturgical homily, about the sermon at the Liturgy which was absolutely essential, and not only that it be there but that it be a real sermon and that it be done in the proper way, in the proper form, in the proper spirit, and the proper place at the proper time. We’re going to discuss all this.
You have the word, and it all begins with the Word, and then, through the Word, we offer ourselves as living words, living sacrifices to God on the altar of sacrifice, and when we enter into Christ’s sacrifice to God the Father in the Spirit in the liturgy of the faithful, the second part of the Divine Liturgy, which is the sacrificial offering, the remembrances of Christ’s holy acts, the actual offering of ourselves on the altar in the bread and the wine, the invoking of the Holy Spirit upon ourselves and upon the Gifts to become the body of Christ, and then actually to eat and to drink at the table of God’s kingdom in heaven with God already now while still being on earth, and to have the experience of life as creation, as human existence, being holy Communion, what it was created to be from the beginning, with God, through his Son and Word Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
That has to be actualized in our life, absolutely, and certainly in our lives we make petitionary prayer, we say prayers, we ask things, we sing hymns, we read psalms, we read the Scripture, we have Bible study, but even Bible study—it can’t simply be like Karl Barth, the Protestant theologian, said, when he asked his grandmother about her Bible study and didn’t they have trouble because a lot of the Scriptures are hard to understand? And his grandmother said, “Oh, no, we have no trouble at all. The parts that we don’t understand we explain to each other.” So a lot of Bible study among Christians are ignorant people explaining to each other the parts that they don’t understand.
Well, if we want to understand it, you’ve got to go to church; you’ve got to be in the liturgy of the Church. It’s the liturgy of the Church where the risen Christ, through the Holy Spirit, opens our minds to understand the Scripture. It’s very interesting that in St. Luke’s gospel, it’s at the Supper, it’s at the meal, it’s when the bread was broken that the Scriptures were understood, so we go to church to understand the Scripture.
What we have at the Divine Liturgy are these two essential acts that make up Christian life. The first has to do with the Scriptures, the teaching, the word, Jesus as the truth, as the word, as the light; and then the second part, the sacrificial part: Jesus as the high priest, Jesus as the lamb of God, Jesus as the bread that’s broken, Jesus as the meal that is eaten. This is what we have. And it was the same thing in the Old Testament. In the temple, you had the teachings; in the synagogues, you had the teachings, and then you had the sacrifices. And the sacrifices ultimately came to be done in the Jerusalem temple, and there were particular sacrifices for different reasons, different ways, all of which will come together in the one sacrifice of Christ, on the cross, that we enter into in the Divine Liturgy.
The point of today’s podcast is simply this: Liturgy, Divine Liturgy, is a very unique thing. It’s not a prayer group. It’s not only for prayer. It’s not simply a place where you go to be taught, so you have a lecture given to you. It’s not a place where you just go to sing praises as you decide and see fit. It’s not a place where you go to share with God your deepest desires and ideas and try to get God to do what you want him to do and con him in some sense, con him into [doing] it, naming it and claiming it. No, that’s not what it is at all.
The Divine Liturgy has all of the aspects brought together in perfection in the context of worship that simply constitute our human life generally at every moment of our life. That’s why I said earlier we could actually say that human life, according to Christianity, is to actualize every moment of every day with every breath that which we experience and actualize in the Church’s Divine Liturgy. That’s the connection between everyday life and the Church’s liturgy. We need the Divine Liturgy of the Church, behind closed doors, to have the experience of life and truth and reality in God, so we know how to live the rest of the time. And the rest of the time, we try to actualize it, we try to realize it, we try to put it into practice, from Liturgy to Liturgy.
And Christians live from Liturgy to Liturgy, from Sunday to Sunday, from feastday to feastday, through time, through space; this is how we live. But as members of the Church of God, the Church of Christ, we have this corporate actualization of the Church itself, and that is what Divine Liturgy is, and that is what we are going to continue to talk about, to think about, to meditate about, to try to explain, to try to understand in this series of podcasts on Worship in Spirit and in Truth: the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church.
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