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What is Worship?

February 04, 2010 Length: 11:44View Attachment

In this episode, Jason talks about the four elements of true worship: Trinitarian, corporate, dramatic, and cosmic.

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Transcript Transcript

There is a reason this series is called Worship & YOU: worship is more than simply an act in which we engage—it is our purpose in life. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “Orthodoxy sees man above all else as a liturgical creature who is most truly himself when he glorifies God, and who finds his perfection and self-fulfillment in worship.” We talked about this fact in the previous episode, but all this raises a significant question: if we need to engage in worship, then what exactly is worship?

There are many ways this question could be answered, but I think it will be helpful to look at four basic elements of worship (as labeled by Nicholas Zernov): true worship is Trinitarian, corporate, dramatic, and cosmic.


Most of all, true worship is Trinitarian. The heart of Orthodox worship is expressed in this hymn of thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion: “We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.” As we saw in the first unit, this is what makes Orthodox worship transforming; we focus on God and remember that it is in Him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

This exaltation of God is a key component of the services of the Church. All Orthodox services begin with an invocation of the Holy Trinity; for example, the Divine Liturgy begins, “Blessed be the kingdom of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Through such an invocation our attention is immediately directed to the focus of our worship: God the Holy Trinity. Many prayers are similarly concluded with a glorification of the Trinity, an example of which is “unto Thee (meaning Christ) we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

The Trinitarian element of worship is further emphasized by the fact that, as it says in John 4, “Those who worship (God) must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). The only reason we can honestly and accurately say “Jesus is Lord” is because the indwelling Holy Spirit empowers us to make such a proclamation (1 Corinthians 12:3). While any person can speak the words “Jesus is Lord,” no one can say them as an act of true worship unless empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is important for two reasons. First, it means that true worship is guaranteed to be true because God the Holy Spirit motivates it. Second, it means true worship is an exquisitely intimate activity, because we are moved by God in us to praise God—we praise the divine through the divine.


True worship is also corporate. No, I don’t mean that it’s a for-profit business, but rather that it’s something we do as a group. While Christians certainly can and should worship God in private (a fact we’ll talk about in later episodes), Christianity is not an individualistic faith. Hebrews 10:25 explicitly commands that we should not “forsak(e) the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some.” One reason for this is because, as Christ promised, He will be present where two or three come together in His name (Matthew 18:20). St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us there is tremendous power in this promise: “For Christ has assured us…there will be strength in the prayers of many, but that even if only two in number harmoniously and deliberately define their requests, they will come to their goal…For it is not the number of those gathered but the strength of their piety and their love of God that is effective.”

The necessity of corporate worship is emphasized by the very word we use for the central service of the Church: liturgy. The word liturgy is derived from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “the work of the people.” As Fr. Stanley Harakas notes, anything short of wholehearted worship by the community of believers is unacceptable to God. Not only is the presence of a community necessary for the corporate worship of the Church, but the community must also be united in active worship of God; passivity or inattention on the part of a member of the community is so spiritually serious that it constitutes a betrayal of both the Church and God. The frequent calls during the services for our attention (e.g., “Let us attend”) are a reminder that all the people are to participate in worship.

The corporate element of worship is further reinforced by the Orthodox emphasis on the communion of saints. St. John of Kronstadt powerfully describes in this way the close relationship between Christians on earth and the saints in heaven:

We ought to have the most lively spiritual union with the heavenly inhabitants, with all the saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, prelates, venerable and righteous men, as they are all members of one single body, The Church of Christ, to which we sinners also belong, and the living Head of which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is why we call upon them in prayer, converse with them, thank and praise them. It is urgently necessary for all Christians to be in union with them, if they desire to make Christian progress; for the saints are our friends, our guides to salvation, who pray and intercede for us.


True worship is also dramatic. The “drama” of Orthodox worship is not the same as occurs in some churches, where skits, comedy, or dance routines are performed for the entertainment of the congregation. Instead, Orthodox services are thematic, in which the words and actions of the priest and congregants recall God’s saving activity in the world. Fr. Demetrios Constantelos says about this drama, “Through symbolic utterances, gestures, signs, and symbols, the whole redemptive plan of God is set before the congregation.”

St. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us every detail of the Orthodox services is significant: “Not only the chants and readings but the very actions themselves have this part to play: each has its own immediate purpose and usefulness. But at the same time each symbolizes some part of the works of Christ, His deeds or His sufferings.” In the end, he says, “Just as the work of redemption, when it was first achieved, restored the world, so now, when it is ever before our eyes, it makes the souls of those who behold it better and more divine.”


As St. Nicholas’ teaching shows, true worship recognizes that all things are changed by God’s saving work. The effects of Christ’s Resurrection, and the dominion of the Holy Spirit over all creation, are spectacular spiritual realities that can be experienced through the worship of the Orthodox Church. St. Cyril of Jerusalem reflects this understanding when he says, ““May you behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord, and proceed from glory to glory, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Time and space are also transformed by God, and therefore experienced differently in worship. The Church on earth lives simultaneously in two dimensions: we exist on earth, where we experience the constraints of mortality, but our worship lifts us out of this time and into the eternal worship that takes place in the presence of God. You may feel unable to engage in such grand, cosmic worship, but St. John Chrysostom says that God enables you to participate in this glorious experience:

And although, my good Christian, you are clothed in flesh and bone and in a multitude of weaknesses, nevertheless, you are made worthy together with the Bodiless Powers to praise and glorify the common Bishop and Lord. And despite your personal weaknesses, when you wish with all your might, then ‘tightly’ and psychosomatically through the Holy Spirit you are accompanied by the Cherubim in the Thrice-Holy Hymn and with them—peacefully—you glorify the All-holy Triune God. A common heavenly and earthly feast is being set up; one is the Thanksgiving, one the exultation, one the joyful choir.

This transforming experience should impel us to proclaim (as we do in many prayers), “Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and our God!”


In Orthodox worship we celebrate God’s saving work in all of creation. But here’s an important point: this work isn’t simply something God does alone—He also works through us. In fact, Metropolitan John of Pergamon teaches, He has made us priests of creation. Metropolitan John says,

As the priests of creation we have the unique mission and great responsibility of uniting God and the material world. Our task is not simply to preserve creation but to purify it and elevate it to the level of divine existence. This act of elevation, the referring of creation to its creator; is the essence of our priesthood; thus creation is sanctified and partakes of the blessings that participating in divine life involves.

The Holy Prophet Isaiah proclaims the condition God intends for the earth (35:1‑2, 6‑7); the planet will only be returned to this condition by humanity cooperating with God’s saving work. Fr. Stanley Harakas explains that “this process can only happen through the mediation of man, the priest who refers creation back to the Creator. Creation expects fallen man to mediate for its salvation…Each of us should contribute as much as we can.” Our efforts at recycling, at reducing pollution, at renewing damaged areas, and other environmental activities will allow us to cooperate with Christ in His work to sanctify the world.

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