Orthodox Christian Worship:
A living experience
by Fr. Anthony G. Yazge
(Originally submitted to the Tribune Star for publication in the Fall of 1995)
Imagine being gathered before the throne of God in the presence of all the saints. Gold adorns many of the altar articles and the fragrance of incense fills the air. It is the heavenly temple of Isaiah and the earthly temple as God directed Moses. It is worship in the Orthodox Christian Church. Every human sense is enlivened and heightened in Orthodox worship. No sense is left unaffected. The sense of being in the presence of God is the destination.
Upon entering an Orthodox church immediately you see a big difference compared to other Christian churches. Aspects of the physical layout of the Orthodox church are based on the early Jewish temple. After all, the first Christians were Jews and drew on their knowledge of the temple when designing the early Christian churches. The altar, or sanctuary, is separated from the nave, the main body of the church where the faithful gather for services, by the iconostasis, a wall bearing icons. This separation is directly drawn from the temple in which the holy of holies was separated from the rest of the temple. Only those who are ordained to serve are permitted to enter the sanctuary.
Icons are a dominant element in Orthodox worship. These images, the literal meaning of the word “icon,” are windows to heaven. They are images of Jesus Christ, the saints and feast days from the life of His Church. These images remind us of the life that these people lived, and recount events that are revered because they are part of our salvation history. We use these images as aids for prayer. An Orthodox Christian will offer a prayer before the icon of Christ, or may pray for the intercession of a saint. It must be understood that these saints and icons are only revered and not worshipped. Worship is reserved for God alone.
When we gather as the Church, it is the realization that we gather to worship God. We gather in the company of the angels and all the saints to glorify God. The liturgy is a taste of the Kingdom of heaven on earth. It is worshipping God in His presence. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Worship in the Orthodox Church culminates in the reception of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Literally, we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). This is our foretaste of the Kingdom, in which we hope and pray one day to be counted worthy to enter.
Therefore, in the presence of God we must create an atmosphere that is representative of the divine. Brilliant colors and gold often adorn the churches through icons, vestments, altar cover and the liturgical items themselves. The ornate appearance of a church pales in comparison to the brilliance of God, yet we still try to approximate it to remind us that we are in a holy place set apart from the rest of our everyday lives. Gold, the most precious metal in our society is usually found in abundance in the church. Not only is it appropriate for the holy house of the King of glory, but it reflects light reminding us of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. As the seasons change throughout the liturgical year, the color of the clergy’s vestments and the altar covers change. This creates a visible reminder that we are preparing and/or celebrating another major event in our salvation history, be it a feast day of Jesus Christ, the Cross or the Virgin Mary.
Another fundamental element of worship in the Church is the use of music and chanting. We have a unique God-given ability to speak – something that separates human beings from the rest of creation. Therefore, our voice should be used to glorify God. With this in mind, very little is merely spoken in Church, but is rather chanted or sung. Usually, only the sermon, which is not the main focus of any service, is spoken. Orthodox worship is a constant dialogue with God between the clergy, praying on behalf of the people, and the people themselves. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (5:18-19) speaks to this. “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The services are filled with responses and hymns, taken from the scriptures. The music and melodies are meant to enliven those words – from the darkness of the Crucifixion to the brilliance of the Resurrection. And for that reason, it is not music for its own sake, but music that is appropriate for what is being prayed. It may vary from a simple ancient Byzantine chant to the modern more elaborate Russian compositions. But at its heart and soul, it is the prayers of the people of God as they stand before God.
Orthodox worship, in short, is a living experience. It is manifesting, here and now, even for a short time, the presence and Kingdom of God in a world that has wandered further and further away from God. Orthodox Christians believe worship is not an intellectual exercise, but an experience of body and mind, heart and soul, coming together with others before the Lord. Ultimately, no description is sufficient to describe it, especially to modern western society. If you are seeking God, “come and see” for yourself!