Again Magazine Volume 16 Number 2 June 1993 Page 9-11

Entering into WORSHIP

by Father Stanley Harakas

Imagine yourself at a party, a social gathering at a lovely home. You’re having a conversation with an old friend. You’re in the middle of a sentence and suddenly you realize your friend is no longer with you. He has mentally drifted off, and is now staring over your shoulder, off into space. You feel awkward and a little embarrassed as you realize you’ve been talking to yourself—he’s not listening!

As a priest, I’ve faced that uncomfortable scenario more often than I like to admit, and in the most critical of settings—in the middle of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning! At times I have looked out at the congregation only to find a sea of blank faces among whom only a few are really there, really attending and participating, worshiping God in spirit and in truth.

Why is this? Is it due to a design flaw inherent in liturgical worship? No, because fundamentalist preachers have the same problem. Is it because of a lack of faith or zeal on the part of the people? Not really. I think the problem is that most Orthodox people simply have never been taught how to participate in worship. Unfortunately, the only instruction many Orthodox have ever received on participating in worship is the one they were given as children: “Shhh! Be quiet!” With this one directive in view, it is little wonder most people see it as their task in worship to remain as passive and unobtrusive as possible, so that the priest can do his work.

I believe it is time for a change, for a metanoia in the way we modern Orthodox go about worshiping God in the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy was designed to be exactly what its name implies (from the Greek laos, “people,” and ergon, “work”): the work of the people. Anything short of wholehearted participation and involvement by all present—the clergy and the people—is incomplete and unworthy of the God and Creator whom we seek to worship.


Before one can learn to enter more fully into worship, it is necessary to understand what worship fundamentally means. The English writer Evelyn Underhill, in her book entitled Worship, comes to the conclusion that to worship God is to stand in awe before Him, in a way that emphasizes our unworthiness and our creatureliness before the Creator—the One who truly is.

In the Old Testament God identifies Himself to His people as “I AM WHO I AM” or “I am He that is” (Exodus 3:14). In other words, God is ultimate reality. He is reality in its fullness, not contingent or dependent on anything else; God Himself in His very being IS. In the Orthodox theologi­cal tradition it is said that God in His essence is unknowable. By grace we can know the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but we cannot fathom the divine nature. We are never able to capture in words the magnitude, the truth, the grandeur, the wonder, the goodness of God-no human word can encapsulate what God is.

However, our Faith affirms that there are things we can say about God that give us at least some sense of who it is we are worshiping on Sunday morning. For ex­ample, God is everywhere present. We can think about His everywhere-presence first in ourselves. God is present inside me—in my body as well as my soul. He’s inside you, in the room where you are sitting, in your city, in every city and country in the world. If we have the eyes to see Him, God is everywhere we look. He is also in the far­thest limits of space, in places we not only cannot see but can scarcely even imagine. God is so great that He penetrates any place I can imagine, and beyond.

To think of God in this way and to stand before Him in a spirit of reverence and awe is the essence of what it means to worship: to know who He is, and—in contrast—who we are, is the key. God is the uncontingent one; we are the contingent ones. He is the eternal one; we are the temporal ones. We stand before God and say in reverence, “Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal one, have mercy on us.”

To worship God, then, is to place ourselves in a proper relationship with Him, knowing the truth about ourselves and acknowledging Him for what He is. In that stance is genuine communion. The act of worship is probably the highest expression of what our human nature is. There is a sense in which we do not ever achieve the fullness of our humanity, of what it means to be a human being in relationship to ourselves and to others, unless we can recognize that God is our Lord and that we are dependent upon Him. This is especially true for Christians who, in Jesus Christ, know that the awesome God is also our heavenly and loving Father.


Worship is a two-way experience. On the one hand, we stand before God and acknowledge Him for what He is; on the other hand, we must open our spirits and our hearts to receive what He has to give to us. And yet each act of worship is not something generalized and intangible. Rather, worship is a very concrete, specific experience. The Orthodox Church embodies this concreteness in a hundred ways in the richness of its liturgical worship.

One aspect of this concreteness in wor­ship is the way the Church sanctifies and blesses the common and ordinary things of our lives—our homes, our food, even our cars. We Orthodox Christians take the things of the world, and bring them to the life of the Kingdom. This is particularly evident in our sacramental life, which continually refers material things to the life of the spirit. Every sacrament has some sort of material dimen­sion, by which some material thing is sanctified and brought into the life of the King­dom of God. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the oil of unction and chrismation, the bodies of man and wife in marriage—all are common, ordinary things which, by the power of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament, become vehicles of God’s grace. This is possible because Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, took on human nature and dwelt among us, and walked as a human being with us. Sacramentally, the things that be-long to our bodies belong to Him.

Thus there is no such thing as disem­bodied spirituality in the Orthodox world. There is no such thing as spirituality which separates itself from the common and ordi­nary experiences of life. All of those experiences are incorporated into the life of the Christian—especially in the worship of the Orthodox Church.

When you go into an Orthodox Church, you see the beautiful icons and vestments. You smell incense. You hear singing. You receive bread and wine. All these things are produced by human beings, using the re­sources provided by God to glorify God, and therefore belong to Him.


In addition to this physical dimension, worship has to have a personal dimension. It has to be something that we do in our own hearts and our own spirits. You cannot wor­ship in a corporate environment unless you worship first as an individual. Unless we become accustomed to standing before God in the privacy of our rooms in front of our icons, or when we are driving to work, or on a bus or a subway—unless we can place ourselves in the presence of God, as individual persons, in any kind of situation, we will not be able to place ourselves in the presence of God in Church.

So how exactly do we place ourselves in the presence of God? How exactly ought we to worship?

Over the years I have instructed many new converts in the Faith and I have been struck by the lack of any written material dealing with this question. Therefore I decided to look at the text of the Divine Liturgy itself to see if it offered us any instructions for participation in it. As I looked at the text of the Liturgy in this light, I realized that the Liturgy as we have it in the Orthodox Church today—the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysos­tom—is filled with a range of specific instructions as to how we should participate in it. It tells us how to make this Liturgy a living, personal experience.

Consider for example the great, anthem-like hymn which we call the Cherubic Hymn. “We who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, let us put away all worldly care, so that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic host.” I ask you this question: Who’s speaking here? We are—the congregation. And who are we talking to? We’re talking to ourselves. And what are we saying to ourselves? We’re saying, “Stop thinking about everything else—family matters, our health, good weather, and what not. Let’s put aside all our worldly concerns.” For what purpose? So we can receive the King of all, who is invisibly escorted by the angels.

This is the point: we’re not talking to God here, we’re talking to ourselves. We’re giving instructions to ourselves about how to enter into worship. We’re figuratively nudging each other with our elbows and saying, “Stop thinking about those other things you were thinking about, pay attention, be still, and pray.”


In all, I counted ten specific ways the Liturgy teaches us—all of us, both clergy and laity—to participate in worship. Let me share them with you briefly:

1) We participate in worship through frequent communion. This is the most im­portant way of participating in the Liturgy. When the priest comes forward with the chalice and lifts it high, he says, “With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near.” Come close to commune with God. That’s a command, an instruction. After all, what is the eucharistic Liturgy all about? Simply, it’s the way the Church prepares, conse­crates, and administers the sacrament of Holy Communion. Receiving Holy Communion, receiving Christ, is the central act of the Liturgy.

2) We participate in worship through faithfully gathering together as the Church. The Divine Liturgy begins with the words, “Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” What’s a kingdom? The place where a king reigns. Who’s the king? God. Who are His subjects? Christians. Where does the king reign? Where God is present and the Christians are present. God’s kingship is made manifest in us during worship. One cannot be manifesting the King­dom liturgically if he’s not there. Being present is crucial to liturgical life.

3) We participate in worship through entering into it responsively. The language of the Liturgy contains a number of dia­logues in various parts of the service. For example, the priest says, “Let us lift up our hearts.” Then the people respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” The words of the Liturgy in these dialogues invite us to in­volvement and participation. But because we are not taught to participate in worship, these dialogues often go unnoticed and un­heeded; the commands they contain often are not obeyed in the people’s hearts.

4) All Orthodox services include “litanies,” in which the priest or deacon names a petition,

and the choir sings the response-­either “Lord have mercy” or “Grant this, O Lord.” The priest is not actually addressing himself to God in these petitions; he’s ad­dressing the congregation. He’s saying (for example), “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” The choir sings the response, but they are not really praying either; they give the same response to all the petitions. It’s really the congregation’s role to pray these prayers. If the congregation does not enter in, then nobody is praying!

How does one pray the litany? Simply do what the priest says. The priest says, “Let us pray for the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls.” You can just say in your heart, “Dear Lord, grant us your peace from above and the salvation of our souls.” You can also think of particular people and situations you want to pray for with each petition. Then the prayers are no longer just words; you are following the instruction of the litany.

5) We participate in worship through singing. Many Orthodox people are not accustomed to singing in Church. They are afraid of being conspicuous. But even in a parish where the choir does all the singing, it’s possible to sing along with the choir softly. You don’t have to sing loud enough to be heard, but sing! The patristic tradition tells us that the people are supposed to sing, and we know that in the past they did sing. We need to revive this tradition in all our Churches.

6) There are two places in the Liturgy where we generally say the words, instead of singing or chanting them—the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The people say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as a body. In the Lord’s Prayer it is clear that we are talking to God; our challenge is to make the prayer our own, so that it truly expresses our thoughts and feelings.

But the Creed is different. To make the Creed come alive, you must consider to whom you’re confessing it. I find if I think of talking to God, it really becomes per­sonal. Because I’m telling God what I be­lieve, it is a prayer and it touches my head and my soul.

7) We participate in worship through physical actions. Instructions such as “Let us bow our heads to the Lord” require you to worship with your body. There are many ways we use our bodies in the Liturgy. The most important way that we use our bodies in worship in the Orthodox Church is when we make the sign of the cross. Making the sign of the cross is one of the most profound things a Christian can do. To make the sign of the cross is to mark ourselves, to identify ourselves as Christians.

8) We participate in worship through listening to the readings and the sermon. What are we told at the beginning of the readings? “Let us attend.” Unfortunately we tend to make those words into mere ritual. But the words actually are saying to us, “Pay attention! Listen! There’s something important here.” That’s an instruction! Christians ought to really perk up and listen to what the Gospel has to say.

9) We participate in worship through involvement in its structure. The Divine Liturgy as it exists today has an organization and a pattern. That structure is revealed primarily in what we call the Little Litanies, in which we pray, “Again and again, let us pray to the Lord.” These Little Litanies come at the ends of nine significant portions of the Liturgy, which I describe in detail in my book Living the Liturgy. If you understand this structure, you’re able to participate in it.

These repeated litanies do contribute to the length of the service, which most Orthodox consider to be a problem. But if you begin to participate in the Liturgy and do the things the Liturgy instructs you to do— guess what? The Liturgy gets shorter! You don’t notice the length of the Liturgy, because you didn’t attend as a mere observer, just waiting for the final blessing to go home.

10) Finally, we participate in worship through personal devotion. The Liturgy can be understood in a literal sense, and it can also be understood as symbolic. Some of the things we do in the Liturgy today have no real meaning except as symbols. Take the Great Entrance. The Great Entrance origi­nated in Constantinople, where they would begin the Divine Liturgy in one Church, then move to a special saint’s Church or chapel to conclude it. In order to conduct the Liturgy, they had to move the bread and the wine, the chalice and the paten, to the new location. So it became a grand procession. Today, we do the whole Liturgy in the same building, but we still have this great proces­sion, the Great Entrance, when we sing, “Let us receive the invisible King.”

What does it mean for us today? Not much, if all we do is remember that fifteen centuries ago, they moved the elements of the Sacrament from one Church to another. But if you think of the procession as symbol­izing Christ bearing His cross on the day He was crucified for your salvation, that act can become an act of personal worship and devotion.


In the end, this discussion is best summed up in those frequently repeated words of the Liturgy, “Let us pray to the Lord.” This brings us back to where we began. We go into the Church not to watch, not to be observers, not simply to look at something the priest is doing. The Eucharist is not an opera, it is the Liturgy—the work of the people. When you go to the Liturgy, go expecting to spend the next hour in worship. Make the Liturgy a living experience from moment to moment throughout the service. Yes, sometimes our minds wander. That is why we say, “Again and again, let us pray to the Lord.” The Church knows our weak­nesses and our shortcomings.

Once I was at a spiritual renewal con­ference and someone who was familiar with Protestant practices came up to me and said, “What the Orthodox Church needs to make the Liturgy really come alive is something like an altar call.” That’s when Protestant evangelists invite people to come forward and commit themselves to Christ.

I thought about this afterwards, and it came to me that this man was actually over fifteen hundred years too late in offering his suggestion. In fact, there is and always has been an altar call—actually several of them— in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. There are at least eight specific invitations for people to commit or recommit their lives to Jesus Christ. At least eight times during the course of the Liturgy, the priest says, “Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our lives, to Christ our God.”

No doubt every Orthodox Christian who has attended Liturgy more than a few times knows the correct response to this invitation: “To You, O Lord.” Yet if we would only make these words our own, we would overcome all the resistance and hu­man weaknesses that we all bring when we go to the Divine Liturgy. What a change would come over us personally, over the Church, and over the entire believing and nonbelieving world! What renewed spiritual vigor we would have, if we really en­tered into that response with our whole heart. “Yes, I commit myself, and all those around me, to Christ our God!”

When the priest proclaims, “Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our lives, to Christ our God,” there is, and can be, only one proper response. God’s people respond of one accord, “To You, O Lord!” The liturgy lives! And we live the Liturgy! And because God is present, the liturgy is alive!

Fr. Stanley Harakas is the author of several books, including Living the Liturgy. He is also a professor at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The above article was adapted from a talk given at Ascension Greek Orthodox Church in Oakland, California.

We participate in worship through listening to

the readings and the sermon.

What are we told at the beginning of the readings?


Unfortunately we tend to make those words

into mere ritual.

But the words actually are saying to us,

“Pay attention! Listen!

There’s something important here.

That’s an instruction!

Christians ought to really perk up and listen

To what the Gospel has to say.