Worship In The Congregation
The basis for the life of the Church, once we understand that the authority of the Church comes from the setting in place or ordination of the leaders; and once we understand that sound doctrine emanates from the totality of Holy Tradition and was not just conjured up from someone’s interpretation of scripture; then Worship is the outcome. What about worship in the Congregation?
Congregation, as used in the Orthodox Christian Church, refers to the assembly of faithful, a Eucharistic community, associated with a specific ecclesiastical community: a parish church, chapel, mission, or such. This is the accepted description as recorded in Orthodox Wiki as commonly used. The life of the Church comes with gathering together of the faithful for the Divine Liturgy. From the earliest time of the Church, worship was focal in the life of the Church. “…And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers…” Acts 2:42 NKJV
As the Church grew, the Apostles ordained (set in place) bishops to oversee the Church. The Apostles also set in place Deacons to handle some of the more rudimentary functions such as caring for the widows and orphans, and serving the Church with the table of the Lord, or communion. While it is mentioned rarely, from history of the Apostolic Fathers, presbyters were also ordained from among the people. The leaders of the Church were not imposed from outside the local congregation but rather were those who had shown themselves to be faithful and were already leaders in the family of God.
The Didache, the teachings or doctrine of the twelve Apostles, the earliest record we have of teachings not contained in the Holy Scriptures, concerning ordaining Bishops, says, “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers. And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.”
These bishops were set in place or ordained to lead the Church and the Church was instructed by Saint Ignatius of Antioch to do nothing without them. In his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius said, “As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.”
Saint Ignatius also exhorted the Church of the Ephesians to meet frequently for the Worship of God, “Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.
The Didache, has various instructions for the Church. It says, “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.””
Let’s not forget that in Hebrews we are encouraged this way, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:23-25 NKJV
So what is this worship, this gathering together? Is it simply a planned time to hang out? Can we just do anything in this gathering?
From the earliest time of the Church, we see throughout our history, this gathering to be liturgical. This gathering we also see as sacramental. Sacrament denotes something Holy. In the Church, everything done in and by the Church is considered sacramental. While the English word sacrament is derived from the Latin word “sacramentum” which is defined as “a consecrated thing or act” and that was derived from the Greek word “mysterion” for mysteries. They are mysteries, according to Saint John Chrysostom, because what we see is different from what we believe is happening. Let’s look at that in this way: when there is a baptism, what we see is a priest dunking someone in water, a ceremonial bathing. What we believe is what Saint Paul said was happening when he wrote, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4 NKJV and in another place Saint Paul wrote, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” I Corinthians 12:13 NKJV
The mystery in this is, while we see a priest immersing someone, God the Holy Spirit is really baptizing the convert, burying the person with Christ as a dead man because he is dead to sin, raising the Christian from that death to walk in a new life, and making that person part of the Body of Christ, the Church. In Orthodoxy, the baptizer is simply the instrument God uses to accomplish His will. While in some newer traditions, the baptizer declares “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit” in Orthodox baptism the baptizer declares “The servant of God IS Baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Recognizing that it is God who baptizes not the man; the man is the instrument that we see. So this is a mystery or a sacrament.
I use baptism as an example but there are several sacraments, all part of the life of the Church. The life of the Church is where the mysteries are practiced. They are mysteries because what we see is not what we believe is happening. Communion is another mystery; what we see is bread and wine, what we believe is that they become the body and blood of our Lord. We don’t try to come to some scientific or even theological explanation of how this happens, we just accept that it does happen.
From the Apologies of Justin Martyr:
“Chapter 67. Weekly worship of the Christians
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”
Today, our Liturgy mirrors this description. The Divine Liturgy celebrated today was written in the fourth century by Saint John Chrysostom. The best description is that it is prayers and readings of scripture separated by hymns. Justin described the Church assembly reading from the memoirs of the Apostles known as the Gospels or the writings of the Prophets, taking communion, and taking an offering to care for the poor, widows and orphans. Justin also discussed why the Church met on Sunday also.
When we enter worship, it’s not anything less than entering Heaven. In the book of Revelation chapter four we see, “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.”” Revelation 4:1-11 NKJV
This worship is going on, according to John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ, all the time. The four living creatures “do not rest day or night” and when they worship God, the elders fall down and worship God. Since worship is continuous then when we enter our temple here to worship, we are entering a worship service already in progress. There is only one Church, not a visible one on Earth and an invisible one in Heaven, the one Church worships continuously. So where do we start? If we are spontaneous then we will be disruptive. I see now why the liturgical style of worship has been so orderly for us. The priest and the people face the Altar together, and the priest leads us into a heavenly experience.
In Orthodox Church Worship, it appears chaotic at times because while the attitude of worship exists, some are involved in prayer or reconciliation with others, perhaps in prayer for friends or family as they seek the intercession of a particular Saint. The only time that no one moves is during the reading of scripture. The order for each service is clear. In the early days of the Church, as missions spread throughout the world, the missionaries gave more attention to translating the Services into each language rather than translate the Scriptures. Since most people didn’t have advanced education, the services were used to teach the scriptures and theological truths.
Incorporated into the services, the worship of the Church, are truths about repentance (Psalm 50 is prayed during the censing of the Church by the priest, for instance) there are prayers of repentance to prepare the people to receive Communion as well. There are scripture readings assigned to the day that teach us principles and the hymns for each Saint, feast, and some about specific stories also teach the people. We use candles at times, when a specific Saint’s intercession is requested by a person, that person might light a candle in front of the Saint’s icon to remind the Saint of their need. That brings me to Icons.
What is an Icon? What about the prohibition on graven images? Why do the Orthodox bow and kiss the Icons? Are the Orthodox worshipping the Icons?
Icons are a Holy art form, two dimensional and they are either depicting a person, or an event in Church history. The very first icon that we know of was of the Theotokos, the mother of our Lord, and was created by Luke the Evangelist. We even sing about it in the Supplicatory services when we remember the Dormition of the Theotokos.
Icons are now consistently part of Orthodox worship and have been since 787 when the Second Council of Nicea settled the issue for the Church. Previously the Emperor Leo III had prohibited the display and veneration of icons about 726. We celebrate on the first Sunday of Great Lent the Sunday of Orthodoxy to commemorate the return of icons and the use of icon. Most people who reject icons do so misinterpreting the prohibition of idols. Icons are not idols, we do not worship them. Interesting that those who reject them citing the commandment refuse to acknowledge that the Jewish Tabernacle and later Temples were decorated with images and the Tabernacle itself was an image. Icons are often viewed as windows, a place where we can view a Saint, or an event where we can teach the theological truth.
From orthodoxwiki.org we find this: “Veneration (gr. doulia) is a way to show great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Veneration is distinct from worship (gr. latreia), for worship is a total giving over of the self to be united with God, while veneration is showing delight for what God has done. There can be confusion because one may venerate what one worships as well as venerate others. Veneration is part of worship to the Orthodox faithful, but they show love and respect to more than the God they worship.”
We venerate Icons, we bow and kiss them, recalling the person or event depicted in the icon. They are like windows into Heaven where the Saints are seen and where the “great cloud of witnesses” might view us and our communication. We do not worship them nor do we worship the Saints depicted in icons. The distinction might be a fine line to those outside but not to the Orthodox. When we communicate with the Saints, since they are part of our Church, we aren’t “Praying To Them” but rather asking for them to pray for and intercede for us with God. Since Saint Paul said, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” II Corinthians 5:8 NKJV
Since the Saints are present with the Lord, we trust that they can, and will pray for us knowing that they will pray according to the Will of God and by joining us in prayer there will be at least two in agreement asking God for something according to His Will. The promise that Jesus made was that if there were supplications in agreement with God’s will and there were two in agreement that God would grant our request. So we ask for prayers from people we see and from the Saints whom we do not see, all within our worship life in the Church.
Worship provides us experience of Heaven, the ability to interpret scripture, understand and communicate sound doctrine and to receive from God his blessings. Jesus said, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” John 6:56-57 NKJV so when we worship, and we take Communion, Jesus is consumed and becomes part of us and we abide in him by this action. This is another mystery, what we see and what we believe is happening is different but nevertheless it is our reality.
So we see that worship unites us with each other because we are instructed to make sure not to have disagreements therefore not to profane the sacrifice of the Church. Worship unites us with the WHOLE Church including those who have preceded us to heaven. Worship instructs us in theology, biblical truths, historical facts and in scripture. Worship opens us up to receive God through faith each time we gather, and by doing that we are able to give alms to care for those in need. Worship is the life of the Church and therefore the life of the Christian.