Orthodox Worship and the Old Testament

Recently I read in a blog a spirited defense of Orthodox worship, which the author promoted as more Biblical than the worship of contemporary praise services such as those offered at the famous Willow Creek church (pictured in the blog). I appreciated his zeal for the home team, as well as the fact that he did not denounce “contemporary worship” (an odd phrase; isn’t all worship today contemporary by definition?) as if it was heretically damnable or unclean.

But in the course of his long defense of Orthodox worship, he tried to justify our praxis by drawing direct lines from the worship pattern of the Old Testament to that of the contemporary Orthodox Divine Liturgy. He said, for example, that “worship in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the Old Testament Temple. Typically, an Orthodox church has three main areas: the narthex (entry hall), the nave (the central part), and the altar area. This is similar to the Old Testament Tabernacle which consisted of the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place”. He also said, that the “vestments worn by Orthodox priests are patterned after the Old Testament”. The result of all this was that “Orthodox Christian worship is based upon a radical continuity. As the Jewish Messiah Jesus Christ took the Jewish forms of worship and filled them with new content and meanings. Orthodox worship took the Jewish synagogue and Temple worship and made them Christocentric.”

Reading this, I could not suppress a grimace, for these claims are historically nonsensical. As a matter of fact, the architectural lay-out of a modern Orthodox church is not based on the Jewish shrine, even if both structures do have a three-fold lay-out. In the Mosaic shrine, the Outer Court was the place where worshiper and priest met and offered the sacrifice, and the Holy Place was where the priest went to burn incense privately twice a day, in the evening and the morning. No one went into the Most Holy Place except the high priest, and even he only went there once a year on the Day of Atonement. If the Orthodox worship were really based on the Old Testament model of Moses’ shrine, most of the worship would take place in the narthex, with the clergy nipping in to the nave once in a while (for Vespers and Matins?), and the bishop would enter the altar only once a year (for the beginning of Lent?).

Any reading of church history will reveal that the Christian church buildings were not based on the Jewish Temple or on any temple or religious building in the ancient world, but on the secular meeting hall, the basilica, so-named because it was the public court building of the basileus or king, and the first secular basilicas had no religious function at all. A temple was a building meant to house a deity; its worshipers, Jewish or pagan, met and worshiped under the open sky. A basilica was meant to house people, and to keep the weather off their heads. The Christians could have structured their meeting places after a religious temple, but they chose not to. Their buildings were clearly secular in design and lay-out.

It was the same with the vestments of the clergy. Historians tell us that the clergy officiated in their normal street clothes even in the fourth century and later, though of course all the Christians would wear their best street clothes when they came to public worship. What we today regard as special “church vestments” were simply the normal secular attire for the gentleman of the day. Pagan priests wore special clothes when they officiated at their public sacrifices, as did Jewish priests, but the Christian clergy did not. As time went on, fashions changed, but the church (ever conservative) clung to the style of clothes their clergy had always worn. They fancied those clothes up a bit, making them more gorgeous and with more brocade (as it were), but the clothes were never regarded in the early years as special religious garments, much less as having any connection with the priestly vestments of the Old Testament. As with architecture, so with clothing—the Church remained resolutely non-religious in its approach.

It is natural for Orthodox Christians, especially if they come from Protestant traditions determined to find a Bible-verse for everything, to look for patterns of Orthodox worship in the Bible. But historical facts are stubborn things, even when they prove inconvenient to one’s argument. And the fact is that historical Christian worship owes precious little to Old Testament patterns.

What does this all mean? What connection then do we have with the Old Testament? And why did the Church decide to follow a secular approach to buildings and clerical clothing rather than a religious one?

The Church does have a connection with the Old Testament, but it is mediated through Christ. That is, our direct connection is not with the Old Testament tabernacle, shrine, sacrifices, and priests, but with Jesus. All the Old Testament realities find their fulfillment in Him. He is the new tabernacle, the new Temple, the new dwelling place of God. His execution on the Cross is the new sacrifice. The priesthood of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment not in the Christian clergy, but in Christ’s high-priesthood in heaven. A priest by definition is one who offers a sacrifice, and so technically there is only one priest in the Church, and that is Jesus. The term “priest” is applied to the Christian liturgist (originally the bishop, and only later applied to the presbyters) by a kind of poetic metaphor: the bishop was the one who presided at the church’s worship, making anamnesis of Christ’s one and only sacrifice, and so sacrificial language came to be applied to this liturgical memorial. But all the Old Testament liturgical practices pointed not directly to Christian worship, but to Christ.

Thus Orthodox Christian worship is based upon a radical discontinuity with the Old Testament. It did not take the Jewish Temple worship and make it Christocentric. It did not take the Temple worship at all. It took Christ. Christ fulfilled these old realities and transcended them, and Christian worship is heir to this fulfillment and transcendence.

Jewish worship, like pagan worship, was essentially religious. That is, it consisted of what Paul called stoichea, the building blocks and elemental concepts found in all religions—things like the distinction between clean and unclean, holy day and secular day, consecrated ground and secular space, priest and layman (see Galatians 4:9-10, Colossians 2:20-22). All these principles, all religion, were both fulfilled in Christ and transcended. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said, Christ is therefore the end of religion, and such religious concepts bind us no longer. We now belong no longer to the world with its stoichea, but to the Kingdom of God. That is why the church chose the secular basilica as the model for its buildings, and why its clergy chose to dress in normal, non-religious attire. Christians no longer need religion. We have something far better: we have Christ, and in Him, we have all the realities of Israel’s sacred history. That not only beats the Jewish temple and its priesthood. It also beats the passing fads of places like Willow Creek.

[Note: The blog mentioned in this article may be found here http://orthodoxbridge.com/orthodox-worship-versus-contemporary-worship/]

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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