Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, M.Div., M.A.A.Th., is the Rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia Orthodox Church in Mulino, Oregon (Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church).
Joy of Liturgy
When we gather together for the sacrament of the Eucharist, it is not yet the feast in the Father’s house, it is not yet the fulfillment of everything. Thus, we pray in the Liturgy that we may partake of God “more fully in the unwaning day” of His kingdom, but we are also no longer with the pigs in a faraway land. The Liturgy is that moment when, from a distance, we see the Father, He sees us, and our heart is filled with joy and trepidation, and we do not know whether He will accept us even as a hired servant, but we are joyful to be home, and joyful to see the Father, even if from a distance. And the Father, seeing us still from a distance, runs to greet us and to embrace us. We have not yet entered the festal hall, but we are already sharing an embrace, a connection, a communion; we already experience the joy of being together, of being once again one family.
The connection and love which we experience with members of our family is a mystery in every sense of the word. We do not always treat our family members well, and we do not always like them, but we love them, we feel that we are one–one family. On the other hand, we do not love our enemies, even if we try to treat them well, and even if we actually like them. This is easy to illustrate. Someone we love, someone from our own family, may win the lottery or get a promotion, and we feel joy, as if we ourselves had won the lottery. But if an enemy gets a promotion, we do not feel any joy. We are happy enough to fulfill what we think is our Christian duty to help our enemy when he is in need and even to wish him well–albeit, hypothetically. But when he is actually well we are not overwhelmed with joy. So, this is the test of love–to love my enemy, not when he is down, but when he is well. The only way to have this love is to see the basic connection between all humans as members of one human family, to see them not as Others but as Us.
The restoration of the family unity of humans and the unity of man with God can be the only source of true love and true joy. “Pray then like this: Our Father…” “I am the vine, you are the branches…” One family. One living organism. The very act of recognizing the person in front of me as a beloved family member produces joy. “My joy!”–Saint Seraphim of Sarov greeted those who came to him. “My joy!” The Liturgy is the path to this love and this joy, if only we pay attention. Every Liturgy is a “small” Pascha, and the formula of the love of unity is heard in the Paschal stichera: “…let us embrace one another; let us say ‘brethren’ even to them that hate us…” This is the Christian view of enemies: let us say “brethren” even to those that hate us–not “let us help them when they are in need,” or “let us be nice to them,” but let us be one with them, one family. The source of joy of a life in Christ is that life in Christ is nothing less than the coming-together of long-lost prodigals back into one family in the Father’s house.
In his focus on the Liturgy as the basic and most important principle of a Christian life, Father Alexander Schmemann may have been expressing his deeply personal experience. In his foundational work titled The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (SVSP, 2003), Schmemann wrote:
For more than thirty years I have served the Church as a priest and a theologian, as a pastor and a teacher. Never in those thirty years have I ceased to feel called to think about the eucharist and its place in the life of the Church. Thoughts and questions on this subject, which go back to early adolescence, have filled my whole life with joy… (9)
And this was not a careless comment which can be overlooked. In his 1982 lecture on Liturgy and Eschatology delivered at Oxford, Schmemann places the question of joy at the very center of the task of theology:
The joy of the Kingdom: it always worries me that, in the multi-volume systems of dogmatic theology that we have inherited, almost every term is explained and discussed except the one word with which the Christian Gospel opens and closes. “For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10) – so the Gospel begins, with the message of the angels. “And they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy”(Luke 24:52) – so the Gospel ends. There is in fact no theological definition of joy. For we cannot define that sense of joy which no one can take away from us, and at this point all definitions are silent. Yet only if this experience of the joy of the Kingdom in all its fullness is again placed at the centre of theology, does it become possible for theology to deal once more with creation in its true cosmic dimensions, with the historic reality of the fight between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the prince of this world, and finally with redemption as the plenitude, the victory and the presence of God, who becomes all in all things.
Thus, for Schmemann, joy is the fruit of the personal experience of the Kingdom of God, of the immediate presence of God. Love, unity and the resulting joy, according to Schmemann, are to be found in the Liturgy of the Church:
The bread on the paten and the wine in the chalice are to remind us of the incarnation of the Son of God, of the cross and death. And thus it is the very joy of the Kingdom that makes us remember the world and pray for it. It is the very communion with the Holy Spirit that enables us to love the world with the love of Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view. (For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy)
Joy, according to Schmemann, is the very nature of the Eucharistic Liturgy:
Once more, the joyful character of the eucharistic gathering must be stressed. … The liturgy is, before everything else, the joyous gathering of those who are to meet the risen Lord and to enter with him into the bridal chamber. And it is this joy of expectation and this expectation of joy that are expressed in singing and ritual, in vestments and in censing, in that whole ‘beauty’ of the liturgy which has so often been denounced as unnecessary and even sinful. (For the Life of the World)
The reality of the situation in our parishes, however, seems to be somewhat different. Sure, we talk about joy, and some people can be seen acting in what appears to be a joyful manner, especially on Pascha. But day to day, our concerns with the ritual of the service seems to overwhelm the joy of meeting the risen Lord. At best, we feel the emotional joy sparked by the beauty of the singing or by being a part of an excited crowd of people. But the joy of an intimate communion with Christ is not so much what happens when the Church choir takes a fortissimo approach to “Christ is risen,” but what happens in the pianissimo moments. Saint Seraphim of Sarov partook of holy communion in church, but maintained the joy of that communion both on the road back to his hermitage and when greeting pilgrims who came to him on any day of the week and the year. Saint John of Kronstadt wrote of the joy of the liturgical experience which he felt quite outside of the ritual of the Liturgy in his diaries. There was a time in the early history of the Church when Christians received a portion of the Holy Gifts and carried them to their homes. We no longer do this. Perhaps this tradition should be resurrected and transformed into receiving the joy of the Lord into our hearts and carrying it back to our homes and the rest of our lives.
Click here for Part 1 or Part 2 of The Joy of a Life in Christ
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