God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
The central activity that happens in a church community is worship. Our parish could actually be called “The Orthodox Eucharistic Assembly of Tampa.” Because this is the only place in our city where an Orthodox Christian can receive Holy Communion. ALL the things we do in our parish can be done elsewhere—we can have youth group meetings in a house, same thing with Bible study. Social gatherings are not unique to the church community—we have plenty of them with our non-Orthodox friends and acquaintances. Community service—that should certainly happen in a church community, but it shouldn’t be limited there. No, the number one thing we do in our church community is worship. We worship is many ways—we celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feastdays, we celebrate the cycle of Lenten services, sacraments like baptisms and weddings, funerals, Paraklesis services, etc. While everyone is familiar with the Divine Liturgy, many of us are less familiar with the many other services that the church offers, each affording us an opportunity to worship. Since worship is so central to our practice of Orthodox Christianity and many of us still struggle to understand the how, where and why of worship, as we seek to be guided “to Thy Perfect Light” through our focus on “worship like the angels,” I thought a short reflection on the how, where and why of worship is warranted.
The first question we should ask ourselves in regards to worship is WHY? Why do we worship? There are several answers. First, worship is found throughout the Bible, going back to Genesis, as a way that people both respect and communicate with the Lord. We worship what we respect—we show reverence for who and what we respect. Worship affords us an opportunity to show reverence and respect for our Creator and for our Savior. It also affords us a way to communicate with God. Worship, however, is not the only way to communicate with God. Prayer is another way to communicate with God that we should be doing on a daily basis. Worship is communal prayer.
In Luke 8:10, Jesus says to the Disciples “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.” In Greek, the word for “secrets” is “mysteria,” which is the same word we use for the “sacraments.” The sacraments are mysteries of God that allow us to see God, to feel God, to taste God. In the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we “taste and see” (Psalm 34:8) the Lord, we touch Christ and Christ touches us. In all the sacraments, the Holy Spirit sends grace on ordinary substances and ordinary people and makes them and us extraordinary substances. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit. A man and woman become husband and wife by the grace of the Holy Spirit. A sinful person walks away from confession without the shame with which they entered because of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The other “why” of worship is that we do it in community and community helps provide encouragement and validation. If I am going through a period of doubt, I’m not left to languish by myself, I have a community that can encourage me to keep showing up as I work through my doubts. I have a community of people who can share with me their own doubts, so that I don’t think I’m the only person who has them. Even in the sacrament of confession, when there is just a penitent and a priest, that comprises a small community. And I know from my experience of confession, so many times my Spiritual Father has told me that he shares the same struggles I do, which makes me feel validated, and valued.
As for the “how” we worship, in the Orthodox Church, we have services that have been composed in a way that is universally accepted. The Divine Liturgy is virtually the same all around the world. When I went to Greece this past summer for a wedding, I was at home in a place I had never been, with clergy with whom I had never served because the “how” of worship is done the same way everywhere. Worship is meant to be an active experience, not a passive one. So in terms of “how” we worship, the first thing I would say is “get involved,” offer the responses to the petitions, sing the hymns, listen to the prayers. Worship is not an act between a priest and the choir/chanter, but a dialogue between the priest and all the people.
And as for the “where” we worship, there are two angles to this. First, we have today’s verse, that “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Jesus said this verse to the Samaritan woman at the well, who told Him that people could only worship in the temple. We can worship God anywhere. Because God is everywhere. He is not only tied to a building. However, in the Orthodox Tradition, we offer corporate worship in the church sanctuary. We have a special place set aside where we worship. We can certainly celebrate the Divine Liturgy outside of a church—with the blessing of the bishop. I have celebrated Liturgy in the hall when our church was being repaired. I’ve celebrated it outside at summer camp. I’ve celebrated it in a cemetery chapel. But these are exceptions. Because worship is meant to be a feast of the senses, we construct churches and cover the walls with icons and holy images so that as we worship, we can see images of the saints and can see what the goal is for life, to become holy, set apart, for God, just like they did. We don’t worship the icons, but we use the icons and other appointments to help us worship.
When people think of heaven, sadly many are ascribing secular activities to heaven—i.e. playing golf, hanging out with friends, etc. Heaven will be continuous worship of God, a continuous standing in the presence of the Lord. Imagine what the multitude of the heavenly host singing to the shepherds sounded like. Imagine now being in that multitude and singing. If the hope is to go to heaven, and if heaven is going to be a continuous worshipping of God, then it is critically important that we worship like the angels, and that begins with continually being reminded of the why, how, and where we worship.
Come, O believers, let us be divinely uplifted, and we shall see God’s condescension to us from on high manifest in Bethlehem. Having purified our minds, let us bring the gift of a virtuous life instead of frankincense, as we faithfully deck the halls of Christmas, with the treasures we have in our souls. And let us cry aloud and sing, “Glory in the highest to God in Trinity! Through Your divine good pleasure was revealed among men, to release Adam from the ancestral curse, in Your love for humanity.” (Idiomelon, 6th Hour, Royal Hours of the Nativity, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: How can we best worship in spirit and truth?