I try not to write too much here about my own journey in Orthodoxy and its impact on my spiritual journey. For me, the two are intertwined, but that it not everyone’s path, and I prefer to spend my time discussing things that may be of greater application. Yet, last Sunday during the Divine Liturgy I began to see that the liturgy was not only a form of worship of God by the Church, but a lesson in the nature of God for the people.
The Eastern Orthodox liturgy is without dispute the oldest form of Christian Worship in use today. It is hard to accurately judge how long it has been in use. If we consider that its current form, that composed by St. John Chrysostom, could not have been composed before the late 4th century, then its basic form, with a few variations, has been in use since say 400 A.D. or about 1600 years, give or take a decade. Of course there is also evidence to support the conclusion that it is even older than that, and that at least elements of its form can be traced back to the 1st century or even before the birth of Christ if we consider its Jewish roots. So, it has been around a long time. We can also safely conclude that it has not substantially changed since the 14th or 15th century, and hardly at all since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
I once heard a protestant minister attempt to engage one of our church members in a debate on Orthodox worship, calling it ossified. Of course, one has to consider the source. Coming from a church that uses conventional “contemporary worship” and whose idea of an old hymn is “Holy, Holy, Holy” it probably looks, feels and smells very strange. I suppose from the outside, and in the modern entertainment driven world to which most churches have succumbed, ossified is probably a good word to describe it.
Many of the hymns and prayers of the Orthodox liturgy are the same week after week. The elements of the service that do change from week to week are dependent on the church calendar and recur in predictable cycles year after year. So, there is never any surprise or debate about what the service will be like from week to week. It will be the same as was done last year, in 1912, in 1812 in 1712 etc. etc.
Yet, if we look at it in that way, as just old and ossified, we miss the point. It seems to me that the form of worship of God does not change in the Liturgy as a way of reminding us that God is constant. Actually, even constant is not the proper word. Timeless is the best way to describe this aspect of God that the Liturgy strives to teach us.
We do not really know God, nor can we. But, we do know that God is timeless. God is the same, yesterday, today and forever. God is not bound by time, and exists, to the extent God can be said to exist, outside of time. God belongs to all peoples, all times and all generations. God does not belong to the 21st century anymore than he can be said to have belonged to the 1st century. Who are we, sitting here in 2012, to declare that we have any better idea of what proper worship is than those who lived in the year 412? To proclaim that is the height of arrogance.
It is also arrogant, cultural vanity to proclaim that what worship needs is constant change, freshness and variety, and that anything ancient (or even old) should be discarded. Perhaps what we want is change, for variety’s sake because that is what we are used to in the world, and, quite frankly, simply because we just are bored with church. But, we should consider the theological implications of such a view. Does God change from week to week, month to month, year to year, or based on what form of music, sermon or audio-visual format or presentation software is popular at the time? Of course not.
In this 21st century world our only constant is change. But, when we enter into the Liturgy we are reminded of that which is timeless. When I sing a hymn that has no known author, no copyright date, no period of history or manuscript anyone can point to, then I am joined to a Church that is united in the timelessness of God. I have enough change in my life as it is. A little timelessness once a week is a good and comforting thing, at least in my opinion.
Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.