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A Timeless Liturgy

Reflections on the Millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church

This year marks the one-thousand-year anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest church in the USSR. Around the world Russian Orthodox Christians will gather to celebrate the birth of their church and to rejoice in their history and heritage.

Since many RW readers are unfamiliar with the history, liturgy, and doctrine of this great body of fellow Christians, we thought this would be an appropriate time to take a closer look at the Russian Orthodox Church. We asked Ronald Vroon, a former member of the Christian Reformed Church and a current member of the Russian Orthodox Church, to introduce us to this worshiping family.

When Orthodox Christians gather this year to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Russia, they.will follow the same forms of worship that Russia's first Christians followed in a.d. 988. They will sing the same hymns (though in different musical settings), respond through the same litanies, and hear the same blessings from their priests and bishops.

This uniformity is not an accident. Neither is it part of a plan to re-create a liturgical museum piece in honor of this commemoration. Orthodox Christians will simply be worshiping in a way that has remained fundamentally unchanged for a thousand years.

This devotion to the liturgical forms of the past may seem odd to those who approach the structure of worship as something we can alter or periodically modernize. In the same way, an Orthodox Christian might be taken aback by the idea of a quarterly publication designed to help church leaders experiment with ways of worship. What is there to plan, he might ask, when everything is clearly set out in the rubrics for any day of the year?

I think we are dealing with two mind-sets here. The difference between them is highlighted against the background of a commemorative act like the millennium celebration, an act through which the past is projected onto the present and relived by those who have a stake in it. I would not presume to speak for my fellow Orthodox Christians in explaining our church's love for the ancient liturgies, but as one who has been drawn to the Mother Church of Christendom from the Protestant tradition, I can articulate, I hope, something of what she has to say about worship.

The Divine Liturgy

Orthodoxy refers to her central, eucharistic service as the Divine Liturgy. I am not certain about the origins of the term, but the concept of a divine service, one that is itself sanctified by God, surely has its roots in the way the church perceives herself. If the church views herself merely as a body of Christians who gather periodically in worship, then making changes in the order and content of services to accommodate changes in the tastes of the church's members is perfectly reasonable. But Orthodoxy maintains that the church is equally the body of Christ and that in the act of worship Christ's whole body is expressing itself.

Because Orthodox Christians believe—perhaps more literally and therefore more seriously than other Christian churches—that the body of believers includes Christians of all times and places, the idea of worship across time and space is very important to them. The saints and angels may have their own worship services—and they must be glorious indeed—but they also worship with us. One of the most awesome moments in the Divine Liturgy occurs when the priest prays, "Before Thee stand thousands of archangels and hosts of angels with the cherubim and the seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their wings, singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming, and singing"—and the choir joins in, singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts." The choir members are not singing alone; they are adding their voices to those of the church triumphant.

To put matters simply, then, if the saints and angels are worshiping with us, we would do well to let them have their say—and their song—in the form of worship. This strikes me as paramount in the Orthodox insistence on liturgical continuity. The prayers and hymns that enter into the complex circle of Orthodox services belong to the saints of the Old and New Covenants—Moses, Anna, Isaiah, David, Jonah, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, John—as well as hundreds of post-apostolic saints. The songs of the angels—the few that we know—are also regularly sung in Orthodox churches. These include the Thrice-Holy Hymn, the words of Gabriel at the Annunciation, and, of course, the Great Doxology ("Glory to God in the Highest"). Above all, the Divine Liturgy incorporates the words of the Savior himself—the Beatitudes, the words of eucharistic consecration, the Lord's Prayer, and, of course, gospel readings.

A Cloud of Glory

A second reason for the unchanging cycles of worship in Orthodoxy becomes apparent only in the act of worship. On entering an Orthodox church, one is immediately struck by the synthesis of the material and spiritual environments. The building itself is designed as a microcosm of the universe, the circle of heaven (often including a mosaic or mural of Christ in glory within the cupola) drawn down over the square of earth. "Uniting" heaven and earth are walls covered with icons—images of the saints and the great events of Christian history: the resurrection, the incarnation, the annunciation, the transfiguration, and all the other great feasts. These icons do not merely symbolize and celebrate the presence of God among us; they are windows that open into the church triumphant and universal.

The east-west axis of the building conveys a similar message. The altar, set behind an icon screen on the Eastern side, is located in an area often referred to as the Holy of Holies. Behind the altar one usually finds an icon of the resurrection, fixing the association of the rising sun and the Risen Son.

The forms of worship in Orthodoxy include not only the ordering of hymns and prayers but also the movements of the celebrants and the posture of the worshipers. A typical Russian Orthodox Church will have no pews, because these Christians consider standing and kneeling to be the only appropriate positions to assume in God's presence (except, of course, in case of bodily frailty). And because they regard music as the medium most worthy for praising God, Russian Orthodox Christians sing or chant everything.

In a Russian Orthodox service, everyone is involved in the order of worship. When the priest declares, "Come, let us worship and bow down before Christ, our King and our God," the members of the congregation bow down, physically acknowledging their Master. When the choir sings, "Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense," the priest censes the entire edifice. The hymn "Receive the Body of Christ, Taste the Fountain of Immortality" is repeated as the members of the congregation go to receive communion from the priest.

Words, music, gesture, movements, icons, candles—all are part of the "order" of worship. One senses that God is really present in the church—as he was in the Old Testament temple—filling the sanctuary with a "cloud of glory."

Worship of this type is, of course, an ideal, and Orthodox Christians frequently fall short of it out of carelessness or inattentiveness. But real worship does take place. Heaven and earth do come together at concrete moments. Past and fut