Monday, May 5, 2008

Liturgy and History

Father Stephen Freeman of St Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN gave shape to some things that I've been trying to say in his recent blog post. He was speaking of history, and using liturgy as a picture, but let's just point at both here.

The first liturgy I participated in as an Othodox Christian, that is with a liturgical role other than as a layman, was the service in which I was ordained to the Holy Diaconate. Indeed, in the course of that service, I was tonsured a reader, a taper-bearer, ordained as a subdeacon, and later as a Deacon. I had a service book in my hand, but I quickly began to notice that the book was only marginally helpful for someone trained in a linear fashion. For an Orthodox liturgy is highly non-linear. Many things happen at once. They are all written in the book, but while you're looking at what someone else is supposed to be doing or saying, you yourself may very well be required to do something else and say yet another thing. At some points, it will seem like the entire liturgy is like juggling six or seven things. That none of them are dropped is nothing short of amazing. I would like to say that nothing was dropped during that service of my ordination - but that would not be the truth. Newly ordained as I was, I lost my place, almost hopelessly, and was rescued by a very kind Proto-deacon.

Father Stephen's words captured both the frustration of some of my relatives, used to the linear approach of protestant/Western liturgy (first, we do this, then, we do that) as they are plunged into the rich tapestry of the Divine Liturgy, in which many things happen on many levels involving all the senses. It also describes the fascination of my grandchildren, who are often caught up in this very same fabric, trying to take it all in, rather enjoying it all!

I think Father Stephen's comments also underscore the value of participating in all of the Divine Liturgy, rather than "dropping in" for parts here and there. When one is "in and out" one cannot be involved fully, but it rather like one standing on the sidelines. So it is that we encourage those who visit to visit for a "month of Sundays." In a "linear script" one always knows what's coming. But in the fullness of the Liturgy one has to be there.

Such an understanding causes us to understand history in a different fashion, also. Consider these thoughts:

This becomes the problem of history - at least for me. It is often told in a linear fashion ("discuss the three main causes of the Civil War," the history test asked). But such an accounting never really does justice to the truth of any event. Every telling, if it is told truly, has a "multivalent" character - it means more than it says because nothing is every simply linear.
This is true of Scripture as well, I think. A linear (purely literal) reading is too thin, not nearly rich enough to convey the fullness of truth. Thus Scripture rightly has a liturgical context (especially). The story of Jona and the Whale, read on Holy Saturday (as it is in the Orthodox Church) takes on a completely different meaning because it is read in that context. Thus Scripture is never just Scripture (a book to be read), but is a reading to be heard in the context of the worshipping community and in that context far more of its fullness is revealed.

As one considers these things, one thinks of the frustration faced by one on the witness stand, answering questions with "yes" or "no" that really cannot be answered in such a way. Think of the time you had the multiple choice quiz in which none of the choices really answered the question. Or, think of the times that what was said meant one think in the context of being said, but could be interpreted just about any way outside of that context!

The Blessed and Holy Trinity would give us the fullness of life, a fullness that goes far beyond our capability to understand or quantify. How often we ungratefully turn it away because we tend to live two dimensional lives! And how often do we approach the Divine Liturgy with blinders on, or attempting to fit it into our time frame, rather than coming open to receive fully and completely the Gifts and Mysteries and Life offered?

Our prayer is at once "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, the sinner!" and "Glory to God for all things!"



Fr John W Fenton said...


I agree with Fr Stephen (and you) that Orthodox worship is, by nature, non-linear. However, I would add that a linear view is not the property of "Western worship" but of that uniquely rarified form of liturgy that has grown up in the Protestant tradition. In other words, the non-linear Orthodox liturgy includes the Western as well as Byznatine forms.

Ezekiel said...

Point well taken, Father John!

From our (Lutheran) background, I'm reminded of Deacon Gregory Roeber's comment regarding Luther's wholesale deletions from the Anaphora as an example.

Of course, I could also note all kinds of things in my own history ... but that has been stated in other places.

Christ is Risen!

DebD said...

It is interesting that you should bring this up today. I just began a blog discussion about the Trinity. Which ,even though this entry was particularly about worship, the idea that Trinity cannot be fully described in one paragraph or less. Perhaps the minimalistic approach is not a Western Christian idea, but its certainly an American one.

Also, when I first read Fr. Stephen's article and just now your thoughts on it, it reminds me of a conversation with a certain brother-in-law ;) who likes to quote Fr. John (whom I see has commented). He was explaining why we preferred Western liturgy over Byzantine saying that we seemed to go around in circles. I thought it was rather curious because one I rather like the "going around in circles part". It reminds me that God is outside time and when we enter the Service we are no longer on our time. In my mind (and I could definitely be wrong), God's time is not a line but a bubble.

Thank you Ezekiel, these are good thoughts.

Ezekiel said...

"Going around in circles?" In my mind, that doesn't show much understanding of the Divine Liturgy.

I'm continually amazed at the depth, beauty, and so much more as we are joined in the Divine Liturgy.

On the Sundays that I'm away, I really miss being present!

Christ is Risen!
Truly He is Risen!