If you read last week’s post in this series, you know my musical metaphor: Orthodox worship is to jazz as Western worship is to a singer-songwriter concert.
There are several individuals and groups which, like instruments or sections, pick up important themes in turn, transforming each theme and adding to it.
On your first visit it might seem chaotic, but if you hang in there, you can learn to understand and enjoy the interplay.
But wait,” you say, “I need something to clue me in to the basic shape of the Liturgy. What’s the order, the flow?
I feel your pain.
That’s a very Protestant question. We in the West always expect the service to have a clear order. We try to make it simple, understandable to even the most unchurched first time visitor. If worship leaves anybody confused, we feel like we’ve been inhospitable. We think of it as evangelism — and that is a very good thing.
Drama vs Narrative
We Protestants like a straightforward narrative structure. How straightforward?
In some evangelical churches the service has a simple two-part structure: a time of singing prepares for a time of teaching.
In my mainline denomination worship is a bit more complex, but it unfolds in an order that narrates our faith experience, encountering the God revealed in Scripture:
- We “gather around the Word,” with praise, song, and confession.
- We hear the Word proclaimed, with the Scriptures read and preached.
- We respond to the Word, declaring our faith in Creed and song, in prayers and through offerings.
- We experience what we call the “sealing” of the Word when we (sometimes) celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- We are sent out with the Word into the world, in a charge and benediction.
Each service tells you the story of a basic genuine experience of the faith as an encounter with the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In case you might not pick it up intuitively, we put it in the little bulletin you are given at the door.
Protestant worship is linear, with a clear and graspable pattern. It tells the story of the Christian faith in a nutshell.
In Orthodox worship it is much harder to find a single narrative line. That’s partly because there are actually several time lines unfolding within the same service.
Consider just the music that the choir leads.
- There is an eight-week cycle of hymns for Sundays (and for every day of the week).
- Then there are hymns sung throughout each season of the Church Year (Advent, Lent and the rest).
- A third cycle is hymns that are sung just one day each year to commemorate whatever saint or saints are remembered on that day.
- Plus there are a couple hymns that are sung at every Liturgy.
Less Narration, More Action
But still, I think I can help you out. The Liturgy really does make sense. You just have to give up looking for a narrative line. Instead you need to watch a drama unfold.
Drama? I mean physical action. Keep your eyes on the guys in the robes (and unless you are at a convent, it’s going to be guys). They will do a lot of marching around.
Once you know what the action is about, you’ll know the most central things about the Liturgy.
First you will see the priest or deacon swinging a golden incense burner. Behind the iconostasis he will swing it toward the altar table, and when he comes into the nave he will swing it toward the icons and the people.
He is enacting a piece of biblical drama.
The Psalmist prayed
May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2 NIV. 140:2 by the Orthodox numbering).
And in Revelation, in John’s vision of the heavenly throne room, the four living creatures and twenty-four elders fell down in worship, holding
… golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8 NRSV)
When you see the drama, you begin to catch the meaning. Rather than just being startled by the smell, watch and remember: this is the way Scripture portrays prayer and worship.
There are two bigger points of dramatic movement in the Liturgy. Both are called “entrances” — one “little” and one “great.” Each one embodies the message of the gospel in a different way.
The Little Entrance
The “Little Entrance” happens in the first half of the Liturgy, which is called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. The core action here, in the midst of the hymns and prayers, is the reading and preaching of the scriptures, especially the Gospel.
So what is the drama of the Little Entrance?
- The priest will pick up a large book, the Gospels in gold covers.
- He or the deacon will carry it around the altar table and out into the nave through the North door of the iconostasis.
- A large or small troop of deacons and acolytes will lead the way and follow behind, carrying a cross, candles, and fans.
- They will eventually go back through the iconostasis.
But what I want you to focus on is this: the dramatic action shows the Gospel – Christ is coming out to you.
The whole good news starts with Jesus, the Word of God coming from heaven, and living in our midst.
One of the most important commentators on the Liturgy, St. Germanus of Constantinople (d. 733), described the Little Entrance this way:
The entrance of the Gospel signifies the coming of the Son of God and His entrance into the world… (On the Divine Liturgy, par. 24)
The Gospel books are where we meet him and they are themselves counted as the Word of God. As Germanus puts it about the reading of the Gospel,
The Gospel is the coming of God, when He was seen by us…. He appeared visibly as a true man. (par. 31)
So the drama enacts coming of the kingdom of God, Christ drawing near. And then, if the church is following the ancient order, there will be a sermon, making that Gospel all the more clear and understandable.
This whole action is for you, even as a visitor — not just for the Orthodox. Jesus comes to us all and he is to be proclaimed to all.
The Great Entrance
The “Great Entrance” is in the second half of the Liturgy, known as “The Liturgy of the Faithful” because in the early Church only baptized Christians could remain in the room for it. This is the portion of the service where the Lord’s Supper is celebrated — and even today, if you are not a member of the Orthodox Church you won’t be able to receive the sacrament.
However, in our enlightened age you can stay and see the drama. (So rather than concentrating on feeling excluded, maybe you can rejoice that we all got a status upgrade.)
Here again in the Eucharistic liturgy the Gospel drama gets enacted.
- The priest will pick up the bread and wine prior to their consecration.
- He will carry them around the altar table.
- He will bring them out through the North door, led and followed by deacons and acolytes, into the nave where the congregation stands.
- The procession will go through the congregation and back through the doors.
As St. Germanus put it, this procession and the hymn sung at the time represents the saints, the righteous, and the angels
… who run invisibly in advance of the great king, Christ, who is proceeding to the mystical sacrifice, born aloft by material hands. (Par. 37)
What is the message of the drama of the Great Entrance? It is the gospel again — in the Eucharist Jesus comes to us, to save us, to unite us to himself.
It is the same message as when the Gospel book came to us, only now it is more focused: those who have received Christ the Word in faith now are to be joined to him in his Body and Blood.
So What’s the Big Deal?
You may find yourself asking what the big deal is with all this parading around. Well, think of it as a different way of embodying the message than you are used to. More on that in my next post.
For now, try to wrap your mind around the message of the very biblical dramatic action.
- Our prayers go up as incense.
- Jesus comes to us in the Gospel.
- Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist.
Once you see those three things happening physically in the process of worship, you have a place to focus. You can make sense of this whole, very foreign service.
There is more to it. If you start reading the ancient and medieval commentaries on the Liturgy you will find them emphasizing a variety of other layers of meaning.
And that is as it should be. I mean, if you are participating in the activity of God’s heavenly throne room, you are stepping into mysteries beyond human capacity for knowing. You shouldn’t expect to get the whole thing, and certainly not all at once, the very first time.
It is rich. It is complex. It is not user friendly. There is a learning curve.
But what in your life that is worth holding on to is simple and straightforward from day one?
- Your vocation?
- Your art?
Why should relationship with the God of the universe be less complex?
If worship is the business of heaven, why not take the time to learn?
This post is part of a series on how to have a good first visit to an Orthodox church. Click here to read from the first entry. To continue with the next entry, click here.
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Fr. Dustin says
For those who are really interested in worship – east or west – I highly recommend the books of Fr. Alexander Schmemann; especially, “For the Life of the World,” “Of Water and the Spirit,” and “The Eucharist.” They are gems of Christianity.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks for adding these suggestions, Fr. Dustin! Schmemann is wonderful.