Liturgy


In case anyone is interested, I have recently uploaded two files of Orthodox liturgical music in Afrikaans. The Kontakion in Tone 3 can be found here and “All the generations…” from Good Friday Vespers can be found here. They come from CDs that Father Zacharias has produced and I have uploaded them because I am busy working on a new website for Bedehuis Bethanië which I’ll link to once it has been made public – which I hope will be reasonably soon!

Update: I’m afraid that those links aren’t working, but you can listen to them here.

Implied in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, and axiomatic as well in the modern Liturgical Movement, is the basic principle that what we do and what we say in corporate worship directly influences our beliefs, our attitudes and our daily behavior. That influence is indeed one of liturgical worship’s intended effects. Liturgy teaches. Liturgy is designed to affect life. Bad liturgy therefore has bad effects…

A Call for Liturgical Renewal. The Liturgical Effectiveness of Pews

A couple of months ago I thought of posting something that asked: What is it about Protestants and pews? By strange coincidence, in a fairly short course of time as I had been investigating some South African Christian blogs, I had come across three rather negative references to pews from Protestant Christians. And what struck me was that although they all used pews as a symbol for something negative, none of them seemed to question the inevitability of pews. From an evangelical-cum-conservative perspective pews seemed to symbolise routine and lack of commitment (those attending church were seen as simply “pew warmers”) while from a more liberal-cum-engaged in the world perspective, pews seemed to symbolise a “churchiness” that was separated from the world. And yet nobody seemed to see what to me would have been the obvious solution: if pews are such a problem, then why not get rid of them?

I thought of responding to this at the time but, as so often happens, I didn’t get to it. But I also realised that contemporary Orthodox praxis often doesn’t present that much of an alternative to the Protestant and Catholic reliance on pews. Moreover, this touches on so many issues, including the role of the body in worship, and the impact of modernity on us, and much of my own reaction is a gut level one rather than one of carefully thought out theory. I know from my own experience that worshipping in a church without pews or chairs affects me at a level that is deeper than just theory but which is not so easy to explain. And I also know that being expected to sit during prayers that one should stand for hits at something deep in my being.

Anyway, this week someone posted a link to the above article on Facebook that expresses this better than I could and that is definitely worth reading. And someone else posted link to this fascinating paper given by the Anglican John Mason Neale in 1841 in which he argued

For what is the HISTORY OF PUES, but the history of the intrusion of human pride, and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of GOD? a painful tale of our downward progress from the reformation to the revolution: the view of a constant struggle to make Canterbury approximate to Geneva, to assimilate the church to the conventicle. In all this contest, the introduction of pues, as trifling a thing as it may seem, has exercised no small influence for ill; and an equally powerful effect for good would follow their extirpation.

One could think of the liturgical year as if it were a picture of the services and feast days during a cycle of 365 days, from September to September: in short, the liturgical year could be reduced to a practical diagram, to a calendar. The liturgical year is, in fact, expressed as a calendar, but simply to identify it with a calendar would be totally inadequate. One could also say that the purpose of the liturgical year was to bring to the minds of believers the teachings of the Gospel and the main events of Christian history in a certain order. That is true, but this educational, pedagogical, function does not exhaust the significance of the liturgical year. Perhaps we could say that its aim is to orientate our prayer in a particular direction and also to provide it with an official channel which is objective, and even, in a certain way, artistic. This, too, is true, but the liturgy is more than a way of prayer, and it is more than a magnificent lyric poem. The liturgy is a body of sacred ‘signs’ which, in the thought and desire of the Church, have a present effect. Each liturgical feast renews and in some sense actualises the event of which it is the symbol; it takes this event out of the past and makes it immediate; it offers us the appropriate grace, it becomes an ‘effectual sign’, and we experience this efficacy to the extent that we bring to it a corresponding inclination of our soul. But still, this does not say everything. The liturgical year is, for us, a special means of union with Christ. No doubt every Eucharist unites us intimately with Christ, for in it He is ‘both He who offers and who is offered’, in the same way that every prayer, being the prayer of the members of the mystical body, shares in the prayer of Him who is the head of the body and the only one whose prayer is perfect. But, in the liturgical year, we are called to relive the whole life of Christ: from Christmas to Easter, from Easter to Pentecost, we are exhorted to unite ourselves to Christ in His birth and in His growth, to Christ suffering, to Christ dying, to Christ in triumph and to Christ inspiring His Church. The liturgical year forms Christ in us, from His birth to the full stature of the perfect man. According to a medieval Latin saying, the liturgical year is Christ Himself, annus est Christus

Father Lev Gillet, The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, 1-2.

… the holy Church is like a man because for the soul it has the sanctuary, for mind it has the divine altar, and for body it has the nave. It is thus the image and likeness of God.  By means of the nave, representing the body, it proposes moral wisdom, while by means of the sanctuary, representing the soul, it spiritually interprets natural contemplation, and by means of the mind of the divine altar it manifests mystical theology. Conversely, man is a mystical church, because through the nave which is his body he brightens by virtue the ascetic force of the soul by the observance of the commandments in moral wisdom. Through  the sanctuary of his soul he conveys to God in natural contemplation through reason the principles of sense purely in spirit cut off from matter. Finally, through the altar of the mind he summons the silence abounding in song in the innermost recesses of the unseen and unknown utterance of divinity by another silence, rich in speech and tone. And as far as man is capable, he dwells familiarly within mystical theology and becomes such as is fitting for one made worthy of his indwelling and he is marked with his dazzling splendor.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy, 4, in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)(SPCK / Paulist, 1985), 189-190.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues this eighth chapter of The Compassion of the Father on theology and language by showing the shift that occurs in the language used for God between the Old and the New Testaments. Whereas the Old Testament had used human attributes as a way of apprehending the mystery of God,

the coming of Christ overturns all these evaluations. The Old Testament spoke of God “wearing the light as a robe” (Ps 104:2), but the New Testament speaks about God who is light. Whereas the Old Testament spoke of the paternal tenderness of God in the image of human tenderness – “As tenderly as a father treats His children, so Yahweh treats those who fear Him.” (Ps 103:13) – the divine fatherhood of God in the New Covenant becomes primary, and human fatherhood derives from it. (136)

While this reversal does not belittle the biblical anthropomorphic language, it shows that the heart of the theology of language is the divine humanity of Christ. This divine humanity is continued in the Church as the Body of Christ, and especially in the sacramental understanding of the Church.

The concept of “sacraments” surpasses the framework of seven sacraments established wrongly in the Middle Ages. In the third century, Origen envisioned two sacraments: baptism and the Word of God. I would add the icon as well (both as a sacrament and having therefore a sacramental function). The Word of God, read, commented on, meditated and preached in the Church has a sacramental function and an important liturgical and doxological character. (136-137)

Father Boris then proceeds to distinguish between the Word of God, the word to God and the words about God that he had discussed in the previous chapter. However, there is a link between these words, and we see that

certain formularies of conciliar decrees concerning the Trinitarian or Christological mystery are found literally in the liturgical praise … If praise and liturgical prayer are pre-eminently theological, theology is doxological, meaning it derives from praise and communion. Fr Sergius Bulgakov maintained that he had taken his entire theological vision from the bottom of the eucharistic chalice. Fr Cyprian Kern said that singing in the choir was the best school of theology. (137)

This morning I was planning to go to Liturgy in Utrecht. I’d been to the church there once before, knew how to find it and the time of the service and so, in retrospect rather foolishly, didn’t think to look up their website before I left. And that resulted in me standing outside a locked and deserted church, where, for whatever reason, there was obviously no Liturgy. Having come all the way, it seemed rather a waste to just go home again and so I decided to try the Protestants. I was partly motivated by wanting to see inside the historic Dom Church, and partly because I have been conscious in recent months of how ignorant I am of Dutch Protestantism and had been thinking that it would good to attend a Protestant service sometime.

This ignorance is more specifically an ignorance of the Dutch Reformed Churches than of Protestantism generally. I once studied with Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, to say nothing of having once been an Anglican. But because of various linguistic, geographical and political factors in my South African upbringing, I never had much contact with the Dutch Reformed Churches. And, given their role in propagating and upholding apartheid, I never had any motivation to seek contact with them, despite the real admiration I had for the prophetic leaders they produced such as Beyers Naude and Nico Smit. The only N.G. Kerk service that I can remember attending, although there may have been others, was in my final year of high school on the day of the vow, which was then a quasi-religious public holiday that commemorated the victory of the Boer armies over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. I had just completed a history research project on religious influence on Afrikaner nationalism and was curious to see what an N.G. day of the vow service was like. Whether because this was the Natal south coast rather than the heartland of the old Transvaal republics, or whether because by this stage (1983) the bonds of ideology were beginning to weaken, the service did not contain anything particularly remarkable. But it did reinforce my image of the N.G. Kerk – of a staid service, dominees (ministers) who wore white ties, the centrality of the pulpit in the church, and a communion service only once every three months.

Now I did know that contemporary Dutch protestants would be considerably different from the image I had of the N.G. Kerk. (And I’m also somewhat aware that the N.G. Kerk itself is in search of its own identity). But going into the Dom Church this morning I had no idea what to expect and felt about as clueless as western Christians who encounter an Orthodox Liturgy for the first time. I was late and entered during the homily and slipped into a seat in what I thought was a sort of annex near the pulpit. But I was really totally disorientated, for the pulpit, which I had assumed to be the central focus of the church, turned out to be at the back of the church. The seating was based on the elliptical model of two monastic choirs between the two poles of ambo and altar. The ambo, with a candle burning next to it, was just in front of the pulpit, and like it was facing East towards the altar. Moreover, the dominee was not wearing a white tie, but was clad in a black cassock and a green stole and, at a glance, could easily have been mistaken for an Orthodox priest. And after the homily, the action shifted towards the front of the church, to the altar, and the basic structure of the Eucharist that followed was fundamentally the same as an Anglican or Catholic Liturgy.

It was clearly a carefully prepared liturgy, people were welcoming, and there was a reverent spirit, far more so than one would find in some Catholic parishes. During the liturgy of the Eucharist everyone stood in a large circle, or rather oval, which they stayed in until after receiving communion which was passed around. When I heard that this was what one did I planned to leave before they went into the circle, as my experience elsewhere has been that it is often difficult not to receive communion in situations like that. But the circle started at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer and I was rather curious to see how it would proceed. And it was actually loose enough to make it easy to step back and not receive communion and nobody had a problem with that. The anaphora was probably not quite adequate according to Orthodox or Catholic standards, but I have known Catholics to use worse ones. In fact, if I were to be critical of their liturgy, it would not be because it is Protestant, but rather because of a certain vagueness of language that too-easily facilitates a transition from revealed religion to human religiosity – but that is a topic that is by no means confined to Protestants and which I intend writing on soon.

And so it was quite a disorientating experience. I have no idea how typical it is of Dutch Protestants, or what Calvin would think of it. And I found myself wondering whether this is part of the fruit of the ecumenical movement – that processes like BEM have actually led to Protestants discovering deeper sacramental roots and engaging in serious change. And then I can understand a little of their hurt that Catholics and Orthodox will still not recognise their sacraments. But it also made me realise that the issues dividing Christians are not as simple as they once were, and that the new divisions are often much more subtle and more difficult to name.

I jotted these points down sometime last year. While I am now in a different space, I have been very conscious in the last few years of needing to understand the deeper roots of the current Catholic crisis. I don’t intend to get into polemical discussions on Catholicism, and the points mentioned here are by no means exhaustive and could be further developed. But, especially in the light of some of the rather interesting discussion that has been going in response to me earlier muddled thoughts (which I’m afraid that I haven’t been keeping up with all that well – I think that this is the first time that there has been so much discussion on my blog, some of it very insightful), I offer them for what they’re worth.

In an article published in 1965, the late Augustine scholar Frits van der Meer expressed some of his concerns about what was happening on the Dutch liturgical scene. Now I have in recent years become more aware of the extreme nature of Dutch liturgical disintegration, but despite this I was shocked on reading this article to discover that it happened so early on. One moment one had uniform Tridentine Masses everywhere and only six months later priests were making up their own Eucharistic canons comprised of “part Hippolytus, part Taizé, part sucked out of their own thumbs”. Had this been happening in 1975, I could, if not exactly have understood it, then at least have half expected it, for the practices that are apparently widespread today must have started sometime and the late 1960s seem a likely time for such disintegration to begin. But I find it shocking that it could have happened so suddenly and this raises questions for me about the state of the Church before this time. If the foundations crumbled so rapidly then there must have been something seriously wrong long before this.

Van der Meer blames this disintegration on what he terms “the unconscious betrayal of the clergy” who succumbed to the tyranny of “a powerful invisible demon: the fashion of the day”. Pastors who had once faithfully followed the fashions of the First Friday or Fatima, now panicked at the thought of being zealous for something that was no longer fashionable. He may very well be right, but that simply begs the question of how such superficiality could have been so widespread among the clergy.

This brings me to the second article, an interview with Père Michel van Parys, the former abbot of Chevetogne, in which he discusses the social and ecclesial background that accompanied the liturgical renewal and that made the failure of the liturgical movement almost inevitable. He speaks about the discontinuity and break in the transmission of tradition and argues that “the tradition is disrupted when it is only learnt in an intellectual manner and no longer celebrated … if there is no repetition in the liturgy and no memory and no beauty, which are fundamental human dimensions, then the liturgy is reduced to banality. It achieves a certain success but that success does not last long.”[1]

The third was an article on spiritual paternity by Dom Silouane, a French Benedictine of the Abbey of St Wandrille.[2] In it he made the point that the patristic renewal has resulted better access to the works of the Fathers, but that this has largely remained an academic phenomenon and has not really been accompanied in a renewal in patristic spirituality.


[1] Michel van Parys. Verzegelde Bronnen Borrelen Weer. Over monastieke spiritualiteit en oecumene. Bonheiden, Abdij Bethlehem, 1996. 23-26.

[2] Buisson Ardent. Cahiers Saint-Silouane l’Athonite, 7. 101-114.

Father Alexander Schmemann continues this sixth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, by locating the meaning of the censing of the gifts during their offering in the foreknowledge of what they and we are destined to become, for

it is not “simply” bread that lies on the diskos. On it all of God’s creation is presented, manifested in Christ as the new creation, the fulfilment of the glory of God. And it is not “simply” people who are gathered in this assembly, but the new humanity, recreated in the image of the “ineffable glory” of its Creator. To it, to this humanity, which is eternally called to ascend to the kingdom of God, to participation in the paschal table of the Lamb and to the honor of the highest calling, we also show reverence with the censing, signifying by this ancient rite of preparation, sanctification and purification that it is “a living sacrifice, well pleasing to God.” (118)

A similar foreknowledge is at work in the “hymn of offering” which has a particularly “royal” tonality. While this royal key and symbolism has specific historical roots, we should especially note that

the theological meaning of this royal “key” is rooted above all in the Church’s original cosmic understanding of Christ’s sacrifice. By his offering of himself as a sacrifice, Christ established his reign, he restored the mastery over “heaven and earth” that was “usurped” by the prince of this world. The faith of the Church knows Christ as the conqueror of death and Hades, as the King, who has already been manifested, of the kingdom of God, which has already “come in power.” … From here stems the breakthrough of the Church into the glory of the age to come, her entering into the eternal doxology of the cherubim and seraphim before the “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (119-120)

(more…)

Father Alexander Schmemann continues this sixth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby arguing that it is not the order of the proskomidē that stands in need of cleansing, but rather our understanding of it, and in particular, our understanding of commemoration. Far from being something individual or utilitarian, its meaning is to be found

in referring all of us together and each of us individually to the sacrifice of Christ, in the gathering and formation of the new creation around the Lamb of God. In this is the power and joy of this commemoration, that in it is overcome the partition between the living and the dead, between the earthly and the heavenly Church … in taking out particles and pronouncing names, we are caring not simply for the “health” of ourselves or certain of our neighbours, nor for the fate of the dead “beyond the grave”; we offer and return them to God as a “living and well-pleasing” sacrifice in order to make them participants in the “inexhaustible life” of the kingdom of God. (112)

This offering is real because Christ has already made it his own and it therefore ends with a joyful confession and affirmation.

(more…)

Last night I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with the Dutch railways, in which there seemed to be delayed trains all over the country, resulting in chaos in stations and on trains. Standing in a coach, and slightly frazzled after chaos at the station, I was not really inclined to read the book I had brought with me. So I pulled out my little MP3 player which, given the disrupted state of my life in the last year, has not been connected to a computer for more than a year. I have some patristic texts on it – thanks to Maria Lectrix – and a few old lectures. One of these, David Fagerberg’s paper at last year’s Liturgical Symposium at St Vladimir’s Seminary on “The cost of understanding Schmemann in the West” had particularly resonated with me then, so I listened to it again. There is much that is quotable, but I should really find the printed article before doing more, but here is a taste…

The West tends to think of theology as a mental activity. Probably this is because the people to whom the West gives the name theologian live in the academy. Theology is a science practised in the hall of sciences, and even if an individual theologian is also urged to have faith commitments in his or her heart, and to be active in service to the poor, the only reason for calling these people theologians is because of what they think about. Worship is taken to be either an expression of believe, or an instrument for the creation of belief. And only if that believing requires a tune-up clarification does theology enter the picture. Liturgy is a place to stage the theological content we have deduced and believe. But theology’s origin is not in liturgy, it is in texts and its output is more texts for the next generation of theologians to critique and surpass. As Schmemann says in an early essay:

It is indeed the original sin of the entire western theological development that it made texts the only loci theologica, the extrinsic authorities of theology, disconnecting theology from its living source, liturgy and spirituality.

Schmemann is capable of understanding the term theology in this cognitive way. Of course, you can speak more than one language game. He does so in a definition in his first work Introduction to Liturgical Theology, where he writes: “Theology is above all explanation, the search for words appropriate to the nature of God. That is, for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and experience of the Church.”

But in a journal entry a dozen years’ later, Schmemann uses a different language game:

Pascha, Holy Week, essentially bright days, such as are needed. And truly, that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is here. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It’s all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind.

I think it would be wrong to use this as a brush to paint Schmemann or Orthodoxy as anti-intellectual. Instead, there are two things going on here. First, Schmemann is identifying theology’s home, its native habitat. Theology is more a vision than a cognition. And all that theology would speak to explain in words is here in act, in the liturgical act of the Church celebrating Christ’s Paschal Mystery. Schmemann is not opposed to theological discussion; he is opposed to letting theological discussion ever break free from a vision of the Trinity in action. …

The second thing going on in this quotation is the connection of theology with theosis. The beginning of theology is not the card catalogue, but doing battle with the passions. And the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint. The image of God grows more into the likeness of God. And although Schmemann writes little about asceticism explicitly, he stands in a tradition for which theologia is at the end of an ascetical journey.

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