The Role and Richness of Orthodox Liturgical Texts

I hope that some folks follow my blog partly for occasional comments about Orthodox Christianity, and that some of those are non-Orthodox but interested or open to thinking about it.

I end many blog entries about Orthodoxy with the invitation to “come and see.” That’s not original with me, but neither is it borrowed unreflectively. There are things about Orthodoxy that cannot be described in words, but must be experienced. And to experience them requires hanging around long enough that the sheer shock of something so radically different, yet radically Christian, wears off.

But some people are better at evoking Orthodoxy in words than I am. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is one of them. In 2002, he gave a lecture at the Kiev Theological Academy on “Orthodox Worship As A School Of Theology.” It has recently been posted in two parts (one and two) at Preachers Institute.

The school of Orthodox theology that formed my theological thinking was not so much a theological seminary, academy or university but the Liturgy and other services. The liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church penetrated my mind and heart so deeply that they became, along with the Gospel and the writings of the church Fathers, the main criteria of theological truth, an inexhaustible source of knowledge about God, Christ, the world, Church and salvation.

Orthodox divine services are a priceless treasure that we must carefully guard. Similar services were once celebrated in other Christian communities, but over the centuries they were lost as a result of both liturgical and theological reforms.

I have had the opportunity to be present at both Protestant and Catholic services, which were, with rare exceptions, quite disappointing. Protestant services as a rule are comprised of a series of isolated, incoherent prayerful actions. At first the officiating clergyman (or clergywoman) says a benediction, then everybody opens a hymnal to a certain page and begins to sing. After a pause the clergyman reads a passage from Scripture, then gives a sermon, followed by communal singing, organ playing, etc. The congregation is usually seated, now and then standing in order to sit down again after some time. The services are interspersed with explanations by the clergy, who tell their congregation in which hymnal and on which page a certain hymn is to be found, and whether they should sing it while standing or remaining seated. Such services do not normally last longer than thirty or forty minutes, and in certain parishes even rock music is used, to which the parishioners dance.

One can add that after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, services in some Catholic churches have become little different from Protestant ones. They often share the same lack of wholeness and the same alternation of incoherent, unrelated prayers and hymns.

The liturgical texts used in many non-Orthodox churches, except for the Eucharistic prayers and certain ancient hymns still in use, are often characterized by a low level of theological content: as a rule they contain much “piety” that often borders on the sentimental, and very little theology.

From that, one might — very mistakenly — anticipate a liturgy that is full of academic theological jargon more boring than watching golf on television (or whatever your touchstone is for “boring”). But that’s not how Orthodox theology is.

Liturgical texts are not simply a commentary on the Gospels since, in many cases, they speak of that which the Gospels pass over in silence. I would like to give an example from the Nativity service. The Gospel reading speaks very briefly of Christ’s birth:

“The birth of Christ was thus: after His Mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting everybody to know of this, wanted to let her go secretly” (Mt. 1:18-19).

Much that happened at this event has remained hidden from us. For example, the narrative is silent about Joseph’s personal drama: we can only guess about his feelings and doubts, as well as about the words he uttered to his betrothed when he learned of her pregnancy. Orthodox liturgical texts attempt to recreate in poetic form a dialogue between Joseph and Mary:

Joseph says to the Virgin: Mary, what is this that I see in Thee? I am at a loss, astonished and horrified. Mary, what is this that I see in Thee? Thou hast brought me shame instead of honour, sorrow instead of rejoicing, reproach instead of boasting. No longer shall I endure the reproach of men, for I received thee blameless from the priest of the Lord’s temple, and what is this that I see?

When Joseph, O Virgin, was wounded by sorrow while going to Bethlehem, Thou didst cry unto him: why art Thou languishing in sorrow and confused, not knowing that all that has happened to me is part of the fearful mystery? But now lay aside all fear, knowing of the most glorious events, for in His mercy God hast descended to earth and is now in my womb, taking on flesh. When thou shalt see Him born, as He has willed, thou shalt be filled with joy and worship Him as thy Creator.

One may refer to such texts as “poetic invention” or “church rhetoric”, or one may see in them something more – a perceptive understanding of the feelings and experiences of those whose lives form Sacred History ….

Call those quotes from liturgical text what you will, but if you call them “academic theological jargon,” I’d want to check your DNA for traces of Space Alien. Neither are they fancifully sentimental, like the chapel talk, by one of my (revered, actually) Wheaton Academy teachers, about the teenage couple “Joe and Maggie,” who sounded a lot like Romeo and Juliet except their problem wasn’t parental disapproval, but Maggie’s suspicious pregnancy.

Read both parts of Metropolitan Hilarion’s talk; they can easily be read in ten minutes — with a little time to stop and savor, even.

My slowness of hearing and my 48 years of bad heterodox habits are slowly melting away as I’m privileged, as cantor of St. Alexis parish, to sing so many of these services. I feel strongly enough about it that (when I thought I understood the structure a little and had some crutches to make up for what I didn’t understand) I pressed for us to begin serving Matins before Liturgy on Sunday, even though Matins is very sparsely attended; it adds to my gradual learning by osmosis.

Yeah. Come and see. But this time, I’ll preface that with “after you’ve whetted your appetite with Metropolitan Hilarion’s lecture ….”

4 thoughts on “The Role and Richness of Orthodox Liturgical Texts

  1. Matins as “sparsely attended.” You’re being very kind. I remember Steve’s Orthograph 🙂

    ….one who really misses the opportunity to attend Matins before Liturgy 🙂

  2. If I ever get back to Phoenix – and now that my father in law moved from Glendale, I don’t know why I ever would – I’ve got to look up Steve and buy him a brew.

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