What follows is the text of a class from a series on Living the Christian Life in the World Today. This class was given on October 11, 2006 at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS.

Tonight’s topic is Liturgical Life. When I put this first series of classes together, I basically knew what the goal of the classes would be. And I basically knew what I wanted to do with each class, and with this series as a whole. Except for this class. It’s difficult to talk about the services of the Church, for some reason. But I think we’ll be able to reflect on the purpose of Orthodox worship this evening. I’d like us to think about “why do we have worship in the Church,” “why is it important,” “why should I be there to participate in the worship of the Church?” So, similar to last week, this is a sort of broad and introductory type of look at the liturgical life of the Church.
It’s also important for us to understand each service—what is the meaning of what’s happening in the service, what’s the structure of the service. These things are important so that we can enter into the service and participate in the offering of the service to God. So probably at the first of the year we’ll have a series of classes specifically to study the individual services in depth. Fr. Schmemann has a very pertinent comment—that often we don’t care to study and learn about the services, we don’t know the services like we should, and it’s because we have a wrong approach to what the worship of the Church is meant to be.
But tonight, we’ll look at worship in general. Beginning with the wrong approach to the services of the Church. Fr. Schmemann’s comment is that we don’t care to understand the services because we go to Church to be observers. To watch the service. And we go for “spiritual experiences.” For what we can get out of the service. We often view worship as an escape from the drudgery of daily life. We see the services as an opportunity for an injection of grace into our lives. And then we go back into the world to struggle and exist until the next time we gather in the Temple to worship. Until the next time we get together for a spiritual experiences.
This way of thinking betrays a mindset that identifies the Church with Her worship. In other words, the thought that the Church is the gathering of Her members in worship of God. And this just isn’t the right way to understand the Church. I’ve even made statements similar to that when talking about why Church services are an important part of the life of a Christian. But this idea turns the Church of Christ–the Body of Christ, the Bridegroom of God–into nothing more than a cult of ritual. If the Church is no more than Her worship of God, if She is nothing more than the services we offer, then it’s basically the same thing as paganism, just aimed at a different deity.
The Church is not simply made up of Her worship. The Christian life is not just about worshiping God in Church. The Church is the living Body of Christ. The people of God are Her members, we make up the Body of the Church, a Body enlivened and guided by the Holy Spirit. The worship of God is a function of the Church. It’s not what She is, it’s what She does. Our worship expresses the nature of the Church—it expresses the life in Christ that we live. In fact, we could even say that worship is the life and purpose of the Church, its what She does because it’s what she’s here to do—but its not the Church herself. [I hope this distinction makes sense—the Church is the members of the Body of Christ, what they do is live the Christian life and offer worship God]
And why is this understanding so important? If our worship is our Church, then we simply come together to experience God and recharge for daily life. The worship would really be self-sufficient and an end in itself. And we think like this sometimes. But since our worship is something we do as a living Body, it has a very different impact on our individual lives. We come into the Temple, gathered as the people of God, to express our life in Christ through our services. Our worship is an expression of the Church, a missionary outreach, God’s love brought into and directed toward the world. It witnesses to the kingdom of heaven, to the good news of salvation and new life in Christ. It’s not a break from the world—it’s a transformation of the fallen into the transfigured. We don’t come for an experience, we come to be transformed, and to go into the world spreading this transformation. Spreading the Good News that God has come into the world and made Himself known to mankind. That He offers us new life, free from sin and death and the drudgery of day-to-day existence.
This is why the worship of the Church is important. It manifests the eschatological character of the Gospel. (Eschatology refers to the end times, for us the Second Coming of Christ specifically) The worship of the Church plunges us into life with an eschatological character—life focused on preparing for Christ. The early Christians expected Christ to come at any moment—and this tension and expectation is expressed in the services that we celebrate in the Temple of God. This is why it’s so important for us to understand what’s happening in the services. So we can live this transformed life. Otherwise, we end up forced to simply be observers, and not participants. The services are not offered by the priest, their led by the priest. But the worship if offered by the people of God. We all con-celebrate together in every service. The prime example is the Liturgy—we all gather to offer ourselves to Christ. We all offer the sacrifice. Just before the consecration of the Eucharist, the prayer of the priest asks for the Holy Spirit to descend on us, and upon these gifts here offered. Transforming the bread and wine into the Body of Christ, and also transforming us into the perfected Body of Christ. A priest can’t serve alone. It takes the Body to offer worship to Christ. We are all participants in the worship of the Church. This is why we must come, and why we should long to understand—so we can participate in offering worship to God. It’s what the Church does. And how can we be transformed by the worship, if we don’t understand?
Now, as an aside, you can’t take this too far. If I don’t exactly understand what’s happening, or if I can’t quite hear the reader, or if the service if offered in an language I can’t understand…this doesn’t mean that I can’t participate and so I’m wasting my time. I’m coming to offer myself to Christ. I’m coming to be transformed. Sometimes you hear this idea that you shouldn’t pray in Church—but there’s no reason that we can’t pray the Jesus Prayer or the Psalms in the Church. We enter into the life of the Church, and we should be free to roam a bit within these confines. Like the Father’s of the Church say, paying attention to an entire service is virtually impossible—our minds wander. But at least we can pray, at least we can reign our minds in enough to only wander on the things of Christ, and not thinking about trivial issues unrelated to our lives in Christ.
If we understand the worship of the Church in this way—as a function of the Body of the Christ that transforms us, and sends us into the world to transform Creation—our being in Church takes on a new importance. As often as we can, we should worship in the Church. All of creation worships the Creator—all of the things that we think are so important that keep us away from Church, are not nearly so important. We’ll miss Liturgy to catch up on work or sleep. We’ll take a little vacation from Church when things get a bit hectic in life. We’ll so easily miss gathering with other Members of the Body to commune and be transformed by Christ for things that have no real significance. It’s imperative for our spiritual health, for our growth in the life in Christ, that we re-think our priorities. [And this is not meant to be any type of chastisement or analysis of Church attendance, but a fresh look and reminder of why we gather together so often to offer worship in our Temple. We’re easily distracted in this life, and we need constant reminders of what is important, and why, and we need to be called to repentance and re-organization often, or we’ll just continue to careen off-track.]
This is just an introduction to the topic of the worship of the Church, but I pray we’ll be able to delve more into understanding our services together in the coming months. The worship of the Church is Her public expression. Her public prayer. After a one-week break for Fr. Michael’s talks next week, we’ll pick back up with discussing private prayer. We’ll have one week on the importance of prayer, the purpose and a bit about the rule of prayer in the home. And the second week we’ll talk about preparation for the sacraments through prayer.