The True Meaning of Liturgy

I must have prayed and participated in and celebrated in hundreds and even a thousand liturgies in the 30 years since I began investigating and learning about Orthodoxy, then became a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and then became a priest. I have prayed in many different situations and circumstances. I have had the blessing of praying with His Holiness Pope Tawadros and hundreds of other priests. I have prayed in beautiful churches filled with hundreds and thousands of people. Sometimes the sound of the choir and congregation singing has been of a heavenly quality, so that I feel myself already in eternity.

But there have been many more occasions where the singing has not been in tune, or is rushed. Where only a few are gathered together, and where we are using either a borrowed church building, or the decoration is not complete, or not in accordance with the iconographic Tradition. I have prayed in great churches and in small chapels. I have prayed with hundreds and with only a handful. I have prayed with outstanding music and with the most humble of praises. I have celebrated as a priest with the greatest organisation in the sanctuary, and with various degrees of disorganisation.

Over the last 30 years, praying as an enquirer, a member of the congregation, a Reader and Subdeacon, and now as a priest, I can reflect on my experience and see that I have had a variety of attitudes, and am only now starting to really understand what the Liturgy is truly about. At the beginning of my experience I could only see the outside of things. It was very different from anything I had participated in before. I came from an Evangelical background, and all liturgy was strange to some extent, but also moving and beautiful from the first services I attended. Especially as I became exposed to Orthodox Liturgy I found that sometimes I was engaged and uplifted, and at other times I was tired, found it difficult to concentrate, even became bored. The external aspects of Liturgy were very important. The place where I was praying was important to me. The sounds of the prayers and singing was important to me. The reverence and precision of the priest and servants was important to me. If these all came together then I thought that I had experienced a “good” liturgy, and I found myself moved.

But if things didn’t go to plan, if the building was distracting, if the singing was of a less uplifting quality, if things seemed to go wrong in the sanctuary and in the organisation of the Liturgy, then I didn’t feel the same, even though the same prayers and praises had been offered, and the same gifts of bread and wine had been placed on the altar to become the Body and Blood of Christ. When I thought in such a way it was easy to judge every experience of Liturgy by such external criteria. And I know that many of us do this every time there is a service in the Church. What was the chanting of the priest like? Was it as good as Father X or Father Y? What is the iconography like? Was it in a proper style or was it only Western pictures? What was the choir of deacons like? Did they know what they were doing? Or was it chaotic, disorganised, and disruptive? Was the Church full of people, or half empty? Was the Liturgy better than somewhere else or worse than somewhere else?

These are all ways that we think about Liturgy, and how we judge if we enjoyed it or not. We ask what it did for us, and what feelings we had, and what the atmosphere was like. I asked those questions too. But I don’t ask them anymore.

Of course I do think about how the Liturgy should be celebrated. I do think about how I can celebrate the Liturgy better. I do have strong views about iconography, and about lots of things. But none of these considerations have a place when we are standing in the Liturgy in prayer and praise. None of them have any consideration when I am standing at the altar and the Word of God descends among us and becomes present for our salvation. Indeed if I am thinking about how the Liturgy could be different while I am present in it, then I am not participating in the Liturgy at all.

This is how it is. The Liturgy is not the externals that we see and experience. They are the structure of our worship of God, and the means by which we encounter him. But we do not experience God more if the singing is better or the decoration of the Church building is more attractive and inspiring. These can colour our experience but they do not create it, nor will they sustain our experience of the Liturgy if this is all we have. If all I experience when I attend the Liturgy is great singing then I have not participated in the Liturgy at all. If all I experience when I attend the Liturgy is great architecture and decoration then I have not participated in the Liturgy at all. Nothing has happened that could possibly change and transform me. I might as well attend a choral concert by Mozart or Faure, which certainly move my emotions, or visit a ruined Abbey or Monastery, which also fills me with deep feelings, or spend time in a collection of great art in one of the Galleries and be inspired. These are the same human emotions which are moved in a Liturgy when the building and choir is beautiful. But they are not the same as the movement of the spirit, and an encounter with God.

It is a good thing to offer the best we have to God, but that does not mean that the best we have to offer is only found in the external, and important, aspect of worship, the quality of singing and decoration and organisation. I have learned that when I stand at the altar and hear the contributions of the choir and the congregation behind me, this is of great value in the sight and hearing of God, whatever the quality, if it is offered from the fullness of hearts desiring to give God all that they have. I have prayed the Liturgy with folk who have aging and broken voices, and I have often reflected that this singing is more precious to God, being all that a person has, like the two mites of the widow, than the very best of singing that is not offered from the fullness of a heart turned to God. This does not excuse any lack of care in singing. It does not take away the need for practice and attention to what we are doing. But it does mean that beauty is found in the heart offered to God, and not only or mostly in the external quality of what is offered.

When I stand in any Liturgy, I know that I am gathered with this particular group of people and we are offering the best that we have to God. The mix of languages may vary from service to service depending on the make up of the congregation who have come together. The quality of singing and service may vary, depending on the ability of everyone as they stand in prayer. But if we are offering our prayers and service from our hearts then nothing more beautiful could be imagined. This requires us to take a different and more spiritual attitude to the Liturgy. It requires us to see what is going on in the interior not the external. When my little grandson draws me a picture, I do not compare it to the greatest art in the most prestigious galleries, and tell him that his work is uninspiring and of a poor quality. On the contrary, I receive it as the greatest work of art in the world, because it is the expression of his love for me. I am truly and deeply moved because of what his picture represents, not merely emotionally moved by what I see.

The Liturgy is the place where we meet Christ. He comes to us in his humility. We offer Bread and Wine, no great banquet of the finest foods. He transforms them into his own Body and Blood in humility and allows us to handle and consume him for our salvation. This heavenly and saving feast has been celebrated by Christians in homes, in caves and tunnels under the ground, in forests, in prisons. It has been celebrated by small groups of the faithful, sheltering a priest in danger of his life. It has been celebrated by congregations whose churches have been burned and destroyed around them. The essence of the Liturgy is not the external quality of the place and the sight and sound, but faithful hearts turned towards God even in the most humble circumstances.

If we worship from the heart, so that we encounter God truly, and are also in a beautiful place, then we are blessed indeed. But the encounter with God is the essence of the Liturgy, and this can take place even in a stable if we are spiritual in our thinking and understanding. This encounter with God requires us to see beyond humble circumstances, if that is where we find ourselves, so that we discover that what matters most is that God is present. When he is present everything is transformed. But if we only have our eyes set on the external circumstances then we will fail to perceive him. We will say that nothing has happened, nothing has moved us, there was nothing impressive and inspiring there for me. If we say such a thing when God himself is present then we have not understood and not participated at all.

We find Christ present to save and transform us when we concentrate on the words of our prayers and praises with attention, and offer our own part as the congregation, or deacon, or priest, with attention and warmth. When we look at the humble circumstances, as if they were all that was present, then we fail to see the heavenly environment which becomes manifest to those who have eyes to see. Indeed, there is a danger that in the place with fine singing, and beautiful decoration, we can be deceived and distracted and think that our emotional response is the same as a spiritual one. As if being moved by music is the same as being moved by the Holy Spirit.

I look around at the congregation, and I do not see them as a mixed bag of people, some of whom can sing better than others, some of whom are paying more attention than others. I do not consider it a “good” liturgy if there are lots of people. But I give thanks for every one who has put aside the cares and responsibilities of their life to be present for this holy occasion. I do not concern myself with how this one or that one conducts themselves in the Liturgy. Their hidden struggles are known to them and I must not judge them. Rather I am glad that they give me the blessing of praying with me, whatever the difficulties they face, whether young or old. When I put aside all thought of judgement I understand that the other essential characteristic of the Liturgy, after seeking the spiritual experience of encountering Christ, is that experience of worshipping God together with these people. Not wishing they were other people. Not thinking only of their own faults. Not comparing them with others, but finding in them an increasing sense of loyalty and faithfulness to these people, this congregation, for all of its humility and disfunction at times. There are always times to think how the life of a community can be improved together, but in the Liturgy itself, as I do not wish I was somewhere better, whatever that means, so I do not wish I was with some other and better people. I am grateful and glad only to be here. And it is with these people that somehow I will find a unity with them and with Christ in an increasing manner.

The heart of the Liturgy is the encounter with Christ and with each other. This may take place in humble circumstances and expose our own weakness. But it is when we put aside all reliance on pleasant circumstances, beautiful decoration and majestic singing that we discover whether or not we encounter Christ. If we say, I cannot encounter Christ here, then we will never encounter him anywhere. His Temple is made up of fleshly stones in human hearts. Hidden in a cave, he becomes present. In the corner of a prison cell, he becomes present. In a burned ruin of a Church, he becomes present. And if he becomes present there then he will become present wherever we gather in faithfulness to him, and to the community in which he has placed us, however humble.

In the dark, with just two other people, I experienced God himself at Tasbeha on Saturday evening. I could not be distracted or deceived by the circumstances. It was just me and God, me and two others and God, stripped down to the basics and as real as it could be. It is often like that for me in the Liturgy, when I pray with 10 or 20, or 50, or 100. Thank God, over these 30 years I have learned not to be distracted by the circumstances in which I worship, whatever the quality, but to seek and find the reality, God himself present among us as we gather together to meet him and find unity with each other. With attention and warmth in the prayers and praises, and in our own congregational responses, we discover the presence of God. Lifting up our voices in unity, we discover a sense of loyalty and family with each other. This is the true meaning of the Liturgy.

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