I was going to write about Prayer next in this series, but I think I’ll play with the order a bit to make things more cohesive. This is a series of posts about the Orthodox Christian life.
The Divine Liturgy is the service on Sunday morning in an Orthodox Church, but that’s not the only day it can be served. Liturgy can be served almost everyday. In local parishes, it is usually served on Sunday’s and Feast Days. It is not merely a worship style. It is not merely a prayer service. The Divine Liturgy is the service of the Eucharist (Communion). It is the core of the cycle of services, because it is the core of our Faith. Christ died and rose again. In the Divine Liturgy, we commemorate that as we commune with each other and God.
I remember Communion as a child. I was blessed to grow up in a church that did celebrate Communion every week, which is unusual in the Protestant world. The shiny, brass trays would be passed down the rows, one containing small, Tic-Tac sized bread wafers and the other containing small cups of grape juice. I was very excited when I was baptized, because that meant that I could actually partake of these elements. Then and into adulthood, I tried hard to make something of that moment. To appreciate the symbols and what they stood for. To have my heart and mind embrace the sacrifice of Christ. It was quite difficult most of the time. The flow of the service unintentionally distracted from contemplation. Basically, Communion was that short moment between the singing and the sermon. It was too jarring of a transition for it to be much else.
The Divine Liturgy’s intention is to celebrate the death, burial, and Resurrection of Christ. Communion is not just a part of the service…it is the service. The first section of the Liturgy was designed for all those seeking information about this faith called Christianity. We pray, we read Scripture, we listen to a sermon. It’s a time of careful and deliberate instruction. In present times, all are welcome to stay the entire Liturgy, but in ancient times, visitors and those still learning were asked to leave before the Eucharist. Actually, they were required to leave. Words still remain in the Liturgy today, testifying to the weight of this moment.
“The doors! The doors!” the Deacon cries out. In the Ancient World, Christianity wasn’t common, popular, or even legal in most places. In fact, it was a dangerous thing to be a Christian. Christians were persecuted, tortured, and killed frequently. For their belief in God. For their belief in the Resurrection. For their belief in the Eucharist. All outsiders were made to leave and not watch the moment of the Eucharist. The doors were sealed and guarded, for in many cases, partaking of the Eucharist could literally get you killed.
But why? What is in this act that you could be killed for? I could never imagine anyone being killed for the Communion service of my youth. It was a symbol. A remembrance. I definitely couldn’t imagine someone being willing to die for it. But the blood of the martyrs cries out to me. This Eucharist…it is no symbol. “Take…eat…this is my body.” Not a symbol. Real flesh. “This is my blood.” Not a symbol. Real blood. The flesh and blood of Christ. Just like He said.
In the Orthodox Church, we do not try to explain how this transformation takes place. We do not need to know. All we need to know is that Christ said it…that’s enough.
In John 6:56, Christ says that “he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? He says this as part of a long talk with His disciples. An uplifting promise that He will be with them and He, the Bread of Life, will nourish them. But their response is not one of joy or peace. Instead, they are confused and troubled. Some even leave Christ, never to follow him again. All because He said they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Would they respond so dramatically, if it was just a symbol?
In the word Communion, I am called to Truth. There is no compartmentalization in the Orthodox Life. There is no Sunday life over here and workday life over there. No God in a safe little box to tie with a crafted bow of control. Communion with God is a total offering. Christ was sacrificed not just so I could avoid punishment. It was not a legal transaction. It is not that I was one day guilty, and then the next I choose to believe in Jesus, so I am innocent. It is not black and white. It is not human reasoning. There is no way to be rational about salvation. It is not a formula. God is not confined by the limits we place on Him if we say one must do this or that to be “saved”. He saves who and how He wishes. He did not give His Son so I could get out of jail free. He gave His Son so I could be with Him. All of me. To commune with God in the truest sense. Not a meeting or a chance encounter. A communion. To become one with God and more like Him day by day.
What does communion mean? It means a total transformation. Not my life in separate sections, fitting God in when I remember Him or need Him. My life is no longer my own. The old man is dead. I am a new creation. To commune is to give myself to the Creator, the one who fashioned me and nurtured me and loves me. I have no desire to be me. Me is a vague and formless notion of false hopes and inaccurate assumptions. I want instead to be in God, to be His. I cannot be God, but I will never stop trying to be like Him as much as possible. In Him I move, and breathe, and have my being, as Paul says. Every move. Every breath. Every moment to be. To just be. Not to dictate where and when and how God will affect my life. Not to say no, even when I say yes. But to be…in God to be.
The Liturgy also reminds me that the Christian story is not a story where I am the main character. When I first came to the Orthodox Church, I was fairly annoyed at the set up. No stage with big screen T.V.’s to make it easier to see. No sound system to make it easier to hear. Instead, the priest had the seeming audacity to not even face the audience. No, his back was turned almost the entire time, and you couldn’t even see him anyway, because he was hidden behind a wall with a door. To top it off, sometimes a curtain was drawn in front of the door. How dare they! How dare they not cater to my comfort, my interests, and my likes. How dare they not make this environment “seeker friendly”. How dare they be so infuriatingly mysterious.
Orthodoxy is about mystery. In every movement of the Church, I am gently…and sometimes forcefully…reminded that Christianity isn’t about me. My life, my salvation…all of it is done in community. The priest stands at the altar, and yes, his back is to us, but it’s not because he’s ignoring us. It’s because he’s joining us. We all face together to the East, to the rising Sun. We all offer our prayers together to the God who made us. I look around me at my fellow Christians, and I am constantly reminded of who my neighbor really is. It is these people who struggle and praise along with me who I must love.
The altar is a sacred place, and what happens there is not a show. I do not need to see it. I do not need to hear every word. What is happening is a deep and glorious mystery, and if I don’t allow myself to enter into that mystery, I will never see God. God cannot be explained. He cannot be grasped in my stumbling, human manner. If I could fully explain Him, why would I need Him? I stand in church and face the altar. The gift. The sacrifice. I lay myself and my worries and my frustrations and my pain on that altar. I humble myself before the mystery that I cannot grasp. I sacrifice my will and choose to believe in what I do not understand.
The priest prepares the gifts. In the chalice, he places the bread. The Lamb whose side is pierced. The names of all of us. Then he adds the wine mixed with warm water, the warmth of the Holy Spirit. He comes from behind the altar, and we all draw near. The first is a tiny baby, newly baptized. Orthodox Christians do not reserve baptism for a certain age. We baptize our youngest. We are all members of the Faith. There is no magic age when God can be grasped. We all struggle till our dying moment to do that. We all make a new decision for Christ every day. Every day is a choice. Follow God or follow the world. Choose God or choose my own reasoning.
Since we baptize our babies and promise to raise them in faith, we do not withhold the great gift of the Eucharist from them. As they grow, they desperately need the nourishment of the Bread of Life. They need God. They need the Eucharist. Father takes the tiniest spoonful of bread and wine and wiggles it into the mouth of the sleeping babe in his mother’s arms. My eyes tear up at the beauty of this moment. A mother dedicating her child to God. A community supporting its newest member. A testament to the truth that life in Christ is not to be put off or saved or pushed back. Life in Christ begins at birth.
The rest of the congregation files to the front of the church, all receiving Communion from the same chalice and the same spoon. There is one God. One Christ. One altar. One sacrifice. We are one body. We commune as one.
As I approach the chalice, I cross my arms over my chest in repentance and bow my head. God is an all consuming fire. How can this be? How can I partake of His very flesh and blood, so unworthy that I am? I cannot comprehend how grateful I am for this gift. All I do is repeat to myself the prayer of the Theotokos, recounted in the Gospel of Luke, when she is told that she will bear the Son of God. “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” I give myself to you, Lord. I am your handmaiden. Commune with me this day. Feed me with your life and breath. Nourish me with your love and peace. I am your handmaiden. I serve you with my every moment. I worship you with all of my being. Forgive my many sins, Lord. I am not worthy to partake of this preciousness. Make me worthy! Lo, this fiery coal of You has touched my lips, may it take away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Do not forsake me, Lord. Remember me, O Lord, in your Kingdom. May I always remember You. I am yours. Take my life. All of it. Commune with me, Lord. Commune with me. Always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Next post: The Orthodox Life: Part 3 (Feasts and Fasts)