There are and have been those whose whole Christian life and prayer are, in a phrase of Neville Ward's, the extension of the Liturgy into their seven weekly attempts at living (Ward 1967:17). Liturgy is fixed and authoritative. It was so in the beginning in those rudimentary forms we mentioned above, which co-existed with a great deal that was immediate, spontaneous and extempore. The earliest Eucharistic prayers were probably composed by each individual bishop. It was before long necessary to have set forms in each centre of primitive Christianity to guard against heresy and ensure catholicity and the essential elements. Ever since, liturgy has carried the imprimatur of the Church which devised it, whether it be a rite of Jerusalem, or Antioch, Alexandria or Byzantium, the Roman Missal or the Book of Common Prayer. It rests ultimately on the 'givenness' of the Gospel, mediated by scholarship and the meeting of appointed minds, not on individual experience or personal preference. Its aim is to unite diversities of temperament, age and Christian understanding, to make possible 'common prayer', which embraces not only the Church throughout the world but the Church throughout the ages and, as C.H.Dodd said, 'reconstitutes the crisis of our redemption'. When the formularies of the liturgy are used in private prayer, it means that religion is being seen not as 'what the individual does with his solitariness', but as a means of deliverance from the loneliness of the spiritual conflict.
This is universally true, though as the historic event of Jesus Christ moved out into the Roman world and its cultures, it was interpreted in terms very different from those of its origins and influenced by the bewildering variety of religions with which it came into contact even though they were its rivals and largely to be opposed. The need for Christian worship to go underground through danger of persecution at some times and places, and the constraints of a way of life in conflict with social mores resulted in the Church seeming anti-social. Were Christians not 'atheists' (rejecters of the gods) in their abstention from public religious activities? Pliny, the Governor of Bithynia, writing to the Emperor Trajan around 112, was puzzled because their worship and their meals together seemed to be harmless, yet he felt constrained to punish them. Later, Justin Martyr gave an account of Christian worship to defend it from charges both of sedition and of indecency (Bettenson 1943:3-6; Jasper and Cuming 1980:17-
21). But Christianity did acquire some of the features of a mystery religion, its faith expressed in clandestine and exclusive rites, which by the fourth century, when Christianity was officially recognized, had reached an awesomeness that was 'spine-chilling' (Yarnold 1972). The encounter of Christianity and other cultures has influenced liturgy and spirituality from the beginning, not least as the Church broke out of Europe, to India, Latin America and Africa.
The notion of absolute and general fixity in the whole range of liturgical phenomena even in the period of the Counter Reformation is valid only in terms of official curial policy. For the living Church, whether in Europe or elsewhere, it is more fable than fact.
Nevertheless, liturgy has been a great preservative of continuity and identity. Though forms and appurtenances and interpretations have come to differ astronomically over the centuries—the Latin High Mass seems a long way from the Upper Room, or from a Congregationalist Lord's Supper—and controversies have raged unto death, certain elements have never been lost. There is always some link with the Institution narrative.
The Liturgy (i.e. the eucharist) is the centre of the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. There is a story of the 1920s of a young Englishman who after a visit to Mount Athos was accompanied on a hill walk to Salonika by one of the elderly monks. Overnight they stayed at country inns where they had to share a bedroom. Neither morning nor night was the monk seen to pray or engage in any devotions. In the end the young man's curiosity could not be restrained and he made bold to ask the monk why he had omitted so essential a duty. The old man seemed surprised. He pointed out that he was a member of a community which offered regular daily prayer in the Liturgy and offices. When he was in the monastery he participated to the full; when he was not, the prayer went on just the same (Hankey 1937:147).
That is an extreme case. The Orthodox Liturgy presupposes a correlation between personal devotions and corporate worship in the community. The former are both the preparation and the sequel to the latter, but, as Georges Florovsky wrote (the italics are his),
Prayer is intrinsically subordinate to sacraments. It is possible only on the basis of our sacramental incorporation into the body of Christ, through Holy Baptism. Accordingly, the ultimate 'encounter' is realized also in a sacramental way, in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. All 'private devotions' must be directed towards this sacramental goal.
(Mother Mary and Ware 1969:34).
The eucharist is the ultimate mystery and is itself the most perfect and intimate union, more than the sum of individual experience and sense of the presence of God. It comprehends the whole Church, both on earth and in heaven. The Liturgy is the weekly entrance of the Church into the Kingdom, to eat and drink with Christ at his table.
Secretly, unseen by the world, 'the doors being shut', the Church, that 'little flock'— to whom it was the Father's good pleasure to give the Kingdom (Luke 12:32)— fulfils in the eucharist her ascension into the light and joy and triumph of the kingdom.
This is eschatological rather than mystical in the Western sense, the communal anticipation of the consummation of all things, God's final triumph in Christ, the new heaven and the new earth, rather than the union of the individual with God.
No Orthodox theologian would describe the Christian assembly, young and old, gathered together on a Sunday morning, as 'partners in learning' or regard worship as a 'learning experience'. Contrasting Eastern with Western worship, Aidan Kavannagh has said that it 'tends to be less cerebral and more open to movement, sense experience, contemplation and individual initiative'. The East is 'iconic'; the West 'pictorial'. 'Pictures are about meaning. Icons are about being' (Kavannagh 1984:4). The Christ of Orthodox spirituality is not predominantly the Christ of Gethesemane and Golgotha, as in the West, so much as of the Transfiguration: and as we reflect his Divine radiance, 'we are changed from glory to glory' (2 Cor. 3:18).
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