On the first and third Mondays of each month, I will be answering readers’ questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. Today’s question is: Why are there so many rituals and what do they mean? I will try to answer that as simply as I can in one blog post, but I will not be able to address everything and every ritual.
Growing up Protestant evangelical, I think I always looked down on ritual. I thought that when the things Christians did became ritualistic, our relationship with God was at risk. We were just going through the motions, but not truly cultivating a relationship with Him. That was why we prayed extemporaneous prayers and came to kneel at the altar and only had communion once a quarter. Every interaction with God had to be new and different than the last interaction. We could not fall into the trap of empty repetition.
I think that the point of this was meaning. The idea was that one should mean her faith. Both believing in God and worshipping Him should be acts that speak deeply to one’s heart. How will you know if you really mean your faith? By feeling something. Worship is supposed to move you. It is supposed to stir something up inside of you that will catapult you toward God. If you cannot feel your faith, do you really mean it?
Yet Orthodox Christians believe that everything they do has spiritual meaning. Orthodoxy takes away the constant need to feel something, because we are always doing something. Orthodox writer Jim Forest wrote, “One of the odd things that has happened to prayer in much of the western Christianity . . . has been the drastic erosion of the physical dimension of the spiritual life.” We believe that one’s spiritual and physical lives are deeply intertwined. Liturgy means “the work of the people.” Worship, then is not an experience as much as it is an act. We do not take the consumer approach of “What will get out of this today?” but instead we focus on “How will I enact my faith today?” That is why there are so many rituals in liturgical worship: every act is a way of worshipping or drawing near to God.
I suppose the biggest ritual in any liturgical church is having communion every Sunday. (I could write an entire blog post on this, so I’ll try to just say a little bit here.) We have second century documents that tell us that the early church engaged in this practice as well. In Orthodoxy, every Sunday is viewed as a “little Pascha” or “little Easter,” so it makes sense that we would remember Christ’s death and resurrection every time. Also, Orthodoxy emphasizes the incarnation – that God became one of us, so we can become like him. We celebrate that each Sunday as we take communion – that the Creator of the world became flesh and blood, bread and wine – he clothed himself in earthly elements. And yet he was also God, divine, holy, which is why we believe that earthly things can be made holy. We take Eucharist as a way of offering our earthly selves up into God’s holiness. I don’t see it as meaningless; in fact, I look forward to the part of the service when I get to take communion. Orthodox Christians fast completely before a liturgy, so I am physically hungry, but I am also spiritually hungry for Jesus.
Crossing ourselves is another ritual. Orthodox Christians cross themselves with the thumb and two fingers pulled together to symbolize the Trinity, and the other two fingers folded down on the hand to represent the dual natures of Christ. So even in this small movement, we proclaim our beliefs. We cross ourselves anytime the Trinity is mentioned. Most Orthodox Christians also cross themselves when entering a church and venerating an icon.
In Orthodoxy another ritual is all the prayers. Pre-written prayers can often seem foreign and meaningless to believers who are not used to liturgy. If I am praying a pre-written prayer, I am not truly meaning it in my heart! one might argue. Yet just because there are pre-written prayers doesn’t mean that one can’t pray a personal extemporaneous prayer to God: one certainly can! But the beauty of pre-written prayers is two-fold: first, we don’t have to try so hard. When it gets difficult to pray and we can’t find the words to say, we have words right there ready for us. I don’t have to make up some elaborate, beautiful prayer for God. I can grab a prayer book and say the prayers that my Orthodox brothers and sisters are saying. This leads to the second blessing of pre-written prayers: We pray them together. When I pray, I don’t pray alone, because thousands of Christians before me have prayed these prayers, and thousands of Christians right now are praying these prayers, and thousands of Christians will pray them in the future. I am in the midst of this enormous body of Christ, and one way I can join with others spiritually is through common prayers.
Incense or censing is another common ritual in liturgical churches. This ritual comes from the verse in Psalms that says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2.) We actually have a beautiful Orthodox hymn with those words as lyrics. Incense, therefore, is a physical reminder of our prayers going up to heaven. The use of incense was actually a Jewish tradition that Orthodoxy and some other churches have continued to use in worship.
In our church, the priests and deacons are doing a bunch of things at the altar during the liturgy as well. I don’t know what all of them are, but I know that they prepare the communion and say a lot of prayers. They even say prayers when putting on their vestments! Most of these prayers and actions are written in our service book for laypeople to read. A lot of the prayers are prayers of humility, acknowledging God’s holiness and asking for his forgiveness and strength. Some of the prayers are for the congregation. I actually really like that because in evangelical churches I only heard the pastors praying out loud during the service, but I had no idea if they were praying privately or not. I’m sure some of them were, but in Orthodoxy I know for sure that the priest is constantly praying throughout almost the entire service.
I have to admit that sometimes, it does get boring. There are Sundays when I think, “Do we really have to pray this many prayers to worship God?” Orthodox priest and blogger Father Stephen Freeman wrote, “If your church isn’t boring, it’s probably modern.” I love that. It just goes back to the idea that we go to church to do the work of worship, not to get something.
Yet I find that I often do “get something.” There are times during liturgies that I am truly moved. I find a rich spiritual beauty in Orthodox liturgy, prayers, icons, and hymns. When I was still Protestant, I began to notice that all that had to happen to get the Spirit moving was playing Just As I Am over and over paired with a fervent altar call. I began to get suspicious when I felt something toward God: was it a true feeling, or were the music and the environment manipulating my emotions? Perhaps that was cynical of me, but today if I feel something during worship I am more likely to believe that it is authentic.
I no longer am afraid of going through the motions, because I believe that the motions nourish my faith. This is such a body/soul, physical/spiritual faith that when I don’t go through the motions, I feel disconnected. I miss them. The physical practices help grow my spirit.
**For further reading, I suggest the book Evangelical is Not Enough by Thomas Howard. Though the title is a bit contentious and it is not an Orthodox book, this was the first book that really explained liturgical worship to me in a way that I could understand coming from an evangelical background.