Authenticity in Worship

evangelical worship

“The time is coming – and now is – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.”

Christians must return to this saying of the Lord again and again. We must “examine ourselves” to see if, in fact, we worship “in Spirit and in Truth.” As Orthodox Christians, we must ask whether or not we live out our Tradition in this teaching, this charge. And we must also ask how our Tradition has maintained it. The reason is that, as fallible and sinful humans, we no doubt come up short – again and again. Yet, we confess with the Apostle that the Church “is the pillar and ground of the Truth.” We not only can but must trust that the Church has passed on to us that way of worship – both in outward form and in internal attitude – which allows us to fulfill the Master’s command.

Of the posts I’ve written, this has been the most difficult.  I don’t trust what I’ve written, because the subject is illusive, even dangerous.  But I’ve attempted a beginning, at least.

I’ve attached to this posting a picture which troubles me. It troubles me because it represents a way of worship which I strongly believe is seriously flawed and misguided. It’s not misguided because the worshipers are “heretics” who don’t accept the Blessed Trinity and the true Incarnation of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be troubled. So much.

It is precisely because they do that I’m troubled. (We are often most at odds with those nearest and dearest to us, no?)

I consider such approaches to worship to be inauthentic, not in terms of intent or heart-status.  But the outward manifestation does reveal something of the interior. It must. We are embodied beings, and we live in a physical world. It counts. It matters, not only in the moral disposition of our actions, but in what the exterior manifests and, maybe more importantly, what it cultivates.

What is cultivated in a worship-setting which makes use of digitally-projected images of far-off places? In this picture, a song comparing the action of the Holy Spirit to rain (very biblical: read Joel the prophet) is being sung while the coordinators have projected a picture –a very pretty one – of a forest, no doubt with rain. The assembly is in an auditorium, not a window to the actual world outside to be seen. (They are actually in Texas in July.) What’s wrong with a little mood-setting? And how is that different from Orthodox liturgical mood-setting?

How, indeed?  A very good question, and one which the Orthodox and like-minded Christians ought to ask. Because there is a very real difference between traditional liturgical worship and mere mood-setting techniques. They do cross paths but they are not the same.

Let me illustrate from the Orthodox Tradition.

It is a custom for the lights in the church building to be dimmed for parts of services and raised at other parts.  Usually the raising of the lights occurs when a particular hymn is sung having to do with the light of God being manifest and praise being given.

This use of lights is illustrative and dramatic. It assists the worshipers to have the right frame of mind: penitence or joy. But in those acts we aren’t offering to God dimness and light. We are, in effect, setting a mood.  We coordinate the physical space with the spiritual space: We’ve arrived at a certain point in the service, and we adjust the light of the room accordingly, helping us to ourselves adjust.

Now, when we offer incense, we are not merely setting a mood. Traditional Christian worship understands and supports our physicality. Our minds and emotions and sensibilities often follow our senses. (Which is why the passions are so, so hard to overcome.) When I smell incense, I more quickly get into a frame of liturgical prayer, even humility. It’s very helpful, and the sense I have is not sentimental, though it could be.

However, we offer incense; we don’t just light it. The Copts actually call the morning and evening prayer services “Offering of incense,” after the Jewish custom. This is entirely appropriate. We offer our prayers to God with mouths and hearts and minds, and we offer incense. The incense is just as real as the prayer, and perhaps more trustworthy. The mind wanders, the heart fails, the mouth is impure. The resins of the herbs, however, are quite innocent, and stand with us and speak for us. Even as does the Holy Spirit, who breathed and brooded over this world.

How about icons? Icons do, indeed, set a mood. Anything and everything can and does set a mood. The mood may be helpful or unhelpful. In the Church, we have things which, over time, will train our senses to correctly bend toward the Truth.  Icons may draw someone immediately into a state of prayer and contemplation. Just as often, they may weird people out.  All of us, though, through time and experience, can be moved by them toward God. Because of our trust in the Tradition of the Church, we can know that these icons can move us in the right direction.

Icons are authentic. They represent very real people, events and spiritual realities. Icons teach us about these events and people and make them present to us.  They move us to praise and prayer, gratitude and penitence, and they help form a fitting physical environment for worship.

Icons may or may not be “pretty.” They ought to be beautiful. They ought to be real: actual works of a man’s creativity, actual reproductions of the Church’s Tradition. They might, on the surface, get us to feel a certain way for prayer. In the end, they draw us deeper.

A picture of a forest with rain as I sing about the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity can only offer a feeling of being in that forest. It may be a real feeling. It may be a good feeling. It may link for me the idea of refreshment and nurture, which may be appropriate when considering the activity of the Holy Spirit. But such a link is not made by the prophet Joel. Neither is it made by the Lord or His Apostles. It’s a sentiment that is manufactured for me by the technicians and planners of that event. No matter how good it feels or how connected it all is, it’s sentiment and not prayer. My soul is then trained to link sentiment and prayer, and prayer usually becomes dependent on sentiment rather than sentiment on prayer.

The picture is chosen because it’s the perfect forest with the perfect shade of green at the perfect time of day with the perfect amount of rain. It’s not a storm or at night or in winter. Sentimental pictures such as this excite an idealistic feeling but not one that is grounded in the reality of where we are at the time. We may be moved to gratitude by a rain forest, or to awe by the Grand Canyon, or to prayer by an ocean sunset. All well and good; we should be. But in Christian worship, we are moved by the realities of God’s nature, His work, and His Spirit’s manifestation in His people, not by idealistic scenes.

Another way of thinking of this is that in worship we are moved by the reality of the Kingdom to come made manifest now. The reason for the beauty in traditional Christian worship – a beauty that can be lavishly wrought in a great Russian cathedral or very simply in a small Alaskan village church – is to reveal the reality of that worship to us who probably don’t see it.

In reality, we worship with the angels. Most of us don’t see them. So, we have icons representing their presence. In reality, we enter Heaven and Heaven comes to Earth. Most of us just see the priest who made us mad last week and hear the choir who sings woefully out of tune. So, we reveal the beauty of Heaven with vestments. That obnoxious priest or stupid reader is really a minister of the Kingdom. In temporal reality, we may not feel like praying. We’re distracted by tomorrow’s doctor’s report or a friend’s failure. But the incense rises heavenward anyway, and we know that the “Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.”

The icons, the vestments, the incense, the music – all of these reveal a certain reality. Whatever my state of mind and heart, they don’t trick me into feeling grandeur now, elation then, warmth another time… The deacons, priest and choir director haven’t sat down to choreograph a dance of emotions that illustrate bible lessons. These things, these liturgical objects and gestures are always here. The choreography always goes the same way. There is movement, of course. There is progression. But these realities and truths stay the same, as does God. It is we who move and progress, we who are ready to receive or reject God’s grace now as it is revealed to us in the actions of the liturgy.


About Rdr. John

I'm a musician: I teach piano and am a professional Accompanist (University of Portland). I'm also a music director. I direct the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church choir (Portland, OR), the Francis Street Singers (Community Music Center) as well as for Mock's Crest Productions, which puts on an operetta at the U of P each June. I care deeply about the music and worship in the Orthodox liturgy, and most of my postings will be concerned with that.
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