I’d like to explore in this posting two terms that key off of one another. They are both integral to understanding Orthodox worship and the role that hymnography plays in it. The first term is communal. As a product of American evangelical Protestantism, the communal nature of life and salvation wasn’t stressed as much as individual responsibility. It was stressed. I was brought up in a body of Christians that believed that the Church was an integral institution, and, unlike most evangelicals, that the Church was visible. Accepting the Orthodox faith was truly a completion of my up-bringing in ways more specific than my Baptist or Pentecostal fellow-Orthodox. But it wasn’t stressed to the degree that Orthodox Faith teaches.
There is a saying, evidently from the Latin theologian, Tertullian: “unus Christianus, nullus Christianus” – “one Christian is no Christian.” I won’t attempt an exegesis of that statement here or anywhere. Obviously it can only be taken literally in a certain way. A solitary Christian finding herself in the middle of Antarctica is not thereby condemned! Even if she is the only confessing believer alive in the world, she is not, in fact, solitary. To be a Christian is to believe in the “communion of saints,” which happens to include all the righteous from all times and places together with the angels, and, if I understand things aright, the whole of God’s creation, which includes plants and animals.
I think, then, that the focus of this dictum is me and how I look at and think about myself as a Christian and a human being. It’s not “just me and Jesus,” a 1970s-type statement that I think has all but died out even among evangelicals. It’s so obviously wrong. As a believer, I belong to a “communion,” a communal body of fellowship and mutuality. Which brings me to another dictum: No one is saved alone but one is lost alone. The theologian, Khomiakov in his book The Church is One, section 9, says “We know that when any one of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He is saved in the Church, as a member of it and in union with all its other members.”
It’s probably true that when I sin, I sin because I’ve lost within myself my identity as a member of the Body of Christ. I’ve stopped functioning as a member and started functioning in isolation, which puts me at the mercy of my impulses and fears – my passions. Thus it is said that Hell is the loneliest of places. But when I am saved, I am saved together with — in communion with — the angels and saints, my fellow brothers and sister, the whole of creation.
This communality is not just a mental recognition or an attitude of the heart. It is a reality in the Church’s life which, in the Orthodox Church, is lived out liturgically. Some of you will already know that the word liturgy derives from common work and in the ancient world referred to public, civic service. In the Church, our common worship is liturgical; we do it together. It expresses our common faith in “one Lord.” In the Church, our common prayer and thanksgiving is the root of all other activity, the very ground of our common effort.
The worship of the Church in daily prayer is grounded in time, and in the celebration of the sacraments, the mysteries, it ushers us into the realm of God’s time. This worship images out the communal life of the Church and expresses itself in thanksgiving and praise, penitence and holiness. We pray together words that have a shared meaning, and make gestures that have a shared understanding. We partake of substances of this world that lead us together into a greater depth of holiness. That we individually are not the same and don’t understand things at the same level and aren’t at the same proximity to God in our personal holiness is accepted. But these things are shared. Holiness and wisdom as well as humility and sacrifice radiate out and touch all. I benefit from your growth in holiness, and you from mine.
Thus it is that our communal life is primarily a liturgical one. The Church house is the theater in which we share the words and actions of our Faith, and the Liturgy itself is the script by which we share its content.