I want to offer a few more thoughts on Orthodox liturgical life being ordered. For some reason I don’t feel I’ve expressed yet what I really want to say, what it is I sense that needs to be brought out. So, I’d like to proffer two thoughts.
First is, that the order of liturgical life is meant to teach us about the way things are. Not only is there bound to be a certain ritual, whether elaborate (think Byzantine) or simple (think Reformed), because when more than one person need to communicate or do anything together, it must share a framework. The liturgy needs to be in accordance with what is believed about the human person, the gathered community, the entire cosmos, God. The liturgy will teach its observants (May I coin that word?) about “things.” A lack of liturgy – or I should say, a devolution into haphazard liturgy – teaches something. Orthodox liturgy most assuredly teaches rather specifically about the traditional Christian view of “things.”
This was driven home to me this last weekend at my parish. We had our periodic visitation from our bishop, which is always a joyful event. But we get somewhat maxed out on “ritual,” especially Byzantine court ritual, some of which was assumed in earlier centuries by Orthodox bishops after the fall of the Byzantine Empire: capes and crowns, candlesticks and kisses, bows and acclamations, beautiful trios and cacophonous interruptions. It’s quite fun, really. But it’s also a school in “the way we do things.” And that way is rather deliberate.
This is because we believe something about the Lord, not only in His divinity but in His humanity. We believe something about the Apostles and their authority. And we believe something about their successors and the role they play in keeping this disparate and unruly congregation of humanity together and basically aiming for the same thing: the Kingdom of God. I don’t want to go into all that here. Fr. Thomas Hopko has done that very well on Ancient Faith Radio in his podcast series “Worship In Spirit and Truth.” Suffice it to say that in a very real way, we greet and honor the bishop as one who “comes in the name of the Lord,” in persona Christi, as the Roman Church would say it. St. Ignatius makes this point very strongly in his epistles to the churches of Asia-minor.
If you want to know what the Orthodox believe about the bishop, and by extension, what we believe about the Apostles who form the foundation stones of the Church, and what this Church is about, just look at how we liturgically greet the bishop and worship in his presence under his leadership. This is true with all the rites and customs of Orthodox worship.
It’s not so much about how we believe in dogmatic terms. This is important. But the order in liturgy also trains us to think in a certain way. The fact that the liturgy puts “Lord, have mercy” and “Glory to You, O Lord” and other oft-repeated phrases in our mouths, is hugely indicative of those attitudes which the Church finds salvific.
Our parents trained us to behave in certain ways to help us to become civilized in this way or other. We were taught to say “Please” and “Thank-you” as well as “Excuse me” and “Yes, Sir or Ma’am.” These phrases, seemingly petty, not only allowed us to relate to others in ways less abrasive and demanding than “give me” or hey you.” They taught us the personhood of others. They taught us that others were part of life’s equation, that we weren’t the only ones around that mattered. They taught us a basic level of gratitude and humility. They taught us manners.
The Church teaches her children manners, also, and it’s painfully obvious when adult worshipers haven’t learned them. So, we are taught to not just barge into the Church without saluting the icons of the saints with whom we are going to worship, because they are present with us. Hebrews 12:22-23 makes this more than clear, and the Church explicitly teaches us this. You greet your elders and betters when you enter a room of people – or, we used to. When you intend to receive a sacrament, you make some kind of preparation, whether it’s Confession or fasting or prayer or quietness. And you don’t leave without saying “Thank-you” to the One who vouchsafed to you such a precious gift.
Most of the little customs of piety and liturgy are related to this mannerliness that teaches us humility and gratitude. It not only keeps good order. It just may save our souls.