Growing Spiritually through Liturgy - Our Relationships with Others

Presentation given by Teva Regule on Sunday, January 27, 2008

What is liturgy?  What are some of the benefits of coming together to celebrate the "sacred mysteries of life and our faith?"[1]  How can we grow closer to God through our communal celebration?  We began this series on the liturgy by looking at these questions.  We emphasized that liturgy is the context in which we become Church, the Body of Christ.  It has a catechetical as well as a formative and ultimately, a transformative dimension.  We also emphasized that it is work-it requires our active participation.

There are many ways that we can grow closer to God through our liturgical experience. The public reading of Scripture is one opportunity (to which David Vermette spoke).  In the message of the Bible we learn about God, who Christ is, and the existence of the Trinity.  We also learn how to live within history, in wholeness and proper relationship with others.  As a Church, we prepare for the reading of Scripture by calling down the Holy Spirit to prepare all of us to receive the Gospel teaching in the prayer before the Gospel.  (Most early liturgies have a similar prayer prior to the reading of scripture.  And in the Liturgy of St. James, there is also a prayer after the readings to help us understand their meaning more fully.) 

Our liturgical celebration is also enhanced by the addition of the cumulative knowledge of and about God handed down and explicated to us throughout the ages-the inheritance of Holy Tradition (to which John Daly spoke).  Holy Tradition is the presence of God's Spirit in His Church through history. For instance, we have the models of the saints-those who the Church recognizes as having been imbued with the Holy Spirit-to guide us. We hear of their lives and experiences throughout the liturgical year.  Moreover, we profess a summary of what the Church has taught us about God and what we have appropriated for ourselves as our belief through the recitation of the (Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed.

In the Divine Liturgy, we can also grow closer to God by partaking of His Body and Blood through the temporal elements of bread and wine (to which Dn. Jeff spoke).  This is the super-essential bread of life, normally translated as "daily bread" to which we refer in the Lord's Prayer.  It is offered to us at every Liturgy.  By partaking of it, we receive a taste of God's Kingdom.

Liturgy is a communal celebration.  Our relationships with others in this community also help us to know God.  This morning, I will focus on this opportunity to know God more fully through our relationship with others in our liturgical expression. 

The human person is seen as created in the image of God and called to grow into that likeness.  As Christians, we grow into God's likeness through our relationship with Christ and our incorporation into the Body of Christ.  Therefore as Mark McIntosh, a theologian known for his work on mystical theology, says, "becoming who one most truly is takes place, by means of relationships, by means of love for the other-both divine and human."[2]  Our participation in the community is how and where we learn about ourselves, where we cease to be "individuals" and become "persons"-those in relation to others.  It is through these relationships that we have the opportunity to know God not only in a cognitive sense, but through an encounter of the heart.  For Origen, one of the Fathers of the early Church, communion with God must be obtained by the "paths of charity and love."[3]

In the Liturgy, we begin by praying for all in what is now called the Great or Peace Litany.  We begin the litany by invoking a state of peace-"In Peace, let us pray to the Lord."  We are to be in peace-the state of wholeness and integration-within ourselves and with one another.  As Bishop Kallistos Ware further explains, "we are to banish from within ourselves, feelings of resentment and hostility toward others; bitterness, rancor, inner grumbling, or divisiveness."[4]  Failure to forgive may be the greatest hindrance to knowing God.  Moreover, peace with other believers should have primacy over duties in worship.  As Christ commands in Matthew 5:23-4,  "when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first, be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."[5]  This peace, however, is something that does not come from our own doing but comes only from God-"For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls...."  Finally, this peace is not only inward looking but also looks to embrace all-for the "peace in the whole world...unity of the sick, the suffering, the captives..."[6]  It is important to note that "captives" does not just refer to those held captive in a military situation, but refers to those that are captives to anything.  When we are held captive, we are unable to exercise our free will, a unique capacity of the image of God in human beings. 

In the early Church this litany was said immediately prior to the Kiss of Peace.  The Kiss of Peace signified membership in the communion of believers.  It was part of the baptismal rite and reception of converts into the faith.  The Prayer of the Faithful in the Apostolic Constitutions (The Apostolic Constitutions is a 4th -5th century document of Syrian origin that outlines early church ethics and liturgics.) incorporates this, "...and let the deacon say to all, salute one another with the holy kiss...."[7]  (By the way, this declaration of the deacon is found in the Liturgy of St. James.)  One of the earliest indications that this practice was part of the Eucharistic celebration is found in the 2nd century writings of Justin the Martyr in which he describes the practices of Christians to pagan Roman society, "Having ended the prayers (for the newly baptized) we salute one another with a kiss.  Then there is brought to the President of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water."[8]  The Kiss of Peace remained an integral expression of forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity throughout the development of the Liturgy.

In our ritual action of the Kiss (or handshake) of Peace we actualize the love of God between one another.  Each is our brother or our sister.  Through the Risen Christ, we can move beyond our divisions within society, whether ethnic, racial, gender, or cultural, and assume a Christian identity.  Our differences are transcended in the unity of the Body of Christ.  As Vladimir Lossky, a noted theologian of the Russian-French emigration, writes,

The fullness of nature demands the perfect unity of humanity, one body which is realized in the Church.... Within the unity of the common nature the persons are not parts, but each a whole, finding accomplishment of its fullness in union with God.[9] 

We are to follow the biblical injunction, "love one another as I have loved you."[10] Furthermore, we are given this invitation in the opening of the Anaphora, "Peace be with you.... The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you."[11]  For Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a noted liturgical theologian of the Russian-French emigration, the peace that the priest passes to us is "the peace Christ has established between God and His world and into which we, the Church, have entered."[12]  While we are given the opportunity to enter into this peace, how we experience God's peace and love are conditioned by the community's response to God's invitation.  In as much as we can give ourselves over to the other, we can participate in and enter into this love.  The more we enter into God's love, the more we become who we are called to be, both as persons and as community.  The more we enter into God's love, in a dimension beyond space and time, the more we experience the fullness of God's community-not only the living, but also with those faithful who have lived in the past (and those who will live in the future.)  At the end of the Anaphora, we pray for those who have gone before us and are experiencing the true light, "...the Theotokos, the ...forerunner and baptizer John; for the ...apostles... and for all your holy ones..."[13]  We also pray and ask God to remember-memory eternal- "all of those who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection and everlasting life..."[14]  At this point in the service, we have just consecrated the gifts-the Body and Blood of Christ.  It is a reminder that we all have life in Christ.  As we continue to pray in the Anaphora, we pray for and remember all of the living in the hope that they will join with us in God's love.  In the liturgy of Basil we pray, "Remember, Lord ...those who do good works...remember the poor...nurture the infants; instruct the youth; strengthen the aged; give courage to the fainthearted; reunite those separated..."[15] We all become one in Christ.   

As we continue the service, we pray to God as a community when we say "Our Father."  It is here that Maximus the Confessor says we are now worthy to become children of God.  He says that reciting the prayer, "Our Father," is a "sign of that substantive personal adoption as His [children], to be bestowed on us by the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit...."[16]  For Maximus, we are one step closer to being united with God.  This prayer reflects the continual tension of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our relationship with God.  We are at the looking forward to the kingdom-"Your Kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."-and preparing to receive "our daily bread"-the super-essential bread of life that we receive in Communion.  At that same time, we are also asking for forgiveness ("Forgive us our trespasses...") and deliverance from temptation in our daily lives ("And lead us not into temptation...").  God is always ready to forgive our sins.  We must be willing to forgive others.  In other words, we must turn back toward God in the other, recommitting ourselves to relationship with our sister or brother.  Our relationship with the other is the context for God's love. 

Our Eucharistic celebration can be an intimate experience of God's love.  As Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, "The content of Christ's Eucharist is Love, and only through love can we enter into it and be made its partakers."[17]  




[1] The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company), p. 210.

[2] McIntosh, Mark, Mystical Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 211.

[3] Louth, Andrew, The Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 58.

[4] Ware, Bishop Kallistos, In Peace Let us Pray to the Lord: Peace and Healing in the Divine Liturgy,, April 1999.

[5] Matthew 5: 23-4, NRSV.

[6] Quotes from The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (Grass Lake, Mich.: Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, 1975), pp. 33-35.  Henceforth: The Divine Liturgy.

[7] Apostolic Constitutions, Book VIII, 11.

[8] Martyr, Justin the, Apology 65.

[9] Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, 1976), p. 241.

[10] John 15:12, NRSV.

[11] The Divine Liturgy, p. 78, 80.

[12] Schmemann, Alexander, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, 1973), p. 32.  Henceforth: Schmemann, For the Life of the World.

[13] The Divine Liturgy, p. 89.

[14] Ibid, p. 90.

[15] The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Press, 1988), p. 32-3.

[16] St. Maximus the Confessor, The Church, the Liturgy and the Soul of Man (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede's Publications), p. 95.

[17] Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 36.