By Protopresbyter George Metallinos
4. “Churchifying” the Agents
During worship, the Church transforms the magnitudes of this century into realities of the heavenly kingdom, thus giving a new meaning to their function and their point of reference. One of these magnitudes is: (a) the place. The Church’s worship soon disengaged itself from the Judean Temple and the Synagogue. The Divine Eucharist was initially performed in private quarters (“in the household”) and a congregation of the faithful was called “the household church”. Having developed in a Hellenistic environment, the Church assumed the Hellenic term “ecclesia” (the summoned ones), which was now used to likewise refer to the congregating of the public (the people), but with Christ now as Her centre and Her Head. The term for “temple” was originally assigned to mean the congregating of the faithful in Christ (John 4:21). Stephen the Deacon would proclaim that: “the Lord on high does not reside in handmade temples” (Acts 7:48). After 313 A.D., the temple was to acquire a special "christianized" meaning also.
The Temple, as the sacred place of a congregation, was linked to the notion of “heaven on earth”, since the Church’s liturgy is an “ascension” of the faithful to the hyper-celestial Altar. This is what is expressed by a hymn that says: “while standing in the temple of Your glory, in heaven do we think we stand”.
There is a special service dedicated to the consecration of a Temple (The Consecration Service), which expresses the Church’s theology regarding the Temple. The Saints throughout the ages have never ceased to preserve Stephen’s perspective; for example, according to the blessed Chrysostom (†407): “Christ with His coming cleansed all the universe; every place became a place of prayer…”. In other words, the temple may facilitate congregating, but the congregation itself never loses sight of its celestial perspective.
In a “Byzantine” temple, the icon of the Pantocrator (the “all-governing”) Christ that is positioned inside the central dome, gives the faithful the feeling of being under the paternal supervision of God. One thus becomes aware of certain liturgical contrasts: below-above, earth-heaven, secular-saintly, death-life, endo-cosmic - exo-cosmic, etc. Through the eyes of the Saints - the “theoumens” (those who have attained theosis) - we too can see the uncreated Light of the celestial kingdom, during the liturgy of our Church. During the “inauguration” of a Temple, fragments of holy relics are embedded inside the holy Altar, so that the Church’s worship will forever be referred to the uncreated Divine Grace, which is resident in the relics of the Saints. In this way, all the Sacraments and sanctifying acts of the Church have their foundations in the Grace of God, without being dependent on the moral cleanliness of the officiator. Everything linked to the function of the temple is “consecrated” and sanctified: the holy vessels, the holy vestments, the liturgical books, the icons, all of them being rendered “channels” of Divine Grace.
(b) In the Church’s worship, Time is also given a new meaning. The Church’s new perception of Time is confined to the boundaries of Christian soteriology. Time is “churchified”, with the transcending of its “cyclical” self (in Hellenism) and its “linear” self (in Judaism). “Salvation” in the Christian sense is not an escape from Time and the world; it is a victory over the fiendishness and the evil of this world, and the sin dwelling inside it (John 17:15). History and Time are not abolished; they are innovated.
The Church’s liturgical Time does not lose its linearity, because it has a beginning and an end - the “fulfilment of Time” (Galatians 6:4), which was realized with the incarnation of God the Logos. Time was given a beginning by God during Creation, and its “end” is Christ, Who gives a soteriological significance to every moment of Time (“Behold, now is a welcome Time; behold, now is a day of salvation” (II Corinthians 6:2). With the incarnation of the Logos of God, History now heads towards the End Times, because the “End” is Christ, after Whose incarnation “nothing new” is expected historically, except only the fulfilment of the “end”, with His Second Coming. In worship, Christ is “the One Who will Return”; He is “Emmanuel”, He is “God amongst us” (Matthew 1:23).
Liturgical Time also has a vertical dimension, since Christ and His uncreated Kingdom come “from above”, thus showing us our eternal destination (“let us lift up our hearts”). The Church’s liturgical time is experienced as the continuous presence of salvation. In the Church’s worship, all three temporal dimensions (Past-Present-Future) are contracted into one, perpetual “Present” of the Divine Presence. This is why we have so many references to the Present in our liturgical language: “Christ is born today…”, “today, Christ is baptized in the Jordan…”, “today is Christ suspended on a piece of wood…”. This is not an ordinary, historical remembrance. Liturgically speaking, “remembrance” does not imply any intellectual recall or historical repetition, because the events that are linked to our salvation took place “once”; soteriologically, however, they also apply “for all eternity”. During worship, these events are extended spiritually and are rendered events of the Present, so that every generation of faithful may partake equally of the redemptive Grace that exudes from them. Our worship does not aspire to provoking a Platonic sort of nostalgia, but to generating an awareness of our extending into the Future - into the kingdom of God.
Thus, the worshipping Church re-constitutes the dimensions of Time, incorporating them into the eternal “now” of the Divine Presence. The remembrance of the Past becomes a memory “in Christ”, and the hope for the Future a hope “in Christ”. The Future acquires a hypostasis, just like the “life of the aeon to come” (Hebrews 11:1), when the faithful have reached sainthood – the union with uncreated divine Grace. Liturgically, we refer to a remembrance of the Future, since everything moves in that direction. Every moment of Time is transformed into an “opportunity” (potential) for Salvation. A par excellence “opportunity” is a Feast day, a liturgical “remembrance” of God’s gifts and His philanthropy. A Feast day is an expression of Man’s nostalgia for the eternal, as substantiated in the Saints and the soteriological events being commemorated. The Feasts of the Church are linked, not to some myth (as is the case in idolatrous sacraments), but to actual, historical persons and events. Already by the 1st century, the Feast of Sunday was established as the first day of Creation’s restoration, i.e. the Day of the Resurrection. The Divine Eucharist is the culmination of the Church’s celebration, and every day is an ecclesiastic Feast day, inasmuch as the Divine Liturgy can be performed therein.
(c) Furthermore, ecclesiastic worship also ministers to the mystery of the Logos, in all its aspects. The ecclesiastical and liturgical logos is expressed as benediction-prayer; as the recital of Scriptures; as hymn-singing; as sermons; as the divine Eucharist (the “breaking of bread” – Acts 2:42). These are but different aspects of the same sacrament. In each one of these liturgical expressions, it is the same Logos of God being offered, in a special way each time. The Logos of God summons the members of His Body, so that He can dwell inside it. Without the divine Logos, the sacrament is perceived as a magical medium; without the sacrament, the Logos is transformed into a fleshless dogmatism or a religious ideology.
The Scriptural readings - with the Book of Psalms first – is the offering of the recorded Holy-Spiritual experience of the Prophets and the Apostles, which presupposes the revelation of God (=the Logos of God) within the heart of His Saints. Both the Old and the New Testaments are recited during the ecclesiastical gathering, based on an “order” that was determined by our Holy Fathers. The entire ecclesiastical body participates in the liturgical recital of the Scripture: the Apostolic tract is read by one of the laity, while the Gospel tract is read by the Deacon and the sermon is delivered by the Bishop or the Presbyter (Elder). The Scripture is recited ecclesiastically; not in the usual prosaic or artistic, theatrical manner, but in a “verbodal” (spoken-singing) manner, or in other words, half-chanted. This testifies that the Holy Bible is not just any man-written book; it is God’s perpetual message through His Saints, during the congregation of His faithful. In the Church, the Gospel is sacred and is bestowed special honour; it is placed atop the holy Altar, it is honoured with prostrations, it is incensed, and the people are blessed with it. The priests’ “entry” into the Sanctum with the Gospel is a declaration of the resurrected Christ’s presence among us. The sermon, as the interpretation and the consolidation of the Scriptural word, renders the Scriptural message a contemporary one to the liturgical congregation. The liturgical sermon focuses not on “how the gospel events happened”, but “where they lead us”. The Holy Bible is interpreted by the Church in the Church, in direct association with Christ and the Saints, because it is only with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit that it can be comprehended and interpreted.
However, the liturgical logos-word is also articulated as the congregation’s response to God, in the form of benedictions and hymns; “Euchography” and “Hymnography” are not only the heart of ecclesiastic worship; they are also Byzantium/Romania’s most significant literary creation. The hymnals’ poetic form provides immense potential, inasmuch as it is the most effective medium for the ritual requirements of the ecclesiastical body, which experiences and confesses its faith “by weaving words (logoi) out of melody, for the Logos”. The Church’s hymnography becomes Her “unsilencable voice”, which confesses Her faith in a continuous and blessed song of Orthodoxy.
(d) In ecclesiastic worship, Art is also “churchified”, in all its forms. The only art form that the Church did not accept was sculpture, because of its obviously earthen character. In worship, art becomes a theological language, ministering to the Eucharist experience of divine-human communion. Liturgical art has beauty, order, rhythm, melody... however, these elements are rendered functional-beneficial, in the service of the body. The aesthetics of liturgical art are spiritual and do not aspire to impress, given that they are not directed at the physical senses, since this art form strives to reveal “the divine and uncreated beauty of Christ’s virtues”. This is why products of ecclesiastical art are known to be miracle-working (for example the holy Icons); it is because they too partake of the uncreated divine glory (Grace), thus proving their participation in the Uncreated.
Ecclesiastical worship’s art is so “beauteous”, that it in fact fulfils its spiritual purpose: the ministering to the faith. This is why it is Orthodoxy’s steadfast requirement, that liturgical art preserve its “sameness in essence” with the dogma, with the faith that it ministers to: the attaining of an uninterrupted fulfilment of its spiritual mission.
There is a difference between ecclesiastical-liturgical art and religious art. The former portrays the event of Salvation, the way it historically took place, as well as the collective acceptance of it by the ecclesiastical body. Religious art, on the other hand, is an expression of the artist’s personal approach to the mystery. That is why it is not liturgical. A certain correlation to this would be a comparison between “demotic” (colloquial) poetry and its classical form. As in everything else in worship, the stamp of the monastic world – the more traditional part of the ecclesiastical community – is also very apparent in all the creations of ecclesiastic art.