By Protopresbyter George Metallinos
The objective of ecclesiastical worship is the sanctification of the entire world. Man’s life is sanctified, but so is the environment that surrounds him. Within the boundaries of worship, Man is projected in Christ as the master and the king of Creation, who is called upon to refer himself, along with Creation, to the Creator – the source of their existence and sanctification.
a) The Sanctification of Time: The liturgical year is the transcending “in Christ” of the “calendar year” and the transformation of the calendar into a feast-day almanac. With Her celebrations and Her services, the Church sanctifies and transforms the year of our daily lives, by unifying and orienting it towards the kingdom of God. Liturgically speaking, Time ceases to be a simple, natural framework, inasmuch as it is transformed into a point of reference used for determining the content of worship. This is evidenced by the terminology used: “Matins” (=morning), “Vespers” (=evening), “Midnight”, “Hours”, etc…. From the liturgiological aspect, the organizing of the annual cycle on the basis of time periods (day, week, year), with an analogous organizing of one’s very life, is called the “Annual Liturgy”.
The liturgical year “baptizes” Man’s entire life into the worship of the Church. The repetition of the feast-days every year renews the catechesis of the faithful and it gives a special meaning to the customary (Greek) wishes: “and next year, also”, or, “for many more years” – wishes that refer to new opportunities for learning. The liturgical year is linked to the Church’s cycle of feast-days, whose basic structural element is festivity. There is a cycle of “mobile” feast-days with Easter at its centre, and a cycle of “immobile” feast days, with the Epiphany and Christmas at its centre. The periods of the Triodion and the Pentecostarion belong to the former cycle, having received their names from the respective liturgical books that predominate therein.
The Triodion period is a sectioned one, just as the human body is sectioned: the first four weeks can be regarded as the body’s extremes; the body itself is the Great Lenten period, and the Holy Week of Easter is the head. Hymns, readings and rituals all comprise a spiritual preparation for one’s participation in the Holy Week and the Resurrection. From Easter Day, the period of the Pentecostarion begins. Easter and Pentecost were already feast-days of the pre-Constantine order, and albeit Hebrew in origin, they now had a Christian content. Christ and His Passion are what differentiated the Christian from the Jewish Passover-Pascha, which had now become a symbol of the new life; of the divine kingdom. The coming of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost inaugurated the new century.
The cycle of immobile feast-days was organized with the day of the Epiphany at its centre (6th January), a date that originally also commemorated the Birth of Christ. The separation of the two celebrations for historical and theological reasons was effected around the middle of the 4th century. With Christmas as their basis, the other, Magisterial feast-days (Circumcision, Baptism, Presentation, Transfiguration) were each put in their respective place. But the Theotokos also comprises a “liturgical sacrament”. The feast-days relating to the Holy Mother (Birth, Presentation, Annunciation, Dormition, etc.) are all linked to the Magisterial feast-days, expressing the same sacrament. The celebrating of the memory of Saints is an extension of the liturgical honour bestowed on the Theotokos. What seems odd for some people however is that the Church “celebrates” by honouring the memory – that is, the dormition – of Her children and not their birth. We Orthodox Christians do not celebrate our birthdays; we celebrate on the day of commemoration of the Saint whose name we bear. In Christian terms, a “birthday” is the day of one’s ‘dormition’, i.e., the day that one is born into eternity. The Saints embody the “common life” and are projected as the leaders of mankind, in its course for making man real. Our nation’s association with the Saints – with the Most Holy Mother at the head – is apparent in the two-fold festivity that is performed in their memory, both inside the temple with the Holy Altar at the centre, and outside the temple, with the secular table at the centre. The book of the lives of Saints is a cherished article for the people, as it is seen as a “hoarding” of the Church’s historical memory and a guideline for the faithful. The course of the faithful is shaped, “along with all the Saints”.
The liturgical organizing of Time in its micro-temporal dimension is analyzed in the weekly cycle of services and the day-to-evening services. The weekly cycle is composed of two parts: the Saturday-Sunday cycle and the five-day cycle. Each day of the week is dedicated to the memory of a certain soteriological event or a certain Saint: Sunday is dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ; Monday to the Angels; Tuesday to Saint John the Baptist; Wednesday and Friday are respectively linked to Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s Crucifixion (which is why these are two days of fasting); on Friday, the Church also commemorates the presence of the Holy Mother by the Cross; Thursday is dedicated to the Apostles and Saint Nicholas; and Saturday is dedicated to the deceased.
The weekly cycle was organized on the basis of Sunday (Greek=Kyriaké), the first celebration – historically – to be set down by the Church. Being directly related to the Lord (Greek=Kyrios) Jesus Christ (Cor.I, 12:3), it represents a confession of faith unto Him. Being also related to the “eighth day”, it was linked to the Divine Eucharist as a permanent and immobile day for its commemoration. The Sunday “day of rest” – which was imposed by Constantine the Great in 324 A.D. – did not relate Sunday with the Sabbath, but instead portrayed itself as the transcending of the Sabbath. Sunday is “the first of the Sabbaths (=the first day of every week), the Queen and the Mistress”, we chant. The Sabbath reflects the natural life of the world, whereas Sunday represents the eschatological day of entry into the new aeon.
The day-to-evening services include the following: The 24-hour cycle begins with Vespers (see Genesis 1: “and it became evening, and it became morning….”) and its services coincide with the ancient division of Time (evening, midnight, dawn, third, sixth, ninth hours). The services are: the “Esperinos” (Vespers = of the day’s end) or “Lychnikon” (=of the lamp), the Major and Minor “Apodeipnon” (=after the evening meal); the “Mesonyktikon” (=of midnight); the “Orthros” (=of dawn) – the most extensive and theologically opulent service, and the “Ores” (=Hours), which are the 1st, the 3rd, the 6th and the 9th, in commemoration of the major moments affecting our salvation (the Crucifixion, the Death of Christ, the descent of the Holy Spirit).
But, while all of ecclesiastical worship was indissolubly interwoven with natural Time, the Divine Liturgy remained beyond Time and its confinements. Thus, it does not belong to the cycle of day-to-evening services, nor are any of the other services regarded as preparation for it. That is why it can be performed at any time – morning, noon or night – as the par excellence celebration and festivity of the Church.
b) The Sanctification of Life: The epicenter of the sanctifying function of the Church is Man. From the moment of his birth into this world and his spiritual re-birth in the Church, through to the last moment of his presence in this lifetime, ecclesiastical worship constantly provides Man with opportunities for “ecclesiasm” and continuous rebirth. The catholicity of the spiritual and everyday caring of the Church for Her faithful is evident in the liturgical book “Major Book of Benedictions”. Its very structure and its texts embody the objective of the Church, which is the “complete” incorporation of Man in the ecclesiastical body, the struggle for victory over the devil, the demonic powers of the world and sin, and the confronting of everyday problems and needs. The wealth and the variety of the benedictions and the Services of the book of Benedictions is indicative of the love and the concern of Orthodoxy for the personal and the social life of the faithful; for the cycles of his life, and his more common and everyday labours.
The Church sanctifies Man from the moment of his birth, giving Her blessing to the new mother and the newborn child, preparing the latter to be eventually received into Her bosom. After all, the sanctification of the family begins from the Sacrament of Marriage. On the 8th day, the infant receives its name with a special liturgical act, and its personal “otherness” is thus confirmed – something that is afterwards proven by its incorporation in the ecclesiastical body. On the 40th day, the infant is “led to” the temple to be “churchified”, to begin its ecclesiastical life, which corresponds to the commencement of adult catechesis.
After this spiritual preparation, Baptism follows; this is the entry into the body of Christ, which gives Man the possibility of living the life of Christ and of constantly receiving His Grace. Infant baptism, familiar since Christian antiquity, can be comprehended only in the cases of pious parents and godparents – in other words, of a Christian background – and cannot be imposed by any legislation. Through Baptism, the “neophyte” is inducted into a specific community – the local Church – by participating in the ethos and the way of existence of the Church. The more perfect this induction is, the more consistently will his Christian status evolve.
But the faithful is called upon to augment the gift that he received through his baptism, by orienting his life in a Christ-centered manner. Thus, after “nature” (=soul and body) has died and risen (=immersion) in the baptismal font, the human persona is also sanctified through the Sacrament of Chrismation which functions as the personal Pentecost of the faithful, so that through his spiritual labor, he will become a “temple” of God and his life a veritable Liturgy. The Sacrament of Repentance (Confession) provides the opportunity for a continuous transcending of sin and the transforming of death into life.
Furthermore, the Church blesses the “paths” that the faithful voluntarily choose for their perfection: either marriage (in Christ), or monastic living. Both are “sacraments of love”, with a direct referral to Christ. Marriage, when preserved within the framework of a life in Christ, leads to the transcendence of the flesh and to one’s perfect delivery unto Christ, thenceforth coinciding with monastic ascesis. In this way, the Sacrament of Marriage reveals the truth of the Church without being used to serve conventional expediencies of everyday living. Wherever marriage is perceived simply as a moralistic adjustment or a “legal transaction”, “political” marriage is preferred, which may be a legal act, but it is nevertheless a marriage that is not spiritually “equivalent” to the ecclesiastical one, which is a Sacrament of Grace.
Furthermore, ecclesiastical worship provides sanctifying acts for every moment of one’s life. In fact, through them, it proves that it is not a “spiritualist” (abstractly spiritual) affair, or a “religious” affair, because the sanctification it provides also constitutes a proposal for confronting the everyday problems of each person. In one of the Matins Prayers, we ask God to grant Man His “terrestrial and celestial gifts”.
There are blessings even for instances in life that seem trite and insignificant, such as (for example) “for a child’s haircut”, “for when a child leaves to learn the sacred texts”, “for ill-natured children”, etc.. Other blessings refer to the intake of food, the various “vocations” and works of the faithful (eg, travels) as well as “professions”; inter-personal relations are blessed, so that there will be justice, peace and love; God’s Grace is requested for man’s tribulations, for his illnesses, his mental health and his psychosomatic passions. An important place in the worship of the Church is given to death: the cessation of the body’s collaboration with the soul, until the moment of the “common resurrection”. The Church does not overlook this supreme existential event of life; in fact, She stands near the person from the moment that death makes its appearance. She confesses the near-death person and offers him Holy Communion; She inters his body, which has now been delivered to mortification and corruption, sending off the soul to its last journey and beseeching Christ to receive His child, who has abandoned the world with the hope of acquiring “eternal life”. The funeral service is one of the tenderest and touching texts in ecclesiastical worship.
In parallel to the above, the church offers prayers for various moments of public life: serious circumstances and disasters, dangers, malfunctions in public life, both in the micro-society of the village or the town, as well as the macro-community of the homeland and the nation. The relative prayer material refers to national anniversaries, the structures of civil life, education, the armed forces, public health… This incomparable liturgical wealth remains broadly unknown and so we remain ignorant of all those elements that can give meaning to our lives.
c) The Sanctification of Material Creation: Creation, both liturgically and theologically, is the broader territory provided for man’s fulfillment; it is the framework of his everyday life – especially in rural communities, where this is perceived more profoundly. Man’s association with Creation constitutes a special theme of ecclesiastical worship and it unfolds during special services that prove the ecclesiastical acknowledgement of material creation (bread), which was assumed by Christ’s human nature and which is constantly transformed into the “flesh” of Christ during the Divine Eucharist.
Our liturgical act blesses and sanctifies water, wine, sustenance, living and working quarters, flora, fauna, natural phenomena (wind, thunder, rain, earthquake, etc.), for the protection, finally, and the salvation of man. During worship, the faithful offers the Creator’s gifts – in lieu of his giving thanks – so that they might be “baptized” in Divine Grace and be returned to the offerers, for their own sanctification and preservation. During the Divine Liturgy, “one could say that a march, a parade of the whole world towards the Holy Altar is taking place” (Fr. John Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamus). This negates every notion of an opposition between the natural and the supernatural, since the creation being offered to God (bread and wine) becomes the carrier of the Uncreated (Grace) and sanctifies the participants.
The God-centeredness of existence is inspired by the theology of such texts. Through nature, Man is referred to the Creator, by comprehending the world as a gift of the Creator, learning to use Creation eucharistically (with gratitide) and acquiring the empirical certainty that the issue is not “what does man eat”, but with what presuppositions he eats something, given that sanctified nature co-sanctifies man also. Thus, the faithful learns to become an “officiator” of Creation, in a “cosmic liturgy” that is officiated by the Saints. The Saints, with their imperishable and miracle-working relics, reveal the destination of Creation, which are its sanctification and its incorruptibility. Each faithful is invited to our worship, so that he can be wholly sanctified; so that he will be enabled to co-sanctify Creation along with him, through his association with it.