Whether we speak of our jobs and schooling, or "extracurricular" activities such as folk-dancing or sports, one thing which is very important to all our supervisors, teachers, co-workers and team members is attendance. Attendance is one of the most basic yardsticks of everything we do, because if we are not in attendance at work or school or practice it's virtually impossible for us to learn, work, or play constructively. When we speak of our commitment to Christ attendance plays no less important a role.
Sad to say, most of the holy services in most of our churches are probably under attended. It's interesting to wonder how lively and active our parishes would be if the faithful treated church attendance with the same seriousness they treat attendance at their job, school, sports team or folk-dance group?
We often hear or read about well-intentioned people calling for "spiritual renewal", and offering suggestions as to how it can be achieved. It's important to remember that our Lord described the Christian life as a "narrow path", a journey requiring much discipline, sacrifice and courage. There is no easy or painless way to achieve spiritual renewal or growth either in our Church or in our personal life - but attending the services is the first step if we're truly interested in seeing this growth.
The first Christian feast day was and still is Sunday. Before there were any other feast days Sunday was celebrated as the commemoration of the Resurrection. Sunday morning is still the day when the Christian community gathers together to celebrate the "breaking of the bread". Some sects and denominations have in the recent past fallen away from this apostolic practice. The Seventh-day Adventists, for example, worship on Saturday, saying (correctly) that this is the Old Testament Sabbath. They forget, however, that we are Christians, not Jews, and we celebrate the new Passover - the Resurrection - and not the Passover nor the Sabbath of the Jews.
Since the second Vatican Council Roman Catholics have begun celebrating Saturday evening Masses - so that members who have "more important" things to do on Sunday morning can fulfill their "Sunday obligation" and not miss these commitments. Again, this is an innovation, not a part of the authentic Christian tradition. Many of the "mainline" protestant sects are in fact philosophically bereft of any reason for going to Church on Sunday morning. If it's true that all you have to do to be saved is to "accept Jesus as your personal Saviour" this very nicely does away with both the "Sunday obligation" and any other type of obligation as well!
While we don't judge others, and know that only God sees the soul, we can say with absolute assurance that in contrast to the western denominations Orthodox Christianity possesses the fullness of the apostolic Christian teaching and practice. The participation of the faithful in the Liturgy is not regarded by us as a "holy obligation", but as a great privilege which is constitutive of the Church. This is what the apostles taught, and this is what we believe. If we wish to have a truly healthy Church the first step that each and every member of the faithful must take is cultivating within themselves an attitude of gratitude and joy, discipline and desire towards Church attendance.
As we are aware, in the Orthodox Church we observe days and seasons of feasting and fasting. Some feast days (Pascha and Pentecost, for example) always fall on Sundays. Others (the "immovable" feasts) always fall on the same date, the best known being Christmas and Theophany. Among these feasts are fasts - periods of intensive prayer and worship. The life of a pious Orthodox Christian revolves around this Church calendar. If we're approaching things correctly, we fit our life into the calendar, we don't struggle to "shoe-horn" the Church calendar into our life.
The Orthodox Calendar is a glorious treasure, a gift which cannot be taken for granted. Most other Christian denominations either do not celebrate, or do not even admit the existence of these traditional and historic feast days and fasting periods. Even those who retain the traditional calendar of feasts and fasts, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have in most cases given them a strictly symbolic recognition. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, almost all feast days are "transferred" to the nearest Sunday. I was greatly amused a few years ago when, in a conversation with a devout Roman Catholic, I was told "we'll be celebrating Ascension Thursday next Sunday"!
As is obvious, the original meaning of holiday is "Holy day" - a day set aside for God. Besides attendance at divine services one of the traditional ways of marking a holy day is to refrain from work. If we look at the current celebration of "civil" holidays we see that they are generally regarded simply as a day off of work - a Christian hand-me-down to our secular society, because we don't work on a holiday. Due to the fact that the festal calendar of the Church has been to a greater or lesser degree suppressed or ignored by the western denominations, we live in a society which has almost totally divested itself of any authentic Christian consciousness regarding church holidays.
The Orthodox Church has retained the original, apostolic understanding of "Holidays", some of which - the commemoration of the death of martyrs, or the feast of the Resurrection for example - date from the first century, and others, such as the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos - which are of later origin. The development of the Church Calendar, just like the reception of Holy Scripture, is witnessed to in the life, history and practice of the Orthodox Church - we know what we celebrate, when we celebrate, and why we celebrate. And most importantly, the Orthodox Church has never seen fit to ignore or suppress feast days, but sees the celebration of a feast in the same light She sees the blessing of water or oil or the faithful - as the sanctification of that which God has created for us, in this case the sanctification of time.
Understanding this, the celebration of feast days by participation in the Divine Liturgy is for the Orthodox a very important sign of our faith, especially in our North American social context. Even more so than attendance at Sunday Liturgy, attendance at Feast-day Liturgies is a sign of a real commitment not to some kind of indistinct, amorphous "Christianity", but to the True, historical Orthodox Christian Faith. Just as we give of our money and talents for the good of God's Church, we give of our time and our gratitude and our worship. We are called upon to be a worshiping people - and this we do first and foremost in Church on Sundays and Holy days - i.e., on the days God has set aside for us to do so.
There are those who might be thinking "yes, father, but in this day and age it isn't practical to take a day off of work or school to attend services". I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a mother of school-aged children who was a teacher. I had suggested that it might be nice if parents occasionally booked the morning off from work to attend festal or lenten services with their children. She dismissed this as impractical. I asked her if she took off time for vacations, for doctor's appointments, or just "mental health days". The answer to every question was "yes". I then repeated the thought that it would be nice for parents to take off one morning, even if only once a year, to attend feast-day services on a weekday with their children. She looked at me as if I were from Mars! She could understand taking a month off for herself or her family, but could not understand taking even 4 hours, once a year, to worship God with her children.
Others might say that "In the old country people didn't have anything better to do than attend Church services"!. I find the argument that our ancestors had "nothing better to do" than go to Church extremely amusing. Those wishing to make such amusing comments should first spend a year living and working on a farm with no electricity, no running water, no gasoline engines nor social "safety net", being dependent upon what they can harvest from the earth for their very life. Try carrying all your water from a well half-a-mile away, or baking all your bread every day in a wood-fired oven from grain you have sown, harvested, threshed, and probably ground yourself. The fact of the matter is that our ancestors had much less "personal" time than we have at our disposal, and certainly no paid vacations. Perhaps they simply had more love for God?
Any priest or pious layman can offer good theological and practical reasons why we should attend festal and Lenten liturgies if at all possible. One of the reasons often overlooked is that attendance at these liturgies permits us to understand our Faith from another perspective. Attending Liturgy on Holy days permits us to enter into the rhythm of the life of the Church.
The rhythm of Church life has three components - the daily, weekly and yearly cycles. The daily cycle for an average Orthodox Christian in the world usually consists of prayers upon arising, before sleep, before and after meals, and (please God!) scripture reading. The weekly cycle consists of being in Church every Sunday morning, and at vespers or vigil on Saturday night if we're lucky enough to belong to a parish where they are served. The yearly cycle consists of the Lenten and festal Liturgies of the Church.
These weekly and yearly cycles demand a liturgical participation to experience them. While we can speak of "personal" prayer or devotion, it is impossible to speak of a "personal" liturgical experience - the very concept is nonsensical. If the Divine Services truly are important for our salvation then we must take part in them. This participation is different for everyone - only the monk or nun will be able to participate fully in the daily cycle of services, but the weekly and yearly cycle of worship is accessible to all the faithful who live within reasonable driving distance of a Church.
This is why it's important to serve Great Vespers on the evening before a feast. While it's probably unrealistic to expect the majority of parishioners to take days off work to attend morning Liturgies (though it's a lot easier for us to do than we often care to admit), a vigil service gives all the faithful the opportunity to experience the rhythm of the Church year in their lives by attending services the evening before a feast day when they can't attend Liturgy.
As we know, music has three basic parts: melody, harmony and rhythm. Rhythm is the foundation upon which melody and harmony are built. Likewise the life of the Church - which we understand to be a foretaste of life in paradise - is built on a concrete rhythm, the rhythm of the Church calendar. Beginning with attendance at worship every Sunday, and building up to attendance at festal and Lenten services throughout the year, we are given a chance to take our lives out of the rhythm of this world - the mundane - and enter into the rhythm of Paradise.
Making time to attend festal and Lenten services as a family and as a community will strengthen our faith, our families and our parishes more than we can imagine. The Jews have lived their religious life according to a different calendar for millennia. This simple fact exerts an immense influence on their existence - especially in the "Diaspora". When our parish churches are as full every Sunday as they are on Pascha, and when they are as full on Holy days as they are now on Sunday, we will see a spiritual revival in our church, a revival the scale of which we cannot even imagine right now.
As any builder knows, the most important part of the house is the foundation. Our Lord Himself spoke of this, saying that the one who follows His commandments is like the one who builds their house on a rock (Matthew 7:24 - 8:4). If the Church truly is Christ's body, as St. Paul says (Colossians 1:18, Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:12, etc.), then Her commandments are the commandments of Christ. And if we wish to build our lives on a firm foundation, what foundation can be more solid than the mystical life of the Church?
By making the rhythm of the Church the rhythm of our own personal life we will certainly experience spiritual growth in our lives and communities, and upon this spiritual foundation we will be able to more deeply experience the melody of prayer and the harmony of true Christian community.
Fr. Bohdan Hladio is the Chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.