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The Genius and Barriers of Orthodox Worship

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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If you have internet capability on your computer, you might find the thoughtful, carefully selected material on Fr. Hans Jacobse's "Orthodoxy Today" website (https://www.orthodoxytoday.org) of some interest . Yes, he is a Greek Orthodox Priest serving one of the larger parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He lists mostly conservative, sometimes right wing, sometimes centrist, occasionally liberal material from both Orthodox and non-Orthodox authors. So you have to read what he offers with some care. But read it you should if you really want to understand how thinking on many different topics in Orthodoxy today is flowing.

One of the articles I read recently was about some of the changes taking place under the influence of Pope Benedict XIII regarding a modest return of sorts to the worship style of the Latin Mass, often referred to as the "Tridentine Liturgy." The author, Rod Dreher, titles his short article "Modernism in Religion" and is a good case for comparing the kinds of changes and taking place in the life of both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches in the United States.

I want to single out two paragraphs from this article, by an author who is identified as Orthodox, but is writing primarily about the liturgical changes taking place in the Roman Catholic Church. However, as the short article concludes, there is also mention of changes in the Orthodox churches worship. Comparing the two paragraphs shows some very interesting contrasts and is instructive about some of the deeper aspects of these two ancient forms of the Christian religion.

The thrust of the article is to point out how after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's of the Roman Catholic Church among the changes introduced was the "vernacular liturgy," in other words, the Mass in the local language of the people. It was one of many changes introduced by the Council that served to bring the Roman Catholic Church back to earlier practices and beliefs that were the norm before the separation of the Church into East and West about a thousand years ago. As a result, it was essentially forbidden to say the Mass in Latin any more.

However, the article pointed out that as of late, more and more Roman Catholics have been attending congregations that have split off from official Roman Catholicism, or parishes which have wrangled permission from the hierarchy, to conduct at least one Mass in the old Latin version. An increasing number of Roman Catholics have been attending worship in a dead language they don't understand readily. Most, of course, are elderly, who grew up with the Latin Mass, so the interest could be ascribed to a kind of liturgical nostalgia. But, it seems that it is deeper than that. The Roman dignity, the aura of antiquity, the sense of transcendent holiness evident in the Latin Mass, also seems to have a big role in this changing phenomenon in the Western Church. Dreher, comments:

The curious thing about enthusiasm for the traditional Mass is how many young people -- Catholics who were not brought up hearing the Mass in Latin -- hunger for it. In Dallas, Father Paul Weinberger's celebration of the new Mass in Latin showed how breathtaking and exalting the Mass can be when said reverently, using the ancient liturgical language of the church. To witness a Latin Mass -- whether the old Mass or the new Mass said in Latin -- is to experience something both old and startlingly new.

The new vernacular Mass made an effort to approach the people, to simplify the liturgy, to make the language more accessible and to incorporate contemporary forms of music, such as the guitar accompaniment and more or less popular songs, designed to attract young people. For many, it was just right, as many people were turned off to the ancient ways by the modern mindset. But clearly, not everyone, even young people, was attracted by this lowest common denominator liturgy style. Some discovered, after the novelty wore off, that too much that was important had been sacrificed for the sake of making worship "contemporary." Missing was dignity, reverence and the sense of awe from the Mass. It left an empty space, that longed to be filled by a return to the form and language of an early age in the history of Western Christianity. "Modernism in Religion," the title of the article, clearly left something to be desired.

But Dreher ends his article with a counterpoint paragraph that references Orthodox Christianity. Here is what he writes:

One has a similar liturgical experience at St. Seraphim Orthodox cathedral in Dallas where every Sunday, amid a panoply of colorful icons and clouds of incense, parishioners pray and sing the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. That rite, which is celebrated in English, can be traced back to the famed patriarch of Constantinople, who assumed the office in 398.

Do you see the contrast? The liturgical fullness of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is present at the St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, even though the Liturgy is in a language that can be understood by the people attending the worship. The Liturgy is in the vernacular, but the character of it is full of reverence, the sense of the holy, together with the intimacy of relationship with the Lord. What's the difference? Early and medieval Roman Catholicism imposed the use of Latin on Western Christendom, regardless of the language of the people. It was the Latin language that then and now, that conveys the sense of transcendence and holiness -but at the expense of understanding.

In the Eastern part of Christianity before the division between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics there was a different approach. It was held that worship should be in the language of the people so that worship could be accompanied by understanding. Jesus was greatly concerned about people understanding His truth. Frequently he chastised even His disciples that they "did not understand" while showing the tremendous importance of understanding which allows and encourages faith to "bear fruit." So we read in Matthew 13:19 and 23:

When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart ... As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

That's why the whole person, including our bodies, emotions, will and understanding are so important in comparison to just formal worship. As the Lord said, we are "to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." (Mark 12:33).

In reference to worship, the early Church in the East adopted a principle of worship in the language of the people -- not a single sacred language inaccessible to the average person. So there was variety of languages, but basically, one Divine Liturgy. In this the Orthodox Church followed the lead of St. Paul, who in discussing the uttering of incomprehensible "tongues" in worship, declared in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, "If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:14-15).

Like two trains traveling in opposite directions on parallel tracks, the Roman Church is returning to its Latin past, with the hope of recapturing a sense of sacred transcendence in its now popularized worship, while the Orthodox Church is in many ways traveling its historic track of worship toward as fuller practice of worship in the language of the people, while through its rich worship practices, allowing contemporary worshipers to sense the holiness, sacredness and other worldliness of the Kingdom of God.

But there is a rub in all this for the Orthodox. Though we use many different languages in our worship, Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Romanian and other traditional languages, for many Orthodox these function just like Latin does for the Roman Catholics. It is the language, precisely because it is not understood, because it is exotic, and because of the lack of understanding, that carries for many people the sense of the holy, and not what actually is said and done in worship! Language becomes a barrier to true worship, that is, worship that invites the Orthodox Christian to say with St. Paul "I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also."

What this seems to point to for the Orthodox is the restoration of the fundamental principle of Orthodox worship, that worship take place in a language understood by the worshippers. However, like the Roman Catholics, but moving in the opposite direction, we have to relearn our tradition, and to do it in a way that accommodates all the faithful Orthodox Christians.

Where I live in West Central Florida, we have the following patterns in the Greek Orthodox churches in the area. In a very large Cathedral Church, there are two Divine Liturgies each Sunday, one primarily in Greek and one primarily in English both in the Cathedral at different times. At another large parish in the area the adult Divine Liturgy is primarily in Greek in the church and the Sunday School Divine Liturgy conducted in the chapel, includes much more English. Several other parishes conduct their Divine Liturgies mostly in Greek, but with varying proportions in English. One of the Greek Orthodox parishes in the area, a Pan-Orthodox mission church, conducts the Divine Liturgy primarily in English, with about five percent in Greek (which is translated into English) and sets of "Lord have mercy" in Slavonic, Arabic, Romanian and Albanian. All of these churches struggle with the question "What is the language of the people?" and seek to respond to it.

But, if we are faithful to the Bible and to the Orthodox Tradition about language in the Liturgy, it is clear which way the train should be moving, and in fact, is moving. Liturgy in the language of the people is the Biblical and the Orthodox Christian way!

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

Posted: 07-Jul-07

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