Worship is Work
Coming to church once a week on Sunday is assembling to do work: to praise God, visit web to thank Him for all the benefits and sorrows we received in the past week, this to repent, and to ask His mercy on us as we continue to grow closer to what He expects of us.
Liturgy is composed of two Greek words: ‘laos’ and ‘erg’; people and work: literally “the people’s work.”
We gather to remember, not just academically, but physically the life, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. We participate in His work while He dwelt with us and as He continues to be with us every moment of our lives. Coming to church with this understanding, we commit ourselves to Him and to each other. This takes energy, this takes work, this requires more than just a verbal assent to the truth. It requires action.
We are, for example, asked to act after the reciting of our confession of faith – the Creed – when the priest proclaims: “Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear. Let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace.” We are to rise and stand: action. We are to stand not lackadaisically, but with fear – or in some translations with awe: action. We are to offer, not just think about it: again action. In short, we are to participate, to engage ourselves with the action around us. We are not merely spectators. We are indeed the living stones of the Body of Christ as St Peter tells us [I Peter 2:5]. Together we constitute His Body, the church, the assembly of the faithful.
Then the choir responds by asking us to make “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of prayer.” We join with our fellow believers to open our mouths and to make a sacrifice: to give something up. What is that something? To offer our praise to the Lord. This takes action. We cannot offer praise if we sit thinking about it. We need to act, to sing out. And then the priest cries out: “Let us lift up our hearts,” and we lift up our arms. The priest continues by saying, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord.” Again, action.
These actions we do once a week, sometimes two depending upon the Liturgical cycle, or rather the life of Christ. Why? So that we may not drift astray! So that we may make steady progress toward our uniting ourselves with Christ. It is hard to stay close to someone if we rarely see them to talk to them. Being Orthodox we do not simply subscribe to a set of faith statements; we do not accept a certain list of Scriptural readings alone; we do not merely ponder our commitment to Christ. Rather, we enter body and soul into the life of Christ; into His Way. Follow me, He tells us. Walk in His footsteps. Taste and See how good the Lord is [Psalm 34:8].
And, of course we do work when we enter the narthex to light a candle and venerate an icon or two, when we make the sign of the cross, when we bow or make a metania or prostration, or when we join in procession. As we enter into the rhythm of the Liturgy something wonderful happens to us. We begin to unite our mind’s understanding through Scripture and religious readings with the mystery of the Divine. As our church Fathers and Mothers have taught us we begin to catch a glimpse of another dimension – the spiritual dimension of our lives. Our eyes begin to open to another reality. As one author put it: we begin to unite heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material as it was in Eden before the Fall when God spoke directly with Adam and Eve, when all of creation was in harmony, when there was constant liturgy.
Our Orthodox understanding is that during our Liturgy we are joining with the heavenly host in their worship as are all other Orthodox throughout the world in praising, thanking, and glorifying God. We may not obtain the sight of the heavenly hosts as did Isaiah or Paul, but we know in our hearts that the third heaven is real.
This work that we do together in Liturgy unites us and carries over to other aspects of our lives. As we greet each other with a holy kiss we recognize others who are also working to get closer to Christ. We begin to form friendships as we engage in fellowship by sharing our experiences about our spiritual journeys. It is nice to know that we are not alone, but have fellow faithful in our lives.
We also go to church to work in the ministry of our calling; to share our God given talents for the benefit of others. Do not we pray each service for those who serve and those who sing? Do not we remember those who brought today’s offering? Working with fellow parishioners to build up the body of Christ we begin to bond with them.
Think of participating on a sport’s team or in a school orchestra or band, or working with others to produce a play, or singing in a chorale or choir; the hours spent together to achieve a common goal – the performance – created bonds of friendship that just saying hello to each other never could or did.
Now think of what working together sharing the talents we possess in the ministry of the Church can do to strengthen the bonds of friendship and love in our parish community. Will we not produce a bountiful harvest of good will, of love, of achievement in reaching our spiritual goals?
One Christian is no Christian, say the Fathers. As a member of the Body of Christ we are connected to all other believers. We cannot function alone. We need to be connected. Christ is the vine and we are the branches. Cut off from Him we will wither and die , but connected to Him we can produce much good fruit. Alone we produce a skimpy harvest. Together we share abundance for ourselves and for others – we are richer for the experience.
Given our sinful nature we, of course, will resist working together. We tend to hold matters close to our chest. We distrust what others may do. We do not want to be conned. Yet, as we experience more of the secular life we appreciate that it will never truly satisfy our thirst for the holy, for inner peace, for tranquil living. The secular life has its benefits. We need food, shelter, and clothing. We need fresh water. We need streets and traffic lights, and public security to lead our daily lives. All this, however, cannot provide us with the quest for immortality. Only God can provide that.
Once we acknowledge this reality, and take steps to touch the spiritual dimension of our lives seriously, we can begin to find joy.
As we enter into the joy of the Nativity Season, let us think of what we can do, what we can accomplish for ourselves and others by Christian actions.
May the Glory of the Risen Christ be with us now and in the coming days of our lives.