Liturgy as Communion in theory and practice

This paper has been presented on the conference “Theology of Communion” in the monastery of Bose, Italy, October 20-23, 2014.

I am a parish priest in Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and in this paper I’d like to highlight some questions about Orthodox liturgy and the dissonance between liturgy as it is fixed in its prayers and rubrics and its practical celebration.

Let us look how liturgy is perceived by parishioners – people who attend it with varying degrees of frequency. It’s no secret that most people perceive liturgy as something that takes place ‘over there’, in the altar. However, I am standing here, watching the liturgy, touching it in some way. But can I say I that I truly contribute to the celebration of the liturgy? Sure, the priest performs the liturgy. Those people involved in the celebration as deacon, sub-deacon, cantor, singers, altar boys and other ministers – they all participate somehow. But how can a regular parishioner, standing in the church and praying, realize his or her participation in the liturgical celebration?

Liturgy itself implies involvement of everyone who attends it. Liturgy is not a show, it should have only participants, and not observers. Our celebration has become a kind of ‘sacred drama’ performed before the faithful by clergy, choir and ministers and it is no longer the liturgy in which everyone takes part. For a thousand years at least we have liturgical commentaries explaining liturgy in an illustrative, so-called ‘symbolical’ way. In this view the liturgy is seen as a ‘sacred drama’ representing the entire history of salvation – from the incarnation and Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ to his suffering and Resurrection, so that the celebration performs all the stages of sacred history. We are observers of the sacred drama unfolding before us. Fr. Alexander Schmemann sharply criticized this method of interpretation (cf. ‘Symbols and Symbolism in Byzantine liturgy’ in the book ‘Liturgy and Tradition’).

This interpretation has been imposed on the liturgy by commentators, including some of the holy fathers, but it by no means results from the liturgy itself, either its prayers or rite. The very prayers of the liturgy in our usage are generally inaudible, with the exception of a few priests intentionally reciting them aloud. But reciting prayers aloud was a general practice for centuries, and is prescribed by novella 167 of the 6th century of emperor Justinian. Yet these days our people cannot hear those prayers. They listen to pleasant singing, look at fine vestments, smell clouds of incense, but how does all of this correspond with their everyday lives – families, jobs, daily routine and the entire world around the church building? As a result the church building itself is being perceived as a sacred place isolated from the ‘profane’ world.

If we look at the origins of our liturgy we will notice that the early Church chose the word ‘leitourgia’ for their common services with the breaking of bread, the term free of any sacrality. The word ‘leitourgia’ in ancient Greek means ‘public service’ or ‘public work’, the work in which everyone is involved and has some responsibility. Ancient leitourgia involved all free citizens of the polis, the city. If we make a parallel with our times we can see a kind of true leitourgia in the Ukrainian Maidan last winter. Everyone was involved in it and everyone involved was fully aware of his own responsibility. The participants kept vigil, brought food and fire-wood, brought and provided medicine, collected money, cooked, built barricades, hosted visitors, provided free transportation to people, and so on. Thus, the little responsibilities of everyone were collected into the great responsibility of a newborn public society. This is an example of liturgy in ancient use of the term – an authentic common service, the common work formed by the diversity of services. Unfortunately, this same notion of liturgy is not manifested in our celebration of the Divine liturgy.

We celebrate the same Eucharist as the ancient church did. Certainly, new rites and prayers emerged but the core of the Eucharist remains the same. However, our attitude towards the liturgical celebration has been changed radically. We do not realize our responsibility for what happens in the church and what happens when we leave the service and go into the world. Unfortunately our approach to church services has become extremely individualistic and pietistic. Our liturgical practice takes place in an atmosphere in which we pray as individuals, hardly discerning the prayers and not trying to understand the words. It has turned into a kind of pious meditation. The same problem applies to the church building: we perceive a church as sacred architecture, sacred space, the temple. But if we consider the buildings the first Christians occupied for their liturgical celebrations when they were able to worship freely, we will see that the original widespread type of a Christian church building was a basilica – a public building, not in any way sacred. Moreover, the early Church prior to 324 AD worshiped in regular houses.

Our Divine liturgy consists of two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist. The central event of the first part is reading of the Holy Scriptures and explaining it in the homily, the sermon, which means engaging the participants. The second part, the Eucharist, is nothing else than sharing a meal with our Lord and one another. And it is Jesus himself, not the presiding priest, who shares the meal. The reception of the Holy Gifts is not the only purpose of the Eucharist. Its core consists of a number of certain plain things implying involvement of all gathered. This Eucharistic core does not suggest that only ‘I receive the Holy Communion’, and thereby my communion is finished. Liturgical participation implies sharing a common responsibility. We intentionally draw a parallel between the Eucharist and the Last supper and furthermore we assert that our participation in the liturgy, our reception of the precious Body and Blood of Christ, is not a repetition of the Last supper but our participation in the event which Jesus made with His disciples in the Zion cenacle.

Let us consider the Last supper as it is described in the New Testament. What happened there? Jesus took twelve of his close disciples, selectively chosen. They were the people who trusted Jesus and whom he entrusted himself to despite the knowledge of the one who would betray him. Anyone could be part of the circle of the Twelve as they had been chosen neither for their social status nor for other external virtues. They were simply the people who had heard Jesus and were ready to leave everything and follow him. This was the main criterion of choosing disciples. And then Jesus gathered with these Twelve in the cenacle and did some very simple things. Now it doesn’t matter whether it was the Paschal meal or not – let’s leave this issue to the Biblical scholars. We know that the meal included the bread and the cup. Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke and gave it to the disciples. The same with the cup: he took it, blessed, thanked, and gave it to the apostles, saying: “Take, eat, this is my body… Drink everyone from it, this is my blood”. The same simple things that we also do in our liturgy. But they are covered with different layers of elaborate rites that have evolved throughout the ages, and it is not easy for us to discern the plain core under all this byzantine beauty of singing, processions, rites, vestments, and so on. We can barely glimpse the unadorned framework of what takes place. We have ceased to comprehend the plain issues as the basic core of the liturgical event. Do we identify ourselves gathered for liturgy as the disciples in the manner of the apostles at the Last supper? And that we have gathered not by our own accord, but because it is Jesus who has invited us to gather? We are the people to whom Jesus entrusts himself. We are responsible for our Teacher and for all he has preached to us. Jesus entrusted the word and the very action over the bread and the cup to the apostles, saying: “Do this in remembrance of me”. And these people are responsible for what will continue further – not only with themselves but also with the work entrusted to them. Now, in the church, we partake of the supper. We hear the same words, take part in the same service, share the same meal, receive the same gifts – the body and blood of our Lord, and it is we who are called to continue it, keeping on Jesus’ work entrusted to the disciples. We should be the people who are responsible for continuing his work.

Here a number of secondary matters emerge, including some technical ones, but the primary issue is our attitude toward the liturgy. We have to explore all possible ways to make our liturgy more liturgical. The faithfuls’ participation should be not merely encouraged, it must be the essential feature of the liturgical celebration. First, we should gather together in a church, or, better saying, as the church, bringing our simple food – bread and wine (I call it simple because bread and wine are common food for everyone, but it takes a lot of hard work of many people to produce it – and here the liturgy begins, a liturgy before the liturgy!), and then pray together, giving thanks to God and taking part in a certain dialogue, and then share the Lord’s meal with everyone gathered

I cannot at this time present an exhaustive investigation of the desirable ways of liturgical reform. We can read prayers aloud, we can restore congregational singing, we can share the greeting of peace, and so on. Certainly we should try to do all this as well as all other good things. Until there is perception of common involvement and common responsibility for what takes place in the liturgy we should not claim the revival of the church. The church consists of small eucharistic communities. Moreover, according to the work of Fr Nicholas Afanassiev, each eucharistic gathering is the church. The Eucharist is the event in which the church reveals and completes itself. As we seek appropriate ways to revive church life, we can turn to our western brothers and scholars, both Orthodox and Catholic, as well as to our common ancient church legacy for models and experiences of liturgical life. We should discover the methods and fruits of the western liturgical movement and of the 2nd Vatican council trying to make liturgy more liturgical as well as the experience of the Orthodox Churches in the West that have implemented significant liturgical reform, such as the Orthodox Church in America.

It should be noticed that in the Western church, where the liturgical movement arose, the liturgical situation was much worse than in the Orthodox church. Perhaps it helped our Catholic brethren to rise up from this situation and to grow into what they are now in respect to the liturgy. If we compare the present reformed mass with the Orthodox liturgy first we immediately notice the identity of the structure, and understand that these services are the same in their basic aspects. Certainly there are varying nuances, but the core and even the form of the celebration, its basic elements are very similar or even identical. On the other hand, the original structure, visibility and accessibility of the liturgical core as well as the people’s participation has been much more manifest in the reformed Catholic rite. Therefore, as an Orthodox presbyter, I should affirm that the Catholic liturgy is actually more liturgical than the one celebrated in most of our Orthodox churches today.

Meanwhile, we have a kind of liturgy in our parish worship. Let me share my own observation from parish practice. I am an eyewitness of a true liturgy in our church – it’s an akathistos prayer. It is the true liturgy because people are really involved in the service. First, the language of most akathistoi is much more simple, more easy and understandable than that of the classic liturgical prayers and hymns. Most sentences of akathistos are short. Most modern akathistoi are written in a Slavonicized Russian rather than in the Church Slavonic. Also it is the people who sing the refrains. They participate with understanding and by singing. I have one more reason to describe the Akathistos as more liturgical than the Divine liturgy. On Sunday in my parish the service begins with an akathistos, and at once, a priest comes out to hear confessions. During the akathistos, people rarely come forward for confession, as they are afraid of leaving the service. But they are not afraid to request confession at the Divine liturgy! When the Divine liturgy begins, a kind of ‘sacred drama’ occurs, and now it is time for people’s private matters, a confession, for example. So people experience their own participation in the akathistos prayer, but they perceive the liturgy as something taking place on a stage, not something they themselves participate in.

We discussed these issues at the last Kiev Summer Theological Institute. One priest noted that our parishioners participate in the Eucharist, but as individuals, not as a community. As a rule, a parishioner keeps these obligations: reading the prayer rule – three canons and the canon and prayers before Holy Communion, fasting additionally for at least one day or better three, and going to confession. Keeping it weekly or even twice a month is quite exhausting, but this tradition (‘govenie’ in Russian) became customary not so long ago, in the age of liturgical decay. Traditions can be altered for pastoral reasons. Otherwise we priests are like the pharisees who weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while we ourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of our fingers. As long as we saturate people with such burdens we have no right to submit other claims. As long as the burdens exist, people come to the liturgy as individuals, and the entire liturgy for a parishioner is reduced to receiving the Holy Gifts or, in other words, receiving Communion when there’s no other communion beyond the ritual act of partaking.

The healing of such issues comes with changing of mind. The first thing is to understand that such a participation is far from being complete. If we are invited to a wedding feast, the purpose of our participation is not just eating. We share the festal meal and it is essential, because there’s no feast without a meal, but the meal itself is not the purpose. The goal is a deeper communion, which is the case for the Eucharist, which is also a meal. Here is a table with the meal served by our Bridegroom – Jesus the Lord, and we presbyters are presiders over the ceremony who offer people not our own meal but that served for us all by Jesus. The entire liturgy is a kind of long, detailed, comprehensive toast given to our God the Savior before sharing the chalice of life. So what is essential is not merely partaking of a piece of the sacred meal, but participating in the entire Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving offered by us, all the supplications, all gestures and the entire liturgy.

Lastly, we used to say that the ‘liturgy after the liturgy’ occurs when people bring out what they have experienced at the church and share it with their neighbors. But the other necessary thing is a ‘liturgy before the liturgy’, already mentioned above. We behave like those Corinthians criticized by St Paul for being consumers, coming to the liturgy only for taking something from it, not for giving or sharing. But the liturgy is formed from what we bring to it, not merely bread and wine, but what we offer in our hearts and minds also.

The liturgy can be defined as a service that is manifest when people practice Christian life everyday. They gather not only to take something, but first and foremost to give and share. A friend of mine noticed at the Kiev Summer Theological Institute, that in the Torah – the core of the Holy Scriptures – the following verse is mentioned three times: you should not come before God with your hands empty. The offering could be not only bread and wine, or oil and candles as in the Early Church, but, for instance, a human converted to Christ, according to St Paul. Thus, in the liturgy we say that our offering is the sacrifice of praise. But each sacrifice should be prepared. Do we care for preparing our own sacrifice of praise as a part of our congregational sacrifice, before we go to church?

Understanding is the first stage of growing up. Not all people can learn these things by themselves, the pastors and preachers are called to teach them. But they should teach themselves before instructing the people. So I shared with you some thoughts that are disturbing me and invite all of you to discuss this and to look for the appropriate ways for resolving the situation. Let’s make our liturgy a true communion.

Andriy Dudchenko, presbyter

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