From The Blog

Mission Monthly – November 2005

“The liturgical service takes place on earth, but it belongs to the realm of heavenly realities. In fact it was not instituted by a human being or an angel, but by the Spirit Himself, so that those who are still living in the flesh should think of performing the service of angels. Oh what mercy, oh what love of God for human beings! Christ, who is seated with the Father in highest heaven, is at that moment grasped by the hands of all and does not hesitate to give Himself to anyone who wants to embrace Him and be bound to Him.”

St. John Chrysostom

The word “institution” is one which arouses either feelings of security and stability or feelings of scorn and suspicion. This can be challenging for those of us who belong to the “institutional” Church of Christ; be it with our own experiences with things “institutional” or with the open ridicule we receive from cynics and critics.

Theologically it is relatively easy to discourse on heavenly realities expressed in the revealed Word: worship, hymnography, iconography, and the architecture of the Church. But because man is in the world and many times more connected to the world— even theologically—than to heaven, it seems that for many it is not only difficult to believe that God could become a man, it is consequently difficult to believe that God’s Church could be anything other than a “man-made institution”.

For practical reasons the Divine Liturgy is presided over by the local priest assigned by the bishop to represent him in his absence. (I pray that as we grow as a community in a strong diocese led by a strong diocesan bishop, we may come to know even more completely the fullness of worship when the hierarch is present.) The Hierarchical Divine Liturgy begins with the deacon saying to the bishop,

“Bless Master, it is time for the Lord to act.” With these beautiful words time as we know it is suspended and we enter the eternal, heavenly place of worship. The bishop, the icon of Christ Himself, then proclaims, “Blessed is the Kingdom” and the faithful exclaim “Amen!” This blessing is nothing other than the pronouncement that we are no longer gathered around an earthly table, in an earthly building, but rather around THE heavenly altar upon which lay the Word and Lamb of God; and together with the Angels and Saints, we too proclaim, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabbaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!”

Our “understanding” of the mystery of this worship has no bearing on its truth and power. All who are present—and one might assert even the whole world—are swept up in this Divine Action. Each of us, whether named or not, are offered to God in the action of the Liturgy. The prayers following the consecration of the Holy Eucharist state this clearly, “Furthermore we offer unto Thee this our reasonable worship on behalf of the whole world” The most powerful work of this Divine Action, therefore, is not what we are doing but rather what is being done to us in the service and participation of the Liturgy as “the work of God’s people.”

There can be no doubt that the Church is “institutional.” The worn-out question so often asked is, upon what institution is it founded: the institution of heaven or the institution of men? We have very specific instructions from Scripture in the Old Testament about how God is to be worshipped. The Old t’s Messianic fulfillment in Christ led the Apostles and their successors to the beginnings of worship as we know it today. Scripture and Tradition did not create that which is eternal; rather they harmoniously reveal that which is heavenly by the grace and action of the Holy Spirit. How could it be any other way? Would God Who loves us and offers Himself to us and Who, “is grasped by the hands of all and does not hesitate to give Himself to anyone who wants to embrace Him and be bound to Him” leave us to figure it out for ourselves?

Though it is not commonly known or practiced the following prayer is to be prayed by all who enter God’s House, “I will come into Thy house in the multitude of Thy mercy; and in fear I will worship toward Thy holy temple. Lead me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make Thy way straight before me, that with a clear mind I may glorify Thee forever, One Godhead in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.” God’s holy tabernacle is heaven itself and it is towards this that we move and enter not only in the service of the Liturgy but even as we enter the church building itself. This is God’s great love and mercy for us, and is why we must make every effort to present ourselves faithfully, regularly, timely and modestly. There are many acts of devotion that we must “again and again” put into practice if we truly care to be “bound” to Christ, but there is none like the worship we are called to in the heavenly “institution” of God’s Holy Church.