God in Ceremony
“Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” (Deut. 32:1-2). Moses wrote these words shortly before his death. Just as he completed the Torah, he had a glimpse of the Resurrection. The first covenant was freshly carved in stone, when Moses prophecied about a new and greater covenant, when the Holy Spirit would overshadow our hearts like rain showering grass. This is the same event that Christ forewarns in our gospel today: “The Spirit of Truth will come. He will guide you into all truth.” So where is this “all truth”? January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall struck gold in California. In little to no time, some 300,000 people went west to try their luck, in an era known as the Gold Rush. Faint rumors of gold were enough to capture imaginations and motivate incredible bravery. How much more motivated should we be to seek out God’s wisdom. King Solomon wrote: “How much better to get wisdom than gold” (Pr. 16:16). “Wisdom is better than rubies, and all the thing one may desire cannot be compared with her” (8:11). “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who retain her” (3:17-18). Before ascending to heaven, Christ promised us the Holy Spirit, who would come to lead us into “all truth,” a treasure more precious than all wealth and worldly success. Such a promise — how do we get our fill of it? The Holy Spirit came and left us this wealth in the prayers and services of the Church. “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn. 16:5-7). This Gospel is about the Church. Christ did not stop with the Resurrection. He conquered death and shattered hades. Yet, even then, our Lord had more plans. He was not content to be resurrected himself, but desired all of us to be able to participate in that resurrection. By ascending into heaven, Christ pulled humanity into heaven. You have to see Ascension and Pentecost as one and the same great event. Humanity goes up and Divinity goes down. Man and God are married together. What does all this mean? It is life in the Church. The Resurrection was not complete without the formation of the Church. God’s gift of the Resurrection is given us in every fiber, and every word, of the Church. Today, I want to look at the importance of our Church’s liturgical prayers: all the words and rituals in our Mass and all the daily prayers in the Divine Office. We cannot appreciate this enough. These services are God’s words. This is the rain from heaven. It is the medicine for our souls. The Mass, the Holy Scriptures, Vespers and Matins, and the whole liturgical life embody the Holy Spirit’s presence on earth, and our happiness depends on our dedication to living them. What were the Christians doing in the first few centuries? They were “assembling” — i.e. doing the Mass. Christians came together for Mass long before St. Paul wrote his letters or any of the Gospels were written. The Book of Acts says of the Church, “While they were worshipping and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke” (13:3). In Greek, it says more literally, “While they were liturgizing (‘leitorgia’, ‘doing Mass’) and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke.” Further a long, we read in Acts that the disciples were “passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees (in Greek: ‘traditioning the dogmas’). This ‘traditioning’, the prayers and teaching, all took place within Mass. When the apostles died, the Church continued the same. They were not around to teach in person, so the Church began to recite the apostle’s letters in the Mass (the epistle and gospel readings). Though the apostles could no longer lead the ceremony, the Church continued to pray their same words, long since memorized and recorded, the Canon of the Mass. Our Mass, the Mass of St. Gregory, goes back to the very first century. It is sometimes called the Liturgy of St. Peter, because many of its words are attributed to St. Peter directly. Christians have long considered the words of Mass to be the primary witness of God’s revelation. It is for this reason that we hold up the Scriptures with such reverence. The Scriptures are the outflowing of the Mass, the fruit of the Mass. The Church came together for Mass for three hundred years before putting together the New Testament books, and the infallible words of Scripture are forever linked to and inseparable from Mass. Yet, the Scriptures are not God’s sole source of revelation. God’s “all truth” is handed down to us in the Church’s entire liturgical life: in the Mass, the Scriptures, the Divine Office, and all our rituals and ceremonies. “Hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew.” What are we supposed to hear? Words, pictures, robes, hymns, all these rituals — this is God speaking to us. We must listen. St. John of Kronstadt explained: “The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendour of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” How can we enter into our worship more reverently? How can we immerse ourselves more fully in the prayers of the Church? These questions should keep us up at night. This should inspire all our life drives, with more zeal than the zeal of the gold rush. Do you want to hear from God? Put your heart into our liturgy. The ceremony of Mass is just part of it. Nowadays, we tend to think of Mass and the other services (Vespers, Matins, and the like) as separate from one another. In actuallity, the daily services are the handmaid of Mass. They are inspired by the same Holy Spirit in the Mass, and they prepare our souls for Mass. In fine restaurants, you never eat the main meal without first enjoying an appetizer and a drink or two. This prepares your palate, and allows you to better cherish the main course. Vespers, Matins, and the daily services of the Church are the same. The importance of these services has weighed on my heart for these past few weeks, because of an experience in Bright Week. We sang “Christ is Risen” on Pascha Sunday. Then Monday came along, and the rest of Bright Week. For the Orthodox, Easter Day is eight days long — a whole week stretched out with rich prayers and celebration. Yet, because of Covid-19, none of us could celebrate at church. Bright Monday came, standing in home praying the Paschal Lauds, I was overwhelmed by the significance of the Divine Office. Its prayers pour the power of Mass out into the world, so that even if we are barred from Church, we have the same Grace with us. Listen to these words:
“Light’s glittering morn bedecks the sky, Heaven thunders forth its victor cry, The glad earth shouts its triumph high, and groaning hell makes wild reply: While he, the King of glorious might, Treads down death’s strength in death’sdespite, and trampling hell by victor’s right, brings forth his sleeping saints to light.” Let us bless the Lord, alleluia, alleluia.”
You cannot say these prayers without feeling lifted up out of life’s mundainity into the Kingdom. Each day of the year, and each hour of the day, has its own specific prayers that carry us in the sacramental life of the Church. Composed centuries ago, these prayers have been lifted up as one voice by the saints and angels. The Divine Office is an garden of scriptural prophecies, poetic illustrations, and the highest, dogmatic teachings of the Church. Two weeks before the Ascension, Christ promises us that the Holy Spirit will come. He will guide us into all truth. The Holy Spirit has guided us in every century through the scriptures and prayers of the Church. If we open our souls and anchor our hearts, we will find here, in Mass and the Divine Offices, the bottomless well of living water. “Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” (Deut. 32:1-32). May God nurture a hunger within us for His holy words, and grant us rest eternal in His wisdom.