Sunday, May 2, 2010

Let Us Attend: Part 1

Last weekend we were finally able to give again.  It's been a long time since we've even tithed.  Not because we haven't wanted to, mind you, but we were waiting to find a church to belong to--and as such to give regularly to.  Having found this, we were able to express freedom and love in one fell swoop.  This is just introduction.  Thank you for reading.  Now let's move on from personal to religious affections.  (That's right.  Jonathan Edwards in an Orthodox blog.  Thought I'd put that out there for my Protestant brethren.)

I picked up a copy of Fr. Lawrence Farley's Let Us Attend: A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  If you haven't had a chance to read it, you can find it at Amazon and Conciliar Press.  I had listened to Dcn. Michael Hyatt's "At the Intersection of East and West" podcast about Fr. Schmemann's For the Life of the World, so this isn't new material on an intellectual level; but I've never been so blown away by the profound simplicity of the journey that is the Divine Liturgy.  Today was an example of that realization coming home to me.  I kinda want to take some time and process this book as I read it.

Destination: The Kingdom of Heaven.  When the priest stands up at the front of the church, makes the sign of the cross with the Gospel book, and makes the opening benediction, he is inviting everyone around him--the whole world--to come with him on a journey to the Kingdom of Heaven.  I'm sure most of you realize this, have read it, or have heard it explained to you before.  To me, this is revolutionary.
        As a Protestant so much of our services seemed to be focused on "getting God to show up;" as though if we sang the right songs, prayed the right prayers, and preached out of the right book (biblical or not), then God would show up and we'd sense His presence in an exciting way that moved everyone in the room to tears.  All very contrived.  All very artificial.  All very subjective.  All of it dependent on the person in the pew, and if you don't have that experience it's that other person's fault.  (so there!)
        We've now been going to an Orthodox church for a month, and the expression "God really showed up today" has yet to be said.  If this were a new Protestant church, I'd be tempted to blame it on the music, the preaching, the whatever.  I think the reason no one says that in the Orthodox church, is because it's assumed that God is there already; and we're on a journey to meet Him.  He's there whether we realize it or not, but what a brilliant experience of transcendence if we're able to recognize His presence among us and celebrate along with the whole of Creation in its beauty.  God is in this place.  Come and meet Him.  That's what I hear the priest say when he invites us to come along to the Kingdom.

Reminder/Invitation: Right after the priest sets our spiritual compass toward the Kingdom, we pray.  We pray for everything and everyone.  According to Fr. Lawrence, this is called either the Litany of Peace or the Great Litany, depending on the church or the person.  Apparently, this was once said right after the Catechumens went out of the room and before the Faithful took communion.  It wasn't until the 13th century that it found its home at the front of the service. 
        Fr. Lawrence describes this action as an incredible act of love.  That the Church gathers into its arms the hurting, the poor, the lost, the suffering, the defenseless and places them before the Throne.  "[The Church] may think their work hopeless and beyond their strength.  But in this petition, the Church invokes a strength beyond theirs; and all such workers for peace, whether Christian or not, are helped by the Christian God, the Savior and Lover of all men, and the Giver of peace to His world." (Farley, pg. 18)  Everything in the natural and political world is prayed for.
        Praying for mercy at the end of each petition, the Church is asking for God's covenant loyalty or hesed.  i was really struck by this idea.  When I first heard "Lord have mercy" in my first Orthodox services, I was taken aback by how pejorative it sounded--as if God were angry and needing to be appeased by our feeble, human petitions.  This isn't the case!  This is about calling on God to remember His loving kindness and everlasting loyalty.  Christ's promise before leaving this world was, "I am always with you."  We're taking that promise to heart and asking Him to be with everyone--this whole sick, broken, twisted, dark planet that He came to save.  It's like the church invites everyone to come along with them on that journey to the Kingdom.  "Give me your huddle masses..." and let me care for them, she says to the world that is so tilted and slanted towards the rich and powerful.  Whoever you are, whatever you've done, come to the Table and taste of the good things of the Lord!
        I know that, technically, the priest gives the invitation; but the people gathered, the laity--the people of God--echo that invitation to those around them (both inside and outside) to come and see.  We're not just inviting people to church so that hopefully they'll pray the prayer and escape the fires of hell and the fear of the "rapture".  We're inviting people to a celebration, and singing festal songs as we go.  I was realizing today that the Antiphons are really processional/festival songs.  In the OCA we sing Psalm 102/3, 104 and the Beattitudes.  We sing to "hallel" Psalms (Bless the Lord, Oh my soul... and Praise the Lord, oh my soul...) and then remind ourselves what Kingdom citizens look like: poor in spirit, meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the persecuted--outcasts and underdogs whose God loves them and blesses them and invites them to have a relationship with Him.

I'm still processing all of this.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that, it's not about God showing up and us having an experience to tell others.  It's about going to meet God, experiencing His real presence in our lives, and telling others of the love that we've found.  God doesn't "show up".  We show up; and He invites us to follow Him further up and further in, singing as we go.

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