“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 splendor 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.” -St John of Kronstadt
In my early years as a Christian, it was easy for me to dismiss liturgy as being ritualistic. Unfortunately, there are too many anecdotes that validated my belief. As I matured over the years, I observed two things. First, many who dismissed liturgy as ritualistic only replaced one form of liturgy with another, albeit a much simpler one. For example, at the Vineyard, we had an unspoken liturgy that we followed at virtually every service — 30-45 minutes of singing, announcements, sermon, altar call, and then prayer time. Similar liturgies were performed in other churches and denominations I attended.
The second thing I observed is that liturgy is truly life-giving. Within its well-thought movements, a community can commune with God. That’s because liturgy is a divine “drama,” an embodied story infused with God’s grace that is grounded in time and space and simultaneously spans across time and space.
Grounded within time and space, liturgy at its best, engages the entire person and community. As expressed in the quote above, God uses “everyday” tangible elements within the liturgy to transmit his presence to his worshippers. Simple things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and pictures combined with physical activities like crossing oneself, lighting a candle, and kissing an icon or the Gospel book join us with this grace-infused drama. Our entire being enters into worship and communion with God. And we experience this together as a community, young and old, carrying the entire spectrum of human thought, emotion and experience.
Transcending time and space, liturgy at its best, unites us with God’s family through the ages, generations who have come before and the generations who will come after. And it also unites us with our past younger worshipping selves as a child or young adult and with our future older worshipping selves. And ultimately, liturgy is a moment when God’s future New Creation manifests within the present creation. It’s when the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom becomes tangibly more “now.” It’s that special moment that the Bible calls “kairos” when the New Creation manifests itself concretely within the fabric of history.
But all of this can be easily missed when one attends liturgy. Instead of flashing lights, one sees the flickering of candles. Instead of peals of thunders, one hears the quiet refrains of “Lord, have mercy.” Instead of a majestic vision of God’s throne room, one watches a humble priest praying for God’s people. Instead of saints glowing with glory, one sees normal people stretching their aching backs, fighting distraction, shuffling their tired feet, praying, bowing, crossing themselves, and eating bread and wine in reverence and devotion.
And through it all normal people receive Life as they commune with God, each other and all God’s worshippers through time and space.