Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lay Aside All Earthly Cares

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Lay aside all earthly cares"

At the beginning of the liturgical year (September 1) I usually try and review our liturgical theology and liturgical practices, so that such a review may lead to a renewal of our understanding and experience of the Divine Liturgy. Actually, what may be a review for older members of the parish may simultaneously serve as a form of catechesis for newer members and inquirers who are worshiping with us. The Liturgy - culminating in the Eucharist - always remains at the very heart of our parish life, for everything in parish life begins, develops and is sustained by our communal eucharistic experience. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann would say, the Eucharist "constitutes" the Church as the Body of Christ and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. As we "depart in peace" at the end of the Liturgy, we bring that peace to our personal practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and to our community-based ministries that not only build up the life of the parish, but which offer service to the world in the name of Christ. We are, ultimately, set apart from the world as a eucharistic people.

What do we bring to the Liturgy on a given Sunday morning? In addition to our faith in Christ as our Savior and the One that we encounter and partake of in the Eucharist, I would also hope a sense of anticipation for that very encounter. I would further hope that it is not only social events, entertainment and sporting events that create, even within adults, that child-like eagerness of looking forward to something. If coming to church on Sunday morning becomes an "obligation" or "duty," then I believe something is missing. That would be a "recipe" for boredom, restlessness, distraction or even listlessness. Fulfilling a religious obligation may lead to a sense of satisfaction in doing what is expected of us as Orthodox Christians; but it would hardly culminate in the joy and "burning of heart" that characterize an encounter with the Risen Lord. Examining our faith and our priorities may lead to the renewal that we need to periodically experience in order to recapture an enthusiasm for the Liturgy that we may have lost along the way.

To eagerly anticipate the Liturgy on the Lord's Day may also create in us a sense of preparation. I have written of this elsewhere in my booklet The Divine Liturgy - Meaning, Preparation and Practice, and am now simply sharing that again. Some of this is very practical in nature, but it is meant to offer some pastoral suggestions that could help us focus better when preparing for church:

Our preparation begins well before we will walk through the doors of the church on Sunday morning: actually, the Lord's Day begins with the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evening. The new liturgical day begins at sunset when Great Vespers is served; for the Scriptures say: "And there was evening and there was morning, one day." (GEN. 1:5)

Bearing this liturgical cycle in mind, we know upon awakening Sunday morning that this day is special, for it is the day of our assembly together as the Body of Christ. (The word church is from the Greek ekklesia, meaning those who are "called out" to assemble so as to perform a common task). Already, in our homes, we begin to "lay aside all earthly cares" (Cherubic Hymn), so that when we reach the church we are not overly distracted with the things of "this world" during the Liturgy. Practically, this means the following: to refrain from watching or listening to the television, radio, or stereo when preparing for church; even the newspaper and other forms of superficial reading can wait until we return home. This is all part of that fasting which will be broken or, rather, fulfilled when we receive Holy Communion. The impact on young children will be one of reinforcing the unique quality of the Lord's Day. Things are done differently; the house is more peaceful or quiet (no guarantees, of course!). If we are well up before we leave for church, part of our preparation could include reading the appointed scriptural passages (alone or together with our children) that will shortly be proclaimed in a liturgical setting. There are the pre-Communion prayers, lives of the saints, spiritual (or simply good, intelligent) literature, etc. that we could turn to. And there is the total fast from food and drink.

Our preparation before entering the church is quiet and purposeful; we have a destination - the Kingdom of God! That is why our preparation is joyful and light, though sober. Our fasting on Sunday morning is then something easily assumed, for we know that we await the riches of the Kingdom of the Divine Liturgy.

As the People of God - the laos tou Theou - we have "work" to do at the Divine Liturgy. Hieromonk Gregorios, in his remarkable book The Divine Liturgy - A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, explains this nicely based on the very meaning of the word liturgy:

The Greek word leitourgia is a compound of leitos, meaning 'common' or 'public', and ergon meaning 'work'. So leitourgia means a common work, a work of the people. Thus the designation Liturgy cogently manifests the fact that the faithful actively participate in the eucharistic Mystery, and that without their presence and consent the priest is unable to celebrate. (p. 110)

Preparation is essential for the common and wholly unique work of the Divine Liturgy to be done "decently and in order," but with zeal and a love for God that is the only genuine response to God's love of us and the entire world (kosmos). This preparation is basically internal - the work of the mind and the heart - but not only is it not less real because of that, but perhaps more real as it touches the very nature of our being human and created "in the image and likeness of God."

Feel free to forward any questions that you may have about the meaning, preparation and practice of the Divine Liturgy.

Fr. Steven

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