Orthodox Worship


By Fr. Michael Azkoul

At the very center of Orthodox piety is the Holy Eucharist. It has other names — the blessing, the breaking of bread, the mystical supper, reasonable and unbloody service, the Lord's Supper and, more popularly, the Holy Communion. Always faithful to the teaching of the Lord and His Apostles, the Orthodox Church has always believed that the Holy Eucharist was and is, under the figures or signs or symbols of bread and wine, the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In fact, She has always viewed the Eucharist and the entire life of the Church as an analogy to Her Lord, an analogy based on the Christological formula of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451). Moreover, the Eucharist, other than being the Sacrament to which all others are ordained their end, and aside its being the spiritual food the believer, is the key to the entire Christian worldview.

Until the Protestant Reformation, no one in Cristendom (with a few obscure exceptions in the West, such as the 11th century Scholastic Berengarius of Tours) questioned the nature and meaning of the Eucharist. Everywhere it was acknowledged that the Eucharist is truly the precious and all holy Body d Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; but, after the falling away of the Roman Patriarchate and during a decline of Papal spiritual and temporal power (13th-16th centuries), theological controversy did arise in the West, culminating in the rejection of the Eucharist as a sacrament by many of the Reformers (Calvin, Zwingli, the Anabaptists). Necessarily, there flowed changes in attitude towards the other sacraments, the Church and Christ Himself. The Protestant Reformation, too, contributed to the progressive breakdown of the medieval worldview which had been so powerfully articulated in the Summas of Thomas Aquinas. And we are now living in a liberal, if not wholly secular, Protestant universe.

Meanwhile, in the East, the Orthodox Church ex­perienced no theological revolution and clung firmly to the testimony of the Fathers. Her fidelity has gen­erally been described by rationalistic historians as stagnation, petrification, atrophy when, in fact, it was nothing more than abiding witness to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude, 3). That tenacious loyalty meant not simply adherence to the Eucharist as the centripetal force of Her life, but the key to a vision of time and eternity which the West had virtually lost by the time of its apostasy and which, at the Reformation, had expired. The Church of Christ, the Orthodox Church, following the Fathers continued to place the Eucharist (i.e., the Divine Liturgy) before the people as the sine qua non of their faith and the Liturgy sustained them throughout all their tribulation.

A most excellent summary of the Orthodox teach­ing on the Eucharist is to be found in the fourth book, 13th chapter of the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by Saint John of Damascus. Salvation, he writes, is to establish us once more as partakers of His divinity. But that end will be achieved only after we follow in His footsteps and become by adoption what Christ is Himself by nature, sons and heirs of God and joint-heirs with Him.  He gave us therefore, as I said, a second birth in order that, just as we who are born of Adam, are in his image and are the heirs of the curse and corruption, so also being born of Christ, we may be in His likeness and heirs of His incorruption and blessing and glory. The new birth, the beginning of our perfection, accommodates human nature and, since it is compound, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible, changing and per­manent, it was meet that both the birth be double and likewise the food (of the new life) should cor­respond to that duality. We were therefore given a birth by water and the Spirit: I mean by the holy baptism; and the food is the very bread of life, our Lord Jesus Christ who came down from heaven. St. John then refers us to the Scriptural passages (Mat. xxvi, 26-28; Mark xiv, 22-24; Luke xxii, 19-20; John vi, 50 f; 1 Cor. xi, 24-26) which concern the holy Myster­ies. Then, he informs us that bread and wine are employed in the Eucharist because of their obvious comparison to flesh and blood. He connected His divinity with these and made them His body and blood in order that we may rise to what is beyond nature through that which is familiar and natural, St. John adds. The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth a body united with divinity, not that the body which was received into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into the Lord's body and blood. Now, if you inquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as God took on Himself the flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit... so the bread of the altar and the wine (and water) are mysteriously changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

Wherefore to those who partake worthily with faith, it is for the remission of sins and life everlasting and for the safe-guarding of soul and body; but to those who partake unworthily without faith, it is for chastisement and punishment, just as also the death of the Lord becomes to those who believe life and incorruption for the enjoyment of eternal blessedness while to those who do not believe and to the murderers of the Lord, it means everlasting chastisement and punishment. Later, in the same chapter, the Saint openly declares that the unworthy are not only the unrepentant or those who deny the Real Presence of the Lord in the Mysteries, but also the heretics; hence, they must not be offered the Holy Communion, lest we become partakers in their dishonour and con­demnation. For if union is truly with Christ and with one another, we are assuredly voluntarily united also with all those who partake with us. For this union is effected voluntarily and not against our inclination. 'For we are all one body because we partake of the one bread... (1 Cor. x, 17).

In his discussion on the sacrament of the Euchar­ist, Saint John of Damascus makes another important observation: This bread is the first-fruits of the future bread which is epiousios (nasushchnyi), i.e., necessary to existence. For the word epiousios (for the coming day) signifies either the future, that is Him Who is for a future age, or else Him of whom we partake for the preservation of our essence. In other terms, the Eucharist is an eschatological phenomenon: it is that life of the future given now. In the Eucharist we touch the future age, for the Body and Blood of Christ are the antitypes of the future things, the Damascene repeats. Even as Melchizedek and his sacri­fice adumbrated Christ and the mystical table, so do the Lord and the Eucharist image the life to come. Christ is the first-fruits, the first-born from the dead (Rev. i, 5) as thereby anticipating the gen­eral Resurrection — and His body is the Church — so the Eucharist as His Body and Blood, His resur­rected and deified Body and Blood, bring the Faith­ful (baptized Orthodox) into contact with the last things (ta eschata), the final age which the Fathers called the eighth day, the day or age after the seven days or ages of the present course of history. To be sure, the fulfillment of the Divine Plan, the Economy of Salvation, will not be achieved until the Second Coming; nevertheless, that End, that fulfillment, is already present in the Orthodox Church and especially in the Eucharist. Thus does St. John Chrysostom state in the Anaphora of his Liturgy that in the Eucharist Christ has endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come.

Another implication of Orthodox Eucharistology is that participation in the Body and Blood of Christ means that we partake of the divinity of Christ... for communion is an actual communion, St. John of Damascus asserts, because through it we have com­munion with Christ and share in His divinity through His flesh: yea, we have communion and are united with one another by it. For since we partake of one bread, we all become one body of Christ and one blood and members one of another, being of one body with Christ. In other words, the Eucharist forms us into a people, a unique people, a race in God, a nation which is called by Thy Name 0 Christ, our God, declares a prayer of the Matins. And, of course, anyone familiar with the New Testament knows the famous passage, But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people.. (1 Pet. ii, 9)1

Consequently, the Eucharist is not to be understood as predominantly a means to individual salvation or a stimulant to personal devotion. Too many believers have lost sight of not only the ponderous and formid­able mystery that the Eucharist is, not only the onto-logical purport of the sacrament, but that it creates the fellowship of the Church, the very unity of God's People. Holy Communion is not a personal matter, something by which we cure some illness or to protect the recipient on his journey or insure the success of some business venture; and, indeed, the Communion is not to be received only two or three times a year or as many times as the individual thinks he needs it. Ideally, the Faithful should participate in the Eucharist at every Liturgy, as the Canon Law demands. 2   We have no legal prescription here, for the canons are merely expressions of the Church's Faith which, in this case, is that the Eucharist is an act of the Church, for the Church, by the Church — for the purpose of building up, edifying (Eph. iv, 12) the Body of Christ through the constant and increased incorporation of Her sons into the Life of the God-Man. Clearly, the heterodox cannot receive the Eucharist (or any sacra­ment) of the Church under any conditions, for they are not members of the Orthodox Church — nor, indeed, do they have sacraments of their own or a church of their own, for, if they did, then, either there are two Christs or true faith is not a divinely established prerequisite for either participation in the Eucharist or membership in the Church.

But it is a universal teaching of church history, the Fathers and the Scriptures that the sacraments, a fortiori the Eucharist, exists to form, sustain and extend the Body of Christ, the holy people of God. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you, the Lord says, but he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day ... He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him... (John vi, 53-56). All the sacraments are physico-spiritual realities which reach back from the future to draw men and women and children into the life of the Trinity. In that Life, the Life of the Church, the Body of Christ, "the race of Christians" (St. Justin Martyr), "the whole and holy society of the redeemed and sanctified city" (Augustine) is offered to God the Father by Christ, the great High Priest Himself (Heb. viii, 27). It is the Chosen People of God that is of­fered and which in turn receives from God the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, that is, the Holy Spirit which is the author of our sanctification, the source of Christian unity, the fountain of truth. 3

There is no more important role for man in his religion than worship. As a matter of psychological and historical fact, he worships accordingly to what he believes — lex orandi, lex credendi. His worship (or lack of it) will always betray him. And, too, worship has always involved physical as well as emotional, in­tellectual and spiritual involvement for the simple reason that man is spirit and mind as well as matter. Thoughts, feelings and values express themselves in action — thus is ritual born. Ritual is for man, not God. But, then, what does the ritual signify? Is it no more than spontaneous gesticulation surrounded by melody and incense? Perhaps, among the primitive peoples, but the Christian Church was revealed in Graeco-Roman civilization and had at Her disposal the tradition of the synagogue and the intellectual tools of the classical scientia. Thus, Her rites were easily assembled and gradually extended and subtil­ized as what She believed was formulated.

Nevertheless, the essence of the rites remained ineffable, that is to say, that which the rites presup­posed and that for which they were designed as ves­sels, mediums of expression. The ritual aspect of worship does not block human access to the divine substratum but discloses it. For the vast majority of believers, the rites are absolutely necessary and for one, ordinarily, can all material signs be trans­cended. For example, not even the most pious monks can achieve sanctification without Holy Communion. Therefore, must the question arise — what is the re­lationship between the sign or type or symbol (i.e., the rite, the liturgy or, more precisely, the material dimension) and its referent (i.e., that spiritual reality to which it alludes)? The Liturgy or rites or ceremonies of the Church are not passion-plays or religious performances, a spectacle for the emotion­al gratification of the congregation. The ritual of the Orthodox Church signifies much more and the Divine Liturgy itself is nothing less than the anticipated real­ization of the Kingdom of God and every detail within the ritual gives expression to that wondrous truth. In a word, the Liturgy is the ritual explication of the Orthodox worldview.

The worship of the Church is not merely pedagog­ical, but a making-present the future. God the Father, God the Son (the eternal God-Man), God the Holy Spirit is present, so also thousands of Arch­angels and ten thousands of Angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim. Just before the Little Entrance, we pray, 0 Master, Lord our God... cause that with our entrance there may be an entrance of holy Angels serving with us and glorifying Thy Godness ... Of course, the Saints and the Ever-Virgin Mother of God as well as the entire church triumphant are there at the Divine Liturgy and not only the earthly memb­ers of the Church. In other words, the Eucharistic worship is the very unity of God and His People, the future happening for which the Lord prayed and His last supper — that they may be one (John xvii, 22). Yet, in the future Kingdom not only will God, men and angels be united in an organic and divine oneness, but also the cosmos itself which has awaited redemption — the unity in Christ means a divine peace, a peace the world cannot give, a unity which comprehends all things whether in heaven or earth gathered into one body (Eph. i, 10). The End, when Christ will have recapitulated all things, that age which is to come when the Father has put all things under His feet and has made Him the head over all things for the Church which is His body (Eph. i, 22-23), that time is made mysteriously present at the Liturgy. Hence, he who participates in the worship and partakes in the Body and Blood of Christ is not only receiving spiritual power but is uniting himself to all worshipers and to all time and eternity.

But what does such an incomprehensible occurrence tell us about the nature of reality? Yes, that God is immanent, that His plan is unfolding and that, surely, eternity has invaded time. The Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon witnessed to this fact when they gave us the christological formula: one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of natures in no way annulled by the union". In other words, the Incarnation, the Lord Himself, is the very sym­bol of all reality. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us that the Church is the image of the dyhypostatic Christ and the universe the image or analogy of the Church; and, to be sure, the Eucharist is the image of them all. And, incidentally, it is this same christological formula which St. John of Damascus used in his defense of the sacred icons against the Iconoclastic heretics. The universe, the Church, the Eucharist and the icon are all analogies of the Incarn­ate Word of God — they all show the unity of the visible and invisible, the divine and the human, the eternal and the contingent, the changing and unchange­able without confusion, without change, without di­vision, without separation ... . Indubitably, the same may be said for the ritual of the Church: it also re­flects the christological worldview (Weltanschauung) of Christianity.

This is the very point made by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his extremely valuable article, Sacra­ment: An Orthodox Presentation (Oecumenica: Jahrbuch fuer oekumenische Forschung (1970, 94-107). Al­though he doesn't give his argument sufficient christo­logical stress, he correctly states that the difference be­tween westernizing theology and the Orthodox way is primarily a difference in the apprehension of real­ity itself. The sacraments of the Church (and all Her ritual) are symbolic, that is, not only a way to perceive and understand reality, a means of cognition, but also a means of participation ... The institution means that by being referred to Christ, 'filled' with Christ, the symbol is fulfilled and becomes a sacra­ment . .. for it is the very nature of symbol that it re­veals and communicates the 'other' as precisely the 'other', the visibility of the invisible as invisible, the knowledge of the unknowable as unknowable, the presence of the future as future. The symbol is a means of knowledge to that which cannot be known otherwise, for knowledge here depends on particip­ation — the living encounter with and entrance into that 'epiphany' of reality which the symbol is.

The symbol is the unity of form and content, the referent is present in that which holds it and the two are united without confusion or change, each retaining its own identity. Thus, the Eucharist, the Church, the icon, the cosmos are all epiphanies as well as the sacraments (did not Saint Paul call the Church a great mystery or sacrament the uni­verse the pleroma of God?).  Any other but the chalcedonian understanding of the symbol must be heretical and lead to a vision of the universe dif­ferent from that held by the Church. For example, if there is no connection between word and/or thought and its object, then, there can be no immediate know­ledge of it and no way to be certain that the object exists at all. It follows that no worldview can be de­veloped which includes the external world (gegenstand), that out there beyond perception. All know­ledge becomes relative and language only describes states of consciousness. The self and its pain and pleasure prove to be the limits of the universe — metaphysics, mysticism, transcendent beauty, the aware­ness of God, the good and the holy all must simply vanish.

The Orthodox position, however, is epiphanal — any other position would mean the utter devastation of the Christian Revelation. Thus, we can understand the mistake of outsiders who see in the Orthodox services nothing but sterile ritualism or the splen­dor of the Liturgy; and, too, we can appreciate why the Canon Law of the Church demands the excommun­ication of the Faithful who attend the Liturgy to hear the Scriptures, but do not remain for prayer and Holy Communion (see note 2); and, too, the insistence of St. Nicephorus the Confessor upon zeon (warm water = symbol of Christ's humanity) in the Chalice. And, then, we grasp the Docetic (those who deny the reality of Christ's body) and Protestant (those who deny the organic and visible fellowship of the Church) impatience with the attention an Orthodox gives to his rite — and we know, too, why both Docetists and Protestants differ in their views with the Ortho­dox concerning God, Christ, the universe, the Euchar­ist, the Church, the icon, knowledge, etc. And, surely, the modern secularist looks upon the scrupulous Orthodox liturgizer as neurotic and his rites amus­ing antiquities. But for all true believers the Divine Liturgy, the Sacrament and Rite of the Eucharist, is the essence of the religion of Jesus Christ, the Incarn­ate Logos, the Head of the Church, the Lord of History, the Deifier of the cosmos.


 1) The modern Jew is no longer an heir of the promise made to Abraham and no longer may be called Israe" or the Peoole of God. The covenan" between God and the Jews is broken, for, as Saint Paul writes quoting the Prophet, Hosea:  Those who were not my people, I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved, I will call 'my beloved.' And in the very place where it was said to them (the Jews), 'you are not my people,' they (Gentiles) will be called 'sons of the living God.'" (Rom. ix, 25-26). And Hosea declared, And the Lord said, 'Call his name not my people, for you are not my people and I am not your God.' (Hos. i, 6). There is a new People: those formed by the new covenant of the Lord's Body and Blood — Take, eat: this is my Body ... Drink ye all of this: this is my Blood of the New Testament (covenant)... The New Testament or pact or covenant is the Eucharist, i.e., Christ. He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promise eternal inheritance, St. Paul announces (Heb. ix, 15. cf. Isa. xliii, 6; Luke i, 68-79; Gal. iii, 16-17, etc.). Old Israel has been succeeded by the Ortho­dox Church while Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, et. al are Her "forefathers". See the Feast of the Holy Forefathers (Dec. 11).

2) Apostolic Canon, 9; Council of Antioch, can. 2.

3)  It is not altogether a parenthetical observation that the Liturgy done by the Church on Sunday, the Liturgy at which the Faithful must stand, symbolizes not only the Resurrection, a reaching for higher things, the future age ... the eigth day, as Saint Basil the Great said: and not even the fact that the Sunday Liturgy is a little Easter and signifies an eternal pentecost, but also the standing indicates as it did for the ancient Hebrews, our covenant relationship with God. We Ortho­dox stand as His People, an organic unity of believers in the Son of God as sons of God. For this reason, too, we may pray, Our Father, Who art in heaven ... , since we pray in Him alone who can say, My Father ... .