Worship should take us on a journey into the Light of the Kingdom of God. This movement towards heaven is the driving force behind Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s new book Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the surface level, the book is a clear and readable explanation of Orthodox beliefs and worship. But at the heart of the book lies an invitation to be transfigured in the Light of Christ through worship.
As the subtitle suggests, this book is an insider’s look at Orthodox liturgy. As an outsider, I found Papavassiliou’s descriptions of the liturgy clarified both my understanding of and questions about Orthodox worship. While I’ve read a good amount about Orthodoxy, I still feel dizzy when I have the cross-cultural experience of an Orthodox worship service. When I’ve worshiped at Orthodox churches or at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary here in Pittsburgh, I’ve known that I should simply ask more questions, but I haven’t known where to begin. This book asks and answers many of those questions. Papavassiliou also has a gift for succinctly communicating Orthodox theology in ways that any Christian can understand, often using sidebars in the book for deeper explanations of certain topics. For example, the sidebar on page 22 is the most concise and clear explanation of the veneration of icons I’ve read.
Papavassilou also explains the nuances of what happens behind the iconostasis in ways that would enrich even an insider’s understanding of Orthodoxy. For example, chapter 7 is dedicated to explaining the use of Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Hebrew and Protestant numbering) in the Divine Liturgy. This psalm of repentance is recited before the consecration of Eucharist because, “It is repentance that opens the gates of heaven to us” (p. 65). But there’s more than meets the eye going on here: Anyone familiar with the psalm may have noticed that there seems to be a change in tone between verse 17 and verse 18. Before this change we read “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (NASB). Then verse 19 speaks of God delighting in “righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering” and “young bulls” being offered on God’s altar. The first portion of this psalm is recited during the Divine Liturgy when the not-yet-consecrated communion elements are processed throughout the church. Then there is actually a pause between verses 17 and 18 during which the priest places the bread and wine upon the altar. Then he completes the psalm demonstrating symbolically that Christ is the one righteous sacrifice Who replaces all earthly sacrifices with the offering of Himself. As the book demonstrates, this sort of poetic beauty permeates Orthodox worship, with deeper nuances always awaiting discovery.
Such beauty is a reflection of the Light of the Kingdom, the Light into which worshipers enter through the liturgy. With the liturgy’s “very goal and purpose being participation in the divine Mysteries” (pp. 82-83), all of the elements of the service are explained as preparation for entry into the presence of Christ. The hymn which follows reception of communion says, “We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith, as we worship the undivided Trinity. For the Trinity has saved us!” (p. 169). The reception of Christ in the Eucharist transfigures Christians that we may bear His Light to the world. And this means that there is a missional component to even the other-worldly worship of Orthodoxy. As Papavassiliou writes, “We leave the world that we may return to it renewed and illumined, fit to bring light to those in darkness” (p. 18). Amen. In the Lord’s light may we see light, and may others see Christ’s light in us.
(Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing this book with me.)