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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.)

For being such a slim volume, this book is heavy with the weight of glory. The Prayer Book of the Early Christians is a collection of prayers and prayer services modeled after the liturgies left to us from the ancient Church and used today in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And having drawn from such deep wells, this prayer book presents its reader/user/pray-er with a treasury of “prayers that have been tried and proved” (p. ix). I am thankful to John McGuckin for editing this collection (and to Paraclete Press for sending me a copy to review). As I’ve used it over the past week and a half, I’ve noticed a few things worth sharing here.

(1) This method of prayer differs from what most of us evangelical-flavored Protestants have been taught. I’m not just referring to the many passages in the book which invite the Theotokos and the saints to intercede for us. (That deserves its own post.) The different I’m referring to here is that, in my experience, our approach to prayer relies heavily on feeling. We want to pray extemporaneously with feeling, from the heart. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of quenching prayer whenever we don’t feel like praying. Correcting this, McGuckin writes in the introduction:

It does not really matter whether we feel fervent or dry as a bone.  It does not really matter whether we feel God’s presence breathing on our face or feel as if he is locked up behind a bronze heaven, never showing a sign of his presence.  What matters is how he sees us.  We do not need to ‘feel’ his presence at every turn, when we know, by faith, that he is more present to us, at every moment of our life, than we are present to ourselves or our most beloved family.  And if at morning and night we present ourselves before God and sing his praise, we have (no question about it) stood in the presence of Christ, prayed along with Christ our High Priest in the pure presence of the Holy Spirit of God, and offered our prayer like incense in the sight of the Father. (p. xiv)

Showing devotion through our actions, especially when our hearts don’t want to do so, can be one way to cultivate the heart’s participation in prayer. Over time, the disciplined practice of these prayers will yield the fruit of an inner disposition of fear, reverence, and deep love of God.

(2) This approach to prayer also requires a different relationship to timeIf you’re already accustomed to using prescribed prayers for different hours of the day, you might be used to shorter liturgies. One can pray through an office of The Divine Hours or Celtic Daily Prayer relatively quickly.  These take longer.  It took me thirty minutes to pray through the Matins liturgy on Sunday morning.  McGuckin notes that “Twenty minutes seems a long time for a pressed twenty-first-century dweller,” but once we dive into these longer and richer prayers, “those who swim the ocean of prayer find that time starts shrinking” (p. xv). Increased time spent in prayer is never something to regret. It’s time spent in the life-giving Light of Christ, and the more we experience this Light, the longer we’ll want to bathe in it.

(3) These are serious prayers.  There is a sort of joyful heaviness which permeates the prayers shared here. Though always mindful of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and our common hope of resurrection, most of these prayers have a somber, repentant tone. The Psalms included in the liturgies are Psalms of battle and lament. The selected prayers in Parts 2 and 3 include prayers of repentance like this:

Lord I stand knocking at the door of your compassion, seeking your forgiveness.  By evil I have been kept from the path of life.  My mouth has not praised you; my feet have not walked in your holy place.  Lover of our race, have pity on me. Your who are the splendor of the Father give light of my eyes that I may give thanks for your grace.  I have lain in darkness in this deceit-filled world.  Morning has passed and I did not repent.  Evening has fallen and my sins have increased.  But let your compassion now ascend before my face. (p. 162)

A few may catch the reader off-guard, only to reveal their profound meaning upon deeper meditation. For an example, read the fifth-century vegetarian grace before eating which includes these lines:

Far from us that hungering lust / That craves a bloody feast, / And tears apart the flesh of beasts. / Such wild banquets, made from slaughtered flocks, / Are fit only for barbarians. / For us, the olive, wheat, and ripening fruits, / And vegetables of every kind: / These compose our righteous feast. (pp. 184-185)

At first, I laughed at the “I thank you God that I’m not a carnivore” tone of this prayer (see Luke 18:11). But when I considered its deeper meaning, I was humbled and convicted.  The person praying this is thanking God for simplicity, not luxury.  How often do we thank God for the ability to make do with less?  And the person who prays this acknowledges the violence inflicted upon creation by our appetites.  When we eat meat, how often do we really give thanks for the lives of the animals whose flesh we consume? I’m not a vegetarian (at least for most of the year), but God did use this prayer to convict me about the excesses in my own consumption of food.  It seems these prayers provide avenues not only for us to speak to God, but for God to speak to us.

(4) The book closes with a brief note on the Jesus Prayer, and an invitation to check out the movie about it which McGuckin produced: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Much could be (and has been) written about the Jesus Prayer, but if the few pages about the Jesus Prayer here pique your interest, do check out the movie. It’s worth watching not just for an introduction to the Jesus Prayer, but for its portrayal of the entire ethos of prayer conveyed in this prayer book.  The film provides new depth and perspective as it displays the monasteries where these prayers have been prayed for centuries – the environments where these prayers have been “tried and proved.”