by Gjergji Evangjeli
In conversation with a Protestant friend, the topic of the difference in worship between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations came up. While for most of the latter worship consists mostly of preaching and singing, I believe the function of the Divine Liturgy and the Roman Catholic Mass is rather different. I will be focusing on the Divine Liturgy specifically, but I think a similar analysis of the Novus Ordo and Tridentine Masses in the Western Church will yield much of the same conclusions. In addition, the Divide Liturgy—which is both used by Eastern Catholics and part of the common tradition of the Eastern and Western Churches—provides a grounding for the subsequent Masses that are currently used in the West.
In my estimation, the interpretive key for the Divine Liturgy occurs in a ritualized exchange between the deacon and the priest that occurs at the beginning of the Liturgy. “It is time for the Lord to act,” the deacon says as he approaches the priest, he then asks for the priest’s blessing and the latter responds, “May the Lord direct your steps.” While this may seem like merely a contrived “conversation,” it is actually inspired from Psalm 119 (118), which goes, “It is time for the Lord to act, for your law has been broken… Truly I direct my steps by all your precepts, I hate every false way” (Ps. 119: 126, 128). The early Christians—especially the monastics, who were required to read the Psalms every week as part of their discipline—would have caught the reference.
From this, we can draw a few conclusions. First, the worship in the Liturgy is God in action, not man. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, commenting on this point, says that the priest merely lends his voice and his hands. Second, in the omitted part we are reminded that God’s law has been broken. Of course, Christ ultimately comes to set right this brokenness. The Divine Liturgy, then, is also a triumphal celebration of Christ’s victory. Keeping these two points in mind, it is clear that unlike the aforementioned Protestant services, the focus of the Divine Liturgy cannot be on the Liturgy of the Word, though it is quite important.
The focus of the Liturgy, rather, is the celebration of the Eucharist. First, it is clear that turning the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord is not man’s work. No one compels God. Rather, it is the Holy Spirit that accomplishes this act. In fact, He accomplishes far more. On what could be the first example of an attack on the real presence, an 11th century deacon in Constantinople started teaching that the Eucharist is the representation of the Mystical Supper and no more. At length, a local council was assembled, the deacon in question was excommunicated, and the following point was made: the Eucharist does not “represent” the Last Supper; it re-presents us into the Last Supper, so that when we hear the words of installation, we are truly listening to Christ through the priest’s voice. Due to this, the Eucharist represents the Unity of the Church, because through it, all believers are united into the one mystical body of Christ, including those who have passed away and those who are far remote. In fact, it includes even those who are yet to be.
Second, the Eucharist is the cosmic triumphal celebration of Christ’s victory. Dr. Scott Hahn and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI ask a simple question: “How do the Jewish followers of Jesus jump from seeing what happened on Good Friday as a sacrifice rather than an execution?” The answer has to be in what occurred on Holy Thursday. On Passover, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in order to make a blood offering for the expiation of sins of the nation of Israel for that year. Following this, he would sprinkle with blood those gathered outside. Christ, on the other hand, offers His Body and His Blood to his apostles on the eve of His sacrifice, telling them that He offers these for them and for the many, for the forgiveness of sins. While the High Priest marks those for whom the sacrificed is offered on the outside, however, Christ marks His followers on the inside and while the High Priest’s sacrifice only suffices for one year, Christ’s is sufficient for all sin for all those who truly turn to Him in repentance. Following this, then, He returned from the dead, so that He might become “the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things,” as the Divine Liturgy according to St. Basil reminds us. In the Liturgy, believers are mystically present at Christ’s sacrifice and His resurrection, thus being witnesses of His victory over sin and death.
The Orthodox and Catholic Liturgy, therefore, is quite different in scope to Protestant worship. That is not to say that the latter—focusing as it does on teaching the faith—does not have much merit, but the aforementioned element is lacking in it.