The Divine Services of the Orthodox Church - Introduction
Over the past year and a half we have focused our sermons on the Sunday Gospel and Epistle readings. The Church calendar appoints special and specific Gospel and Epistle readings for each Sunday throughout the year and we have had the pleasure of journeying through these Sunday readings – recalling them, examining them, and trying to discern through them what message and lesson God is speaking to us.
Starting today, I would like to begin a new series of sermons with you examining and exploring the great richness and beauty of the Divine Liturgy and the Vigil Services of our Orthodox Church. Taking some time together to explore what is happening in the main services of the Church, why certain things are done, what is the deeper meaning, and what is the spiritual reality of what is going on – these things will help enrich our experience of attending and participating in the services of the Church. I offer these series of sermons both for those that are new to the services of the Orthodox Church and also for those of us that have been in the Church for many years… The mysteries and majesty of what takes place during our holy services is truly stunning and the depths of understanding to be gained, not only for our mind’s understanding, but for our heart and our soul’s enrichment, is an unlimited treasure.
We’ll begin our series on the divine services by first looking into the Saturday evening vigil service, which is composed of the evening vespers prayers and the morning matins prayers. After we have examined the vigil service, with God’s blessing, we will begin unfolding the wonders of the Divine Liturgy.
Today, let us prepare by talking for a moment about the origin and the purpose of the divine services. Father Seraphim Slobodskoy, in his book ‘The Law of God’, defines Divine Service as ‘the worship of God or the pleasing of God through good thoughts, words, and deeds - the fulfillment of God’s will.’1
Man was created to worship God and the disposition and hunger of our soul longs for communion with our Creator and our God. The soul is restless until it finds its rest in God.
In the beginning, in Paradise, mankind freely glorified and communicated with God. After our self-inflicted exile from Paradise through our selfish fall into sin, mankind, by God’s guidance, established the practice of sacrificial offerings. The nature of our prayer and services to God now included repentance and attempts to reconcile ourselves to God through the blood offerings.
At the time of the Prophet Moses, God directed that specific places be constructed for worship, the tabernacle and the temple, and specific people were consecrated as priests to perform the divine services. Feasts were established and ordained such as Passover, Pentecost, the New Year, and the Day of Purification.
When our Lord Jesus Christ came to earth, all of the foreshadowings of the Old Testament Church were fulfilled, the blood sacrifices gave way to the True Sacrifice of Christ and the establishment of the New Testament Church and its bloodless sacrifice of Holy Communion. The Apostolic age saw the beginning of the establishment of Churches throughout the world and ordained bishops, priests, and deacons to attend to the needs of the Church and of the faithful.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church in Corinth, instructs, ‘Let all things be done decently and in order.’ The order of the Divine Services of the Orthodox Church, as will become clear through our upcoming studies, has been established and granted life and power through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are many details and practices that we may not fully understand, but which we must receive and preserve with respect and humility… sometimes discovering later the profound significance of what seem to be minor details in the way the services are prescribed. This is the never-ending, unfolding revelation offered and available to us in the richness of our Orthodox Divine Services.
It is through our participation in the Divine Services that we enter into communion with our Lord and experience the Kingdom of Heaven while here on earth. One of things that struck me deeply as a convert to Orthodoxy was the ‘timelessness’ and ‘spacelessness’ of our Divine Services and of our Holy Temples. One can enter into the sacred space of the Church, seeing the holy icons, the vestments of the clergy, the iconostasis with its icon of Christ on the right and the icon of the Mother of God on the left, the Beautiful Gates which open to the Holy Altar. When standing in the sacred space you could be in Russia, Greece, Georgia, Romania, Serbia, America, or anywhere in the world. Observing and participating in the Divine Services, the only thing that might give away your location would be the language in which the service was conducted, but otherwise, the structure of the services are very much the same. Praying in the Holy Temple of God and hearing the Divine Services, you could be anywhere in the world and feel at home. And if one were to travel back in time over many centuries, you would still feel very much at home. The liturgy and other services would be familiar to you if you were in the early centuries of New Testament era or if you were attending today.
We step out of ordinary time and space when we enter the Church. We are truly taking a step into the eternal when we enter into the Divine Services of the Church.
And so, may God bless our efforts as we begin to explore the beauty and wisdom of the Divine Services. May we attend to all that can be learned from the richness of this treasury and may we use this to appreciate more fully and to participate more fully in the great community prayer which the Church offers to us.
- Slobodskoy, Fr. Seraphim; (1993), The Law Of God;Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery.