Ceremony and worship is an ideal that has been embedded within the human soul from the beginning of time. The soul is created to worship its creator. St Paul goes as far as stating that nature itself draws people to worship. The mystery lies within how and who to worship. Every religion has its own concept of how and who but there is one thing that every religion has in common in regards to worship: Historically speaking, worship has to do with the creative order and how thing actually happen within our natural environment. S Orthodox Christians say, matter matters!
Indigenous communities have always worshiped in ceremony. Ancient Vikings, for instance, worshiped Odin as one of their gods. The worship of Odin was tantamount to what he actually did within the Viking community, and even Viking geography. The god that crashed down the thunder and rain was the god that received equal praise! When wars were won, Odin was victorious. When migration was desired, Odin was prayed to and worshiped. Nature and Odin were inseparable. American Indians worship in very similar ways. The gods and nature were inseparable. This is not heresy, in and of itself, rather, it is directly from the image of God in man. Man desires to worship not a God of doctrine but a God of creation and wonder…a God that creates, destroys, humbles, lifts up, etc!
The Christian faith is, of course, much more complex than many of our world’s indigenous religions. Our creative order is inclusive to a love that looks much different than all other religions. God is the “Lover of Mankind” as we call him. He cares for mankind by giving mercy, energy, comfort, etc. We do the same for our fellow mankind, and all of nature in general. Our worship is the empowerment for this task! We not only recognize our God within our worship as our deity but also as our guide…as our father. Our priests and bishops represent the patriarchal aspect of God as our father. They are our earthly fathers. The priests and bishops are the fathers of the local community who guide us under the authority of the patriarch, who is the father of our particular nation.
In the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy, we pray several times for our motherland, other Orthodox countries, as well as the diaspora (Orthodox settlements outside of the motherland). The faithful are prayed for because they are a part of a real community, not just a doctrinal or even liturgical community, but a community that lives the faith both in the invisible realm and the visible.
The Divine Liturgy of the Church has always been an empowerment for us to connect with both God and mankind. We “become” gods, as Christ says. We emulate the greatest “Lover of Mankind” (as we describe God within our liturgy) by becoming empowered through the truths of the service as well as the physical gifts of the bread and wine, Christ’s body. This is the beginning of our week where we take this great commission of philanthropia to our community.
From the Lover of Mankind to Loving Mankind
The love we learn from the liturgy is philanthropic. Love is not simply about holding the right posture when in conflict but it is also about doing, taking action. Christ says our final judgment will be amongst nations and our philanthropic calling. Here is the text of Matthew 25: 31-46, which is the Gospel reading for the Diving Liturgy on Judgment Sunday, just before Great Lent:
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Father John Anthony McGuckin is a priest and scholar in the Orthodox Church. He has studied and written extensively on the subject of philanthropy in his article Embodying The New Society:
“The divine liturgy and the prayers of the hours repeated so extensively, so civically, in the life of Byzantium, spread, as it were, a tapestry of a spirituality of Philanthropia over the members of the Church, a woven garment that constantly reiterated fundamental truths about this biblical and patristic doctrine: namely that God’s abundant philanthropy was endlessly renewed over creation, that it restored the weak and the failing, and that it called out to the one who was lifted up, to lift up others in mimesis of the selfless love of God. Such was the quintessential synopsis of the Christian religion that the liturgy celebrated as the: ‘Awesome Mysteries of Christ.’ The healing it envisaged was not a spiritually disembodied one; but a one of body and soul; not an isolated individual phenomenon, but a matter of compassion for all who sail, or journey, or labour, or are sick. The liturgy teaches that it is in the communion of the philanthropic mercy of Christ, first and foremost experienced in powerlessness, that the believer truly experiences the authentic presence of the God who wishes beneficence on all; and who sets this example of philanthropy as the gold standard of discipleship…The liturgy that bears his name, represents the divine philanthropy quintessentially in the Prayer of the Trisagion that recounts God’s prevenient and abundant gifts to humankind. The same sentiment is expressed in the Preface to the Anaphora.”
Behind the Curtain is the Beginning of Community
The Liturgy is such an important aspect of our commission that we begin not only the theological and spiritual aspect of it within this service but it is where we also have a history of beginning our social aspect of Christ’s commission.
Behind the Iconostasis of our Orthodox temples, on the left corner is what we call the Table of Prothesis. This table is where the gifts of bread and wine are prepared by the clergy for the distribution of the people. The Prothesis developed within the empire from a separate room attached to the church called the skeuophylakia. This was a room where the layity brought their gifts to be given to the poor and needy. There was always bread given and it was that bread which was used for the Eucharistic consecration. The skeuophylakia was the deacon’s area and it was the deacon who would actually pray the Prothesis prayers over the bread and wine to then bring to the altar for the priest to consecrate. As the empire grew, so did this philanthropic ministry. The skeuophylakia could no longer hold all of the goods to be distributed and so other ‘food pantry’ and kitchen ministries were formed. The priest then took over the Prothesis prayer at that point in history.
The Orthodox Church continued to be the welfare ministry of society throughout the centuries, even to this day within many Orthodox societies. In secular societies such as America, the Orthodox church does not plant a mission with the skeuophylakia philosophy. The secular non-profits and western churches already have completely capitalized on this need, leaving American Orthodox church planting to very humble beginnings, without this philanthropic thrust (and door) to build the parish.
The more we look in to the history of the Church the more that we can see how the Church was not limited to the temples. She began as a prayer community that helped the needy wherever they could, and when they were able to begin building public temples, they built them with philanthropic centers which later expanded into entire rehab centers, hospitals, etc.
Community is central to the Church’s understanding of the gospel and the Byzantine Empire clearly displays this fact: Its creation of the Holy Scripture, Canons, Christian civil code, and everything Christ commands us to do for community.
For obvious reasons, the Church outgrew the philanthropic aspect of the Prothesis table as the empire grew, but it remains within our temples as that very table where community begins. We still prepare the heavenly gifts there and we still believe that the Church has a primary mission to serve our community with this table, only through larger and more organized means. But in America, the tide has turned and the secular community has primary control of philanthropy. This is where the diaconal ministry becomes quite vital. It is the duty of the deacon to serve the poor and needy. Rather than trying to overtake the secular corporations and non-profit, the deacons can begin organizing a more personalized ministry to the poor and needy within the Church. Perhaps American Orthodoxy can begin to emphasize the role of the deacon and its necessity within the parish. From this ministry could very well be the door back to our American Orthodox community.
Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite
Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy