Churches are sometimes described as either “liturgical” or “evangelical.” Liturgical churches focus on the ritual or the “liturgy,” while preaching takes a lesser significance. In evangelical churches the sermon is the heart of worship, and the prayers surrounding it are secondary and often vary. The Orthodox Church is liturgical, though Orthodox Christians would argue that it is also evangelical because it teaches and follows the “evangelion” (“good news” or gospel) to the fullest extent humanly possibly.
Why is ritual or “liturgy” so important to Orthodox Christians?
(1) There is liturgy in the Bible- the kingdom of heaven is depicted as a place where God is worshipped by angels and saints bowing down, singing and praising God. Revelation 4 is particularly impressive, as is the Prophet Isaiah, who writes,
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.”
(2) The Apostles continued to follow the Hebrew ritual even after the Lord’s death and resurrection. One of the first miracles performed by Sts. Peter and John happened while they were walking to the
(3) The Lord himself established rituals. He commanded all nations to be baptized. He directed that the Apostles remember his death and resurrection by sharing the bread and the wine of the Last Supper.
(4) Ritual uses repetition to teach and to deepen the knowledge of people. We repeat certain prayers over and over again because the basic conditions of life and of salvation are always the same. Perhaps the most common expression in Orthodox worship is the phrase, “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy”). Always the same, it may seem superfluous, but it reminds us that the most important element in our salvation is God’s mercy- we are saved by grace, not works. There are many similar lessons expressed in the repetitive nature of worship.
Most important of all the reasons is this: Worship and especially the sacraments are personal, intimate encounters with the Lord. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him." Do we understand this experience completely? No, but we accept the Lord’s promises in faith and abide by them. The kingdom of heaven itself is present whenever the sacraments are celebrated and especially whenever the Divine Liturgy is offered. We who live in this world may not always be in a frame of mind to appreciate this, but it is nevertheless true.
Can ritual be boring? Can it become mechanical and uninspired? Absolutely, yes. So can push-ups and sit-ups, but these exercises slowly and over time make one stronger. A wise man once compared ritual to making bread. The more one kneads the dough, the better the bread will rise. Good bread requires much kneading; likewise the soul requires that we “knead it” by means of prayers and rituals. They are a means to an end: the sanctification of the soul.
The centrality of liturgy contrasts with the number of contemporary churches where the personality and abilities of the pastor/preacher dominate the church. Orthodox Christian congregations do not focus on the pastor, but on the community. In worship we are in unity with Orthodox congregations throughout the world, who are likewise worshipping God, and we are in unity with the faithful of the past who worshipped in the same way, and we are in unity with the saints of old and of recent times, whose images surround us.