Orthodox worship is not entertainment. There is a reason for that.
There is a spiritual substance that fills the worship of the Church. It is the mystery of Christ Himself. The words, movements, rituals, the icons, the hymns and prayers, all of these constitute the veil of Orthodox worship that hides even as it reveals the spiritual substance underneath them all. Following the oft-repeated injunction of the prophets, “Hear, O Israel!” and confessing Jesus as Himself the “Word” incarnate of the Father, the faithful listen with their ears: they listen to what they see, they listen to what they hear. They work to lay aside all their own thoughts and to absorb the purity of what they hear and see so that all the sights and sounds of the Church’s prayers and hymns, gestures and movements, will penetrate, unadulterated, unmixed by their own ideas, all the way to their minds and hearts. The heart is the mystery of the Church’s sanctuary. The sights and sounds of the Church’s worship are the hands of the priest, the High Priest, Christ Himself, that draw the curtains and open the Royal Doors of the heart to reveal to the eyes of faith the holy mystery that hides in the heart behind the veils of the words and movements of the Orthodox Church’s worship. And when the doors of the soul are opened, and the curtains are drawn, the vision within that one sees simply cannot be expressed. It is of such beauty, such light. It is so real, so clearly of God, it can actually leave a physical impact not only on the “inner man” but also on the “outer man”. This experience of Orthodox worship, I dare say, is the “entertainment” of Orthodox worship. It cannot be produced by human imagination or talent or cleverness. Indeed, such entertainment is a distraction, a diversion that takes us away from the sanctuary of our heart and gets us lost in the thick pools of psychological emotion and sentimentality, or the arid heights of human imagination. The experience of Orthodox worship that is the “entertainment” of the Church’s worship is the real deal. The religious entertainment that passes for worship in other so-called churches is of the world. There is no heaven in it; only human sentimentality, human warm feelings, human emotion rendered religious. It is cheap and easily obtained, easily manufactured. You just have to know how to manipulate the emotions to engender the feelings you want.
The reality that is veiled by the sights and sounds of Orthodox worship is of heaven, but it does not open, it is not unveiled except to those who “in the fear of God, with faith and love” draw near. We draw near first by making a sincere confession, by daily prayer, by bringing our bodies to Church; then, by bringing our souls to the altar of our heart by standing and listening with as much attention as we can muster, to absorb what we hear and see, to wait for the High Priest – Christ Himself in the Holy Spirit – to open the royal doors of our soul and open the curtains to reveal to the eyes of our heart the inexpressible beauty and splendor of heaven that is hiding beneath the sights and sounds of Orthodox worship.
This is why Orthodox worship is not entertainment. It’s work, even hard work, hard inner work. It’s the work, if you will, of climbing a mountain to the cave of Bethlehem, the mountain of Golgotha to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha that opens onto the “Garden of Eden” at the top of the mountain. At the top of that mountain is where the vision opens that can take one’s breath away and fill the soul with deep emotion that is of heaven. That is where the soul begins to melt to become a flaming torch of love for the Savior, for His Holy Mother and all the saints. Orthodox worship, then, is work, inner work. After all the term “liturgy” means common “work”; but it is a work that produces a joy that is not of the world and that the world cannot take away, a beauty of sight and sound that no worldly entertainment even begins to compare to.
Therefore, when you come to the services this weekend and on Christmas Eve, understand that they will be long. Lots of prayers, lots of psalms, lots of hymnody, lots of standing still at attention, just listening, listening, listening – and none of it is “entertaining”. If we’re looking to be entertained, we’ll be bored out of our mind. If we’re looking to get the services done so we can be done with it and say we did them, they will seem interminably long. But, if you come like you go to the gym, with the intention of working out – only your workout will be inner – it will be like climbing a mountain: lots of hard work, but lots of beauty to take in as you ascend, and as you ascend you may find yourself getting energized rather than tired as you might expect, because the air is getting fresher and cleaner, and the beauty that you begin to “see in an unseeing way” will be of the nature of Christ: healing, restorative, life-giving.
But before you ascend to that height, you have to do the work of getting off the ground and onto the mountain of the Church’s worship. And, that can take a bit of doing, because we are earth-bound, and so we are very heavy. The gravity of our love for the world presses down on us and makes it hard even to lift our head. Confession of sins and daily prayer, just like a daily workout at the gym, make the work of worship so much more effective.
So, when you come to the services, expect to stand and listen for a long time. Expect not to be entertained. Expect to work. Orthodox worship doesn’t want to entertain us. She wants to open to us the reality of heaven. And so, she expects us to do the work, the hard inner work that is necessary to follow the Church down into the cave of our heart so that we can begin to ascend the mountain. And, if working to listen with your soul gets too tiring, please feel free to sit down, even take a break and go outside for some fresh air, or go downstairs and get a cup of coffee, sit at one of the tables and take a breather; and when you’re ready, come back upstairs and stand and listen some more, working to do the inner work of listening, listening, listening, to let the Spirit that is in the sights and sounds and smells of the worship seep into your soul, calming you until you begin to feel a certain inner quietude, and you may find yourself beginning to ascend, beholding, or rather feeling with all your soul a heavenly beauty that is so far superior to any earthly entertainment – it can leave you shaken, changed, even weeping with an inexpressible longing and love for what you have “seen with your eyes, heard with your ears, handled with your hands,” and, I think we could add: “felt in your heart and soul.”
Mothers, I think it fair to say that your work is of a different kind, but equally valuable and spiritually effective if you are giving yourself to watching your children, helping them to listen quietly and reverently in a way that is appropriate to their respective ages. That is holy work you are doing, and I believe it will be blessed if you do it as an offering to the Lord and out of love for Him and for your children.
With this, I give expression to my sincere prayer for each of you, especially you who come to the services of the feast: that you will come with the desire to behold the glory and beauty of Christmas, and in that desire, that you will come to the services as to a workout at the gym, ready to climb the mountain to see Christ, ready to listen, to listen, to listen.