Wednesday Lenten Lessons
“The Liturgical Rituals of the Church and Their Meaning”
Lenten Lesson No. 1
by Archpriest Timothy Baclig
Purpose: To discuss with you “the rituals of our services and their
meaning.” My objective: to clarify the purpose and function of rituals in our
services and to correct some misconceptions.
Our church is full of rituals that include solemn ceremonies that can
be best described as: a series of actions in a prescribed order that
accompany our prayers. In our services rituals are a part of our
expressions of praise, thanksgiving, supplication/petition, and repentance.
They also include readings and lessons taught by the clergy. Fasting is
known to also accompany our rituals at times, especially during Great Lent.
However, the rituals in our services also involve material items, like bread,
oils, water, incense, candles, icons, colors of vestments and so forth.
There are Christian churches that have very little items in their rituals; we
have a lot of them. In fact we have so many items, a great deal of attention
must be paid to their proper care and maintenance by the clergy or those
assist the clergy, who must be well informed about their proper use and
place in the church.
In the Orthodox Church there are varieties of ceremonies. In fact,
while all Orthodox Churches share in the same faith and same teachings,
our rituals may differ between jurisdictions. There are two primary liturgical
patterns that include: a) the Byzantine Tradition (those communities of the
Greek and Antiochian Churches—among others) and b) the Slavic Tradition
(those of the Russian and largely eastern European Churches). There are
also some rituals in our ceremonies that take place at certain times of the
year, while others occur at any time of the year. These ceremonies include:
processions, Sacramental rites (Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion,
Confession, Weddings, Ordinations and Anointing), Funerals, Memorials,
Festal services with offerings and blessings, to only name a few.
The rituals in the ceremonies of our prayer and worship services of
our Holy Tradition can loose their correct meaning or be interpreted
improperly and erroneously when there is a lack of knowledge, or when
people attach themselves to “customs” and personal ideas that are totally
foreign to what is correct and consistent with what the church practices
universally. This is where there can be many dangers. These dangers
result in cultic practices by families and individuals who go off on tangents
by personalizing their use of the church’s rituals and at times, totally
perverting the correct understanding and truths of the church and her
history. Sacraments are not “private matters.” Every Sacrament is a
Sacrament of the Church and is not a private or family affair, even though
many Baptisms and Weddings have been known as private and personal
family events in a parish.
Rituals Practiced in Corporate Worship
First, it is important to understand the rituals performed in the church
within our services are part of a shared (corporate) worship experience.
The assumption is: that we all understand what is going on and participate
as concelebrants. Being a concelebrant does not mean that if we are in
the congregation we should learn to sing every part of the Liturgy or prayer
service. Liturgy is a dialogue. We should know and understand what are
the designated parts for the clergy, the singers and chanters, and the
congregation. Most importantly, our attention must focused upon the
content of the prayers and not the melody or the rhythm. This is the reason
why there are trained persons who are called to be chanters and singers. If
we are unfamiliar with a melody, we should listen and not sing so that the
content of the prayer does not become distorted or a distraction to others
who are paying attention. This is the reason why the prayers must be
understood; read and sung properly.
Unlike “corporate” worship which takes place in the church, private,
personal and devotional prayers are done by each of us alone (home,
work, or at school). Corporate worship (in the church) is something we do
all together. Praying together (corporately) can only be achieved if the
service is understood and becomes a part of our discipline that includes our
thinking, our attitude, and our demeanor. In other words, entering the
church cannot be like entering a social hall or a mall or even our own
houses. The church as the house of God, and as our sacred space for
corporate prayer and worship, is not a place that we just walk into as we
would the other places of our lives without any thought of it being a different
place, a holy place, a sacred space.
True, there are times of the year when the church is bright and
elaborately decorated. During Great Lent, however, the mood is somber,
the colors are dark and the atmosphere is solemn. It is a time for more
frequent kneeling (and prostrations). This is because Great Lent is a time
of intentional sobriety and is accompanied with fasting and good works;
however, the seriousness of the season does not mean morbidity, but a
quiet if not silent joyfulness. The mood created by the colors and the
dimming of the lights intends for us to be introspective—to look inward and
to be mindful of our sinfulness in order that we may make a “good
confession.” When we come into the church to pray, all personal
conversation must cease, unless absolutely necessary. This takes
personal discipline—well, so does fasting. For those of us who do not fast
strictly, it would help if we try abstaining from talkativeness. That in itself is
an excellent fast. Or perhaps spending our money in ways that is more
helpful to others, and less on ourselves. That too is a good fast!
The obvious changes in the church during Great Lent (light/color;
kneelings/prostrations) would not be noticed if a person chooses to just
attend Liturgy on Sunday. The gradual difference is also never
experienced if a person who is only in church on Sunday is habitually late
—when all the lights are already turned on, when the doors of the
iconostasis are fully open, and when the choir is singing at a fortissimo
level at the height of the Liturgy. This kind of impaired spirituality is the
reason why many in our churches today have no understanding of
redemption; or what it means to seek and find salvation; and what God
expects us to do in helping ourselves. We expect everything to be a happy
experience. It’s almost as though we think there is no need for repentance.
And wouldn’t you know: What Sacrament is the least understood?
[Answer: The Sacrament of Confession]
Going to the church, even if a person is abstaining from receiving the
Sacrament, requires preparation. The very least a person should do in
coming to church is to be on time and to be reverent. Would we attend a
college football game at half-time? Would we be dressed in the proper
attire? Would we be totally unfamiliar with the fight song or get tired of
singing it over and over again at a game; or would we not know the rules of
the game by heart? Would we not wait from having lunch at our usual time
in order to enjoy tailgating with our friends? So you see, there are many
rituals. The rituals best known to us are those rituals that come from our
hearts. And not unlike an avid sports fan should we be uninformed,
untrained, or a mere spectator in church.