Wednesday Lenten Lessons
“The Liturgical Rituals of the Church and Their Meaning”
Lenten Lesson No. 2
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 the rituals in
our services and to correct some misconceptions.
Last week I shared with you our working definition of a ritual as: a
series of actions with the use of items in a prescribed order that
accompany our prayers. To review: 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,
such as: bread, oils, water, incense, candles, icons, colors of vestments
and so forth. And while there are Christian churches that use items in their
rituals; we have a lot more of them. Of each of the items that I just named,
there are also different breads, oils, incense, candles, icons, colors,
vestments, and so on. So there is a great deal to learn.
Last week I also stated that everyone has rituals in their lives. And if
a person is not church-goer, he or she will form family rituals, recreational
rituals, work and study rituals. Some may be superstitious in their practice
of rituals (i.e. athletes) and might consider a ritual practice “matter of good
luck;” while for others it is accompanied with earnest prayers and melodies.
As Orthodox Christians the rituals of our prayer services are practiced
within an ethos (a particular atmosphere) that provides a context for you
and I to become connected to and engaged with God and His Kingdom.
Every item we use together with all of our movements along with the
melodies of the hymns we sing all have a distinct purpose and meaning.
Our participation in the rituals of our Tradition, however, should not be a
distraction. Instead, the rituals of our service provide a structure to our
prayers in the order of our worship.
Tonight, I will focus our attention upon the movements and the
processions in our prayer services. Simply stated, all of our prayer
services and the Sacraments of the church point us to a destiny: The
Kingdom of God. “Blessed is the Kingdom…” is the first declaration by the
priest at the beginning of every Sacrament. This points us to our destiny;
not that we have not previously entered it, or have not tasted of it or
experienced it. What we are saying is: we have not fully acquired it in its
fullness. In all that we do, we will only catch a glimpse of it; such as what
Holy Pascha as the Feast of Feasts provides for us. And here also, it must
be said, Holy Pascha stands by itself. It is not even listed as one of the
twelve major Feasts of the Church! It is considered “The Feast of Feasts!”
And so, in a very real sense our life is a journey to God’s Kingdom.
Similarly, Great Lent is also described as “a journey.” Moreover, as
Orthodox, we believe that God’s Kingdom is without end. In other words,
there is no end to our ascent to God and being members of His Kingdom.
We also believe that Adam and Eve were created with that same
potentiality (or the capacity to ascend), the difference for us now is that we
are greatly burdened, and our vision is clouded by our inheritance of sin (of
all of the ages). Therefore our quest, our struggle to acquire God’s
Kingdom requires much effort. That effort is demonstrated in our
processions. Our processions in the church is not just a ceremony within a
service. It is begins from the moment that we arise from sleep in the
morning to our return to rest in the evening “for the repose” and the
refreshment of our human weakness. We are also taught from the prayers
heard in the Compline Service (before we go to bed) that “even in our
sleep” we must be aided in the “turbulence of our flesh” in order that we
might be kept “free from all the fantasies of Satan.”
There are two movements in a procession: 1) linear and 2) circular.
Linear processions have a starting point and a destination; while the
circular processions bring our focus and attention to what is at the center:
a) the Gospel Book, b) the Tomb of Christ, c) the Baptismal Font, d) the
Body and Blood of Christ, etc. The First Sunday of Lent is a good example
of a linear procession that illustrates the restoration or the return of the Holy
Icons to the Church following the long era of iconoclasm in our history.
Next Sunday, is the example of a circular procession that brings our focus
to the Holy Cross; the central message of Mid-Lent as we begin to turn our
attention upon the Cross of Christ’s own journey to Jerusalem; culminated
in His Entrance into the City of Jerusalem (a linear procession that takes us
from the event of Raising Lazarus from the dead on Lazarus Saturday to
the start of His passion as He gathers with the Apostles in Jerusalem
before His Judgment, Crucifixion and Burial, prior to His Holy Resurrection.
Holy Week is primary to a great deal of what we do in our movements
liturgically. In fact it was the Church of the Resurrection in the City of
Jerusalem where the holy sites of Christ’s Crucifixion and Burial Tomb are
encompassed by a great basilica where some of our liturgical movements
Second, the services of Great Lent afford us the opportunity to
understand a great deal about the ritual movements of penitence and
repentance. They involve: metanias — the ritual of making the sign of the
cross over the full length of our body; sometimes including prostrations; at
times done frequently and repeatedly. This ritual is an intentional physical
therapy for our spiritual awareness to be awakened by physical exercise.
This is also one of the reasons why the physical set-up of the space of the
nave in our church cannot and should not be stilted by fixed pews. The
Russian churches never used them. Orthodox worship requires flexibility
and room for movement; but a movement that is orderly, specified for
different times of the services, done at the appropriate times and in the
proper way. This requires a lot of familiarity and training. There is nothing
worse than being part of a liturgical movement with no idea of what you’re
doing and how to properly use the corresponding items of the ritual with
Our rituals also requires great reverence so that no one becomes a
“spectacle” or calls attention to his or her movement. This should be no
different to how a person (or family) enters the church; or even when they
enter the church during the time of the services. Entering a church should
be unlike our walking through the door of any other place or structure.
Otherwise, there will be absolutely no difference between what we call the
house of God and the mall or our school, or our workplace, or God-forbid,
our playground for entertainment. In fact, you and I know that many
people, with extraordinary personal rituals, prepare themselves for what
they look for in a mall, or what they expect to learn in a day at school, or
what they want to accomplish in their workplace, or how they will be
successful in their golf game. Yes, their rituals not only prepare them for
their procession to those destinations, such as cutting out coupons for a
sale, or diligently doing their homework, or thinking up ways of promoting
the sale of their product, or warming up on a driving range; they are very
meticulous in their rituals of saving or spending their money, learning their
course work, earning a living, or playing their golf game!
Third and finally, all of the liturgical movements in our church are
accompanied with prayer if not by the singing of hymns or melodies. Even
the putting on of a priest’s vestments is done with a specific prayer for
every item he dons.
I’m sure you heard the phrase: “…being able to walk and chew gum
at the same time.” St. Gregory Palamas alluded to this in his teaching to us
last Sunday. Do you remember what it was that he said? “It is intense
prayer by its holy action that accomplishes the soaring of man to God and
union with Him… When we sit down, when we walk, when we eat, when we
drink we can always pray inwardly and practice [thoughtful] prayer: Lord
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” The goal therefore is for
our minds, our bodies and souls to be harmoniously united in devotion to
God. Today, this discipline is a great challenge because being skilled in
multi-tasking has made it much easier to pervert what we regard to be our
sacred movements into mindless rituals that can be distorted by demons. It
is much more difficult with all of our many gadget distractions for a person
to be fully present, focused and attentive, to be still, to be calm, to be
prayerful; especially if one of the goals is repentance. This is the reason
why many people today have great difficulty with silence or being alone; yet
this may be one of the most essential ingredients for their spiritual healing.
Next week we will explore the many rituals that accompany the Holy
Cross, their importance and meaning.