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July 21, 2010

I edited the blog on 7/21/2010

One of the things I liked about the movie version of Lord of the Rings, is the way they depicted Rivendell. The picture I chose is from the Hildrebrandt brothers. It’s a far cry from the elegant arches, windows and other architecture of the film version, but it was one I liked from childhood. The thing I liked about Rivendell, was that it was a place where ancient history came to life, so to speak. There were various images on the walls, whether painted like a fresco or carved into the very structure itself. There were even a few statues. The one of Aragorn’s mother seemed to resemble the Thetokos (maybe that’s just me). Another element of this living history, was the recounting of ancient history through song and poem, and written form too. It’s not unlike what you would find if you stepped into an Orthodox Church. Icons on the wall, holy vessels carrying incense, the history of salvation being chanted in songs, the Gospel being read, etc.

Rivendell is like a picture of the Divine Liturgy. Not a perfect picture, by any means, but a decent one to work with. Like Lothlorien, one of the things that the hobbits mention, is that it feels for them like time stands still inside Rivendell, while they imagine time passes regularly in the outside world. Being a modern American, time is something that is constantly on my mind. At my very first Liturgy, I was keenly aware of the passing of time. It seemed like it took forever! But that was because I had no understanding of what was going on around me. I have heard from people that have been in Orthodoxy for a long time, that the services still unfold new things to their understanding, so when I say I didn’t know what was going on, I mean that I still don’t, but at least now I understand better than before.

The pattern of the Divine Liturgy has been the same, unchanged (with only minute variations) for nearly two millennia. Each litany pray, “Lord have mercy.” several times, we remember of Blessed Lady Theotokos, and we join the saints past and present in commend ourselves and each other unto Christ our God. There are chants from the Psalms and hymns. There is the Little Entrance procession with the Gospel book, with its prayers, that precedes the reading of the Epistle and Gospel. In our parish, Fr Patrick gives the homily right after the Gospel reading. I have been to a cathedral where the homily was at the end. The “Litany of the Catechumen” follows. Now that I am a catechumen, I feel like I am participating in the Liturgy more than I was as an inquirer (in as much as I am being prayed for). In ancient times, only the faithful were allowed to remain, and the catechumen were asked to leave. The words have been left in, though the circumstances that called for such a thing do not exist in modern North America. The Great Entrance is the procession with the bread and wine through the nave, before they become the Body and Blood of Christ. After the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, the prayers of the priest over the bread and wine that invoke the Holy Spirit’s presence to turn the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the reciting of the Creed, the culmination of the Liturgy takes place. Each person is named, “The servant of the Lord, …” and is given the mystery from the priest. A bowl of Blessed Bread stands off to the side of the Gifts. Each person takes a piece as the finish receiving the Eucharist. This bread is permissible to be eaten by non-Orthodox. Often times, a person or two will bring a piece of bread to me. As it is the custom to fast completely in preparation for receiving the Eucharist, this is the first food eaten by Orthodox on a Sunday  (I may not be able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ yet, but I can at least participate in the hunger that comes from fasting. A small step in preparation to become an illumined faithful of the Orthodox Church). After a short hymn of thanks, and a few prayers, we are dismissed by the priest.

This is, of course, only a very brief overview of the service. As significant as the pattern of the service itself, is the setting it takes place in. I have heard some of the Tradition behind the design of a church building, and its significance. I will describe what my parish looks like. The Divine Liturgy takes place in the presence of the Cloud of Witnesses, represented in the icons. There is the sequence of icons depicting the salvation history celebrated in the annual feasts of the Church. There are the icons at the entry of the nave, which is a unchanging icon of St Peter’s release from prison by the angel (he is our Patron Saint). The icon in the center of the naive changes with the church year, and is flanked by the candle sandboxes. Every service is done facing East, which is the part of a church building containing the Iconostasis, behind which is the Sanctuary. The iconostasis is separated by an opening through which only the priest goes. This normally has a fixture called The Beautiful Gate, but ours does not (yet). On either side are the icons of Christ (the Pontocrator) on the right, and the Theotokos holding the infant Christ on the left. Next to Christ is John the Forerunner (baptist), next to the Theotokos is the church’s patron saint. Flanking these, in our parish, are the angels Michael and Gabriel. These angels are placed over side doors into the Sanctuary, in which the deacon and alter servers go through. Directly in front of the gate is the alter where the gifts are prepared. Behind this alter is usually the icon of Mary with Christ in a circle, which depicts Him in the womb. Someone pointed out that the left of the opening is Christ in His Incarnation, to the right is Him returning in glory, and the Gate itself is the Church age, in which we celebrate His sacrifice.

We are not simply commemorating a past event, that event being the Crucifixion of Christ and His subsequent Resurrection. We are not re-enacting the event. We are mystically participating in the event. We are not simply in time, remembering. We are in the eternal, being present. I am obviously not qualified to speak further on this truth, but I can relate the magnitude of this mystery to Scriptures that tell us Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection were events that transcended time. We are told in two places that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world. We are told in Hebrews that Christ presented His blood upon the eternal alter in Heaven. And so the Divine Liturgy is not just a service that is attended, it is the culmination of life that is lived with the understanding that God is “everywhere present, and filling all things.”  We don’t step out of “life” and into the divine. We enter the fullest expression of a life lived by the Grace of God.

Not on the same scale, but along the same line of historical continuity, the Vespers and Matins services are a connection to the Living Tradition. The Psalms are Chanted, hymns are sung, litanies are done, and the like. The daily Epistle and Gospel reading are done as well. Included in these services are canons that commemorate a particular saint, group of saints, feast or other major event within the life and history of the Church. I find these services to be very instructional. The homilies tend to be more like a lesson in the Church and its history.

This is why I think Rivendell makes a great illustration of this. The ancient wisdom, knowledge, creativity and history of the elves is found there. In fact, Elrond is considered a master of the historical knowledge and lore. All that is outside may change, but inside Rivendell abides the ancient, unchanged by the passage of time. Like Rivendell, the truth of the Church isn’t something you hear, evaluate and think, “That’s nice.” It’s life itself penetrating your core, transforming you from your former, dead state.

One thing is not the same. While Rivendell is a living citadel of a glory that is fading. An era that is long gone, never to return. The life that Rivendell represents is soon to fade away forever. Not so the Church. The glory is the Glory of the Only Begotten. The power is the Holy Spirit. It’s source is the Father. Though we too, like the elves, long for that distant shore (ours is admittedly nearer), we do not see a diminishing. We have indeed been through griefs, perils and deaths without number, we do not fade away, to give way to something lesser. We have, we experience, we live and live in the fullness of Him who fills all in all. This is the Eucharistic joy of the Divine Liturgy in the Church.

It has taken a while to even be able to scratch the surface on this truth. One of the things I have learned to do is to simply take in the Liturgy. I still find myself trying to analyze what I am hearing, but I try to let the truth of what I see, hear and smell sink in deeper than what my past understanding allows for. Upon reading a great description of the nature of a Liturgy, I commented that I want to grasp that truth. The reply from the priest who posted the description was to let the truth grasp me. When I find myself getting distracted during the service, I pray the Jesus Prayer, and ask God to grasp me with His truth. I have heard it said that just showing up is enough sometimes. I have found this to be true. As I keep showing up, I find myself being transformed slowly but surely. I have left begun to shed the skeptic who thought my first Liturgy was an eternal bore, and started to take on a mind of awe and wonder. Not that I have shed my mind, but I believe I am beginning to experience the renewing of my mind in Christ. Now I can honestly say that I thank God His Church has preserved the Divine Liturgy.

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