Fr. Vassilios uses the metaphor of a journey in his book, which is more than apt. Liturgy is a journey, and as he points out in the introduction, we know where we’re going from the very beginning of the service, at the first blessing: “Thus the Liturgy begins with the announcement of our destination: the Kingdom of God”. He walks us through the service, from before we leave home, into the opening moments, through the antiphons and the readings to the Great Entrance, the Anaphora and Lord’s prayer to the dismissal and the distribution of the anitidoron bread at the conclusion of the service.
The book is written for a lay readership and is presented in a relaxed, easy-to-follow fashion. Father Vassilios, a priest with the Greek Orthodox church in Great Britain, points out that the service, while a whole and unbreakable unit, is actually composed of two halves.
SIMPLE, CLEAR AND READABLE
The first half, the Liturgy of the Word (or Liturgy of the Catechumens) ends after the prayers for and “dismissal” of those not yet baptized or chrismated.
Father devotes an entire chapter to a discussion not only on why the catechumens were ordered out, but on the fact that this was originally (and often still is) where the homily was delivered – it was instruction for those who were not yet full members. He talks about adult vs. infant baptism, and also remarks on the current lack of catechumens and laments that the prayers for them seem so unnecessary now.
While it’s true that in some churches and some jurisdictions there are few, if any, catechumens, it’s also true that the number of converts, especially in North America, is increasing and that parishes have been founded and are entirely populated by converts. At least one jurisdiction has a mission planting grant, to support the further spread of Orthodoxy.
ETERNAL AND UNIVERSAL
Biblical references as well as quotes from the Fathers of the Church bolster the clear and simple explanations about the details of the service, what they mean and how believers should respond to the hymns, the prayers and the actions of the Liturgy. Additional explanations, about icons, their purpose and our veneration of them, and information related to the liturgy, but not specifically a part of it (like notes about the Psalter, or the bread and wine, and the Proskomidi or details about the Gospel book we read from) are set off in sans serif font and provide further explanation and information about our faith.
Each step on the journey (or each part of the liturgy), with the exception of the Creed, has its own chapter, which discusses not just what is said and done, but the reasons for it, spiritual, practical and historic. Because the book is an explanation of what we believe as well as how we express our faith in our central service, the Creed is expanded to six chapters, a third of the book. Even though Father Vassilios explains in two or three different places that the focus and point of the Liturgy is the Eucharist, communion with God in consuming His body and blood, devoting so much of the text to the Creed gives the unintended and mistaken impression that the central and most important part of the liturgy is the statement of belief.
MINOR DIFFERENCES EASILY OVERCOME
While some of the details and wording of the service will differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and some of the prayers may be said at the altar and inaudible to the congregation in the British Greek Orthodox church, but said audibly and from the ambo in other churches, or the homily is delivered between the communion of the clergy and people in some churches, but after the Gospel reading in others, there is, of course, enough commonality that the book will be useful for anyone attending an Orthodox liturgy.
And that’s the true value of this book. This is not just a guidebook for a visitor from another faith who is interested in how we worship, or for a friend or relative to gain an understanding of what we believe, and how we express it, although I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for an interested outsider. This book is also an excellent refresher for those of us who are so familiar with the liturgy that we could recite in our sleep, who have heard the prayers and the hymns so often that we no longer really listen to them, and for those of us who have been to so many liturgies that we may have slipped into taking a precious, invaluable and eternal gift for granted.
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