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Divine Worship as a Synthesis of the Arts

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This lecture was given in December of 1989. The translation, published in First Hour in 1997, is by Steve Griffin.

Divine worship is what you can see when you enter a church in which a worship service is being conducted, and that with which you inevitably, whether you are a believer or not come into contact whether you are a believer or not as you watch this peculiar religious rite. One person finds it lovely, mysterious and enigmatic, while another finds it incomprehensible—rather like watching a theatrical performance in a foreign language. To still another it all appears very archaic and ancient like a fragment of hoary antiquity. Perhaps each is right in his own way.

Divine service is what our Russian Orthodox Church has preserved throughout her entire existence, even during the most difficult times. It was performed in the first days of Christianity in Russia, throughout the Tatar yoke, and in the twentieth century during Stalin's tyranny, when church life was limited to it.

Divine service is the center, the pivot, if you will, the cultural foundation of church life. It is an interesting fact that the earliest recorded witness of divine service was by a non-Christian, Pliny the Younger whose letters were published not long ago, was a wonderful, cultured man who had no idea of the new force which was coming out from underground, as it were. In one of his letters he writes of Christians who appeared in his province in Asia Minor, in present day Turkey, about 70-80 years after Christ's crucifixion. There he describes divine service, whose basis was the same principle we have even today, and which has been present since Christianity's beginnings. And any cultured person who would learn something of, and join even to a small degree with, the cultural inheritance of his people and of the many of peoples of our country (for Christian culture has cultivated the civilizations of the Caucasus, the Baltic region, and Western Ukraine) should have some sense of this.

You've probably noticed that scenes form divine service often appear in contemporary films. Whether in the film versions of Russian classical literature or in paintings of pre-revolutionary years, here and there the events are given color by a wedding ceremony, a service for the dead, divine service itself, or the singing of canticles. This singing can now be heard on TV and radio. While I sometimes find it strange to hear the Cherubic Hymn over the Moscow radio network, it is nevertheless appropriate because it belongs to the greatest artistic, cultural and spiritual tradition.

I don't pretend to be able to articulate the essence of divine service in this short talk. I wish to speak of two things: first, why this form of worship is called divine service, and second what takes part in it.

The title of our discussion is taken from an article by the famous scholar, theologian and philosopher Pavel Florensky who entitled his article “Divine worship as a synthesis of the arts.” Clearly, the arts do not occupy the highest place in every individual church, nor can their synthesis be practically achieved in any perfect way. But we're concerned here about what is central and most important.

So we ask, why the term “divine service”? Does man need to serve God? One recalls the ancient pagan who believed that the deity was in need of his sacrifices and offerings, and that in rendering to him a part of what he had captured or harvested he was serving him. For “to serve” meant to serve a meal, as when it is said that a woman “serves at table” when feeding her guests. When pagans conducted their ceremonial meal they believed that the deity was present, and that they entertained him not merely to feed him, but to make him a brother, someone dear, and so that he would take his place among them.

But if in ancient times this was natural and in order, for today's Christian mind it seems quite strange. Even in pre-Christian times, several centuries B.C.E. the Old Testament prophet said: “Do you really think that God needs your lamps. He has lit all the Heavenly bodies. Do you really think that God needs all your sacrificial rams? All the wild creatures in the mountains and forests are his creation.” These and other examples show that people understood that God required something else. Thus Hosea the prophet, who lived seven centuries before Christ, could say on behalf of the Creator: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” As it turns out the greatest gift one can give to the Creator is mercy, humanness, goodness. Nevertheless the principle of divine service has remained in Christian culture. Why is this so?

Age-old Christian tradition and the Bible assure us that divine service is the greatest gift we can offer to the One who gave us life and who created the world and humanity. And the greatest gift to the Creator is our response of worship and love. Divine service is man's dialogue, if you will, with the universe, with the invisible one, with the Cosmos, with the Divine. It is for this reason that we return to something ancient. Man calls upon the Supreme Being so that he might draw near to him. This is a great and marvelous mystery, and the reason why Christian churches throughout the ages have never been schools, or places where people merely read, received and learned information, and went home. Instead they have been places where people are united by something, strong powerful and spiritual: a faith which is never handed on only in words.

Of course you all know that the word is a great and powerful force. But there are other things that are equally capable of expressing our states and experiences, such as music, sculpture, painting, or the fine arts. And over the centuries it has happened that the Christian Church has indeed, at her best, become the synthesis of the arts. This is seen for instance in the way in which the church's architectural lines (as Florensky stressed) give even the censer's smoke a certain plasticity, so that a certain movement is created as the incense flows under the arches. So too the church walls speak, as it were, as they interact with the words and music of the canticles.

It must be said that throughout the two thousand years of Christian history, and the millennium of our Russian Orthodox Church the architectural structure of churches has changed, as have some rites and melodies. These have changed because life, with its traditions and culture, has developed. While much has changed, however, what has always remained is the tendency to pass on the ineffable: to bring people together to unite their hearts as well as their minds. Here we do not find an artificially invented theater or script, but something that arose naturally and organically.

The churches of old Russia and Byzantium were distinctive models of the universe. Every level of the universe participates in them:animals, plants, constellations, human and sacred history, the creation of the world the end of human history, and images of saints. In ancient churches all these were selected according to a strictly determined artistic and semantic structure. Everything, including the paintings of sacred history on the walls and the images on the ikonostasis, was directed towards a great whole: everything united the altar with the entire church.

Here we then ask, what is an altar? When you enter a church the first thing you see in front and in center are closed gates. These are called the Royal Doors. When these are opened one sees a cubic table called an altar. The cube is an ancient symbol which represents the whole universe. n every church you will find behind this cube seven candles, or, as is the custom in our churches, seven lamps:and Old Testament symbol which stood for the starry heavens. At the same time the number seven, whose symbolism is complex and deep, represented the whole church, throughout ger history, according to the Revelation of St John. The altar, on which the Chalice stands during the central divine service in Christianity, is the focus of everything.

It's a great shame that in our lack of culture (here I am thinking of believers as well as unbelievers) we often behave irreverently in church. Tour guides have spoken to me of the difficulty that they had in getting people to remove their hats even in the Kremlin's cathedrals. We act as barbarians in these buildings which are hallowed by centuries, prayers, traditions and history. Even if we forgive such behavior in conquering soldiers (as when Napoleon's grenadiers built stables in the Kremlin cathedrals), how are we to understand it in the descendants of those who with such reverence and great craftsmanship created these buildings?

So I stress once again, for believer and atheist, that when one enters a church one must above all feel respect and reverence, for it is a house of prayer. Centuries are here present. The walls depict thousands of years of people from all tribes and nations. The priests' vestments, canticles, and the ornamental pattern surrounding the icons all came to us from Judea, Syria, Egypt, Byzantium, and Ancient Rome. They developed in Old Russia, and were then transformed in Russia. So much is combined here that it is truly living history. I stress the word “living” because it is not a museum, but living history.

Many art specialists have noted that even the great icons like the Vladimir Mother of God or Rublev's Trinity lose their effect when hanging on a bare museum wall, and not in a church. Of course it is wonderful that these icons have been saved, restored and displayed. But in any event an icon is an organic part of this synthesis of arts.

We refer to our main service of divine worship the Eucharist, or thanksgiving. Thanksgiving—as any person with a thankful heart senses—is a holy word. A certain French writer, an atheist, not long before his death said: “I've lived a wonderful life. I don't know whom to thank, but I give thanks with all my heart.” In the verses and songs which you all know, such as “I love your, life,” there is the unconscious sense of gratitude on the part of man for all that happens.

For us Christians this is thanksgiving to God. It is the most noble, most sublime prayer when a person is full of high feelings and understands just how undeservedly he has received the amazing gift of life, love, friendship beauty, labor, reason, everything that makes life rich and splendid. One is grateful even for life's trials and difficulties because these fortify the strong and true soul. You recall Pushkin's words: “So the heavy hammer, while it shatters glass, forges the sword.” (Poltava. Canto 1) So we give thanks for everything, but above all because that which is eternal, unfathomable, and boundless has come into our life.

Christianity's uniqueness lies in the fact that, while it acknowledges an eternal supreme being who is indescribable in human terms, at the same time it knows that this being has a great and intimate relationship with us and that we as persons in one way or another have a deep relationship with eternity. Each one of us, feeble infirm vertebrates with a short life span, at the same time carries a star, an unending spark of eternity. And above all this is linked with the coming of Christ, who revealed to us the image of eternity, and who became for us the human face of the Divine.

It is very important, after all, for us to see a human face because we are people, and not trees or flowers—although we can perceive the boundless beauty of eternity in them. Recall the epilogue of Turgenev's famous novel “Fathers and Sons”, in which the flowers on the grave were there as if to speak of reconciliation and life eternal. Nevertheless a flower cannot say to us what a person can. And that's why the appearance of the divine in human form in Jesus Christ becomes the center of our thoughts, life, and faith.

On the night when Jesus was betrayed, by his closest disciple, knowing already that enemies had taken up arms against him and were preparing for him an unlawful punishment and a shameful death, he gathered together his disciples, anticipating the ancient Passover. The feast was celebrated in memory of the Israelites—the Old-Covenant Church's—deliverance from slavery.

The religion of the Bible begins with a proclamation of freedom, for God is one who sets people free. Recalling this deliverance, then, people for nearly thirteen centuries gathered at the holy table with belief and hope that the inscrutable God was also present at the table as a guest. And God became a member of this community, this brotherhood of the Old-Covenant Church. Christ acknowledged this ancient thirteen-century- old tradition and transformed it into a new one:now the Paschal rite was being preformed as bread and wine, symbolizing our food, human life, and human labor, stood on the table before the disciples.

At this table with people whom he loved but who still understood him so poorly, He said to them: “One of you shall betray me.” And they grieved and began to nudge one another asking in confusion: “who could it be?” And each asked himself: “Is it I?” But he said nothing in response. Only to one of them he whispered: “The one to whom I give this piece of bread.”

According to the ancient Paschal tradition, to give a piece of consecrated bread to someone meant to express one's love, one's respect, one's earned affection. And here Jesus reaches out, takes the consecrated bread, and gives it to a man called Judas, Judas Iscariot. Judas then takes the bread—a sign of friendship and love—and at that moment in him all flares up. As St.John writes, Satan entered him, and he got up and left.

When you are in Leningrad, in the Russian Museum, have a look at Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge's painting “The Last Supper.” This moment is captured very dramatically in that work. Christ, lost in thought, no longer has his eyes on Judas. The disciples are looking at one another in confusion, while Judas is throwing on his cloak as he makes his way outside. As Judas leaves he hears the Master's words: “Go and do what you have intended to do.” The rest assume that he has sent him to purchase something for the feast, for on the following day they would celebrate Passover, and all the shops would be closed. When Judas is gone, eleven men remain in a dark room, amidst lamps, bread and wine.

When in ancient times the people of God made a Sacred Covenant with Heaver, they brought a lamb as a sacrifice, sprinkling its blood over all the people as a sign that all were blood brothers and that God himself was a participant in this festival. The blood was the holy blood of a sacrificial animal.

The Old Testament, the ancient Covenant, was about Mount Sinai, lightning, thunder, the people in terror, and Moses's stern words: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. Your shall not make for yourself an idol. Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy.Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not covet.” These words became fixed on the consciousness of people two and a half thousand years ago. That was the Old Covenant.

But Christ establishes a New Covenant. He does this with just a few individuals, but for the benefit of a vast number of people— indeed not just for one nation, but for all of humanity. And he says: “Here there is no sacrificial animal's blood,” then breaks the bread saying: “This is my body.” He then pours the wine, and gives the cup to his disciples saying: “This is my blood.” His blood united his disciples. His body would be pierced within hours. His death was that which would unite Him with them and them together. Thus he remains with them forever. “Do this in remembrance of me,” He says to them.

“In remembrance of me,” not simply as a memorial of something that happened long ago, but because “I am with you always until the end of the age.” His presence here is the most important thing in the sacrament of thanksgiving. Whether on Golgotha, at His death, during the disciples flight, or throughout the astonishing Passover events which dispelled their fear and caused Christianity to spread throughout the world, Christ's presence among his disciples has always been sustained by the one sole act of gathering together to break bread and share the Cup of wine.

This, dear friends, is the basis of the sacrament of the Eucharist— the presence of Christ among us—which was to be found in the catacombs of ancient Rome, in immense Byzantine churches, in tall Gothic, and magnificent Baroque cathedrals, in stern 19th century churches, and even today in the churches of our city, and throughout the world and always.

For this reason we use ancient garments and sing ancient canticles. Old and new are here united:the present with antiquity. Eternity knows no age: she looks upon everything from the same vantage point high above. She remains with us. And I am convinced that in this very thing is found the power, essence, and only basis of Christianity. For Christ says of himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” And no matter how terrible the altar on which the Chalice and paten with the consecrated bread stand, no matter what form the Chalice takes (one finds authentic jewelers art), no matter the language of the text—whether Greek or Old Church Slavonic—it is always, in essence, the same thing.

And no matter the religious processions, services of prayer, or requiems; no matter the ceremony, whether wedding, infant baptism, or numerous traditions and rites, our entire life is carried out within Church tradition. But the Eucharist remains the pivot and most firm foundation for divine service in the Church.

Art arises from spirit, for it is spirit that gives birth. Great art cannot be bred by soul-less beings. Thus the art which adorns the sacrament of the Eucharist, born throughout the two-thousand year old Christian tradition, is born of spirit. So before entering a church, whether you are a believer, an atheist, a doubter or a skeptic, try to bear these things in mind. Remember that for these people gathered something very important is taking place: here present is the One who began all this, and who is invisibly present here and always.