Heaven on Earth

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Heaven on Earth
September, 1997

“We know not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you ; we only know this : that God dwells there amongst men ; and that their service surpasses the worship of other places ; for we cannot forget that beauty”.

This is how the emissaries of Saint Prince Vladimir described their experience of the Divine Liturgy at the magnificent Cathedral of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople more than 1,000 years ago. They had travelled throughout the known world in search of a true faith for the people of Kievan Rus’. It is often also the experience of many who come to Orthodox Churches throughout the world today.

The liturgical worship of the Orthodox Christian Church has a long tradition reaching back even to the Old Testament times. There are structural elements and prayers in the Divine Liturgy and in other services from the earliest days of the Church. There has been a continuous development of all the services as the Church has responded to and even reflected the societies and times in which she has been worshipping and serving. Thus, even though the services today are often quite different from those of the days of Saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, or many other saints, the essence remains : worship of God in beauty, holiness, humility and love.

Not everyone knows how to behave in an Orthodox church. First, it is necessary to stress that although there are certainly many things which are done in common, there is no sense of rigid military behaviour. We are able to respond organically from the heart through the course of any service, as long as we are not drawing attention to ourselves and disturbing others. Second, we pray as one Body of Christ and are not ever worshipping alone — not even in our homes. Just as we spiritually grow by seeing the example of others, so others look to us for their spiritual development. It is very important for all of us to try to set a good example by our behaviour of respectful love for our Lord. Most importantly, we are taught over and over again by our Spiritual Fathers, that we must be very careful to keep our eyes on the Lord, to remember at all times that we have come to worship Him, and not to let ourselves be tempted into judging or condemning others.

When we come to the Temple of the Lord, we should try not simply to be on time, but to be early so that we may use this important time adequately to prepare ourselves to come and greet the Lord and the saints ; to warm our hearts through worship and prayer and to pray for our brothers and sisters that they also may be strengthened through worship. Upon arriving at the Temple, we may venerate the doors and/or walls of the Lord’s House ; but regardless, we come into the entrance and we bless ourselves with the Sign of the Cross. We then come to the nave (the main part of the Temple) ; we stop near the entrance doors ; we bless ourselves again, and we say the Entrance Prayers beginning with “O Heavenly King” and continuing through the “Our Father”. Then we may say the Tropars of Repentance beginning with “Have mercy on me...” which we can find in the Liturgy Book or a Prayer Book.

Then we go to the icon in the middle of the nave (if it is in “Byzantine” style, then this icon is near the entrance doors). We venerate it by blessing ourselves twice with the sign of the Cross as we bow ; we kiss the icon, and we bless ourselves and bow again. In the same manner, we venerate the icons of the Saviour and of the Mother of God (Theotokos). Upon passing by the Royal Doors for the first time, we show deep respect by either making a deep bow or a prostration before them ; some may even wish to kiss the Royal Doors if the arrangement of the Temple permits. Other icons may be venerated, and in each case, an offering of a candle may be made near the icon, to accompany our prayers or special intercessions. At this time, we should always remember to commemorate the departed by going to the Holy Cross, kissing it, and offering candles with prayer. We then join the rest of the congregation at our customary places, or at whatever space is available. At this time, may recite the “Our Father”, or we pray for those who are in our hearts, and/or we warm our hearts by reading psalms or other prayers.

As we stand before the Lord, we focus our attention on the prayers and worship given. We are all sinners ; we are all fallen human beings. The Temple is a place of healing for all who are sick at heart. Together, we are all participating in the service of God at worship, because we love Him and we wish to repent. We need to keep this clearly in mind as we pray, sing and otherwise participate in the worship of God. This is our spiritual work (the meaning of the word “liturgy”). Most importantly, we must never expect our brothers and sisters to be stronger than we are, and we must avoid both criticising them in our hearts and doing things which may make a temptation for them.

When we are worshipping, we want to avoid attracting attention, which is why we dress ourselves simply, decently, carefully. The Lord is not impressed by a display of wealth or fashion taste, but we do owe Him the respect of dressing as cleanly as possible and in our best clothes. We are not to belittle the poor by dressing ostentatiously, nor are we to shame the rich by dressing poorly. In the Temple, displays of fashion are out of place. We should therefore wear loose-fitting clothes which cover our arms, legs, shoulders and chest. Makeup should be minimal, as should perfumes. Avoid wearing lipstick when venerating icons and coming to the Chalice. The chemicals in the lipstick damage both the Chalice and any icons or reliquaries it comes off on. During the services, we should avoid unnecessary communication, since talking is disturbing to others, and we should keep this for fellowship times.

In some places, it is customary during the Preparation of the Gifts (as the clergy receive the Mysteries, and the Lamb is portioned out and placed in the Chalice) to kiss the principal icons first, before approaching the Chalice. This can be done after the “Holy Things for the Holy”. When we approach the Chalice, we join the queue quietly and respectfully, and we do not make conversation. We pray and prepare. We cross our arms over our chest. Although some direct otherwise, it is better to put the left arm over the right arm. This reminds us not to bless ourselves with the Sign of the Cross either before or after receiving the Holy Mysteries. Only these Mysteries bless us at this time. Further, as the clergy do now, so in ancient times everyone received the Body of Christ in the palm of the right hand. Crossing the arms with the right arm under is reminiscent of that custom. After we kiss the foot of the Chalice, we should kiss nothing and no-one else until we have cleansed our mouths of any residue of the Mysteries through eating the antidoron and drinking a little wine or water. The Fathers are quite clear about this.

Our responsibility is to come to the Temple of the Lord, to assemble together at least every Sunday, to be visibly the “Body of Christ”, and to receive the Sacred Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ as He directed (“Take, eat”, Matthew 26:26) and as the Apostle exhorts us (“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some”, Hebrews 10:25). We pray together ; and as we support each other (as one, with one heart and one mind), together we worship our beloved Lord and Saviour. From Creation, this is our first purpose : to worship the Lord. With the deepest sincerity, because of love, we should worship our Lord and help each other by example, prayer and encouragement, so that we may all grow more in serving our Lord alone in every part of our life. From this, we help each other as we imitate Christ as loving servants of Him in and with each other.

Last, let us not be too quick to leave the Temple. Why rush away from Him whom we love, and whose love is our life ? Let us linger a while in His presence, and thank Him for all His great gifts, His healing, His forgiveness and His compassion. Then we will be able better to appreciate Him in each other as we extend our loving liturgical fellowship into our socialising, our work and our service.

Together, let us help one another to know the Lord’s love, His splendour and His beauty, “for we cannot forget that beauty”.