by Fr. Joseph J. Allen
After returning from the 23rd annual convention held in the “new” steel city of Pittsburgh, I sat back and tried to contemplate the spiritual benefits that our people received from the regular services in which they participated. Despite all the distractions which always accompany conventions, one could not but notice that Father George Corey and his dedicated people did a fine job in offering the possibility of real spiritual growth for both clergy and laity. I say “possibility” because certainly not everyone there used that possibility to make an absolute gain. The Church always offers that possibility, but it is up to the individual to react to that offer — to feel the presence of God in meeting with his fellow man. The Church never has said that everyone present at a service will automatically benefit spiritually merely by his presence, but only that she performs a significant act in order that the participant may respond.
In any case, I felt obliged to attempt to explain something about the “coming together” of people — something more than the usual explanation. It was with this feeling that this effort was made to explain the gathering.
Most of us consider ourselves average men — whatever that word “average” means. I am convinced that most people will act and think as I do and possess the same shortcomings that I possess. As far as the Liturgy is concerned, many of us have looked at the “forest and haven’t seen the trees!” I myself have often emphasized in my own mind, as I feel most Orthodox people do, the seemingly more important moments of the Liturgy, the offertory (Great Entrance), and the Anaphora. Certainly, they seem more important and that is perhaps because I am a product of a scholarly group which reduces everything to “how,” “when’’ and “where.” However, I have discovered that the trees in the forest must be seen first. The tree in this case represents the reason for my being there — that is — the gathering.
There is a “where,” a “when,” and a “why” to consider when trying to understand the gathering of Christians. It is important to realize that each of these is important and yet all are inseparable from one to another.
Biblical history answers the first question of “where.” Although the early Christians were still close to the Judaic tradition of their day, they created for themselves a new Christian setting. In place of the old traditional Jewish cult, Christ set up a new one — “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:23-4). The book of Acts indicates that Christian worship was practiced with the traditional Hebrew worship. This new practice included Baptism, the Eucharist, and common prayer. This new rule of prayer rested on the belief that the Messiah had come and had fulfilled all things — all the prophecies — and had made “all things new.” The Christians felt themselves still to be Hebrews — but now Hebrews “after the flesh,” that is, after the Word became flesh. They still accepted the old, but in a new and more perfect way.
Therefore, we see according to Acts 2:46 and 5:42 in Luke 24:53 that the Christians were first gathered in the temple but at the same time “the disciples were coming together in particular houses; in an upper room Luke 24:33 … and in the house of John Mark (Acts 12:12) in which Jesus had perhaps taken the last meal with his disciples before his death.” In the meetings in these houses, we see an early moving out of the temple. Scripture records particular meetings in the home of Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus and Rome (I Cor. 16:19 and Romans 16:5) and in Laodicea in the home of Nympha (Col. 4:15). These places are designated as “the Church that is in the home.” What is important is that people realized the importance of meeting together in one place — in the same place. So important was this, that “separate gatherings were to be rejected.” (I Cor. 11:20 ff.) This idea of “oneness” was very important and still remains so today. Their purpose was to approach the table of the Lord as one body, in one faith, crying in one voice — Maranatha, ‘Come Lord Jesus.’ It is here made manifest that the Church is my home — my natural habitat and not a place separate from my everyday life. One can easily see that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the where (the temple and house) from the why (the Eucharist). This shows us that the Church does not distinguish place, reason and time.
The important point to remember here is that these people acted upon His promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name …” This was the reason for gathering and should be for us today.
To understand the next question, the when of the gathering, one must first look for the link between the Eucharist and “time,” the reason for the celebration of the Lord’s Day. This was the day of Jesus’ Resurrection and each Lord’s Day was an Easter Festival. In relationship to the Hebrew Sabbath, the whole week was advanced—the day of resurrection gradually became a new Sabbath. As Father Alexander Schmemann has said. “All the Old Testament prescriptions and definitions touching the seventh day were little by little transferred to Sunday, and the seventh day has been converted into a kind of ‘prototype’ of the Christian day of rest.”
That the early Christians gave significance to the “first day of the week” is attested by St. Paul who uses this designation in I Cor. 16:2, to request the Corinthians to lay aside on that day something for the collection. Acts 20:7 tells that the gathering for breaking of bread, at which St. Paul preached until midnight, took place “on the first day of the week.”
The Lord’s Day is the day of Messianic fulfillment, the day of the New Aeon. The world was created in seven days, but that world fell and so now that “all things become new.” The first day is also the beginning of Christian time. It was on this day that the fallen world was saved. Time, therefore, is important, but it is a new idea of time. It is what is known as “Kairos” — the time in which God acts. This is why, when the deacon says before the Liturgy that “the time is right” for the Eucharist, that all the conditions are fulfilled, and it seems that God will act — he means “kairos.” Normal time (Chronos — chronology) ends and now kairos — God’s time — begins. Kairos is always related to chronos for it fulfills it and is the end of it. “We celebrate that sacrament which is beyond time and yet the end of time, for Christ is the end, having inaugurated the end, and we wait for Him.” We must finally transform all things — all chronos to kairos — our time to His time.
Quite surprisingly, Orthodox people know the “why” better than the “where” and “when.” The understanding of the “where” and “when” would be worth little if it did not include the “why.” There is no doubt that the whole meaning of the Liturgy is the Eucharist. As Father Alexander Schmemann says, “the Eucharist is a Liturgy.” This is why it is wrong to believe that we need only to receive Communion twice or four times a year. Why do we have the Divine Liturgy if not to receive? Look at the history of the Liturgy. The reason (the “why”) the early Christians came together was to “break the bread.” It was for them a journey into the Heavenly Kingdom. That journey was accomplished through the Eucharist which was inherited, at least in part, from their Hebrew origins. The synaxis — the liturgy of the Word — preserved the structure of the synagogue services which included the readings and preaching. The other part of that service was the Eucharist proper in which was also preserved the form of the Kiddish or passover supper. The combination of the two was transferred into the Christian cult. The order today still reflects these origins of the Eucharist — the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist proper.
What is important to remember is that “leitourgia” is the function of the Church, for it is the function of the Church to express herself sacramentally. It is indeed impossible to separate the “gathering” from the “Eucharist” in the early Church. Of course, the Liturgy of time (matins, vespers, etc.) was also developed later, but the reason for the Church still remains the Anaphora — that is the offering of the Church through the Eucharist.
What we miss today and what was missing also in Pittsburgh and in most Orthodox Churches, is the understanding that the Eucharist requires the concelebration of celebrant and people. It is not something which is “watched.” We do not “say the mass” as the Roman Catholics express it. This makes the “gathering” subject to, and less important than, the priest. But the Church, the gathering, the EKKLESIA comes first and then the priest enters. Each needs and complements the other. This idea of “gathering” first is still preserved in the Bishop’s (Hierarchal) service where he often does everything, including vesting, before the people, and enters the sanctuary only at the “Little Entrance.” In the early Church the clergy did not even enter the Church until this moment; this is why it is still called “entrance.” Today, of course, since the priest must prepare the Gifts at the Proskomedia, (the Deacon used to do this himself) he must exit before entering. What we should understand in all this is that the “gathering” has always been emphasized in our Church. It is useless for the priest to be there unless you are!
The Church’s function, whether the meeting is in your local temple or at a convention, is fundamentally sacramental, — the vehicle for Baptism, Eucharist, and other sacraments; the offering (Anaphora); but first it is the gathering — “where two or three are gathered in my name.”
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America