Heavenly Worship

Worship begins in heaven. The Holy Scriptures record numerous instances of the drama of heavenly adoration taking place before the very throne of God. It may be that for the person familiar with Scripture, some of these are so apparent they are overlooked. The concept of heavenly worship begins with God's revelation to the children of Israel about the building of the Tabernacle, and the manner of worship to take place within it. This revelation formed the basis for the Old Testament worship of the Jews. Worship on earth was to reflect worship in heaven.

Worship in the Old Testament

In Isaiah, Chapter 6, the prophet writes of being caught up to heaven and experiencing celestial worship. He tells us there were seraphim praising God, singing "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory" (verse 3). He records that one of the seraphim flew to him with a coal taken from the altar, and touched his mouth, taking away his sin. This was understood by the early fathers of the Church as being a type (or model) of the Eucharist. It was after this experience that Isaiah was commissioned by God to prophesy to His people. He ties this transporting vision into earthly time: the year King Uzziah died, about 731 B.C. (Isaiah 6:1). Even the Prophet Daniel reports that his vision was from being before the throne of the Ancient of Days, where He was served and ministered to (7:9-14).

In Revelation 4 and 5, the Apostle John was likewise caught up to heaven, and in that book we have the revelation of what he saw and of what he was told. He witnessed worship before the throne of God. He records the presence of twenty-four elders before the throne bowing down before the Lord. Angelic creatures are praising God saying, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come" (verse 8). In fact, he sees tens of thousands of angels worshiping the Lamb who was slain (5:11-12), and "every created thing which is in the heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and on the sea, and all things that are in them" worshiping the Lamb (5:13). Talk about heavenly liturgy!

The inescapable context in all of these accounts is that of worship: worship of God by all of His creatures. And it is with this basic understanding that Orthodoxy approaches worship: it is the privilege and the responsibility of each person to bless God, that is, to praise and give thanks to the Holy Trinity for mercy and creation. Whether one agrees or fully understands it, the Bible testifies that there is worship in Heaven.

By extension then, it is only natural that Christian worship should be in keeping with the nature of worship in Heaven. The constant struggle both in Israel and in Christendom has been to avoid affirming the methods which mankind proposes as the means to approach and worship God, and to accept that revelation which God Himself has given, and to act on it. That is true theologically, and it is true liturgically as well. Worship is based on revelation. The early Christian Church used the Old Testament revelation as its starting point, and fulfilled it with the new and final revelation in Jesus Christ.

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Worship in the New Testament

The summary New Testament passage on heavenly worship is Hebrews 8:1-6. Here Jesus Christ is described as the High Priest, seated at the right hand of God, Who has accomplished salvation and reconciliation through His mediation. Verse 2 says that this High Priest has another role also. He is the Liturgist (the word is leitourgos) of the sanctuary. Jesus Christ Himself is the Liturgist, and this liturgy takes place in the "sanctuary of the true tabernacle" which is in Heaven before the throne of God. Verses 4 and 5 say that worship on earth is patterned after that in Heaven. This is described in verse 6 as the "more excellent liturgy" which He has obtained because He is the mediator of "a better covenant". The teaching is quite clear — liturgical worship is not optional. Rather, it is normative for Christians.

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Worship on Earth — As It Is in Heaven

Worship on earth, then, is to be an extension, a reflection, of that in the Kingdom. It is to be a window to heaven. Christian believers cannot decide that this or that is unnecessary and disposable because it is not contemporary or is not in vogue. The obligation is to follow and to serve God, to accept His Word of revelation. This is the guardianship of Tradition in the life of the Church; to remain true to the faith as revealed, as it was in the beginning.

Recall in the book of Acts when the followers of The Way were first called Christians, meaning those who followed or acted like Jesus Christ. The implication is clear. The believers were living lives which appeared like the very life which Christ lived. So are all believers to live: conformed to the will of God, loving and caring for all brothers and sisters. And so are believers to worship: In a heavenly pattern which shows forth the Kingdom of God in which Jesus Christ reigns. The Kingdom of God is the critical element of worship for good reason. It was the reality and advent of this Kingdom which constituted the core of the preaching and teaching of Jesus, especially in His parables.

From the New Testament one can make three summary observations about the nature of the Kingdom of God. First, it is a present spiritual reality (Rom. 14:17), as well as the realm or dimension into which followers of Jesus have entered (Col. 1:13). Second, it is the reign or rule of God which has been established in Jesus Christ, and will be consummated when He returns (Matt. 8:11, 11:27). Third, it is the inheritance which will be bestowed upon God's people when Christ comes in glory (Matt. 25:34).

Christ came to bring followers into the Kingdom of His Father. This is where the focus must be. Fr. Thomas Hopko describes it well when he says, "The two comings of Christ are held together in Christian thought, action, and prayer at all times. They cannot be separated. When they are, it is the end of the Christian faith, life and worship. The first coming without the second is a meaningless tragedy. The second coming without the first is an absurd impossibility. Jesus is born to bring God's Kingdom. He dies to prove His kingship. He rises to establish His reign. He comes again in glory to share it with His people. In the Kingdom of God there are no subjects. All rule with the risen Messiah. He came, and is coming, for this purpose alone." [1]

Believers in Jesus Christ live both in this world, and in the Kingdom of God. They experience the Kingdom in their midst through the work of the Holy Spirit. Based upon their faith, they know it is the eternal life they have begun to experience. They recognize that is it not yet fully manifested in this world, but will be so at the return of Christ. It is in the Church that Christians have the fullness of the foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

Thus Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matt. 16:18). His Kingdom is Life, and it is what life on earth is about. Belief in Jesus Christ brings believers into the Kingdom of God through Baptism and makes them its citizens. At the same time, they are made members of His body, the Church, to be a holy nation unto Him. The Divine Liturgy focused on the Eucharist as the mystery and sacrament of that Kingdom is indeed a living continuity with the beliefs and practices of early Christianity.

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The Ascent to Heaven

Both of these truths, that of worship as "heaven on earth" and of the Church as the presence of the Kingdom of God, are crucial to understand Early Christian liturgical worship in its fullness. Worship is an entrance into the dimension of the Kingdom. The Eucharist which is the focus of the Liturgy, is a sacramental thing — that is, a thing of grace, a thing of the Kingdom which involves "the idea of transformation, which refers to the ultimate event of Christ's death and resurrection, and is always a sacrament of the Kingdom." [2] For the Christian, the Eucharist is not a mere remembrance, a symbolic acting out of an historical event in the life of Jesus Christ. Christians take the Lord and Savior at His word when He said, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life..." (John 5:53-54). In communion believers receive bread and wine that has become the Body and Blood of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God.

Like that of the early Church, "For Orthodox tradition there is no difference between the Body of the risen Christ and His Eucharistic Body, that is, the Church in its two-fold nature, spiritual and sacramental. The Eucharist constitutes the Church more surely, more essentially, than any of its sociological aspects. In and through the Eucharist, the Church becomes a chalice from which flows the power of resurrection 'for the life of the world'." [3] The Eucharist is not of this world, it is of the Kingdom. It is the Body and Blood of Him Who rules in the Kingdom of God. Thus, how can Christians expect to receive the things of the Kingdom on this earth? For them, Christians must go to the Kingdom. That ultimately is the "purpose" of the Divine Liturgy. It is an ascent to heaven, to the Kingdom of God. It is the liturgical and sacramental dynamic that carries Christians from this world into the dimension of the Kingdom where they may partake of spiritual things, and participate in spiritual worship before the Throne of God!

At a common sense level, this is simply applying to the Eucharist what Christ expected believers to apply to their lives, for as St. Paul enjoins, "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20). Believers are to live in a manner that demonstrates their citizenship is in heaven. Applied to worship, this is likely what Jesus meant when He told the Samaritan woman that "the hour cometh when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall you worship the Father." But as He went on to point out to her, "the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be His worshipers" (John 4:21-24). Worshiping God is not a thing of this world, it is a thing of the Spirit. And if the Kingdom is the place of God, then the Kingdom is where the Christian had better be worshiping "in spirit and in truth!"

The destination of the Liturgy is known from the outset — the first words said by the priest are "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages." The believer's destination is the Kingdom of God, to worship Him in spirit and in truth; to join the saints and the Host of Heaven in worship.

Fr. Schmemann writes that "to bless the Kingdom is not simply to acclaim it. It is to declare it to be the goal, the end of all our desires and interests, of our whole life, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept in love, and to move toward what is loved and accepted. The Church is thus the assembly, the gathering of those to whom the ultimate destination of all life has been revealed and who have accepted it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man." [4]

Experientially, the Liturgy is an act of Divine Beauty. To witness and to participate in it and become aware of its aesthetic value is to become aware of God's love for us. The point of any writing or analysis of the Liturgy is to encourage the reader to experience and appreciate it for its true worth. Its value, of course, is in the lasting spiritual sustenance it provides. Here is the element that sets the Early Christian liturgical worship apart; it is not this-worldly, rather it is an other-worldly experience. Christians ascend to heaven, of which they are now citizens and to which they are ultimately destined, to commune with the God who loves mankind and has shown forth this love. There Christians worship this God and receive His gifts. This is truly what worship was meant to be: the ascent to heaven in the company of the saints to worship and to know God.

Credits

Parts of this page are excerpted from: Williams, B. and Anstall, H.; Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple and the Early Church; Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 1990.

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[1] Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1984, p. 67.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, For The Life Of The World; St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1973, p. 64.

[3] The Living God; St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood,, 1989, p. ix.

[4] Alexander Schmemann, For The Life Of The World, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1973, p. 28.


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