I love listening to the sermons that my priest gives at our Greek Orthodox parish. This week he told us that he does not wear a watch once Orthros begins; he does not keep track of time. Divine Liturgy follows directly after Orthros. My parish begins Orthros at 9 a.m. and Divine Liturgy usually begins around 10 a.m. Could it start a little after 10? Could it start before 10? The answer to both is yes, and neither time would be late or early. Many parishes don’t even give a time for Divine Liturgy. They only provide the time for Orthros. That is because once the first service begins, we are in heavenly time. Worldly time is lost, and it is all about the divine experience.
There are no breaks between services. No stops and starts. It is just one continual flow of time and worship. I didn’t know that during my first visit to an Orthodox Church. I remember sitting in the dark candle lit Orthros service. It was beautiful. It was amazingly wonderful to watch when Orthros became the Divine Liturgy. The room suddenly became well-lit and the priest sang, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.” When our priest mentioned that he never wears a watch during service, I realized that I never look at my watch during service. Orthodox services aren’t kept to a schedule. They end when everything that is supposed to be done is done and when everything that should be said, is said.
Stepping into an Orthodox Church for me felt like coming home. The worship sweeps me up into this new world, where time and schedules don’t matter. All that matters is being there, taking it all in, singing my prayers and praises to God with the people. Eastern Orthodoxy is still very much a new experience for me. I did not grow up with it and I did not even know it existed until not too long ago. Naturally, I sometimes look back on my Mormon past and compare how I felt then and how I feel now. I remember many times looking at the clock during LDS sacrament meeting. Sometimes twice within the same minute. There were meetings where the speaker was captivating but there were also times where I was hoping I needed to go take a child to the bathroom just to take a break. Everything was kept to a schedule. I remember sometimes hearing jokes by speakers saying something to the effect of, “I am glad the first person took so long, now I only have to speak for a few minutes.”
I am not trying to describe the ideal Mormon experience. Ideally, all the speakers would be well prepared and speak with the Spirit and all the congregation would come prepared to listen and receive as well. As Joseph Fielding Smith said, “We should assemble in the spirit of prayer, of meekness, with devotion in our hearts” (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:342).
In my opinion, LDS sacrament meeting was exactly that, a meeting. A meeting of the LDS Saints, to talk ward business, pray, sing hymns, take the sacrament, and listen to speakers give personal stories or interpretation of scripture. Sometimes we never even heard scripture. I remember meetings where almost no scripture was read, especially fast and testimony meeting.
An Orthodox service contains many of the same elements of a Mormon sacrament meeting, however, in my opinion the Divine Liturgy does a better job fulfilling its purpose. To quote from the book “Introducing the Orthodox Church,” by Anthony M. Coniaris:
“The liturgy is full of processions of movements. These processions show what is happening in the liturgy. God is moving toward man, and man is moving toward God. We are all moving closer to the Second Coming of Jesus. For the Orthodox Christian, life is not going around in circles. It is a movement toward a goal. The goal is the kingdom of God.
At the very onset the goal of the liturgy is announced. The first words of the liturgy are ‘Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit…’ As a bus driver announces at the beginning where the bus is going, so the priest announces at the very beginning that the goal of the liturgy is to take us to the Kingdom of heaven. We hear this and we reply saying, ‘Amen.’ This means, ‘O.K. that is where we want to go.”
“The liturgy is full of movements of God to man and man to God:
1. We wake up and get ready for church; first Procession.
2. We bring a gift of bread to express the giving of our life to God.
3. The processions of the Small Entrance, the reading of the Epistles, Gospel and sermon that show Christ as coming to speak to us today.
4. We go to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.
5. We give our offering of money to God to help the poor and the needy, to continue the work of His Church in the world today.
6. The movement of love and reconciliation to our neighbor through a handshake or the kiss of peace.
7. The movement back to the world to serve as witnesses of the resurrection and to celebrate the “liturgy after the liturgy’ through actions of love.”
LDS may find many elements of the Divine Liturgy that are similar to their own sacrament meeting. However, I think the overall intention of the services is vastly different.
In an October 2008 Ensign, Elder Oaks said, “This [sacrament] ordinance was introduced so that we can renew our covenants to serve Him, to obey Him, and to always remember Him. “
He goes on to say, “How can we have the Spirit of the Lord to guide our choices so that we will remain “unspotted from the world” (D&C 59:9) and on the safe path through mortality? We need to qualify for the cleansing power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We do this by keeping His commandment to come to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit and in that wonderful weekly meeting partake of the emblems of the sacrament and make the covenants that qualify us for the precious promise that we will always have His Spirit to be with us (see D&C 20:77).”
The key words that stick out to me are, “ordinance”, “covenants”, “obey”, and especially “qualify.”
Now compare the above description to the description of the Eucharist given by Anthony M. Coniaris:
“We are at the Last Supper. Christ is the Host. He invites us with the same invitation He used for His disciples. “Take, eat… Drink ye all of it…” The movement of the priest from the altar to the people with the holy cup shows Christ coming to each of us today with the Bread of Life.
In our desire to be one with Him, we make movement to go forward at this moment. It signifies our going to God. In His great love, God has chosen to make the first step to come to us. We respond by going to Him. No liturgy is complete unless we take part in the procession to the altar to be united with Jesus. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him,” said Jesus.
We are never “worthy” to come to Jesus. We come because only He can make us worthy. We come in obedience to Jesus Who invites us to come. We come praying, “I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that You should come to me… yet since You, in Your love for all, wish to dwell in me, in boldness I come…”
When I was LDS my thought process (wrong or right) was that going to sacrament meeting was my duty. I was obeying, making promises, and attempting to “qualify” myself. When I started going to Orthodox Divine Liturgy, I was consumed. Going to service to me now, is about turning towards God with every opportunity. It is about communion with Him. Divine Liturgy to me, truly feels divine. The experience of it has changed my attitude towards God and worship. It has transformed my relationship with God. I no longer look for my watch, I take it all in for as long as I am able.