Worship in Spirit and Truth by Fr Thomas Hopko

It is often argued that “Western materials are needed to supplement the Eastern liturgy in the lands of immigration.”  However, these ‘Western materials’ by some (un)happy coincidence – we are led to believe – are almost always heterodox in origin and ethos. Western Orthodox hymns are almost wholly bypassed in this quest for Westernisation, being derided as ‘sounding too Anglican’ (read: ‘liturgical’) or ‘old fashioned’. So this is not really about Westernisation, but modernisation and Protestantisation, a departure from liturgical worship, an apostasy, heresy. That is, the proliferation of heterodox materials in the lands of immigration represents the exact same phenomenon as eg the now-banned Protestant services in Mukattam, Egypt. We in the West simply have the additional excuse of ‘enculturation’ to hide behind, either naively or disingenuously.

In response to above, the proponent of heterodoxy will often go full circle. They will attempt to minimise the differences between Orthodox and heterodox worship, claiming sarcastically “just add Sarkis [an Orthodox hymnographer] to the end of the hymn and it will become Orthodox.” Then why the need to ‘supplement the liturgy’ in the first place? Why are some people so attached to heterodox worship, if it is fundamentally in the same spirit and truth as Orthodox worship? Here Fr Thomas Hopko answers, “the rites and rituals of other churches, and even the churches that don’t have prescribed rites and rituals, may be very, very far from the substance, the reality, the truth, the content, and the spirit of God’s Gospel in Jesus.”

In fact, Fr Hopko is not interested in even assessing whether heterodox worship is compatible with Orthodox worship (“that’s not our interest”). That’s right, the Dean Emeritus of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary believes that the Church should have no interest in even studying heterodox worship, let alone incorporating it into Her praxis!

Worship in Spirit and Truth by Fr Thomas Hopko

It’s All About The Gospel

Our assertion here, our confession, is that the worship of the Church, the worship of the Orthodox Church, what we have today, is in fact in total continuity with the Bible, with the worship of the Old Covenant, the worship of the Hebrews and the Jews, the worship of the tabernacle and the temple, and then the preaching and the prophecy. We also claim that the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church is in complete and total continuity and even identity, solidarity, harmony, unanimity, with the worship of the earliest Christians, with the first Christians.

Here we would say, right from the beginning, that when many people hold that the way Protestants worship, with praise and song and hymn and preaching and so on, that this is like early Christian worship, well, nothing could be further from the truth, because the early Christians, first Christians were Jews, and the early Gentiles were grafted to the Jews, and they were in a continuity of worship that began already and was recorded to and testified to in the pedagogical scriptures of the Old Testament, particularly the tabernacle in the wilderness and the Jerusalem temple…

Of course, all of that is christened by Christ; it’s eschatologized, it’s fulfilled, it’s made perfect, it’s brought to perfection in the broken body and the spilled blood of Jesus who’s raised from the dead, who is himself the final Teacher, the final Prophet, and the final High Priest and the final King and the final everything. So the New Testament is really the final covenant of God with man, predicted also in the prophets: Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel, Isaiah, particularly the last chapters of Isaiah. All this is fulfilled in Jesus.

So the claim here that we want to make today—and this is our point for today—is that liturgical worship—and “leitourgia” means the common act of the people, the qahal of the Church, so the worship of the Church, of the covenanted community itself, the New Testament covenant community, our claim is that that would be the worship of the Orthodox Church.

Obviously today—and we’ll see this—the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, which are the two eucharistic Liturgies that are used in the Orthodox Church, are certainly the development of the action of the belief and faith and Holy Spirit’s indwelling in people through the centuries. So the actual form and the words that we have in St. John Chrysostom Liturgy and St. Basil’s Liturgy were certainly not the words that were used in the earliest Church. In fact, the words in the earliest Church changed quite a bit. We know that in the Didache and in the Dialogues of Justin and Hippolytus’ Apostolic Constitutions that the eucharistic prayers in the earliest Church, after the reading of the Scriptures, were often very free, but they had a form. They had a substance. They had a rule. They had what would be called a canon, a way of doing it. It wasn’t just capricious and arbitrary and free-floating and spontaneous, and then it became formulated in different formulas of prayer [in] different places of the Christian world. One interesting thing historically, although our interest here is not history as such, is that when you had the greatest unanimity of Orthodox Christian faith among the Christians in, let’s say, the fourth, fifth, sixth centuries, and even in the earlier time before that, where the Orthodox Christians who opposed the various heretics kept the same faith, which was called the catholic faith or the orthodox faith in the catholic or orthodox Church, you had the widest diversity of actual words and images and songs and so on. That diversity existed through history…

So the worship in spirit and truth about which Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, we believe is the worship of the Orthodox Church today. It had different shapes and forms and substance and words through history, but it was essentially, substantially, the same. The forms may be different, but the essence and the content and the reality, the truth of it, was the same.

But what we would say now, and I think it would be a claim here, is that we’re not so sure that we can say this any more. We’re not so sure about other rites and rituals beside that of the Orthodox Church, because it may very well be that the rites and rituals of other churches, and even the churches that don’t have prescribed rites and rituals, may be very, very far from the substance, the reality, the truth, the content, and the spirit of God’s Gospel in Jesus. They’re just not dependable. We just can’t affirm them. We can assess them, we can try to see what they say and so on, but that’s not our interest, and that’s certainly not our interest in this present series of reflections

But the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the gospels about how Jesus fulfills the Scriptures, how he was crucified, how he had to be crucified, how he was raised, and how he is glorified. And the Apostle Paul is very instrumental in even how the gospels of Luke and Mark were written. This is done by the Holy Spirit in the earliest Christianity, but there were a lot of people who were distorting this and violating this and not preaching this. They had their own forms of worship. The same thing is true today. Those who pervert the gospels, those who distort the gospels, those who replace God’s Gospel with a gospel of their own, who make up the gospel and those who even wrongly understand the 27 books of the New Testament—they all have worship of their own, but we Orthodox would say it is not the worship in spirit and truth that Jesus spoke about to the Samaritan woman at the well. It is not. It may have elements of it, and certainly does. Some of that worship may even be close to true worship, but it is not completely dependable, and it is not totally of God.

Here we Orthodox would say: Orthodox worship is. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, whatever you want to say about anything else, is. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is a special type of Eucharistic communion, which we’ll talk about in the commentary, is. And in general, the services of the Orthodox Church are, but they have to be properly done and they have to be properly rendered and they have to be properly translated when they’re translated, and they have to be properly understood and they have to be properly explained. And this is no small task! Because even these true Scriptures, canonized in the New Testament, and the true Liturgy and the true liturgies that the holy Church has, are also perverted. They are also misunderstood. They are also misrendered. They are also not properly done. But our claim would be: when they are properly done and properly understood, then they are the totally dependable worship in spirit and truth that Jesus spoke about that day, that hot day, at noon at the well in Sichar in Samaria with the Samaritan woman. That worship would be according to the Gospel.

Now the true Gospel, the right Gospel, the only Gospel that there is, the eternal Gospel, this inspires the worship…

God’s Gospel in Jesus; the only Gospel that there is; the Gospel that is witnessed to first by the Apostle Paul, historically, orally; the Gospel preached by the apostles; the Gospel that is witnessed to in the writings of the New Testamental Scriptures, the 27 canonical books; the Gospel that is twisted and thwarted and perverted in apocalyptic and spurious and false writings that have existed literally from the time of Jesus himself, practically, just down to the present day; the Gospel that is against all heretics and schismatics who pervert and distort this Gospel, and therefore have a distorted worship.

It is ultimately the worship in spirit and truth, the evangelical worship of spirit and truth in the Messiah, about which Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well. This is what the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church is…

But what we have to realize from the beginning is that we’re commenting on a victory celebration, a victory of the glad tidings, the good news, that all of God’s enemies have been destroyed and captured and are held in captivity, that God’s people are safe, those who believe in him can never be harmed, not even by death itself, that they already belong to the victorious kingdom and the victorious king who is Christ himself, and that this is already given to us in the Church of Christ, and in that Church we have the spirit-and-truth worship, the worship of God in spirit and in truth, about which Jesus spoke on that hot, sunny day to the Samaritan woman who symbolizes the fallen world, the heretics, the Gentiles, those who need repentance, as the Bride of the Bridegroom, Christ.

Worship in Genesis

A wonderful book by an Anglican scholar of the 19th century who got into huge debates with his fellow Western Christians in England… his name was Frederick Denison Maurice… [he] said that Christian worship had just become pagan again.  And people were only coming to worship God to get what they wanted, to appease the deity to win his favour, usually against enemies, according to their own desires, and it really wasn’t a pure and glorious, true, grateful praise of God.  And then he even said that the sacrifice of Jesus was accepted in this way by Protestants.  That the sacrifice of Christ was to assuage the anger of God, and to get God on our side, and to make God deal favourably with us and not to hate us anymore.

And F.D. Maurice said this is all paganism, this is not the Bible, this is not the Old Testament nor the New Testament, and he got into huge trouble with people who really hated him.  The title of his book, printed in 1879… what he said always seemed to really resonate with my Orthodox heart and mind and body… ‘The Doctrine of Sacrifice Deduced From the Scriptures’.

Let me read to you what F.D. Maurice said about Cain and Abel: “The meaning of these two kinds of sacrifices goes through the history. The confession of dependence and trust on a righteous Being, from whom life came, which [is what] made Abel s offering an acceptable one; [and then there was] the proud feeling of Cain, that he had something to give, [something that God would be pleased with and that God would have to do what he told God to do], which led to discontent when he received nothing- in return for his gift which [even] led to [the] murder [of his brother].

“Do not let us say, as some have said, that Abel was a religious man, and Cain an irreligious man; that is not the Bible language, either concerning them or their successors.  The acts of Cain are just as religious as those of his brother; one brought a sacrifice just as well as the other. We have no reason to suppose, that there may not have been abundance of religion among those upon whom the flood came [even in the time of Noah.  The point is] Abel was a righteous man; his sacrifice was offered to a righteous Being [whom we would call God] : it expressed faith in such a Being. Cain was [an] unrighteous [man]; he believed in power, and nothing else [as the murder of his brother proves]. His sacrifice was presented to a power, and was designed to win its favour. It was not presented to God [as God is]; it was no [real] worship of Him ; it [therefore] could not be acknowledged by Him.”

In other words, it was an impure sacrifice, a self-serving, proud sacrifice, it wasn’t really a sacrifice “in spirit and truth”.  So this is what we see from beginning, this clash between these two kinds of religion; or I would even prefer to say, personally, between religion as the fallenness of the corrupted being, who simply are trying to appease the deity, win favour from the deity, get God on their side, get God to do what they want Him to do, offer sacrifices so that God would be constrained to make their life healthy and wealthy and long and victorious over their enemies, and so on.  That’s not the biblical view from the very first pages of Genesis!  That is absolutely not it, as we will as we go through the Scripture, and as we comment the Divine Liturgy.  The problem is, that this kind of approach still exists, and it even exists in the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church!  In other words, we could have people who come to the church and offer the Divine Liturgy, participate in the sacrificial rites of the church, and other kinds of sacrifices – candles, incense, wheat, holy water – doing all these things to try to get God to sanctify their life the way they want it to be, and not as an offering of mercy and peace and thanksgiving and praise to the God who graciously loves them, and to the God who alone protects them over all their enemies as He sees fit to do.  A righteous God who wants to deal with righteous people, not an idol, not a brute force, not a power, but one who is love, one who is truth.

This is what seems to be, right from the beginning in the story of Cain and Abel, the issue… How does sacrificial worship and the worship of the true God exist outside Paradise?  And here you could almost say that you have the same dialectic, the same problematic, as was within Paradise: do we worship and love God for His own sake?  Do we thank Him for who He is and what He does for us?  Do we accept what He is and what He does for us as righteous in all its ways? Or are we coming to God, as one Christian mystical writer once said, “as to a cow, to milk Him for that he could give to us”… that’s not worship.  Or you can say, yes it is, but it’s religious pagan worship outside Paradise, of the corrupted human being, it is not worship “in spirit and in truth”.

Worship in the Apostolic Writings

What we have witness to in the pages of the apostolic writings of the New Testament is the worship of the Christian Church, of the community of the faithful. This worship began in Jerusalem, but then it spread, and every single Christian church worshiped in the same way. They worshiped within the same reality. They worshiped according to the same events in which they entered into by their faith and they followed one and the same Gospel and one and the same interpretation of the Old Covenant Scriptures in their communities.

What we can say, very generally speaking, is that the worship in spirit and truth of the Christian Church, testified to on the pages of the apostolic Scripture is the worship of the community of the baptized and the community of the sealed. It’s the community of the faithful. It’s the prayer and the worship, and more than just prayer: it’s total worship, action, activity. Leitourgia is a New Testament word which means a common action. It’s the common action of the believing community.

That’s very important, because it means that early Christians just weren’t, you know, making up prayer groups or meeting together to pray as they saw fit or informing God what was on their mind or, worse yet, it’s absolutely not the case that early Christian worship was unstructured and it was free and the first Christians just prayed however they felt like or however they felt inspired by God. Oh, no, no! Not at all! That’s simply not true. Read the New Testament. There was a structure of worship of the community itself, done first in Jerusalem, and then in all the churches in which they apostles preached and over which they appointed overseers and elders and in which they had deacons. There was a very structure to the Christian communities in all of the places where they existed, and this is what we see in the pages of the New Testament…

Now, in the New Testament, this is how the Church is constituted, and that’s how the worship takes place. There’s the preaching of the Gospel, there’s the doctrine of the apostles, and then there’s the breaking of the bread, and then, way back in the Book of Acts again, there’s the fourth thing. Those who were baptized and sealed continued steadfastly in the apostolic doctrine, the communion, the breaking of the bread, and then it says: the prayers. And, again, it’s a definite article: the prayers. Not simply “and prayers,” but “the prayers.” The prayers were given. They were the prayers of the Church herself.

Certainly, the earliest Christians constituted these prayers. They formulate them on the basis of the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, but the prayers are given. People don’t come to church to pray their own prayers. People come to church to pray the prayers of the Church, because the Liturgy is the act of the Church, of the community. Now, they bring their prayers, they bring their petitions, they offer them, they include them, but these prayers are objectively that of the very body itself, the community and the communion itself. That’s what we see witnessed to on the pages of the New Testament…

Then the Apostle continues: Be careful that you don’t refuse all of this, because you have received this in heaven, not just on earth. And he says that if the people didn’t follow Moses, how much worse will it be for us if we don’t follow the Messiah, Christ. Then he says:
Therefore, let us be grateful (evcharistisomen), let us be eucharistic—that’s what it means—for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and fear (awe), for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29)…

[The] Church that is structured where each church is [headed] by a bishop, with presbyters and deacons, and has the structure of its prayer and its worship. They continue in the teaching of the apostles, the communion, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. Then within that community, we hear the Gospel. We learn the teaching. And then we offer ourselves and our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, together with Christ on the altar, body broken, blood shed, in order to enter into the communion with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, constituting the body of Christ on earth and proclaiming his Gospel of his death and resurrection until he comes again in glory. That is Christian worship according to the New Testamental Scriptures.

We have not only the letter to the Hebrews, but we have the Book of Revelation. Many people think the Apocalypse was itself a description of early Christian worship, and then once it was described it became the scriptural pattern for Christian worship. The elders together, with their white robes, with their crowns, burning their incense, singing, “Alleluia!” to him who sits upon the throne, which is God, and to the Lamb who was dead and alive again, who is Jesus, who is enthroned with God on the holy altar. They’re all filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is in all of the churches, according to the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. And then they sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” to God Almighty and to the Lamb, and then they participate in the marriage supper of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem, which is described in the last chapters of the Apocalypse.

Here you have a vision of Christian Liturgy in the Book of Revelation, and if you go to an Orthodox Church today, you will see that very reality right before your very eyes. That is all actually accomplished. It is performed. It is enacted. God is acting there in the worship of spirit and truth in the final covenanted community of the baptized and the sealed, who believe the Gospel, who offer themselves to God together with Christ, and who participate in the holy Eucharist.

The Divine Liturgy and Personal Prayer

The Liturgy is simply not a prayer service. It is not word and praise. It is not, as one Russian philosopher said after he went to some church services in the Western Europe, he said, “They don’t have worship. They have a lecture and a concert.” A concert and a lecture, and every once in a while they have a symbolical common meal. On communion Sunday or something, several times a year. But prayer is not a lecture and a concert. It is not from time to time having fellowship through eating and drinking bread and wine or grape juice and whatever. That’s not what it is. It certainly is not what it was in the earliest Church, and it’s certainly not what it is if it is completing and fulfilling the sacramental worship of the old covenant, which it is in the Messiah. It’s not a prayer service.

When we go to church, we do pray. We say prayers, we say litanies, we say, “Let us pray to the Lord.” We pay attention to the prayers; we say Amen to the prayers. Sure, there are prayers there, because the whole life of a creature has to be prayer. In the Liturgy, we have the various kinds of prayers. We have the prayer of asking, we have the prayer of praising, we have the prayer of thanking, we have the prayers of interceding and praying for one another, we have the prayers of letting known our needs to God—but that is one aspect of the gathering. It does not exhaust the whole meaning of the gathering at all, not at all.

Those are things that can be done alone, and should be done alone in one’s room, and they are things that even families or groups of Christians can do together when they meet. You could have a prayer group come together and say some prayers, intercede for each other. That’s not very traditional in Eastern Orthodox history, but there’s probably nothing wrong with it, as long as you’re not simply gathering together to inform God what he already knows and then to tell God what God ought to do about it. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to quote his spiritual father, Archimandrite Cyprian Kern, who used to say, “Many people think that prayer is informing God what he already knows and then telling God what he ought to do about it.”

Well, that’s not prayer. Prayer is not naming it and claiming it, either. Prayer, in fact, does not even begin in one’s own words. If you follow the Scriptures, you learn to pray and you begin to say, as St. Anthony the Great said in the desert, using the words that God provided for his own glorification. And that means, fundamentally, the psalms, and then it means the Lord’s prayer, it means the doxology, it means the trisagion—the “holy, holy, holy.” These are prayers that are given to us that we repeat, by the Scriptures, by the Holy Spirit, by God’s will put into our mouth.
Here St. Benedict, the great monastic leader who was very, very important for Western liturgical history, he said, “When a Christian goes to church”—or rather, gathers as the Church, constitutes the Church, realizes and actualizes the assembly as Church for the sake of worshiping God—he said, “we do not put our mouth where our mind is; we put our mind where our mouth is!” In other words, when we go to church, the words are given to us; they are put on our lips. 
That’s why you will see we will even begin the Liturgy with the psalmic expression, “O Lord, open thou my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”

A person can definitely share with God what’s on their mind. We can tell God what we think. We can tell God what we want. We can make known our needs and our anxieties and so on to God. But we do not go to the Divine Liturgy for that purpose. In fact, we go to the Divine Liturgy to learn what we, not only ought to say to God when we talk to him, but we go to the Divine Liturgy and the Church’s liturgy generally to learn how we ought to think, to learn what our mind should be really on, what our heart should really desire. In that sense, the Church’s liturgy and the Divine Liturgy par excellence is a school of prayer. It’s a communal act in which we go to be shaped and to be formed as human beings and as Christians in that community where God himself is acting, teaching, preaching, offering, consecrating, blessing, and giving himself to us for holy Communion as we give ourselves to him for the sake of that very same holy Communion…

[P]rayer, that’s evchē, that’s prosevchē; that’s not leitourgia. That’s not leitourgia. You could say it’s our personal leitourgia as what we do as members of the community in our lives with every breath every day of our life as we try to actualize in our everyday life what is given to our experience in the liturgical life, particularly when we gather and participate in the Divine Liturgy. You could even say that the personal pietistic prayer life of a Christian is the actualization individually in what is given in the Liturgy; it’s the actualization all the time in one’s own person to what is given to the entire community when it gathers at the church for the Lord to act at the Divine Liturgy of the Church…

Here we can see very, very simply: if a person doesn’t participate in the Divine Liturgy—go to church, constitute the Church, be a member of the Church, and take their place within the Church—they will never ever have a deep, serious, godly individual prayer life, never. They will always be at the whims of their own thoughts, their own mind, their own desires, and they’ll be blown around by devils in an unbelievable way. They will be lacking discipline, they’ll be lacking focus, they’ll be lacking attention. You’ve got to go to church and you’ve got to participate in the Liturgy to pray properly in our private personal lives…

Liturgy, Divine Liturgy, is a very unique thing. It’s not a prayer group. It’s not only for prayer. It’s not simply a place where you go to be taught, so you have a lecture given to you. It’s not a place where you just go to sing praises as you decide and see fit. It’s not a place where you go to share with God your deepest desires and ideas and try to get God to do what you want him to do and con him in some sense, con him into [doing] it, naming it and claiming it. No, that’s not what it is at all.