To be a Christian is to follow Christ – and both Catholic and Orthodox spiritual writers teach that this happens most especially through the Sacraments or Holy Mysteries. But what does this mean? How can liturgical rituals teach us to follow Christ?
Perhaps the best answer is to look at each of the words in the following sentence:
The Christian life is a life of piety and dignity, from baptism towards communion with God, through repentance and prayer.
and see how they relate to the life of the Church, and the life in Christ.
A Life of Piety and Dignity
Piety (having an appropriate relationship with God and others) is not simply a sentimental feeling, or a way to avoid responsibility. According to Saint John Chrysostom, piety is "a pure faith and a moral life." The teaching and exhortation of the liturgy serve to show us what the true faith is, and what this means for our daily actions.
In the same way, the Church's liturgies teaches us to honor God in his transcendence and glory, but also to respect the dignity and value he has bestowed on each of us: that is why, for example, the people are incensed during the liturgy, as are also the bodies of those who have died. In the liturgy, we learn what is truly important.
We sometimes think of baptism as simply "the forgiveness of original sin." But in reality, baptism is the beginning of the life "in Christ": through baptism and chrismation, we become adopted children of God, bearers of Christ, and sparks of the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is the root of all ministry in the Church; it gives each of us a share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal offices of Christ, so that (as God intended for our first parents) we can stand in the midst of the created world, creatures of both matter and spirit, and lead the universe in a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving. See Baptism in the life of the Church.
Just as we sometimes limit baptism to forgiveness of sins, we often diminish Holy Communion be thinking of it as a private, intimate moment with God. But the life in Christ leads us to communion with God and all those united to Him - that is, to the entire company of heaven, as well as the Church on earth. This communion is a life of charity, joy, and inexpressible pleasure in which we come to know God and, in Him, the entire world and all those in it, and to take part in the Divine life itself. This is deification, or theosis.
The pinnacle of this life is the Eucharist, the thanksgiving made by Jesus Christ to God the Father, in which all humanity is invited to take part. In the Eucharist, those who are baptized come to form the Church, and are truly united to one another and to Christ. So our liturgy is essentially communal. See The Eucharist in the life of the Church.
The Anaphora of Saint Basil tells the story of the fall of mankind away from likeness to God, and all that He has done to lead us back to that likeness. So the liturgy, too, calls us to repentance (metanoia): sorrow for our sins, a desire to change our life, and the tools to do so. When the hymns of the liturgy speak of sin, this is not to berate us, but to show us the meanness of vice, the beauty of goodness, and how necessary it is to turn from our sins toward the light of God.
To this end, the Church also gives us practices like alms-giving and fasting, to enable us to practice in both body and soul those virtues that lead us to true freedom in Christ. The praise of the self-control and discipline (askesis) of the saints is provided to teach us that these are possible for us as well, and in keeping vigil, we learn to practice watchfulness (nepsis). See Fasting and vigils in the life of the Church.
Since we are to praise and know God with both body and soul, and since our sins have involved both body and soul, it makes sense that our training in virtue has to involve them as well. This accounts for much of the ritual, repetition, and challenge in celebrating the liturgy: we practice these disciplines until we have mastered them, and can live a live of "peace in all piety and holiness" (Liturgy of Saint Basil).
To pray is, quite simply, to talk with God. We can distinguish between personal prayer (in the quiet of our own room) and prayer in common, but the truth is that since we all all one in Christ, these two are in constant relation to each other. Our Lord say "when you pray", and instructed his followers not to parade their private prayers in public; but he also told them that, wherever two of his disciples joined together in prayer, He is truly present.
It is important that each of us pray from our own hearts, regularly, to God, and listen for Him to answer, and for this reason the Church even provides morning and evening prayers that each of us (clergy, monastics, and layfolk) can use. Our personal prayer in private prepares us for the liturgy, and our liturgical prayer teaches us how to pray, as the apostle Paul instructed: "Pray always."
Of course, liturgical prayer can be a challenge: others can distract us, and all sorts of concerns can draw our attention away from God. It is with this in mind that the Church building and the liturgical services are provided, to give us a regularity to our prayer; to clothe others in song and vestments so that we can see them with the eyes of charity and faith; and so that by practice we can learn to live and walk constantly in God's presence, and love others as they are loved by God.
Some practical advice
- Get a church calendar and follow it through the year.
- Attend church services whenever you can. Use this website or other resources to find out more beforehand if you are unfamiliar with them.
- LISTEN to the prayers and hymns, and find out what you can learn from them about God and about the Christian life.
- But don't just listen: learn to pray them as well.
- If you find yourself becoming distracted, return your attention to what is being said and done.
- Try observing the Church's feasts and fasts.
- Ask questions of your pastor or cantor!
All the glorious complexity of Byzantine Rite liturgy is a means to an end. It gives us a taste for the things of God, points us in the right direction, and allows us to practice praise, thanksgiving, repentence, watchfulness, and prayer.
It is the liturgy that brings us, over the course of a lifetime, into the Kingdom of God. This is the life "in Christ."
- Nicholas Cabasilas. The Life in Christ (Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974).
A classic explanation of the Holy Mysteries and the spiritual life by a noted 14th century Byzantine theologian.