H/T St. George Orthodox Church, Prescott, Arizona
Worship is the principle function of the believer, but how one worships and with what is rarely considered, or even considered unimportant.
In the Orthodox Church, the full use of the senses is engaged – one must worship God, engage in worship of Him, with everything.This article barely scratches the surface of a good look at how the Scriptures engage not only the mind, but the senses as well.
And this is not a new thing, but the way of Orthodox Christians from the very beginning.
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” – Mark 12:30
As Orthodox Christians, we believe in “one God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible.” In the book of Genesis, we are told how God made the world and everything in it, and how everything He made was good.
This is something most of us take for granted on a daily basis. We open our eyes in the morning and see the alarm clock. We hear it, too. We eat our breakfast. And when we step out of the door – say on a nice fall morning – we feel the slight chill and smell the clean air.
We are physical beings. God created us this way. Furthermore, God sanctified matter when he became man. Just like we sing during the Divine Liturgy:
“Only begotten Son and Word of God, Who, being immortal, accepted for our salvation to take flesh of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, and without change became man…”
God took on flesh – a body – a physical existence. In this way, God sanctified His creation. St. Athanasios famously said that “God became man so that man could become like God.”
The wisdom of the Church (defined, among other ways, as being the Body of Christ) has understood perfectly the sensory aspect of our being, and our Divine services engage us very effectively in this way so that our whole heart, soul, and mind are focused on God. Let’s look at some of the ways our five senses are utilized during our worship.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” – Matthew 6:22
Like much of what Christ said, this statement has a deeper meaning than just the topic of eyesight. “Light” and “darkness” can really refer to “goodness” and “badness.” In other words: don’t sin with your eyes. Well, in church, our eyes are bombarded with stimuli: vestments, decorative furnishings, but especially icons. Icons are not just pretty pictures – they call to mind the individuals or events that they represent and remind us that these people are worshipping with us, and ultimately direct our thoughts to God.
The entire Liturgy itself is a symbolic representation of the life of Christ. So, when we see the different parts of the Liturgy taking place, these are visual cues to remind us of what Christ did on Earth, as well as what He is doing for us now.
Christ used this phrase several times:
“He who has ears, let him hear.”
The most important thing we hear during the Liturgy is the Gospel. Jesus Christ is the Son and Word of God; when God became man, He could be amongst us and teach us Himself. This reflects a very powerful way in which we are to understand God. This is a point in our worship where we are given a clear chance to Love God with all our mind. As the priest instructs us:
“Wisdom! Stand up! Let us listen to the Holy Gospel!”
Also, nearly the entire Liturgy – and any service – is chanted. The hymns of our worship are to our ears what the icons are to our eyes. They fill our mind and our heart with praise of God and remembrance of His works. They reinforce our theology and convey our doxology. But, we shouldn’t just listen to the hymns – we should chant them together. In this way we imitate the Angels who ceaselessly sing hymns to God – think of the Cherubic hymn:
“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn to the life-giving Trinity…”
Incense has been used in worship for ages. When we smell the incense in our services, this is a physical reminder that, like the smoke, our prayers rise to God, and hopefully are pleasing to him like the fragrance of the incense. As we chant during Vespers and the Presanctified Liturgy:
“Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee.”
Also – and this is probably most prevalent for Orthodox Christians at Pascha – when we smell the burning wick and wax of candles, or the burning olive oil of a vigil lamp, we are reminded of the light that these produce and why we light them in the first place, as symbols of our faith.
As we hear the priest repeat Christ’s commandments:
“Take, eat. This is My Body, which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins,”
“Drink of this, all of you. This is My Blood of the New Covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins,”
our heart and mind should be focused on what we are about to do: receive Holy Communion. When we receive Holy Communion, our mouth is the gateway to the rest of our being. As soon as we taste of the Gift, our entire body and soul are saturated with Christ Himself. Just like the Apostles who saw Christ give them bread to eat – and yet He said,
“this is My Body”
– and gave them wine to drink – and yet He said,
“this is My Blood”
– we partake of this Mystical Supper as well, experiencing God in a very unique way.
In our worship, our sense of touch is constantly engaged. More broadly, “touch” can be expanded to mean any physical activity. We kiss icons. We are sprinkled with Holy Water. We are given blessed palm crosses. We carry crosses in procession. We kneel and make prostrations. We seal ourselves with the sign of the Cross. We are anointed with blessed oil. And, the clergy who officiate these services are ordained by the laying on of hands.
Our sense of touch is more subtly engaged when we recall the Passion of our Lord and how He suffered bodily and died nailed to The Cross for our sins, and when we recall the fate of the many Martyrs of our Faith. As one of our hymns states:
“I suffer for Thy sake that I may reign with Thee; for Thy sake I die that I may live in Thee.”
So, we see that worship in the Orthodox Church is engaging on all levels of our being – not just spiritually or mentally, but physically as well. This is an important aspect of our worship because it is probably the first one we will forget about. It should also be a reminder to us about what Christ said about our eye being the lamp of our body. If we allow our sight – or any of our other senses – to be used in ungodly ways, then our spiritual health can begin to deteriorate.
We see, then, that part of the proper engagement of the senses is positive (i.e. liturgically), and the other is negative – that is, we can only fully engage our senses in worship of God if we fully disengage them from idolatry. Christ clearly tells us that no man can serve two masters.
Our senses are the doorway between what is inside of us and what is outside of us.
It is up to us what we let through the door.