By Fr. Sean Levine
It is 6:00 AM, Sunday morning, on Forward Operations Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. The Divine Liturgy begins at 7:00 AM, and I stand in a 10 foot by 10 foot square room that was designed to be a small office, but was converted to a Blessed Sacrament Chapel by a Roman Catholic Chaplain during a previous cycle in the deployment rotation. With some minor adjustments, I now use this space as an Orthodox chapel. It is the only dedicated sacred space on the entire base, and the only place where any beauty regularly resides.
Since the room does not have a Table of Oblation, I stand at the “north” side of a small square “altar” that is slightly higher than waist level, the top of which is about one quarter the size of the Holy Tables at which I once served in parishes in the United States, and it is here that I serve the proskomede. For bread, I have simple slice of white sandwich bread from the dining facility because there is nowhere to bake prosphora on the base. A small hand censer (there is simply no room to swing safely a censer with chains) holds half a charcoal, glowing and ready for the covering of the gifts.
To my back, the Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross hang in order on the wall. On the “eastern” wall hang icons of Our Lord, the Virgin Mary, and St. Demetrius, the patron of the chapel and protector of the base. On the altar itself, all the standard furnishings have been placed; they are smaller than usual to facilitate ease of transport to the remote locations to which I might be called to offer the Liturgy. When I finish the prayers and preparations of the prothesis, I will take the covered gifts in hand, very carefully turn around, and put them on a small and short table until the time comes to transfer them to the altar.
None of the elements of this worship environment that I have just described seem ideal to me. Everything is smaller than it should be. None of the furniture is designed for use within the context of the Divine Liturgy. Even my vestments are “wash and wear,” and lack some of the resplendence that typically characterizes this service. Instead of towering candles, I burn one tea light on the altar and one on the table where the prepared gifts await the “Great Entrance.” The entrance will be little more than a pirouette accompanied by the standard commemorations.
I struggle, each time I go through these motions and prayers, to ward off the sense that I am not doing this Divine Liturgy justice; that somehow, with my small chalice and small paten and small star cover, small spear/spoon, small Gospel Book, small table, small room – everything in some sort of miniature version, like a child’s tea set – that somehow I am making a mockery of the glory of God and the splendor of this service. In a sense, I battle a hovering sense of inadequacy as a priest and I miss the grandeur of “real” Orthodoxy. It is a bit of liturgical home sickness coupled with a bit of fright that I am defiling this blessed service.
Yet, as we sing the prayers (I usually have four Romanian Orthodox Soldiers behind me, one of whom can chant the hymns and responses in Romanian), I sense a growing awareness of a powerful reality— one that appears almost imperceptibly at the beginning of the Liturgy. In one translation, when deacon and priest serve together, the deacon prompts the priest with perhaps one of the most important phrases in the entire Liturgy – “It is time for the Lord to act…” – and then the deacon requests the priest’s blessing to take his post in front of the Royal Doors and initiate the corporate and public prayers of the service. [i]
Further Reflections on the Liturgy
“It is time for the LORD to act . . . .”
This reality first called to me seven and a half years ago when I stood on the outside of the Orthodox Church looking, through the lens of the Divine Liturgy, into the Orthodox Tradition. As I experienced my first Divine Liturgies, I recall being struck by the question: Who is the Master of this liturgical service? It was clear that, in the words of the Apostle John while he and Peter fished on the Sea of Tiberias on the day after the resurrection— words which caused Peter to leap from the boat and swim ashore— “It is the Lord!”
Before discovering Orthodoxy, as a Protestant pastor and chaplain, I had become tired of being the one “to act.” I was weary of always trying to make something happen and to re-create constantly an environment where people could “feel God’s presence.” Through years of service in various ministries, I had spent everything I had to give, and my reservoirs had long since run dry from the constant pressure to build better programs and entertain a constituency that was growing increasingly intolerant of unexciting worship. On the other side, there grew a crowd known as the “liturgical Protestants” and, among them, the ecclesio-social phenomenon called “the emerging church.” Not quite Roman Catholic, nor Lutheran, nor Episcopalian/Anglican; not quite anything, really, this group espoused a strange amalgam of low ecclesiology, Protestant theology with a taste for some catholic/patristic seasoning, and ritualized ceremony with the trappings of traditional liturgy but without any real substance or consistency. My brief experience in this camp showed me that this was the same old thing draped in cheap vestments. At this point in my journey, I was tired and lost. When I experienced my first several Orthodox Divine Liturgies, a light began to glow in the not-to-far-away distance leading me to Orthodoxy.
Having been embraced by the Orthodox Church and having been catechized, baptized/chrismated, further taught and formed at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and ordained as a Deacon and then Priest, I now serve as a chaplain, deployed to Afghanistan in the most volatile area in the whole country, and in this setting I am again confronted and comforted by this reality: I am not the one called “to act.” The power of the Divine Liturgy does not come from me, or from the vessels, the tables, the candles, or the utensils (though these valued means are integral and important). Nor am I charged with infusing the ordered words and motions of the Divine Liturgy with Divine Energy. As a Priest serving the Divine Liturgy, I am simply called to lead God’s people by means of simple obedience. “It is the Lord!” He acts. He commands. I obey. He leads. I follow. He sends me to Afghanistan to serve the Orthodox faithful in whatever room and with whatever furnishings are present. I go and serve. The ministry belongs to Him. I am but a steward. And in that, I am called to a place of rest in Him. The pressure is off; all I have to do is point to Christ through the words and actions of the Liturgy. He is the Master. I am the head servant at the Master’s Table. Why do I fret?
A Gospel Paradigm
On the day that he saw the tomb of Jesus empty, Peter, having slumped his shoulders in defeat and with a sorrowful sigh, said to the others, “I am going fishing” (John 21:1-14). Several of the others joined him, and they fished all night without catching a single fish. The next morning, a man from the shore said, “How’s it going?” They replied, “We have caught nothing.” The man said, “Cast your net over to the right side of the boat.” They did. And they instantly caught a huge load of fish; one hundred and fifty-three of them. “It is the Lord,” said the disciple whom Jesus loved, and Peter dressed, jumped into the water and swam to shore while the others brought the boat. When they had all arrived on the shore, they saw Jesus tending to a charcoal fire and preparing fish and bread. Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught,” and Peter brought the fish-filled net out of the boat and onto the shore. “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus said, and He served them bread and fish. “It is time for the Lord to act . . . .” Jesus speaks, the disciples obey, then something amazing and nearly inexplicable happens, and then Jesus serves and feeds his disciples. Throughout, the “one in charge” is Jesus, the Lord. Peter heard, believed, vested, and jumped into the water because the Lord waited on the shore.
Serving the Divine Liturgy is no different. During the Entrance Prayers, the priest stands before the Royal Doors and recites, “O Lord, stretch forth Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling place on high, and strengthen me for this, Thine appointed service, that standing without condemnation before Thy throne I may offer the bloodless sacrifice. For Thine is power and glory forever. Amen.” It is His service, and it is the Lord who, in the ultimate sense, acts. Certainly, we must obediently cooperate with Him, but the initiative rests with the Lord who acts on behalf of His people.
As a once Protestant Christian minister turned to Orthodoxy who has been graciously given the grace of the Holy Priesthood, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that there is One High Priest who “acts,” and He acts in divine, yet merciful, judgment. In the Divine Liturgy, the High Priest acts, and the bishops, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, and laity together stand judged in the face of His Holiness; they stand together in obedience awaiting His sanctifying activity among them. He commands “cast your net to the right,” that is, “do this in remembrance of me,” and bishops, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, and laity assemble themselves together, cast the net in obedience, and He fills it and serves all of them the real food and real drink of His Word, His Body, and His Blood. We don’t make that happen. We gather in obedience and pray to the Lord that He might act among us.
With this in mind, it seems silly to suggest that any context could diminish the significance and the power of the Divine Liturgy. No facility—however simple—and no furnishings—however small or plain— can possibly interfere with the Lord’s actions. So, with renewed confidence in the Lord whose Supper I have the privilege serving, I pack my Orthodox Chaplain’s kit—a truly wonderful set provided by the Holoviaks—and my chaplain field vestments—thank you, Kh. Krista West—and board helicopters or Stryker Assault vehicles to go forth to find and serve the faithful Orthodox Christians serving in the armed forces of the United States and our International Coalition. We stand together in tents, huts, chapels, and, monthly, in the Romanian Orthodox Church at Kandahar, and we offer to the Master that which already belongs to Him, and pray for Him to act in our midst.
[i] Some translations of the service read, “It is time to begin the service to the Lord . . . .”