by Deacon Jason Ketz
I recently chaperoned at a summer camp for pan-Orthodox youth of the upper Midwest, and one of the highlights of my experience was a “Question and Answer” program. Each evening, I was invited to speak with the 8th grade men and women, of whom there were perhaps 30, and answer whatever questions they had on their minds. The questions ran the gamut from ecclesial to social, technical to simple, difficult and personal to silly and superficial, and overall I was struck by both the candor and the maturity with which these young Christians attempted to relate their faith to their everyday experiences. No doubt some of the subjects that we discussed will be fodder for subsequent writings. But one question struck me as particularly relevant to this month’s topic of Liturgy.
During one of our Q & A sessions, the discussion turned toward the Divine Liturgy, as one young man asked a very astute question about the preparatory dialogue between the priest and deacon immediately before the “Blessed is the kingdom…” that begins the Divine Liturgy. Knowing I was a deacon, the student confirmed my familiarity with the dialogue. “Say, you know at the beginning of the liturgy, there’s that conversation that you have with the priest, right?”
“And you say something like ‘it’s time for the Lord to act,’ right?”
“Yep…” (at this point, I knew that this student was Greek, as the OCA churches in our area prefer the more passive, though episcopally sanctioned STS translation “it is time to begin the service of the Lord.”)
The young man finished his brilliantly incisive question in typical middle school fashion: “well…what’s up with that?”
So what is up with that? What are we suggesting with such a phrase as ‘it is time for the LORD to act’ (καιρὸς τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ)?, especially in a context where the clergy are clearly the actors in the ensuing liturgical drama? I would suggest that this small dialogue, only said when a deacon serves, and often inaudible to the congregation, completely encapsulates our theological understanding of the Divine Liturgy.
Of course, such a bold statement is not immune to challenges. As I told the middle-schoolers, this portion of the liturgy developed centuries after the anaphora and communion rites. Accordingly, we need to weigh the meaning of any particular prayer, hymn or petition in the liturgy against our broader tradition. In so doing, we encounter again this question of whose action the liturgy is. While “it is time for the Lord to act” seems to operate in conjunction with a celebration of Christ’s self-sacrifice (“thine own of thine own”), we could just as easily contrast these statements with our own responsibility in the liturgy: to offer a “sacrifice of praise;” our sacrifice of thanksgiving (εὐχαριστία, from εὐχαριστέω), similar, perhaps, to the cereal offering of Leviticus 2.
So is it even appropriate for us to suggest that the Lord is acting in the Divine Liturgy? Surely any action that is being taken by our Lord has, in fact, already been taken by Christ’s incarnation. We might ask whether it is necessary that we have a weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection for his sacrifice to have continued meaning. If Christ has died once, for all, then what need is there for a continued remembrance of this event?
Most of us would be perfectly content to consider that God’s great revelation was in the crucifixion and resurrection, preserving the most ancient understandings of Christ’s theophany, the moment he is revealed to us as Lord of all (cf. Phil 2:5-11; Matt 28:18; or the famous confession of the centurion in Mark 15:39). Along these lines, we can also recognize Jesus’ birth, baptism and transfiguration as theophanies, too. In each instance, we see how “God has revealed himself.”
But while God has revealed himself in history, has he revealed himself to us? Or to me? This is a bit of a logical riddle, like the tree falling in the woods out of earshot: If we weren’t there to witness the revelation of Christ, on what basis can we confess our faith? Fortunately, experiencing the revelation of Christ is independent of physical observation of Christ’s miracles. Scriptures very rarely credit witnesses of Christ’s epiphanies with understanding what they saw. Thomas’ confession in John 20:28 (Thomas identifies the risen Christ as “my Lord and my God” – the highest Christological confession of the New Testament!) is rebuked by Jesus for being dependent on the physical senses, while Peter’s confession (Mk 8:27-33) inappropriately precedes the crucifixion, earning Peter a similar rebuke for wishing to separate Christ from His Cross. Meanwhile, a positive definition for the revelation is offered through Matthew’s rendition of Peter’s confession (Matt 16:17). Here, Jesus explains that our recognition of him as Lord is a revelation from “my father in heaven.”
And the Church serves a very important role in this revelatory, epiphanic process. The Church becomes the locus for the Lord’s continued revelation to us, on two levels. First, the Church is the keeper and the interpreter of the historical revelations of scripture. The New Testament is the Church’s story to tell, and the scriptures are hers to interpret (cf. 2 Pe 1:19-21). Second, the church is the community that preserves and remembers the past events of Christ’s historical revelation, and re-presents them in context. It is only through such deliberate, repeated and controlled anamnesis that we can be connected to the past, and the Church is the social group that stores and presents this collective memory. The collective memory and the scriptures of the Church facilitate our encounter with the revelation of Christ, and both are accessed in one way: through ritual – specifically, through the Divine Liturgy.
It is important to realize that, as humans, we are still not in control of the revelation. Our Lord God has revealed himself to us (Ps 118:27) entirely on his own initiative. Our Lord has taken the initiative historically, and our Lord continues to take the initiative with each of us, internally. Only by the Spirit are we able to cry out, “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6). Therefore, we can state unequivocally that each Liturgy is the renewed time for the Lord to act.
This notion of the Lord’s action through ritual draws on an even deeper theme – a sublime belief that at the center of creation is a ritual. Large sections of the Old Testament advance such a view, suggesting that the cornerstone of creation is essentially the temple at Jerusalem, with all of its divinely appointed rituals. While our Christian tradition has redefined both sacrifice and sacred space in light of the resurrection, both notions exist at the core of our beliefs. The liturgy, like the temple rituals of old, is a controlled interaction between God and man. For us, it is an encounter with Christ. Therefore, it is entirely fitting that we should choose to start our liturgy with such a statement as: it is time for the Lord to act. There is, in fact, no more objective standard of time for the Christian believer.
The Liturgy’s opening dialogue carries a hidden punch as well, because the deacon is reciting only half of a psalm verse, leaving the other half to echo silently in our hearts. It is time for the Lord to act, for thy law has been broken! (Ps 119: 126) One might ask (and the students at Church camp certainly did): which law? There is no reason to look beyond Deuteronomy 6:5 for an answer: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Christ himself confirms the centrality of this command in his own interpretation of the Law (cf. Mt 22:37-38).
So we set our liturgical stage by recognizing that here and now is the place and time in which God acts, in response to our violation of his commandment. God’s action, of course, is Christ’s incarnation, the events and consequences of which we celebrate during the ensuing Eucharistic ritual. Thus, we are the immediate recipients of God’s revelation – of Christ – during the course of the Divine Liturgy. Consider the implications of this statement: I suggested earlier that at the center of the universe is a ritual, and we are now we see that our entire universe is constructed around the revelation of Christ, which we come to experience through the Liturgy.
Liturgy, therefore, is a bit more than just a “Sunday morning” thing. It is the clearest understanding that we Christians have of all of creation and the cosmos, including our understanding of paradise. Scripture confirms this: the more detailed the scriptural accounts of heaven, the more organized and ceremonial they become. The prophets’ visions (cf. Is 6:1-7; Ezek 1:4-28; many parts of Daniel; etc.) are only a preview of what is described in the Book of Revelation (see 4:1-5:14 and throughout), and it is no accident that our Divine Liturgy intentionally evokes these heavenly visions through our prayers and actions. At the Little Entrance, the Cherubic Hymn, and the prayers of the anaphora surrounding the “Holy, Holy, Holy” hymn, we refer to the parallel liturgy being conducted eternally by God’s angels in heaven.
I allowed my discussion with the summer campers to turn this direction. The students at camp had many questions about heaven, and after some brief speculation about pets and deceased loved ones and happier times ahead, I suggested to them that perhaps heaven is not puffy clouds and pearly gates, but just maybe, heaven is an unending liturgy.
The students were stunned, and rightly so! Liturgy is hard. Our service creates unbearable tensions. Some are physical, some are emotional, some are rational, but all of these tensions stem precisely from our overriding belief that our liturgy sits at the crux of the temporal and eternal. In the liturgy, the creature encounters the creator; the human encounters the divine. We are lucky enough to survive the encounter (and for any who are skeptical of such a mythic view of approaching the Lord, please take a moment to read the prayers the priest says immediately before the Great Entrance!), and it is a hard idea to process these tensions alongside our romanticized views of heaven.
But what other conclusion can we possibly reach? Liturgy is both relevant and significant for all of us, because the Liturgy is the controlled environment in which the earthly and the heavenly can safely meet. I say this not to limit the power of the Holy Spirit (God forbid!), but because we do not have another repeatable way for us to encounter our Lord and to benefit from such an encounter. The liturgy is an accessible revelation, containing the necessary elements of our faith, in the proper sequence for us to process it (essentially, the sequence experienced by the disciples on the road to Emmaus. cf Lk 24:13-35). The liturgy, then, becomes not only a passive theophany, but our invitation to participate in God’s saving plan, and to witness the manner by which God has revealed Himself to us. What a splendid celebration to be a part of, and solely by virtue of our choosing to be present when the time comes for the Lord to act.
 Explaining the Evangelists’ different accounts of Peter’s confession will lead us far afield, but the point can be summarized briefly. Mark sees Christ’s theophany on the Cross. Therefore, recognition of him as Lord before his death would then make his humiliating death unnecessary. Matthew, accepting the first principle of the crucifixion, nonetheless presents Christ as a recognizable Lord and Savior during his earthly ministry, and indeed from his very conception and birth.