By Father David Wooten
“No me importa la iglesia que vayas…si detrás del Calvario tú estás…”
I stood facing the congregation, singing the song that led off every Sunday service at Iglesia Bautista Parkview, the Hispanic congregation I attended in Tulsa, Oklahoma while in college. The praise band Gloria a Dios played behind me, the bass line punctuating every other beat in the song. The members of the congregation turned to one another and shook hands, then began clapping and singing along with the rest of the song. Beside me, the senior pastor sang, too, and following the conclusion of the song, welcomed everyone to the service, after which Gloria a Dios sang one of the songs they’d written. Then I led the congregation in some traditional Baptist hymns that had been translated into Spanish. Then the offering was taken, then the sermon, and so on.
It was, well, pretty set. From one Sunday to the next, it was a very similar service. We wouldn’t have called in liturgical in an Orthodox sense, but much of what we did was not only not spontaneous, but also very similar from week to week. It was also one of the first experiences I ever had leading a group of Christians in worship.
A second experience of worship was the Spanish-language service and outreach group our university organized. Once again, I was “doing music,” but since this was a charismatic Protestant university, the music was more “contemporary”—I played the guitar and sang choruses—and it could go on for different lengths. Once again, however, I found myself in a rhythm of worship, with a pattern of songs emerging that worked well with the group’s meetings, and so on.
I had been told that the early Church was “alive” and “vibrant,” filled with the joy and the movement of the Holy Spirit. So I began to wonder why services in any church seemed to move into a routine, why things went on the same, week after week.
It wasn’t until I started reading Orthodox authors that I came across the idea that humans are actually liturgical beings. What does that mean? It means, in a nutshell, that man was created to encounter and live with and in God at all times. When I read this, I was attending Orthodox services as a catechumen, but I thought about my worship experiences in the Baptist and Charismatic services. All of these forms of worship were movements by groups of human beings to approach God the Father, through His Son, Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ways of worshipping varied greatly, but this was the common desire of all of them.
I saw, however, a major difference between Orthodox worship and Protestant worship that made being a liturgical being make so much more sense. In a word, Eucharist. If liturgical beings approached the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, it seemed the Orthodox actually had a concrete way of doing that. And, come to find out, they always had, since the first days of Christianity.
How do we approach the Father? St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility…For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
In order to have access to the Father, we have to have access to the Cross, to His Body and Blood, in a way that involves the Holy Spirit. As a Baptist, we would sing about how the blood of Jesus never lost its power. We would preach about how the blood of Jesus stood before the Father as a justification for our transgressions of His Law. Charismatics, when interceding for each other in prayer, would often “plead the blood of Jesus” over a person or situation, asking God to intervene on behalf of His beloved Son. These all seemed to be requests to God to act on behalf of the blood, but they never seemed to address how people were supposed to access that blood, a thought that had never entered my mind as a Protestant.
Now I stand as a priest, every Sunday, before the holy altar table, asking (still in Spanish!) for God to send the Holy Spirit down “on us and on these gifts here set forth,” so that the bread might become the Body of Christ, and the wine might become the Blood of Christ, shed for the life of the world and its salvation. When the people come forward in this familiar liturgical act, they’re actually doing what St. Paul says: They are finding the very peace with God that Christ made for us on the cross, giving us access through the one Spirit through the Father.
I thank God for my experiences with the very loving, sincere Protestants from my college days. Their worship experiences weren’t so much wrong as they were incomplete. As the late Archbishop Dmitri of blessed memory said, “I wanted the rest of my faith,” or rather, it’s logical end. The desire to make contact with the blood of Jesus was and is fulfilled when, every week, “con el temor de Dios, y con fe y con amor,” we draw near to the only thing that will give us peace with God: the body and blood of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.