Thursday, November 8, 2012

Liturgy as a Way of Evangelisation

December, 12
Evangelisation is the proclamation of the good news of salvation. It is not merely teaching a system of beliefs or transmitting a moral code. In this article Professor Archimandrite Job Getcha highlights the connection between evangelisation and our encounter with the living God in the Orthodox Liturgy.
Divine Liturgy at Holy Protection Cathedral
Des Plaines, IL
Evangelisation is the proclamation of the good news of salvation. It is not merely teaching a system of beliefs or transmitting a moral code. Therefore, evangelisation should always be linked with a personal experience, and an encounter with the living God, and not only with a pedagogical method. For the Orthodox Church, mission and evangelisation have always been linked with the liturgical experience. Worship has always been the starting point of mission and the heart of evangelisation.

If we look in history, we can find several illustrations of this. One can recall the story of Cyril and Methodius. In the 9th century, when Rastislav, the chief of the people of Moravia, became irritated by the attitude of the Franc missionaries who were using Latin in the evangelisation process of his people, he asked the Byzantine emperor Michael III to send him missionaries who would know the Slavic language. Then the two learned brothers of Thessalonica, Cyril and Methodius, were sent to Moravia, and started their missionary work by translating the liturgical lectionary into the Slavic language as well as the liturgical books. It is said that Cyril translated the text of the four gospels to be read at worship, as well as the texts of the various liturgical services: matins, hours, vespers, compline and the Divine Liturgy. This is an important detail: the two famous missionaries did not start their evangelisation mission by translating a catechism, neither a handbook of doctrine, nor a compilation of sermons, but by bringing the liturgical texts to the language of the local people so that their mission could be done by the means of the liturgy.

Another great example is the conversion of Kievan Rus’ around 988. In the famous Russian Primary Chronicle, it is said that the decisive point in the Christianisation of the Russian people was the experience of Prince Vladimir’s legates attending worship at Saint Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty”.

Indeed, this beauty, which is transmitted through the liturgical worship, is perceived in the Orthodox Church as an epiphany of Heaven on earth, as a way of uniting to the heavenly beauty, a bridge between the Kingdom of God and this world, a connecting point between time and eternity. Through worship, the Christian message does not remain merely a dead letter but becomes a living spirit, which vivifies and deifies.

This story shows us that one cannot reduce Christianity to a series of moral rules, neither to a philosophical or doctrinal system. Christianity is a way of life, where doctrine is inseparable from the glorification of God. According to Georges Florovsky, “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second”[1]. Through worship, the true glorification becomes the expression of the true doctrine: “lex orandi” becomes “lex credendi”, since worship is the bearer and transmitter of faith. This is an important fact that one should have always in mind when addressing the question of Christian evangelisation and mission in today’s world.

Recalling his encounter with the Orthodox Church when he was a young student, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia writes:

“As I entered St. Philip’s – for that was the name of the [Russian Orthodox] church – at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor. Then I realized that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshipers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn. My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full – full of countless unseen worshipers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below and things above.


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