We finally made it to the advanced class. After ten years of Sunday school, we were ready for our final subject: the Divine Liturgy. This was the service that took place every Sunday — but as children we had never attended the main service. We came in at the end to receive a piece of consecrated bread. For ten years we had been excused from the ritual, and now we were going to study it. To many children it seemed like a mass of boring and senseless repetitive forms. But we were told that once we understood the real meaning behind the form, we could relate the liturgy to our everyday lives. I wondered what kind of understanding could make this archaic Byzantine service relevant to a modern American teenager.
Would historical knowledge help? When I did some research on my own, I learned that the story of the Last Supper was extremely important to the early Christians, who patterned their ritual after the Jewish Passover. Just as a lamb was sacrificed by the Jews to commemorate their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, the early Christian rite was a memorial to Jesus’ sacrificing himself for the salvation of his followers. With the words “This is my body which is given for you . . . This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” — the bread and the wine became the sacrificial Christ.
In the beginning, this ceremony was a reminder of the great mystery that transforms anyone who sacrifices himself for the benefit of others, and its deeper interpretation was left to the individual. It also remained for many years a simple service that was very similar in all parts of the Christian world. It was usually preceded by the agape, the feast of love and charity, where those who had the means presented their poorer brethren with gifts. Then all ate together as a sign of their essential equality and brotherhood.
But once the Emperor Constantine made the Church a state institution, great numbers of the upper classes became Christians. Class distinction became important in the Church, along with elegance and finery. Eventually the feasts of love and charity were banished, while the liturgy itself became more and more elaborate, with major regional differences — and strictly prescribed interpretations.
To me this history was full of fascination. But it was also disturbing. What was I to believe? I was inspired by the spirit of the agape and the original ceremony — by the freedom to contemplate and experience the mystery of sacrifice, unity, and brotherhood. How could I draw this kind of inspiration from the current ritual?
So I set out to learn the theology behind it, hoping this would inform my belief. The initial rite was generally described in mystical terms. When the faithful came together in the same spirit as the disciples at the Last Supper, it would evoke the actual presence of Christ, and this permeated their being with a sense of oneness for each other and the Divine. As later theologians insisted on defining this event in rational terms, the nature of this “presence” was disputed. Was it physical or spiritual? Was it the result of the bread and wine being completely transformed, or did it coexist with their original substance? And what called it forth — consecration by the Church, or the individual’s own act of faith?
Each of these choices was adopted by various factions as the “correct” interpretation. In the Byzantine rite consecration was required, and there was a complete transformation that resulted in an actual physical presence. This was a fundamental doctrine of the Orthodox belief. But what about the spirit in which people gathered together? What about the heart of the believer?
These were the questions that stayed with me as I started attending the regular service. Here were hundreds of people taking part in a ritual. How did they relate to it? It was a study in human nature. Even though most appeared passive and somber, there were some who were visibly moved. One I knew personally, an elderly friend of the family, and she told us she was filled with an overwhelming sense of oneness. Here in the midst of this elaborate ceremony, she found the spirit of the original liturgy, regardless of what had been done to it by history or theology.
To me her enthusiasm was contagious. Suddenly everything was relevant — not because of knowledge or understanding, but because of a shared experience of oneness. We were here to sacrifice our self: our sense of separate self. This was our salvation. In an instant the disputed doctrines of a thousand years were reconciled. When even two or three of us are gathered together in the true spirit of brotherhood, the illusion of separateness is broken — and the Christos within is free to inspire us. Our physical bodies become the vehicles of our own spiritual nature. We are the bread and wine, and by giving of ourselves for the benefit of others, our substance is becoming completely transformed.
I believe that this is the great mystery. In true agape we transcend class distinctions and all interpretations. Life itself becomes a sacred service — the rite of our essential unity. And what calls forth the presence of Christos? The hearts of all who believe in love and charity. The heart consecrates everything we give.
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