Bringing God’s Kingdom Through Worship: a book review

Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou

If you have ever attended a worship service in an Orthodox church, you have been captured by the beauty. Candles, incense, ornate iconography, reverence for sacred symbol, poetic words and acts all draw you into a deep appreciation for the Triune God.  But those new to Orthodox worship may also come away feeling lost, unable to understand the liturgy and symbols.  I remember once early in my marriage, my wife and I attended an Orthodox service during Holy Week. My wife grew up Catholic and neither of us were strangers to liturgy; however we must of looked befuddled because one dear woman sitting behind us, took it upon herself to guide us through the liturgy and help us follow along and take part more fully in the experience.

In Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs, Father Vassilios Papavassiliou does what that Orthodox woman did for my wife and I (albeit in a more magisterial fashion) and unlocks for outsiders the significance of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  Papavassiliou speaks of the Divine Liturgy as a journey to the Kingdom. The liturgy begins, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.” This announces the destination of Orthodox worship. As Papavassiliou says:

It is true, our destination is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Trinity. But our journey really begins the moment we leave the house. Without the sacrificial act of leaving the comfort of our beds and homes and coming to church, there can be no liturgy, and whether we have to travel many miles or just walk a few yards down the street, a sacrificial act of worship has already begun. We come to church not simply to add a religious dimension to our secular lives, nor simply to meet fellow Christians and to socialize, but above all to become the Church, to become the Kingdom of God. (9-10)

And so the Orthodox liturgy leads congregants from the mundane into an encounter with the risen and ascended Christ. Papavassiliou walks us chronologically through the elements of the liturgy, from the Blessing and Litany of the Peace,  to the Great Thanksgiving and Dismissal, pausing to reflect on the various prayers, the veneration of the gospel, the Cherubic hymn, the presentation and litany of the Holy Gifts, the Creed and its meaning, The Holy oblation, the Our Father, Communion and Thanksgiving.  Little sidebars break up the chapters to explain Orthodox practices and theology.  One of the joys of this book is the way Papavassiliou is able to use the liturgy to explain the beliefs and distinctives of the Orthodox in ways which seek to assuage the objections of outsiders.  For example, he describes the Orthodox veneration of Mary (a doctirine which is often looked at critically from those outside the fold) as the outflow of the Orthodox affirmation of the incarnation of Christ (34). According to Papavassiliou, when we remember that the Word became flesh, it makes sense to honor the woman from whom he took flesh and honor her for it.  Likewise he gives brief explanations of the theology behind iconography. He also manages to present the Orthodox liturgy in a way which values it as the truest expression of the Kingdom on earth without being dismissive of other Ecclesial traditions.

My introduction to the Orthodox Liturgy first came from a similar book designed to explain the Orthodox liturgy to new converts  (Archbishop Paul of Finland, The Feast of Faith, trans. by Esther Williams, St. Vladymir’s Press, 1988).  What I really like about Papavassiliou’s volume is that he isn’t content to simply explain Orthodox practice. He also calls the Orthodox to inhabit their best theology.  He acknowledges the disconnect between the rich sacramental heritage of the Orthodox tradition and the fact that it has become common practice among many Orthodox to attend the liturgy without receiving communion (56). Papavassiliou invites his Orthodox readers to participate more fully in worship, being united with Christ in the Eucharist. He tries to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of their participation (79-85). Papavassiliou’s sacramental theology owe much to the work of Alaxender Schmemann and Vladymir Lossky and he delves into patristic sources when describing the doctrines of the faith from the Orthodox perspective

And so I recommend this book for two groups of people. Sympathetic outsiders like me who appreciate some of the beauty and poetry they find in Orthodox worship but want a deeper grasp of what is going on in the Liturgy. And insiders who  wish to grow in their own understanding and appreciation of what the liturgy offers and the theological reflection from which the liturgy springs. The journey to the Kingdom leads us to a fresh encounter with Christ, His Church as we await and enact the full coming of His Kingdom.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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