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.

Help! Angels Keep Touching Me!: a book review

Lifted By Angels: The Presence And Power of Our Heavenly Guides by Joel J. Miller.

My view of angels is complicated. I was raised in an evangelical home and have always believed in angels and the part they played in the biblical story; however I was taught to be suspicious of tales of modern day angelic visitations, and to doubt the lore which was built around angels, because so much of it was New Age, Mormons, or Muslim. As a child I was tucked in with a prayer that asked God to send his angels to look after me, but if anybody started talking about experiencing angels, that was a good indication that they were a heretic or they needed to up their medication.

When I was in college, I attended a charismatic church which affirmed the experiential reality of a super natural God–everything God did in scripture was for today and that included angels and angelic visitations. I remember one guest speaker at our church explaining that he felt the presence of ‘angels in the room’ by a sensation he had in his sinus cavity(yep, I kid you not). Others saw angels, or ‘felt them.’ I did feel the reality of God’s presence at that church but the lack of critical thinking about spiritual experiences was disturbing.

Joel Miller has written a book on angels which deftly guides readers past the extremes of supernatural suspicion and belief in anything and everything ‘angelic.’ Drawing generously on Biblical and patristic sources (early church theologians), he gives an account of how the early church thought and taught about angels. He asserts that ‘the image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.(2)’ Miller discusses the early church’s reflections on the nature and origin of angels, their fall from grace (in the case of Satan and his demons), the ways God used angels to nurture and protect Israel, Christs victory over the demonic, the role of guardian angels in nurturing and protecting us, our participation with the angels in the worship of God, the role of angels in the eschaton.

This is a lot of ground to cover for a short book (the main text of the book is 152 pages excluding footnotes and bibliography); nevertheless Miller succeeds admirably well in delineating the understanding of angels bequeathed us from the early church, even demonstrating the way our understanding of angels has developed over time. Certainly there are some aspects of early church angel-ology where I disagree or would want to parse biblical texts which deal with angels differently. But there is no denying, the tradition has a lot to teach us.  I would recommend this book for those who have an interest in angels (whether that manifests itself as an unhealthy fascination or dismissive suspicion).  Part of navigating how we are to understand something so mysterious and etheral as angels is by submitting ourselves to a biblical understanding of angels and drawing on the rich resources of theology.  Miller does both.

The question that the discerning reader may have is, “how does ancient exegesis shape our understanding of angels?” Just because ancient Christians thought and taught something, does not necessarily make it right. This is a popular level study and does little in way of evaluating its sources. Miller simply sites church fathers he is sympathetic to(while noting theological diversity and doctrinal development).  The belief in the fall of Lucifer is found in the ancient church, but when you read Isaiah in its historic, literary context, the Biblical data doesn’t seem conclusive. There seems to be mysteries here that even the ancient church does not fully untangle for us, but I am grateful for the ways in which they affirm the angels and delineate a proper understanding of them.

Practically speaking, the presence of angels reminds us of the world beyond that which we apprehend with our senses. I think this a great book for sorting out what place angels should have in our theology.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book (via Book sneeze) in exchange for this review.

A Pentecost Prayer from Symeon the New Theologian

The following prayer was included at the end of the preface of The Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition (reviewed on this blog previously here).  It comes from Symeon the New Theologian’s Hymns of Divine Love  and is a wonderful prayer invoking the Spirit’s presence and voicing praise for all the Spirit does Symeon lived from 949-1022 and is one of the great mystics of the Christian east and an Apophatic tradition. This prayer/hymn emphasizes the radical transcendence of the Spirit of God. In our day and age, we tend to emphasize the immediacy of the Spirit, but we need to be challenged by the ways the Spirit of God defies definition and control and whose ways are most certainly not our ways.  May you experience the infilling of the Spirit this Pentecost Sunday!


Come, true light.

Come, eternal life.

Come,  hidden mystery.

Come, nameless treasure.

Come,  ineffable reality.

Come, inconceivable person.

Come, endless bliss.

Come, non-setting sun.

Come, infallible expectation of all those who must be saved.

Come, O Powerful One, who always creates and recreates and transforms by Your will alone.

Come, O invisible and totally intangible and impalpable.

Come, You who always remain motionless at each moment move completely and come to us, asleep in hades, O You above the heavens.

Come,  O beloved Name and repeated everywhere, but of whom it is absolutely forbidden for us to express the existence or to know the Nature.

Come, eternal joy.

Come, non-tarnishing crown.

Come, crystalline cincture, studded with precious stones.

Come, royal purple.

Come, truly sovereign right hand.

Come, You whom my miserable soul has desired and desires.

Come, You the Lonely, to the lonely, since You see I am lonely.

Come, You who have seperated me from everything and made me solitary in this world.

Come, You who have become Yourself desire in me, who have made me desire You, You, the absolutely inaccessible one.

Come, my breath and my life.

Come, consolation of my poor soul.

Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight.