Finding God in worship
“And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” Jesus “turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”
I continue with the words of a man in prison, Jason Richards, serving a life sentence for murder: “I hadn’t been long in my sentence and I was very confused…I was carrying an awful lot of guilt. I was looking for answers… I started reading the Bible. And the more I read…the more I became aware of God…And the more I became aware of God the more I became aware that I was a sinner – and I got more and more desperate… one night…I opened the Bible at the very first psalm. I started reading… and when I got to Psalms 50 and 51 I realized that God would forgive me… ‘Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.’
“I knew that God could forgive me…I just knew. I read all the rest of the psalms on my knees – and almost from that point for me they became psalms of praise. It was like I was beginning to worship – and I didn’t know what worship was.”
I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better modern example of this evening’s Gospel reading… Jason Richard’s response to God’s forgiveness was to read the psalms on his knees, to read them as psalms of praise – in a word to worship. He was forgiven much and the response forgiving Love called forth from his heart was love and joy expressed in worship, even as it had been for this woman two thousand years before him.
The word theologian is commonly used today to mean someone who knows things about God whereas its ancient and truer and richer meaning is more accurately someone who knows God. No doubt knowing God includes knowing things about God – but knowledge about God must never be a substitute for knowledge of God. I may know all kinds of things about, for example, the Queen or the prime minister or the American president – but for all that knowledge about them I do not know them at all. I have never so much as met them, never exchanged one single word with them. Whatever knowledge or facts I may have learned about them, I do not know them.
“It has sometimes been said that the underlying cause for the break-up of western Christendom in the sixteenth century was the separation between theology and mysticism…which existed in the later Middle Ages. Orthodoxy for its part has always tried to avoid any such division. All true Orthodox theology is mystical; just as mysticism divorced from theology becomes subjective and heretical, so theology, when it is not mystical, degenerates into an arid scholasticism, ‘academic’ in the bad sense of the word.
Let’s return to that prisoner who began to worship even though he didn’t know what worship was. No doubt he “didn’t know the dictionary definition of worship… probably didn’t even use the word itself. But I think he did know what worship was, because I think he had met the living God, the loving God, the beautiful God…”
Perhaps some of us sometimes don’t feel too sinful and so don’t have so great an appreciation of God’s love and forgiveness calling forth such joy and worship. Well just as my sermon on the fourth Sunday in Lent on finding God everywhere harked back to my sermon for the first Sunday on finding God in the present, in the here and now; even so is this sermon not independent, not a ‘stand alone’ item but is to also to be considered in the context of this whole series. Perhaps some might find it worthwhile to revisit the sermons for the second and third Sundays in Lent on finding God in temptation and finding God in repentance. When we go to the sacrament of Repentance and drag our sins out into the light and confess them or name them, this can give us a greater realisation and appreciation of our sins and with it a greater appreciation and value of God’s great forgiveness – and with that comes a greater depth of joy and worship.
Let us look ahead to the feast tomorrow of which this service of Vespers, of Evening Incense, is the beginning, the Feast of the Annunciation, the announcement to Saint Mary that she was to conceive in her “womb, and bring forth a son” even “the Son of the Highest”, even “the Son of God” . And with this Gospel reading for the Liturgy we have also the passage from The Acts of the Apostles telling of Moses and how “there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush” – the Burning Bush being a type of Saint Mary who had in her midst, within her, God, and “our God is a consuming fire” and yet she was not consumed. And what was the effect of this ultimate encounter with God, conceiving God in her womb, bearing God within her? Just a few verses later, during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, Saint Mary pours forth her heart in that great hymn of praise: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour… He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name…”
To encounter God, to find God, is to encounter the Other, it is to find the mysterium tremendum, the tremendous mystery, it is to experience the Numinous… “In worship…the Christian stands before God with a double attitude, conscious of “the nearness yet otherness of the Eternal,” to use a phrase of an Anglican writer who had a deep love for Orthodoxy, Evelyn Underhill… we stand always between assurance and awe: in the words of St. Amvrosy, Starets of Optino, “between hope and fear.” This double attitude is strikingly apparent in the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church…in combining the two qualities of mystery and informality: to quote Evelyn Underhill once more, “…so deeply sensible of the mystery of the Transcendent, yet so childlike in its confident approach.”…”Those who have tasted the gift of the Spirit,” so the Homilies of Macarius insist, “are conscious of two things at the same time: on the one hand, of joy and consolation; on the other, of trembling and fear and mourning.” Both these feelings…should characterize our worship…” You can see examples of this in Saint Mary’s own response to her encounter with God, firstly in her reaction to the angelic greeting; “she was troubled at his saying” the Greek word translated “troubled” is of a great strength and intensity and is only used this once in the entire New Testament, then her hymn of praise as well as abounding with expressions of joy and delight also refers to herself as of “low estate” … There is ever this balance between these two facets in our response to the experience of God – both awe and reverence on the one hand and joy and delight on the other.
Consider just a few quotes from our own worship. From the Divine Liturgy of Saint James – from the Great Entrance: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, And with awe and reverence stand” , from the invitation to Holy Communion: “With fear of God and with faith and love draw nigh” (and remember and contrast how at the Burning Bush Moses was warned not to draw nigh) and then the people’s response to this invitation, “Let my mouth be filled with praise, O Lord, and let my lips be filled with joy, that I may hymn Thy glory” … then think of the repeated Kyrie eleisons (Lord have mercy) that ring out from one end of the Liturgy through to the other. Or think on the words we have prayed this evening: “O Christ our Lord, the Great, the Awesome and the True” , “Accept unto Thyself this incense from the hands of us sinners : sweet-perfumed incense for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of all Thy people. For blessed and full of glory is Thy Holy Name” , “Thou art our life, our salvation, our healing and the resurrection of us all. Glory, honour, dominion and adoration are due unto Thee”. There is a true awareness of the greatness and glory of God in our worship and an awareness of our littleness, even nothingness, before Him and of our sinfulness too – yet there is also an awareness that He is our life and salvation and healing and resurrection…
There is an English hymn that expresses this balance well:
My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty, how bright;
How beautiful Thy mercy seat
In depths of burning light!
How dread are Thine eternal years,
O everlasting Lord,
By prostrate spirits day and night
How wonderful, how beautiful,
The sight of Thee must be;
Thy endless wisdom, boundless power,
And awful purity!
O how I fear Thee, living God,
With deepest, tenderest fear;
And worship Thee with trembling hope,
And penitential tears!
Yet, I may love Thee, too, O Lord,
Almighty as Thou art;
For Thou hast stooped to ask of me
The love of my poor heart!
No earthly father loves like Thee,
No mother, e’er so mild,
Bears and forbears as Thou hast done,
With me, Thy sinful child.
Only to sit and think of God,
Oh, what a joy it is!
To think the thought, to breathe the Name,
Earth has no higher bliss.
Father of Jesus, love’s Reward!
What rapture it will be
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
And gaze, and gaze on Thee!
There is a great tradition of hymns in British Christianity and we Christians of the British Orthodox Church value this as part of our heritage as British Christians – for sure we must needs check them that they are Orthodox in doctrine for not all are but there are many that are Orthodox both in doctrine or theology and in this spirit of worship that I am addressing this evening.
I cannot leave this subject this evening without a reference to that classic experience of Orthodox worship, which is also a true encounter with God, the words of Saint Vladimir’s envoys recounting their visit to Hagia Sophia and their experience there of the Divine Liturgy.
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
Whether it be this holy Church wherein we worship this evening where I have experienced the glory of God in the Divine Liturgy through the years or whether it be in my visits to the Eritrean Orthodox Church when I have understood not one word of their hauntingly otherworldly chant but still caught the spirit of it all well enough and known I was in heaven, in the presence of God – or whether it be in the stunningly beautiful Armenian worship I have tasted in Istanbul or in far off Nagorno-Karabagh in the ancient diocese of Artsakh in the Southern Caucases again understanding no words other than Alleluia and Christos but maybe those two words were enough – for there also I was in heaven, I was in the presence of God. And I have worshipped with ten thousand at Pentecost in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, with five hundred vested clergy – eighty bishops, a hundred or so priests and hundreds of deacons… and I have worshipped with a couple of dozen monks in a monastery away in the Egyptian desert… and in both situations God was present in our midst. To worship God is to find God.
Yes this is a two-way thing; not only does an encounter with, an experience of God, draw forth the response of worship, even so is the experience of worship an encounter with God. Let us follow the example of Saint Vladimir’s envoys and enter into true worship more and more and more for therein we shall find God – herein we do find God. “We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men…”
The Divine Liturgy for the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist of the Holy Glorious Apostle James,
Brother of the Lord and First Bishop of Jerusalem (Authorised for use in the British Orthodox