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Bible and Liturgy

by the Very Rev. John Breck

A defining characteristic of Orthodox Christianity is the intimate and inseparable relationship it preserves between Bible and Liturgy, between divine revelation as the canonical or normative source of our faith, and celebration of that faith in the worship of the Church. Faith, grounded in Scripture, determines the content of our worship; worship gives expression to our faith.

This principle, once again, is expressed most succinctly in the Latin phrase lex orandi lex est credendi, our rule of worship is nothing other than our rule of belief. Our prayer is shaped by and expresses our theology, just as our theology is illumined and deepened by our prayer.

In our liturgical services we praise, bless and adore the God from whom we receive saving grace and the gift of eternal life. Accordingly, our eucharistic Divine Liturgy concludes with a "Prayer before the ambon" -- in the midst of the people -- which begins, "O Lord, who blessest those who bless Thee, and sanctifiest those who place their trust in Thee: Save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Preserve the fullness of Thy Church...."

The deeper meaning of "faith" (pistis) is "trust," total and unwavering confidence in God's utter faithfulness towards us. In response to our trust, expressed through the worship by which we "bless" Him, God bestows upon us still further blessings. Our relationship with Him involves a reciprocal movement. Through worship we offer ourselves to Him, yet through that same worship He offers Himself to us. We "bless" Him by our thanksgiving, our adoration and our praise; and we are blessed by Him through the continual outpouring of His divine grace.

This mutual gesture of self-giving reaches its apex in the Divine Liturgy, when we offer to God the fruit of the earth that He has already bestowed upon us, "Thine own of Thine own...." In return we receive nourishment from His hand in the form of "communion," which enables us actually to participate in His life through partaking of the Body and Blood of His risen and glorified Son. In the eucharistic service, we experience the reality and fullness of the Gospel. There above all, we are made aware of the vital link, the virtual unity, that exists between Bible and Liturgy, between the written, canonical source of our faith, and the actualization of that faith in the prayer of the Church.

This intimate relation between Bible and Liturgy is evident in the Holy Scriptures themselves. The Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, is filled with liturgical hymns, the most familiar of which are the Psalms. The intertestamental period gave rise to an abundant hymnography, incorporated into canonical and non-canonical writings, including the Song of Azariah and the three young men (Dan 3 in the Septuagint version), the Prayer of Manasseh, the Hodayot or Hymn Scroll and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Qumran, and the first century Psalms of Solomon.

In the New Testament we find fragments or portions of text that were adapted from early Christian hymns, such as the songs of Mary, Zachariah and Simeon in St Luke's narratives of Jesus' birth and infancy (Lk 1-2). St Paul refers to "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs," difficult to identify but which clearly denote liturgical elements familiar to early Christians. Hymnic fragments seem present as well in passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, Ephesians 5:14, Hebrews 1:1-4, 1 Timothy 3:16, 1 Peter 2:22-24, and throughout the book of Revelation.

Confessional or creedal hymns very likely appear in the well-known passages Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 2:15-19(20). And some reputable biblical scholars hold that the Prologue to St John's Gospel (1:1-18) was adapted from an early Christian hymn. However, since these are structured according to the literary pattern known as "chiasmus," it is difficult to say whether their rhythm is actually "hymnic," meaning that their original form was sung in liturgical services (many scholars hold that Phil 2, for example, was sung antiphonally in the worship of certain Pauline communities), or whether that rhythm derives from the poetic balance resulting from concentric parallelism. In either case, lying behind these biblical passages are very likely elements of the early Church's communal worship, some sung, others recited as confessions of faith.

It is essential for us to recognize and preserve this close relationship that exists between the Church's canon and its liturgical tradition. What we confess with our lips in the form of creedal statements, what we sing in the form of antiphons and prokeimena (derived from the Psalter), stichera (e.g., verses from the Octoechos on the Lucernarium ["Lord I Call"] and Aposticha of Vespers), and similar liturgical elements, all express the deepest convictions of the heart. And those convictions derive directly from God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture.

If other Christian confessions today often find themselves in a state of crisis, it is largely due to the fact that in their historical tradition this vital link between Bible and Liturgy has been severed. When this occurs, the inevitable result is to produce biblical studies that are little more than exercises in text criticism or literary analysis, and worship services that are practically devoid of authentic spiritual content. The logical outcome of this break between the Church's Scriptures and its worship is phenomena such as the Jesus Seminar on the one hand and the jazz mass on the other. A hermeneutic that is not grounded in worship will inevitably limit its field of interest to the "literal sense" of biblical passages; just as worship that does not proclaim the Gospel will inevitably degenerate into pious noise, void of serious content, or simply aim to provide a psychological "uplift," equally devoid of spiritual depth and transcendent purpose.

It would be easy to fault Protestant and Catholic Christians for allowing this separation to develop over the years within their respective traditions. That would be to overlook the fact, however, that the intimate and reciprocal relationship between Bible and Liturgy, faith and worship, has been preserved in Orthodoxy not by our own doing but as a gift of sheer grace -- without which the Orthodox Church itself would have long ago disappeared under pressures of persecution and martyrdom. If "Orthodoxy" is truly "right worship" and "right belief," it is because it has been sustained as such through the ages by the Holy Spirit.

Our task as Orthodox Christians is not to criticize and condemn those who have lost a sense for the vital unity that should exist between the Gospel and worship. It is rather to celebrate, with joy and humble gratitude, the gift of the God who blesses and sanctifies those who place their trust in Him. It is to acknowledge in the words of the apostle James, also taken up in the Prayer before the ambon, that "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights," including faith born of the Gospel. Our task, then, is to express this biblical faith through the liturgy of the Church, and thereby to "ascribe glory, thanksgiving and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages."