(For the next several months I will be participating in this book club on Desiring the Kingdom, hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. If you missed my earlier posts you can find them here)
To be honest as I thought about writing this week I really did not have much to say about the first part of this chapter (or even the rest of it for that matter). Chapter three is a closer examination by Smith of some of the practices that exist in our culture that he would classify as liturgies: practices aimed at shaping and forming the persons that we are.
In this week's section of the chapter he took a look at the practices which he described a bit in the introduction when he explored the culture of the shopping mall as a kind of liturgy which draws us in and has the capacity to turn our hearts toward something other than Christ. Maybe because I don't like malls, or because I consciously (try to) reject the ideas of consumerism and materialism I am left with little to say about this. I get it: the culture of "stuff" is a culture that has turned toward all that stuff (including the actions associated with the concrete products) for fulfillment, rather than toward Christ.
So, since I haven't anything of consequence to add to Mr. Smith's points in this chapter, I thought I'd like to take a look at how the vision of the Good Life implicit in the practices of the Orthodox Church presents itself and how it counters the liturgies of the mall and other non-Christian cultural practices. (I did read ahead a little bit and I see that a detailed discussion of Christian worship is coming up in chapter 5, so I'm focusing here on the vision as a whole rather than the details of the actions of worship.)
The first thing to understand about the Orthodox is that we
All of these things have a purpose and they point our bodies, our minds and our hearts toward God. There is a union of heaven and earth that takes place. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book The Eucharist, describes it as
...the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ - which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church.
...it is an incarnation of the vision of the Church as sobor [a word which translates as both assembly and cathedral], as the union of the visible and invisible worlds, as the manifestation and presence of the new and transfigured creation.
He describes it as an incarnation, the embodiment of the Church in heaven and the Church here on earth. What happens then, is that the material is used to point our desire toward the immaterial. Our gut is grabbed by physical sights, sounds, smells, actions and, most importantly, taste. This capturing of the senses then aims our desire toward Christ. This really is a vision - even more than a vision, an experience - of the kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom: the only kingdom that matters. The roots of our worship are in the Old Testament,* so this vision of heaven was made possible for us by the grace of God when He gave the law to the Israelites all those thousands of years ago.
The union of heaven and earth that I'm speaking of is not mere poetry or some kind of metaphor. What I am speaking of is a real, actual occurrence that happens when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the people are united by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. We step outside of time into the eternal celebration of the presence of God where the angels and all the saints are continually singing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!" It's not just nice feelings or an ideal or some kind of representation of what will come in the future. It is here and now, in the present. It's hard to describe in words; experience is a better teacher here.
In Smith's book he talks about how the practices of consumerism and materialism end up breeding competition between people because we compare ourselves to each other. The standard set is "the person next to me". In contrast the standard in the Church is only ever Christ and His saints, who by living for Him have become like Him. The question then changes from "how can I be better than my brother?" to "how can I become more like my Lord?" This standard is set before us in images, words and actions, always pointing us toward Christ. Every single practice in the Orthodox Church has been carefully and lovingly preserved so that our hearts might be purposefully and deliberately aimed at pursuit of the Kingdom of Heaven. In God's kingdom all have life in Christ, and the life in Christ is the only life worth having.
*If you're interested in the Jewish roots of Christian worship you might like to listen to/watch this video.
*For those of my readers who are not Orthodox, and are unfamiliar with what we believe about icons, here is a short explanation, which was taken from this article: So what is an icon? Webster defines an icon as an image (Webster, 1966). In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role... an icon is “theology in imagery, the icon expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”.
We venerate and honor icons as sacred, but we reserve our worship for God alone.