What do you expect will happen at Liturgy on a Sunday morning? Why do you rouse yourself from your comfy bed, pile into the car (possibly with sleepy and unruly kids), drive to church, and stand there for an hour or so? What do you hope to experience?
For some, the gain comes in terms of ethnic identity and a sense of belonging to one’s ancestral people—especially if the Liturgy is conducted in a language not now understood. Even though the meaning is not grasped, still one enjoys the music, the icons, the entire atmosphere of holy transcendence, and comes away feeling a greater cultural connection with one’s past. For others, one comes to Liturgy to satisfy one’s spiritual needs, and to find an oasis of prayer and peace. One enjoys the homily. One may receive Holy Communion, and draw near to God, receiving strength through the sacrament. Obviously, people’s motivations and expectations are complex and layered, and people may come with both of these motivations, or with other ones.
It is instructive to read in the earliest extant sermon how one preacher characterized the Sunday morning experience. The preacher was Saint Clement of Rome, and his “sermon” was his letter to the Corinthians, written in the late first or early second century, and known to scholars as “1 Clement.” Clement wrote to the Corinthians as a concerned neighbour from Rome, rebuking them for unjustly ousting presbyters from their office in a kind of ecclesiastical palace coup. In the opening part of his letter, he contrasts their present lamentable condition with their former laudable one. He writes, “You were all distinguished by humility…. Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, you were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes. Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and you had an insatiable desire for doing good….”
This is, I suggest, a picture of their Sunday morning worship: they came to Liturgy in humility and with spiritual hunger; they all carefully attended to God’s words in the Scripture readings and in the sermon, and all partook of the Eucharist, after the Anaphora had been said wherein “His sufferings were before their eyes.” Then Clement added the words “while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all.” It was during their time of Sunday worship that the Holy Spirit was abundantly poured out upon them. Clement writes as if this outpouring were the crown and goal of their worship. I think Clement was right. Saint Seraphim of Sarov, writing much later, would have agreed. He said that the whole goal of the Christian life was acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and if it is the goal of the Christian life, then surely it is also the goal of attendance at the Eucharist, for the Eucharist is the sacramental source of our Christian life.
We Orthodox are more Pentecostal than we may have thought. Ever since Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia wrote his classic The Orthodox Church in 1963 (he was Timothy Ware back then), we have known that the Church was “a continued Pentecost.” It is this aspect of our traditional faith that we need to recover once more, especially if our church-going seems to be a chore. We do not merely go to Liturgy to light candles, or listen to three-point sermons, or even to receive our individual Holy Communion. We go because all these things are parts of a spiritual outpouring which gives us life, and binds us into one. It is at the Liturgy that a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit is abundantly and freely available. All we need to do is to come with expectation, and open up our hearts to that outpouring.