Review: Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Early Church

As a transplant from Evangelical Protestantism, I grew up in a tradition that chased a vision of the Early Church and was known to somewhat fetishize Jewish practices. Entering the Orthodox Church four years ago, I was impressed with the continuity of worship, and latched on to the oft-repeated meme that “Orthodox worship hasn’t changed.” When I agreed to review this book, I was hoping it would provide the evidence that Orthodox Christianity was essentially just first-century Jewish worship with a Christological core, thereby proving to my Evangelical friends and family that the Orthodox Church was really what they were looking for all along. Coming at it with that mindset, I was disappointed (and that probably serves me right).

Orthodox Worship is really two short books. The first hundred pages trace the history of worship and its development (Yes, Orthodox worship has developed) from pre-Christian times. Throughout the book, the discussion comingles the practices of worship with the spirituality of worship. The second hundred pages offer a look at the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, from start to finish.

This book is not simply the facts and figures of Orthodox Christian worship (as I had mistakenly imagined); the text is filled with spiritual wisdom that directly relates to praxis and shows that how we worship collectively directly influences how we worship individually.

The text is written to appeal to the average Christian, and the authors remain cognizant of the fact that many readers will not be familiar with Orthodox Christian practices. They quickly dispel the myth that Orthodox Christian worship is changeless, as they focus on the idea that it is timeless.

My only criticism of the work is that I wish it delved deeper into some of the historical facts about Jewish temple worship. There are citations within the footnotes, but I occasionally found myself wanting just a little more information or justification, but not enough to go track down and slog through another (probably less accessible) work. For example, Chapter 2 mentions “Baptism was also present in Jewish religious practice as a personal repentance for sin.” I wish they had explored the Jewish understanding of baptism, and how this understanding was transformed to the Christian model. There is, unfortunately, no index to see if maybe this was explored elsewhere in the text and I just missed it.

The last half of the book (that works through the current form of the Divine Liturgy) made me wistful for the more ancient practices that are touched upon. So much of why we do what we do is obscured by the current practice. E.g. the little entrance, which used to include all the people processing into the church with the Gospel and the Gifts, has been reduced to the clergy exiting the sanctuary and quickly returning, in an action reminiscent of a cuckoo clock. There is still theological symbolism to be gleaned, but it is much less obvious in the current form.

I did gain some practical, liturgical knowledge. (For example, in processions and entrances, the members of importance come at the end.) Mostly, I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of Orthodox Christian worship, both public and private, and a deeper gratitude to God for leading me to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

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