As I attended a 20-minute mass at a Catholic cathedral (pictured above) right next to work during my lunch break with a colleague, I could not help but think of how many Orthodox Christians would scoff at the brevity of the service. But is it really that laughable? Here is why I believe it is absolutely Orthodox to allow, in certain circumstances, for a short (20-30 minute, beginning to end) liturgy in the Orthodox Church.
TWO COMMON RESPONSES
There are two responses people usually have when they confront the notion of a shorter liturgy:
1) Bring it on! Many respond enthusiastically, wishing they wouldn’t have to endure long liturgies ever again! I caution those who are eager to respond this way, as it gives me pause for concern to think of the lack of spiritual stamina to pray that such individuals have, and that they seem content to remain that way. Stamina to pray sincerely for long periods of time is a virtue that is sought by God and is to be pursued. What comes to mind from Scripture is the commandment that we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and also I recall Christ’s persistent request of His disciples to stay up and pray with him instead of going to sleep:
Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter,“What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40–41).
2) Oh the horror! Heretics! The other extreme of how many respond is one of horror and dismay, as if just the mere mention or suggestion of a shorter liturgy is to have committed some great sacrilege or heresy, as if you have brought the abomination of desolation into the Church! Okay, maybe not that extreme, but you get my point.
Let me make clear at the outset that I do NOT advocate shortening all of our standard liturgical worship on Sundays or any other services (like Great Friday, etc.). Not at all.
What I do suggest, though, is that the Orthodox Church may acceptably use shorter liturgies for specific purposes. The one that sticks out in my mind the most is related to evangelism. Who hasn’t tried themselves or seen someone else bringing a friend/co-worker/potential spouse/classmate/etc. to liturgy on Sunday in an effort to introduce Orthodoxy to them? And for the overwhelming majority of those visitors, how often did we see them return? Some will say, “Don’t have them come to the liturgy to introduce them to Orthodoxy,” but I say, “Why not have them come to a short one?”
[Comment added here 6/16/15 in brackets: I wanted to just clarify this statement I made about evangelism above. I am very aware that the liturgy was never used historically as a means of evangelizing. Actually, Catechumens who were still being instructed were allowed to attend until the sermon was finished, and afterwards the deacon would ask everyone who is not baptized to leave. That command was taken out of the Coptic Church. I take that as an indication that we no longer require it. I’ve seen the actual command that used to be said, as mention of it still exists in the ordination rite of the deaconate (I forget which order, minor or major).
I notice that today, the liturgy is commonly used to introduce others to Orthodoxy. I think there are several reasons for offering a shortened liturgy outside of evangelism though. For example, the Catholic Church I mentioned above offers liturgy during the lunch hour is AMAZING. I wish I could attend a Coptic Liturgy in the middle of my work day, be fulfilled briefly and receive the Lord’s life-giving body and blood, and then get back to work. Also, imagine a Wednesday night liturgy and Bible Study, an hour at length total, including the liturgy. Now imagine bringing some college friends to attend that Christian gathering. I remember a former parishioner-convert who brought their non-Orthodox sister to liturgy. It didn’t prove helpful. Many people today utilize the liturgy as a means of introducing Orthodoxy and I think, if that is going to remain acceptable, then why not accommodate by offering something tailored for evangelism.]
BASIS FOR ACCEPTING A SHORTER LITURGY IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
The basis for accepting a shorter liturgy is simple: that’s how they used to be. I mean, can you imagine, right when Christianity began, that they were spending 4-5 hours praying a service?
I came to this realization when I was asked to speak about the history of the liturgy and researched how the early Church worshipped. Some people think that the same (or nearly the same) exact liturgical worship (the words, the length, the everything) has been around intact since around the time of the apostles until this day, unchanged for the most part. That’s simply not historically accurate.
What is true is that the basic structure of the liturgy seems to have been around since very early on, arguably since the time of the apostles. And it is this basic structure that I was so pleased to see followed to its fullest extent in the Catholic mass I attended. And it’s easy to remember! It’s based on a response His Grace Bishop Youssef gave to a question posed by some non-Egyptian visitors to a Coptic Church. They had just attended a liturgy and wanted to understand more about what it meant. Bishop Youssef’s explanation followed along the actions that Christ took during the Mystical Supper:
- Took bread – Offertory (This is where wine and the Corban bread is offered, and the one bread that will be used to serve as the Eucharist is chosen; cf.“took bread” — Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19)
- Give thanks – Thanksgiving prayer (cf. “when He had given thanks” — 1 Cor. 11:24; Mark 14:23)
- Blessed it – Institution Narrative/Anamnesis (This is where we remember and reenact the Mystical Supper; The word anamnesis is the Greek word used in the Bible when Christ said to do this [the Mystical Supper) in reminiscence or memory of Him. cf. “blessed … it” — Matt. 26:26; Mark. 14:22; 1 Cor. 11:23-29)
- Sanctified it – Epiclesis (This is where the canonical clergyman actually requests for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and wine so that it may be changed to the Lord’s body and blood, and most of us unfortunately have no idea where in the liturgy this actually happens [In the Coptic Liturgy, it is after we sing the hymn “Amen Amen Amen, Your Death O Lord….,” followed by the deacon’s declaration that we worship before God, and then a commandment that we pay attention when the deacon says “let us attend]; cf. “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed”— John 6:55)
- Gave it – Distribution (cf. “gave it to them” — Matt. 26:26-27; Mark. 14:23; Luke 22:19)
In addition to this basic structure you’ll find a very early Christian element of the Liturgy (I’ve found references to this as early as the Third Century in the writings of Hippolytus), which is the Anaphora (meaning “lifting up.”) What’s astonishing is the words used in this prayer, as recorded by Hippolytus 1700 years ago are virtually identical to what we pray in every Orthodox liturgy today:
Priest: The Lord be with you!
All: And with your spirit!
Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
All: They are turned to the Lord!
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
All: It is right and just!
Moreover, in the Scriptures as well as in the early Church we find that the following other elements were part of worship:
- Reading from Scripture (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13; 1 Th. 5:27; Col. 4:16)
- Sermons (cf. Acts 20:17
- Psalms and hymns (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19)
- Kiss of peace (cf. 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Th. 5:26)
- Saying “Amen” at the end of prayers (cf. 1 Cor. 14:16).
- Communion for the baptized faithful only (cf. Heb 13:10)
It appears that in the early Church there was no extensive pre-set form of prayers as we have now, and that the bishop had freedom to pray within prescribed bounds and structure as shown above. One recent scholar, Fr. Dix, says:
The normal celebrant was, of course, the bishop, who certainly always had freedom to phrase the prayer as he wished within the traditional outline.
Likewise, we find Hippolytus of Rome in the Third Century offering a set of written prayers, but also noting that the bishop is not required to follow it:
Let the bishop give thanks in the manner described above. It is not, however, necessary for him to use the form of words set out there, as though he had to make the effort to say them by heart in his thanksgiving to God … only let him pray in sound orthodoxy.
And therein lies the key for why we have set pre-written liturgies today (e.g., the Liturgy of St. Basil, St. Cyril, St. John Chrysostom, etc.): priests and bishops started to introduce heresy in their prayers, and so set prayers were introduced as the norm to counteract the potential for that to occur.
WORD OF CAUTION
Shorter liturgies do NOT mean abbreviated, rushed-through full liturgies. As one commentator (thanks @Anon) in one of my other posts puts it:
Praying shorter liturgies and rushing through liturgies are two very different things.
Shorter liturgies may be acceptable under some circumstances, but I fear that our culture’s propensity to shorten, abbreviate and reduce an organic whole to its ‘fundamental’ components is something that must be avoided. Let us remember the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms which ended in disaster. The shortening has to happen for legitimate pastoral reasons, and people being lazy is not one of those reasons.
On the other hand, rushing liturgies is NEVER acceptable! It is better to shorten the rite (appropriately) than to rush through a long rite. Liturgy is heaven on earth and we step out of chronological time and enter redeemed time (from chronos to kairos).
See this for why rushing liturgy is wrong: