by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
The faithful often ask, what is the difference between praying at home and praying at church? If God hears us from wherever we are, why do we need to go to church to pray? What is the liturgy for? Does where we pray make a difference?
Church life is based around the liturgy. It connects the faithful to one another in one physical space. This helps the faithful to feel God’s presence.
We are both physical and spiritual beings. Even so, we have difficulty connecting with the spiritual world, because the spiritual world cannot be seen. We are in constant tension between our physical and spiritual natures. We grow up in a world full of things that we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. The senses help connect us to the physical world around us, but also limit our ability to perceive the spirit. God is infinite, beyond definition by the senses. Jesus succinctly describes how we should connect with God as follows: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)
We struggle to separate the spirit from the physical, to enable us to worship God in His full nature. Christ stated that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 36:41) Accordingly, we must make our bodies into God’s temple to help us connect with Him during worship.
When we study the Holy Bible, we see that God performed physical, observable, miracles. These miracles gave mankind tangible examples that helped them learn about God, the divine. God took dust from the earth and formed the first human with His breath. (Genesis 1:7) Further, Jesus used dust, water, bread, wine, and fish to make the divine mystery visible to humans. He healed the sick, and raised the dead. Witnessing these miracles increased the faith of those seeing them and displayed Christ’s mysterious nature as the one true God. Christ concluded His earthly ministry with the apostles at the Last Supper, which today serves as the cornerstone of the liturgy.
The liturgy connects “performance” to the Divine mystery. God is spirit, and therefore works outside of our senses. Accordingly, no matter how frequently we may be reminded that He is behind all of the divine fruit that we enjoy in our lives, we may still feel a gap because we can’t sense God with our five senses. The liturgy is a formal ritual which assists us to perceive the spiritual. It is based on biblical events, and consists of prayers, Psalms, hymns/chants, movements, vestments, liturgical items, the church building and even food. The liturgy contains elements that can be perceived by all of the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Human beings explore, understand, and interact with the world through their senses. The liturgy uses these same senses to connect the human being with the spiritual world. The liturgy is a bridge that uses the senses to helps enable the human spirit to take a journey to God.
Some of the main ways that the liturgy appeals to the senses are:
1) Sight: the clergy vestments, the blessing of the faithful, reading the Gospel, prayers, the icons, etc.
2) Sound: prayers, chants, hymns, the Word of God, the kshots, the bells, the sermon and spiritual message.
3) Touch: kissing the Holy Cross, kissing the Gospel, lighting candles, touching icons, the Kiss of Peace, etc.
4) Taste: Holy Eucharist, Mas (holy bread), blessed water, blessed grapes, etc.
5) Smell: incense.
The liturgy engages the faithful through five senses, throughout the service. In a way, it envelops the faithful, allowing them to enter a different world inside the church. The purpose of the liturgy and prayer, after all, is for our entire being, not only our spirit. Using the senses consciously purposefully assists us in receiving God’s blessing and feeling His holy presence.
Through the rituals and practices of the liturgy, the church transcends to a different space, more than just a building, that allows us to train ourselves for the His kingdom. Human beings sin and are only saved by God’s grace. God saves us through the grace of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Grace, however, is something beyond the physical realm. Prayers, hymns, psalms and services help us to understand grace, but worshiping God in spirit is more than an intellectual exercise. To fully worship God, we must devote our minds, our hearts, and our souls to Him. In short, we must devote our entire being to worship. How can we worship Him with our entire being when our complete understanding of the world through our five senses? The liturgy creates that space for us, so that we can experience a sort of heaven on earth.
While the liturgy engages our physical senses, the Holy Spirit works in us. While the Holy Spirit sometimes manifests physically, most of its work is invisible. Our faith allows us to perceive the work of the Holy Spirit. By engaging all of our physical senses, the liturgy allows us to practice our faith through our spirit. With the help of the incense, the candles, the vestments, and our voices, we lift our prayers to God. As we lift our prayers, God fills His house, our house, with His spirit.