The Forgotten Connection Between Liturgy and Theology

St. Auxentius

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

[Saint Cyprian]

Holy, Holy, Holy of Holies, Father of fathers, O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Martyrs, God of the virgins, of those who live with integrity, and of those who believe in Your Son, O God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

We pray to You and beseech You, the Only-Begotten Son, Begotten of the Father before all ages, and in time mystically Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Virgin Mary. We beseech You to grant us an increase of fervor in our desire for a holy life and integrity of heart, so that, being renewed in the Baptism of salvation, our hearts may be free from sin and remain pure. We ask for an Orthodox faith, a pure spirit, an enlightened piety and steadfast love. Help us to grow in spirit and to progress in the life of Your Holy Church...

You, O Lord, Who are seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, turn Your gaze toward us, free us from the possibility of an eternal death, and grant us that all important integrity and purity of the heart that is so essential for our salvation in the Church and in You, Who are One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Blessed and Glorified now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.


On February 14th Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church commemorates, honors, and entreats the holy intercessions of the following Saints, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics, Teachers and every righteous spirit made perfect in Our Holy Orthodox Christian faith: Saint Afxentius of Bithynia; Saint Peter, Patriarch of Alexandria; Saint Abraham, bishop of Charres; Saint Philemon, bishop of Gaza; Saint Theodore of Chernigov; Saint Maron of Syria; New holy Martyr George of Mitylene (1693); Saint Cyril, Equal-to-the Apostles and teacher of the Slavs; New holy Martyr Nicholas of Corinth; Saint Ilarion the Georgian; Saint Isaac of the Kiev Caves; Saint Damian the New of Philotheou.

THE VENERABLE FATHER AUXENTIUS. Saint Afxentius was of Persian parentage but born in Syria, where his father had emigrated during the persecution of Shapur II. He came to Constantinople in the reign of Theodosius II (408-50) and obtained a commission in the imperial guard. Held in high-regard by the Emperor and by all his contemporaries on account of his piety and integrity, he enjoyed the friendship of men illustrious for their virtues and ascesis including Saint Marcian--the future Steward of the Great Church (10 Jan,)--Anthimos and Sittas, with whom he spent his days in fasting and prayer and nights in vigils, their faces wet with tears. They participated as often as they could in vigils at the Church of Saint Irene, which had been built by Saint Marcian, and they frequently went to the Hebdomon district to receive the counsels of John, a well-known stylite.

As his holy life and early miracles brought him fame, Saint Afxentius withdrew from the clamor of the world and even from his friends. Resigning his commission in the guards, he enlisted in the ranks of the Angelic army and made his way to Mount Oxeia (today Kaishdag, about six miles from Chalcedon), where he lived in complete obscurity, clad like Saint John the Baptist in a garment of animal hair. He was eventually discovered by some children whose sheep had strayed. Their flock was found by a miracle and, in gratitude, the parents of the young shepherds built a cell for the ascetic near the mountain top. However, Saint Afxentius fixed up a small shed outside in which he enclosed himself, and attended to spiritual prayer granting no comfort to his body.

Visitors flocked in ever larger numbers to the Saint to seek direction from him or to obtain healing through his prayer. Saint Afxentius would communicate with them at set times through a small window, and he always began conversations by inviting them to give glory to God. The rest of the time they were free to listen outside to the prayers or readings with which he was occupied within. Tried and tested as he was by a ruthless daily struggle against the Devil, he had acquired the power of driving him out from the possessed people who came to ask for the help of his prayers. Thus, after three days of incessant combat, he freed a girl who had been possessed as a result of her father's unbelief. On another occasion, he healed a blind lady from Nicomedia by touching her eyes while saying, 'May Christ the True Light heal thee!' Many similar miracles were wrought by God at the prayer of His servant.

He wrote some concise hymns which united beauty of expression with usefulness to the soul, and he instructed visitors from Roufianes or from farther afield to chant them. (These are the first troparia and the earliest elements of the hymnography of the Church). He would often exhort pilgrims until evening on the practice of the virtues and on renunciation of the vain pleasures of the body.

One Saturday, he opened the window of his shed to inform the company outside that the great pillar of the Church, Saint Symeon the Stylite (1 Sept.), had just died. When news of the Stylite's decease finally arrived from Antioch, the announcement of Saint Afxentius was confirmed to the very day and hour.

Among those who came to see the Saint was one of the Empress Pulcheria's ladies-in-waiting. She had often begged him to clothe her in the Monastic Habit; and finally he submitted to the will of God and directed her to a place at the foot of the mountain where she would be able to practice the ascetic life. She was soon joined by other women of all classes to the number of seventy, so that Saint Afxentius had to build a church and establish a Monastery for them. It was called Trichinaria (from trikhinos, 'or hair') probably because of the rough tunics that Saint Afxentius made them wear. Every Friday and Sunday, the nuns would come up the mountain to the Saint, who would exhort them to persevere in the contest of virginity, not only of the body but above all of the soul. Sometimes he would go down to them, negotiating the steep path to the Monastery with a youthful agility which belied his old age and infirmities.

He had been down to the convent one day to look over some new buildings and had sent up fervent prayers for God's blessing on the community. On returning to his little shed, he fell ill and few days later (14 February 470 A.D.) he was carried off to heaven.

A great crowd from the deserts and the cities gathered for his funeral. The monks of Saint Hypatius sought possession of his precious, grace-bearing holy relics but they were finally committed to the care of his spiritual daughters (nuns).

+By the holy intercessions of Your Saints and Holy Ascetics, O Christ Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.


Holy Epistle Lesson: Saint James 4:7-17, 5:1-9
Holy Gospel Lesson: Saint Mark 7:24-30


"We must know that the constant invocation of the Name of God is a medicine which cures not only all the passions but also their effects. As a physician applies a cure or a poultice to the patient's wound, and these take effect though the patient himself does not know how this happens, so the Name of God when invoked kills all passions, although we do not know how" (Saints Barsanuphius and John)

By Rev. Dr. Philip Zymaris [source: Praxis]

Our Orthodox liturgy, our communal worship services and especially the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, are the best reflection of this "lived theology." At first sight this statement might seem surprising, because most people seem to perceive going to church on Sunday as a mere Christian "duty" and not as real "theology." As it turns out, however, nothing could be further from the truth. This popular conception that divorces theology from what we do in church has emerged relatively recently due to the theological developments in Western Christianity that have little to do with our own Orthodox teachings, history and traditions. Unfortunately we have been so deeply influenced by these developments that this mentality has taken root even in Orthodox circles today. In the lines that follow, I will try to trace and explain this fundamental connection between liturgy and theology by way of a few examples taken from the way we worship and especially the way we celebrate our sacraments (Mysteria).

Going back to the era of early Christianity, it becomes evident that the Church of Christ in both the East and the West, that is to say, in the one, undivided 'Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" (to quote the Creed that we repeat at each liturgy), did not distinguish between theology and liturgy as we tend to do today. In other words, theology in the early Church was not conceived of as discipline or an abstract exercise for special people with specific training. Rather, theology in the sense of liturgical participation was the prerogative of every baptized Christian. This is clear even in the etymology of the word "theology." The Greek word for "theology" is composed of Theos (God) and logos (word), and therefore may be translated as "words appropriate to God," i.e., communication and relationship with God, which means prayer and especially the prayer of the assembly, the synaxis, as identified with the Holy Eucharist celebrated by baptized Christians, i.e., the communal worship experience of the faithful "in one place" mentioned by Saint Paul. Interestingly enough, the earliest theological definition of the Church verifies this Saint Nicholas Cabasilas in the 14th century wrote that the "Church, is made known in the sacraments" (the mysteries). We know that all Sacraments were actually celebrated in the context of the Holy Eucharist, and therefore the Eucharistic gathering was considered to be the "sacrament of sacraments," that which "constituted the Church" theologically. Indeed, regarding the Holy Eucharist, Saint Cabasilas wrote: "it is not possible to go beyond it or add anything to it...for in it we obtain God Himself and God is united with us in the most perfect union." The fact that these definitions of Saint Cabasilas come to us at such a late date is witness to the fact that no such theological definition was required for the early Christians precisely because they knew through the common worship experience what Church--Ecclesia--really meant.

This notion of worship as "lived out" theology that was so natural to the early Christians is preserved to this day in the very structure of our services and even in the particular way our church buildings are set up and decorated. Anyone who has conducted church tours their parish festival knows how people of other faiths are always struck by the mere experience of entering into an Orthodox Church building. Our place of worship is indeed a "feast for the senses," and there is a clear theological reason for this. All five senses and our whole psychosomatic being, not only the mind, somehow participate in worship, and this is how real theology--the true experience of God--is communicated to us in our worship. We see and touch icons and rich, colorful church furniture; we smell incense and hear chanting; we taste communion. Through the sermon we receive spiritual food for mind and soul, and at Holy Communion we are offered physical--spiritual food for our body, mind and soul. This way of worshipping actually is a lived out expression of a basic Christian theological teaching, the uniquely Christian dogma of Incarnation, i.e., the fact that Christ took on a human body just like ours and thus blessed our body, our senses, and all matter." "And the Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us" (St. John 1:14), and therefore all of these participate in worship.

This theological emphasis on the Incarnation as foundation for the way we worship has been somewhat forgotten in some other Christian denominations, and this has resulted in clear differences in the venue and style of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worship. For example, some Western churches are reminiscent of a classroom: the proverbial stark chapel, devoid of icons and church furniture except for pews and a pulpit in a prominent position in view of all in the place where an Orthodox church would have the altar table. The message given is that the main aim of worship is only the intellectual "teaching" of the Bible--the principle of "sola scriptura." On the other hand, our Orthodox churches and worship experience clearly cater to the whole human being. For example, although in the United States most Orthodox churches now have seating for all attendants, this was not the case in church buildings in most traditionally Orthodox countries in the past. In such traditional church buildings, although there usually would be some "stalls" along the walls for people to rest in, the greater part of the nave would be free of all obstructions so the people could walk around, prostrate themselves and venerate icons at any time in the service. In short, they were free to pray using their whole body and not only their mind. This is in keeping with the theological teaching of the Incarnation. For this reason we baptize, chrismate and offer Holy Communion to infants. Again, participation in the Sacraments is clearly something that concerns the whole human being--not only the mind--and infants are full human beings according to our theology. Consequently, there is no "age of reason" more appropriate for receiving these Sacraments. All of the above Orthodox liturgical practices in fact express a basic theological teaching connected to the Incarnation: since the body is as much an icon of God as is the soul, both participate fully in worship. Indeed, the human being as a whole is made in the "image and likeness of God." This teaching leads us to another basic theological tenet that affects the way worship, a clearly biblical teaching sadly forgotten by many Christians today: the uniquely Christian teaching on the general resurrection in the flesh (in the body) of all human beings and the transfiguration of all material and immaterial creation in the end times in the Kingdom of God. Because the human being is a psychosomatic reality, in the same way that the total human being now participates in the worship of God, this same total human being will participate in the Kingdom of God.

[to be continued]

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George