How Do We Worship in Spirit & Truth?

by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd

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Last week, I wrote a flying overview about, “What Does It Mean To Be The Church?” This article is about the first of those values which characterize the Church—Worship.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (who had a distorted experience of worship) Jesus said to her, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Fr Thomas Hopko, of recent blessed memory, is famous for saying, “It is the conviction of the Holy Scriptures, and certainly the Orthodox Church tradition, that human beings are created from the beginning for worship in spirit and in truth.” Actually, every single human being worships something. We just can’t help it. And there’s more to worship than coming and sitting inside a church. Even those who claim to have no god (atheists), whether they realize it or not, worship something or someone—in other words, they give honor and deference to something or someone as worthy of their attention and time and resources. One of the most common things you’ll notice people give that kind of worship to is themselves—where fulfilling their own will and the desires of their flesh is most worthy of their attention and time and resources. People easily make an idol (or a god) of themselves, even if they claim to not worship anything. And for us Orthodox Christians, if we’re truly honest, we have to admit that this is a temptation that each of us has to wrestle with daily. Of course, there are a myriad of other things that people also worship—that they consider worthy of their attention and time and resources.

From very early on, God made it clear that our worship is only to be given to Him. He said, “For you shall worship no other god…for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). If you pay careful attention to the expression God uses here, He’s trying to get us to understand the level of intimacy within the relationship between us and Him— that it’s like between a husband and a wife. So, He essentially says here that when we devote our attentions and our time and resources to things other than Him, it’s essentially spiritual adultery. Therefore, the question all of us Orthodox Christians have to ask ourselves is, who or what gods do we worship (devoting our attentions and our time and resources to), besides the one true God? Are we committing spiritual adultery?

When we wake up on Sunday morning and routinely decide to do something other than give worship to the One True God at Church, what are we worshipping instead? When we decide that God’s not worthy enough of our honor and respect and worship to show up to Church on time, then who’s getting that honor and respect and worship instead? Do we prepare before coming to Church by praying, asking God to soften the soil of our hearts to receive the seed of His word, then familiarizing ourselves with the Epistle and Gospel Reading ahead of time? If not, what’s getting the time and effort from us when we should be offering the worship of preparation? Do we come to Divine Liturgy ready to put in the serious work and effort it takes to worship God in spirit and truth, or do we come in so passively, that our worship is distracted and given over to other things? Do we approach each day inviting God into our whole life, in our jobs and every encounter throughout each day as something to be managed for the sake of God, to accomplish His will (not just for our boss or for ourselves)? When our life is divided up (fragmented and compartmentalized), offering parts of it to things other than the One True God, then we aren’t worshipping in spirit and in truth.

So how do we worship in spirit and truth? It starts with the way we engage with the Divine Liturgy as the Body of Christ. Certainly, we come to engage with a ritual of beauty that draws us into prayer with the One who created us and loves us more than we can possibly imagine. But, more than that, we’re there to grow in understanding why we’re there, how what we’re going through there affects us, what it means for our life. Remember that the word liturgy (leitourgia in Greek) means a common work—a common action for all of us—where no one is saved alone, but only in communion.  So, it’s a common-work in participation with the The Father, the Holy Spirit, with Christ, and with His Body, the Church. It’s a work that we all do together with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13) to make-real our unity with Christ—as the Holy Spirit works in us to will and to act in order to fulfill God’s good purpose. Therefore, while we come to Church, at first, merely to pray…we mature by engaging our hearts and our minds in the shared work it takes to grow in what the liturgy has to teach us about our relationship with God. Only in this way do we move beyond what easily becomes dead, empty ritual to living faith and worship. 

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A simple key to understanding this, is to contemplate the place of Mary—the Mother of God—in our Church architecture, as it connects us with what’s going on our liturgy. There are especially two icons that bring all of this into focus. First, we have the icon of the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Theotokos on the Holy Doors leading into the altar. And second, we have the icon of her in the apse (behind the altar)—the one we call, “She, Who Is More Spacious Than The Heavens.”

In the icon of her on the Holy Doors, the Archangel Gabriel is there to announce something vitally important to Mary. Gabriel first greets her and addresses her as, “You who are highly favored!” then he tells her, “The Lord is with you.” And Mary, understandably, is profoundly stunned to have such a pronouncement made by this mighty messenger of God. Gabriel tells her not to be afraid and then goes on to declare that she’s found God’s favor and that God intends to have His Son come to live inside of her, and ultimately, be born forth from her into the world. Mary is mystified. She responds with a question. How can I be pregnant, since I’ve never been with a man? And the next two exchanges of dialogue are key for us here. First, the Archangel Gabriel invokes the Holy Spirit, saying, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most-High will overshadow you, so that the One to be born forth from you is the Son of God.” And Mary’s response to that invoking of the Holy Spirit is the same response that every single one of us should have, as the priest invokes the Holy Spirit over all of us & the gifts at the altar, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your words be fulfilled in me.” 

The second icon is the one in the apse that we call “She, Who Is More Spacious Than The Heavens.” We call her that, because, held within her womb was the One who created the heavens and the earth—the entire cosmos and all the heavenly powers…thus making her more spacious than the heavens. In the Hymns and prayers of the Church, we constantly refer to the Theotokos as “Our Salvation,” because in her worshipful act of responding to God with the words, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your words be fulfilled in me,” she shows us the way for each of us to constantly respond to the priest’s invoking of the Holy Spirit upon us and the gifts. You too, my beloved parishioner, have found the Lord’s favor…and God intends to have His Son come to live inside of you and to be born forth from you into the world. Therefore, as we come together weekly, to partake of the gifts in communion with each other, we too become more spacious than the heavens, as our whole life also becomes an act of worshiping in spirit and in truth, engaged in the work it takes to bear forth Christ into the world.