Orthodox Christianity teaches that a clear distinction exists between the uncreated God and the created world. God is good, and because God created the world, the world is good; but it is also fallen, and as a result we face additional distinctions: between old and new, death and life, profane and sacred, all the degrees of shadow and the very Light Itself. Salvation may be understood as the growth of the human person from the former categories to the latter – from the old, the dead, the profane, and the shadows, to the new, the life, the sacred, and the light. This journey of salvation is presented to us in profound ways in the style and forms of ancient Christian worship.
Consider, for example, our use of liturgical language. The language we use in our worship services contains an elevated style worthy of the elevated message it is intended to convey – the message of salvation. So, liturgical language itself is intended to reinforce within the worshipper a sense of the distinction between the world of men that he leaves behind, and the world of God he is called to enter. And it’s not just language; church architecture, music, iconography, vestments, each of these is, within the Church, a unique mode of expression that is divinely inspired.
There are those who believe that a worship service should not recognize the distinction between the sacred and the profane. For them, church aesthetics often imitate secular aesthetics – contemporary rock bands instead of liturgical music, inspirational posters instead of icons, “cell groups” instead of sacraments. But all this may have a dangerous consequence: the world of God disappears.
If the Church’s art forms are identical to the art forms of fallen man, then there would be no material expression of our salvation, and the Church will have surrendered the very core of Her witness on earth. Our salvation is only possible because the Immaterial God assumed material creation (that is to say, God, who is Spirit, took upon Himself flesh and human nature), so the Church uses material creation both to announce the truth of the Incarnation in all its fullness, and to enable our personal participation in the Lord who ascended into heaven, carrying our creation with Him.
Man’s modes of expression are corrupt, and therefore inadequate to the task of acquiring knowledge of God because they flow from our sinful state. The Church’s modes of expression, however, are divinely inspired. So, the two modes cannot be identical. The unique material art forms within the Church, therefore, do not suggest God’s distance from our fallen world, but, on the contrary, proclaim His presence within our midst.
Consider two core realities of man’s relationship with God: first, that we have fallen away from God; and second, that God has come to restore us to Himself. The Church proclaims both, but accomplishes this not by pulling God down into our falleness but by raising man up to God’s perfection. Worship, for the Orthodox Christian, is not the act of making God real to us – that has already been accomplished in Christ – but of making ourselves real to God.
Christ achieves man’s deification through His participation in created human nature, and man appropriates this deification by participation in the Divine, especially in the sacramental life of the Church. This meeting of the human and the Divine is a total, physical experience, limited not to the intellect, but opened to all that pertains to man, including his five senses. Secular art exerts enormous influence on the soul, precisely because the human is an integrated unity of body and soul, physical and spiritual. The Church, then, uses matter – or material creation – to produce spiritualized art forms that adorn, express, and clarify the sacramental Mysteries of the Church, and so those spiritualized art forms are themselves a means of man’s deification. Iconography, chant, hymnody, these are Mysteries in their own right, because they, and not the secular arts, possess the capacity to deify.
For this reason, our language and iconography and chant must be different from the fallen world’s, and must conform strictly to the norms established by divinely-inspired Church Fathers, whose own souls were purified to the point where they became clear conduits of this deifying influence.
Considering this necessary relationship between the possibility for salvation and the sacred art used to proclaim that possibility, can we say, then, that how a group of Christians worships tells the world what they believe about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ?
-Adapted from The Pentecostarion, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Massachusetts