Time is our friend, and time is our enemy. This earthly life comprises a string of millions of minutes between birth and death. The uniqueness of the Church is that she pulls our souls out of this string spiritually and psychologically so that we may join in the immortal life of God, who is outside of time.
The Divine Liturgy is a repetitive, interactive, spiritual rite through which the life of Christ is transmitted to the children of God with prayers and the reenactment of the Last Supper where Christ distributes His Body and Blood to His disciples for the remission of sins and for life everlasting. The repetitive nature of the Divine Liturgy unites Orthodox Christians. The Divine Liturgy is similar in Moscow, Washington, DC, and Timbuktu; it was as similar in 1207 as it is in 2017. By connecting each of us to our brethren throughout time and around the globe, the Divine Liturgy attempts to pull us out of the string of minutes that constitutes our physical life.
For the same reason that the athlete should vary his or her workout, because the whole body is healthiest when it receives both cardio and strength training, the soul is healthiest when it exercises a variety of disciplines such as private and corporate prayer, Bible study, fasting, and adherence to the commandments.
As wonderful and life-rejuvenating as the Divine Liturgy is, because it is repetitive there is a tendency to keep it in the string of minutes, in time. We look at our watches to check how far into the hour and a half we are. Time-consciousness is the enemy here because it robs us of some of the supernatural value of the Divine Liturgy. The best way to help the Church get us out of time-consciousness is to be there longer.
The Church, wise Mother that she is, is equipped to do battle with and vanquish the enemy of time in a marvelous manner. If the Divine Liturgy is the Queen of prayers, she is preceded by her flower girls and her pages.
Enter the Orthros
In Greek, Orthros (ὄρθρος) means “stand,” including the figurative sense in which the sun can be said to stand, after the period in which it lies down and thus causes the darkness of night. Orthros is also the last of the four nighttime prayer sessions, which include Vespers, Compline, and Midnight Office. In traditional monasteries, Orthros is celebrated daily so as to end at sunrise.
Orthros does the heavy lifting when it comes to yanking us out of time, out of the world. It does so in two ways: by forcing us to ignore time, and by offering us variety. When we pray beyond an hour and a half, our souls forget about time during the Divine Liturgy, or else we suffer. Who wants to suffer? The only recourse is to set time-consciousness aside. In this process there is an element of discomfort followed by relief. People who don’t go to church regularly often suffer through worship because they are still so fixed in time. Once we surrender in the fight over time-consciousness, we find that we pray in a most marvelous, immortal world outside of time, where God lives; we join in the hymns and prayers that are chanted with newfound joy.
The treat is that, unlike the repetitive liturgy, Orthros varies. Parts of it remain the same but parts of it change. This variation becomes exciting and new for the soul, who wants to leave this world to join God in the immortal life.
A person cannot be a true Christian if he or she does not participate regularly in the Gathering of the Body of Christ (that is, the Church). The person who thinks that saying prayers alone is as good as going to church is as foolish as the person who spends most of his or her time watching TV or reading books instead of experiencing life directly. Vicarious experience is no substitute for direct experience. To be alive is to join the life of the living. For Christians it is the life of the Body in the Church. Anything less is slightly delusional.
It is only for us to drag our bodies, sometimes kicking and screaming, out of this world and into our church so we can experience life without time, and the refreshment and renewal that the Gathering (that is, the Church) offers our immortal souls, particularly when we spend time to stand up for marvelous in Orthros.
After three hours during which we focus on the timeless Kingdom of God, we walk out of church and feel like a Resurrection candle as it enters the dark world. What a glorious reward our souls are given in return for our time and effort. Can there be anything more worthwhile than Orthros?
~ By Lynn Hopkins, life-long parishioner of Saint Sophia Cathedral, Washington, DC