Liturgy and Gospel: St Basil the Great

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

A former youth pastor of mine once quipped, ‘If you aren’t preaching the Gospel, then what the h-ll are you doing?! It’s all mumbo-jumbo!’ A very evangelical sentiment, if not expressed quite the way your average Baptist would choose. So: What of liturgy and the Gospel? Is it all mumbo-jumbo? Is it just hocus-pocus (allegedly from ‘hoc est corpus’)?

Let’s take a Eucharistic liturgy from one of the most ornate liturgical assemblies out there, the Eastern Orthodox. I am particularly fond of this one, the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. I do not know enough about the history and criticism of liturgy to know if St Basil (330-79) actually composed any of it; if he did, it was probably the Anaphora or Canon of the Mass.

This text had a powerful impact upon me when I read it one night during one of my many ecclesiastical crises a while ago. Perhaps it can move you, too! We’ll start with ‘Lift up your hearts’ (the Sursum Corda), using the text found at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
People: It is proper and right.

This is in every eucharistic liturgy I’ve seen from the Apostolic Tradition c. 230 to Common Worship (2000).

Priest: Master, Lord, God, worshipful Father almighty, it is truly just and right to the majesty of Your holiness to praise You, to hymn You, to bless You, to worship You, to give thanks to You, to glorify You, the only true God, and to offer to You this our spiritual worship with a contrite heart and a humble spirit. For You have given us to know Your truth. Who is worthy to praise Your mighty acts? Or to make known all Your praises? Or tell of all Your wonderful deeds at all times?

Here we have worship, praise, glory and honour. It may look like a mere piling up of attributes and actions, but is it not all true? This the worship of our minds and spirits! And we need to remember that worship is the endgame of evangelism; as John Piper argues ad nauseam in the popular evangelical book on evangelism, Let the Nations Be Glad, mission only exists because worship does not. So here, the priest is leading the people into worship, into the glorification of God.

Next comes our first glimpse of the Gospel riches to come as the Trinity is introduced — and don’t forget the link between Trinity and mission:

 Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light. Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested, the spirit of truth the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power, the source of sanctification through whom every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You.

And in the final, complicated sentence we see the all-important evangelical doctrine of grace! It is by Christ that ‘every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping’ God.

We turn again to worship, drawing images from Scripture (that all-important evangelical source) as throughout:

For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, powers, and the many eyed Cherubim. Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces; with two they cover their feet; with two they fly, crying out to one another with unceasing voices and everresounding praises:
Priest: Singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying:
People: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.

And now we enter into salvation history:

Priest: Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages.

This is precisely the history of salvation as you’ll read it not only in the Bible but in Reformed discussions of the structure of Scripture, such as Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture (a re-working of Graeme Goldsworthy’s work). It culminates in God’s oikonomia in Jesus Christ.

He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ.

Central to our Gospel is the Person of Christ — Who is Jesus? as Nicky Gumbel puts it. This passage above gives Basil’s — and the Bible’s — answer.

And what did Jesus do?

He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

This is the Gospel, is it not?

WAIT! ‘Each according to His works’! This is not evangelicalism, is it? Well, this is the awkward reality of Christianity that we have obscured through our incessant harping on ‘justification by faith alone’ and penal substitutionary atonement — Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that we are saved by works of mercy; James says that faith without works is dead; Paul says to work out our faith in fear and trembling. And the Gospel descriptions of the Final Judgement do feel a bit ‘works-righteousness’, don’t they?

Here is my solution — St Basil has already brought grace into play. Grace saves us. Absolutely. And once we are saved, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to actually do good works. The works are the evidence of our faith, the seal — they are not what will justify us before the dread judgement seat of Christ. But He Himself will make them a reality in our hearts. This, perhaps, goes against Graeme Goldsworthy, for it draws us towards Orthodox synergy contra Reformed monergism.

Nonetheless. Gospel. Rich. Beautiful.

Moving along:

As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever memorable, and life-giving death, on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and pure hands, and presenting it to You, God and Father, and offering thanks, blessing, sanctifying, and breaking it:
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you and for the forgiveness of sins.
People: Amen.
Priest: Likewise, He took the cup of the fruit of vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it.
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Drink of this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
People: Amen.
Priest: Do this in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, you proclaim my death, and you confess my resurrection. Therefore, Master, we also, remembering His saving passion and life giving cross, His three; day burial and resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and enthronement at Your right hand, God and Father, and His glorious and awesome second coming.
Priest: We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all.
People: We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we pray to You, Lord our God.
Priest: Therefore, most holy Master, we also, Your sinful and unworthy servants, whom You have made worthy to serve at Your holy altar, not because of our own righteousness (for we have not done anything good upon the earth), but because of Your mercy and compassion, which You have so richly poured upon us, we dare to approach Your holy altar, and bring forth the symbols of the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. We pray to You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness, Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts here presented, to bless, sanctify, and make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
He blesses the holy Bread.
Deacon: Amen.
Priest: And this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
He blesses the holy Cup.
Deacon: Amen.
He blesses them both.
Priest: Shed for the life and salvation of the world.
Deacon: Amen. Amen. Amen.

I’ll close here — but, for me, this is it: the Words of Institution, the body and blood of Christ ushering us into the heavenly banquet, into the wedding feast of the Lamb, being united to Christ and each other through the Blessed Sacrament. This is Gospel in action.

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3 thoughts on “Liturgy and Gospel: St Basil the Great

  1. Not enough Amens could resound from me in response to this article. I toss between grief and deepest frustration when my Protestant brethren (I’m an Anglican priest) criticize the historic forms of the liturgy for being at enmity with the Gospel. Dear God, what has gone wrong! “This is Gospel in action.”

    I’ve just discovered your blog and am very happy to have done so. Good, rich, deep stuff here. Thank you.

    Fr. Jonathan Trebilco

    • Some of my recent experiences with some Anglicans are what have been provoking my reflections on the liturgy and the Gospel. I am glad that you are finding my blog edifying!

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