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The Fruits of Repentance – Singing the Praises of God
Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.…
The beauty and awe of a restored relationship is emerging in the heart of David. He who so loved the Lord with his heart, whose psalms led the worship of the Hebrew people for generations (and the Church today), now experiences a restoration of his capacity to praise God. He is not only enlightened through God’s intervention in his life, but lightened as well. The heavy weight of sin no longer oppresses his heart.
Do we Know How to Praise God?
We cite from the beginning of our catechetical lessons – our life purpose is to live with God and worship Him. It’s in our DNA. The focus of our eyes and our life is toward Him and beyond this world into His eternity. The Church Fathers taught that this is how we are fashioned, to imitate the Angelic powers[i], in the worship of God. Our Divine Liturgy on Sundays is a foretaste of this worshipping orientation of life – looking forward to the next opportunity to open our mouths and sing God’s praises!
Yeh – tell that to most 14 year- olds and see what response you get!
That’s true to lots of adults too, probably. If we are to follow the teachings of Christ, young children initially have a curiosity with God, and even a simple intimacy with Him, a trust in Him, and sense of reverence and awe of holy things. But as adults/teens this trust and awareness seems to be dissipated as we pass through life stages. Some have proposed that the widespread decline in Church attendance due to Covid was due to a latent sickness of another sort, people looking for a good reason to stop going to Church. And attendance at Church isn’t all – because the real purpose and focus of our presence there is meant to be a effort (liturgy = holy work) in worshipping the Lord.
Do we know how to worship? Yes – sort of – at least in Orthodoxy, ours is a ‘right worship’ – the very definition of ‘ortho-doxa’ or ‘true glory’. That’s all well and good. But are we really worshipping?[ii] Since I’m probably more distracted in worship than most, I can assure you that I know that there’s less actual worshipping going on in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings than what might appear. Who taught us to worship? For many it was ‘baba’ or ‘ya-ya’ = Grandmother. Universally in the Church there are women who faithfully attended services ‘religiously’ every Sunday. But what were they doing there? Worshipping God? Or something else? Again, in Orthodoxy, a parent or elder can show us essential acts of worship – words to say or making gestures like the sign of the cross or venerating an icon. But does the child (or convert in discipleship training) actually experience an orientation of the inner thoughts of the heart to the living God? I certainly can’t answer that – but God knows our hearts. How do we absorb this knowledge or integrate it into a conscious part of living to accompany these externals?
I know that there have been ‘moments’ in my adult life when I’ve been aware of the invitation personally in my heart to worship Christ (cf Mt. 2:1ff, Mt. 8:1,Mt. 16:16 etc.) I also know there have been times when I should have been worshipping Him but my mind and heart were far away. (This is what sin does). And other times, it has been a difficult struggle of faith in God, to belief in His presence or relevance. When these situations persist over time, our worship of God grows distant from us and Him. Stay away for Church long enough and the idea of faith itself will be challenged.
Worship – the Gift of the Holy Spirit
Worshippers are molded in the heart by the Spirit of God. This is a theme of the story of the Samaritan Woman, when the Lord Jesus promises that the ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (Jn.4:24) St. Paul advises that it is the Holy Spirit who actually forms the movements of the Christian’s heart toward holy and pure prayer, “The Spirit…intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”. (Rom. 8:26) When a person is Baptized and Chrismated,[iii] her lips are anointed with Chrism to sing the praises of God.
Sin Destroys Worship in the Soul, Repentance Restores it
David’s experience is instructive to us. Because of his sin, his lips were shuttered from the kind of prayer[iv] that poured forth from his heart so spontaneously and naturally before that. But with repentance comes restoration of the whole person – and this is most wonderfully manifest in the opening of the penitents’ lips with authentic, heartfelt prayer. This prayer is always characterized by thanksgiving – in the recognition that our very being, and all human capacity, is God’s gift continually bringing us into existence and enabling us to live in His presence and worship Him.
Note how David frames his words, ‘Lord, YOU will open my lips and my mouth shall sing your praise.’ [emphasis Added] It is God who opens David’s lips that he can again praise Him as is proper[v].
The ‘opening of lips’ appears in a number of informative passages of Scripture. A good example is that of Luke 1, and the story of the test to the High Priest Zachariah to believe the testimony of the Angel, that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son (St. John the Baptist) despite her advanced age. In Zachariah’s incredulity, he is punished for a time when he is made dumb and unable to speak until the birth of his son, St. John. At that time, when asked about how his son is to be named, he is obedient and writes on a board, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately – as his actions affirm his inner intent – his lips are opened, and he fashions a hymn of praise of great beauty and theological power that has inspired Christians ever since. We see also in Luke that Mary, who accepted the Angel’s proclamation, was not silenced, but also poured forth her heart to God in thanksgiving in the Magnificat hymn. These examples show how the human heart, when unburdened by sin, is oriented in its pure state toward God, and will worship Him with zealous faith in thanksgiving for all of His goodness and righteousness and gifts to us.
This passage – of God’s forgiveness opening our lips in praise – can speak to so many personal dimensions of prayer and worship in personal and Church life. When we are weighed down in sin, we are unable to lift up our hearts to God because they are chained by the burden of sin. When we are lazy and get out of the habit of prayer, whether personally at home or in the church community, we are likewise weighed down. Young people who ‘learn’ to sin especially as they grow up are challenged to rediscover their childhood innocence through repentance. (This is why youths need to be taught how to confess their sins sacramentally.)
It is so important for the elderly to confess their sins especially. If we are in heaven’s ‘waiting room’ we need to be preparing ourselves by unburdening our souls through Confession (Penance) and lightening our souls during the final struggle ends in death – victoriously entering into the next Dimension of the worship of God in our lives with the angelic hosts, as the holy fathers of the Church reveal!
The worship of the congregation is a heavenly encounter. Recently a friend sent me a testimony[vi] of a priest who was reluctant to celebrate the Liturgy on a very cold day – below zero, hoping that no one would come to Liturgy so he could go home. (I can identify with the sentiment!) But the cantor came. And as the liturgy was begun. At one point, mysteriously, many different people began to appear. These, as it turned out, were the saints and angels[vii] who joined in the worship of this small lowly church served unworthily by this listless priest and his cantor. And there was also a sense that those for whom the Liturgy was offered (living and departed) also shared in participating in this Liturgy.
One other notable worship experience became evident to me recently, as I observed a congregation bound by Covid protection masks. To me they appeared as ‘muzzled sheep’ – as if their external expression of their words was unimportant. Meanwhile, the priest and chanter could open their mouths in glorious, melodic worship.[viii] How do the laity worship God with their lips? Are the clergyman’s words supposed to substitute for those of the laity? Will the laity be ‘hushed’ if they sing along with the lonely chanter? Do the masks ‘silence’ our worship and if so, how do we overcome this? These questions with their many implications, alas, cannot be answered here.
The forgiveness of sins allows us to enter into the presence of the Lord with praise and thanksgiving. (Ps. 104) While the words of praise reside in our hearts first, they are not to remain there, but migrate to our bodies and find expression through our voice and the opening of our lips.
Let us all say (cry out) with all our soul and with all our mind, let us all say, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ Ω
[i] The liturgical texts always instruct as to what should be going on during the Orthodox worship services. There are many references for example to our role in pure worship – imitating the pure angelic powers who according to scriptures pray continuously in the worship of God, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of hosts!’ (and enjoy doing it!) This is referenced before we the congregation sings this thrice holy hymn, (See Is. 6, Rev. 4ff) before the readings of the Liturgy when the priest prays, (quietly) ‘Accept O Master this Thrice Holy Hymn from the lips of us sinners.’ And then aloud, ‘For You are Holy our God, and to you we lift up Glory (doxa), to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages.’ After which time the choir sings, ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us!’ Later during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, the exhortation is: “We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice holy hymn to the life creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares…’ Note that Orthodox worship is Trinitarian – to the One God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not so much solely to the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit distinctively, except in certain, theologically relevant ways. This is beyond the scope of this discussion however. If interested, contact me. I must also note that there is a plethora of teaching in ancient Christian literature on taming the evils of the tongue, proper speech, silence, prayer, etc. that are touched upon here.
[ii] It’s interesting to look at the Liturgical texts and look at the exhortations of the deacons, whose very job seems to be to get the people to tune in and worship God in the service. Commands like, ‘Let us pray to the Lord’, “Again and AGAiN’, Dynamis (worship with energy), ‘Stand aright, stand in awe that we might worship…’ etc. One of our problems may be that the effectiveness of worship is that most parishes don’t have deacons, and those that do, don’t intentionally work to prompt the congregation to true worship. Nobody ever told them that that’s their job – maybe their primary one – in the Liturgy.
[iii] The sacrament of Chrismation in Orthodoxy immediately follows sacramental Baptism and consists of a short prayer followed by anointing with the specially prepared oil called ‘chrism’ that imparts and seals the grace of the Holy Spirit in the newly baptized Christian. For our purposes here, the lips are sealed with chrism – and effectively ‘unsealed’ or opened so that the person might offer with pure lips the perfect and Spirit inspired worship of the God. Chrismation is akin to Confirmation in the Western Church, but with significant differences.
[iv] Although similar in meaning, I tend to use the term ‘prayer’ when referring to that done by an individual, and ‘worship’ reflecting communal prayer.
[v] The notion of the ‘properness’ of worship is a surprisingly important dimension of liturgical worship. Most liturgical prayers of the Consecration of Gifts (called anaphoras) in the Christian East and West, have language of exhortation, where the priest will say, ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord…’ to which the congregation responds, ‘It is proper and right…to worship…etc.’ Some texts use the Old English word ‘meet’ in English translation for ‘proper.’ It appears in many other places as well.
[vi] This type of experience has been reported in a number of places in monastic and ancient Christian literature.
[vii] It was reported in the 1990s that an angel ‘appeared’ in the midst of a worshipping Orthodox congregation in California. The Church does not ‘require’ such manifestations to validate all of the spiritual reality and truth of the Liturgy in fact the opposite is true. The Church affirms the ‘mystical’ presence of the angels and the saints at every Liturgy – the gift of being able to visibly ‘see’ these participants is rare, and like other miracles, is to inspire us to deeper prayer, faithfulness and trust.
[viii] The issue of participation in the liturgy with our voice (including congregational singing) is, in my opinion a very important and long-overdue discussion needed in the Church, in Orthodoxy in particular, but also among the faithful of other congregations. This issue was part of the move for liturgical reform in the Reformation.