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Orthodox Service Appeal to all Senses

Anyone who witnesses an Orthodox liturgy for the first time will be struck by its frank appeal to the senses. The central actions of the Liturgy are, to be sure, the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine that constitute the Lord's Body and Blood. But the chanting and choral singing, the incense, the vestments and ritual movements of the priest and acolytes, and the images everywhere around are not mere embellishments. They are integral aspects of the whole liturgical "event". They reveal and celebrate its meaning. It has been so for centuries.

An old Russian chronicle relates that Prince Vladimir of Kiev (d. 1015) could not decide which faith to adopt for himself and his people until his envoys reported from Constantinople that they had witnessed services there: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth," they declared, "for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men."

This often-repeated account may be anecdotal, but it contains a valid observation: the Orthodox Church makes no sharp distinction in its worship between the spiritual and the aesthetic. One becomes aware of God's presence through the senses, in the experience of "splendor" and "beauty."

This emphasis on sensory involvement has its basis in the Orthodox and thoroughly Biblical conviction that it is the whole world, and not only man's soul, that will be transfigured - "saved" - when Christ establishes His Kingdom at the end of time. The Liturgy is the anticipation and conditional realization here and now of that promised end. Far from denying God's material creation, it sanctifies it. The Eucharist itself is proof of this. However, the beauty of the Liturgy is of a kind that is consistent with the Church's vision of that transfigured world. This qualification is important.

Many things loosely called "beautiful" in fact embody values symptomatic of the world in its unsanctified condition and consequently have no place in the Church. Such, to give an example, would be a picture, however artistically executed, that depicts a saint as physically attractive or mawkish. On the other hand, the beauty prefiguring God's Kingdom can seem strange or forbidding to those who do not partake of the deeper experience of the Church and therefore do not share its vision. One often hears people complain of the somber faces in icons. While the Church's worship appeals to the senses, it presupposes a canon of beauty that is compatible with the new life to which believers are called.

The outstanding achievement of the sacred arts of Orthodoxy lies in their brilliant and creative response to the requirements of this canon.

Excerpted from: Orthodox Art & Architecture by John Yiannias

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