The following is a translation of an interview with Prof. Maksym Tymo which appeared in Ukrainian in the magazine published in Lviv: Kana #11, December, 2016. Translation by Maria Truchan-Tataryn.
What does it mean to “celebrate that which we receive as gift”?
Celebration commonly refers to an event we want to remember, cherish, be happy about—like the birthday of someone we love. When we celebrate a birthday, we are glad that that individual was born.
It’s the same with our baptism—when we received from the Lord the gift of eternal life, the gift of salvation. This gift would be latent if we forgot about it. The Divine Liturgy is that moment when we deepen our awareness of the gift of eternal life, salvation, the gift of God’s love, God’s graciousness; we experience and accept it anew, that is—we celebrate. And if we celebrate something, the celebration cannot be an obligation, because our joy springs from our desire to celebrate; we celebrate because it’s important to us.
There’s another thing that we should be conscious of, and I think it’s slightly problematic. That is, the significance of the term “liturgy”, which means “cooperation”, “in common”. All liturgical services, not only the Divine Liturgy—are a time of collaboration amongst God and us. God gives us grace, peace, love, but we also open ourselves to God, sing, pray, give praise.
What is happening during the Liturgy?
It’s important to mention here that the Liturgy has a terrain—with peaks and valleys—while still having wholeness. There are specific moments that have extraordinary significance for a Christian. The 1st, as we’ve already mentioned, is the gathering of the faithful who demonstrate that they are the Church. The 2nd, is that this gathering of faithful listens to God’s Word. I want to stress that we’re living in an age of information where we expect a ceaseless input of news. The Bible readings during Liturgy have a different goal—not new information—but rather a goal of relationship, communication.
When we hear a Gospel story about something that Christ did or said, it’s not that we hear news; instead we recognize God more deeply; we see anew and recognise God acting in our life. I love the expression: hearing the Gospel during Liturgy is our meeting with Christ in His Word.
The 3rd moment is the offering of the Holy Gifts. For many centuries people coming to Liturgy brought prosphora, breads, wine—as gifts that were brought to the altar and consecrated. Unfortunately, this custom is lost and the priest alone prepares the gifts of bread and wine during the Proskomydia, at the beginning of the Liturgy without us seeing it. But we must not lose awareness of this priestly action because the meaning remains: we bring our very selves, and the priest offers our gift to the altar during the Cherubicon and to be consecrated and transformed during the Anaphora (Take; Eat . . . )
But what does it mean to “bring ourself”?
We bring ourselves symbolically—we are the gift that we bring to God during the Liturgy. This means that we trust God with the things that are beyond our control, whatever challenges, problems, hardships, and so invite Him into all the various dimensions of our life. This means that we surrender our struggle to control everything and say: “God, you may see things differently. I open my heart to you”. When these gifts are consecrated, transformed, and we receive them as the Body and Blood of Christ—we unite with God—in the most real, tangible way possible; the food is digested and becomes part of us.
After communion comes the last of the extraordinarily significant moments of the Liturgy: the priest’s exhortation that we “go in peace”. It means we are going back into the world. And for Christians who don’t understand the Liturgy and what it gives us this is the crash. Many think: “Something sublime and important happened at church, but now we leave this place to return to our hard, messy, sinful life”. But the Liturgy exists so that gradually our lives can change, so that we can be changed, so that we can fill ourselves with God’s grace and strength and return to the world transfigured—bringing what we have just experienced, bringing light into the world.
But are some sections of the Liturgy more important than others?
No. Absolutely not. I’m not a fan of the (sadly) popular approach of dividing the Liturgy into more or less important segments. Because the Liturgy is a totality in itself and every separate section makes sense only in relation to the whole. If you fragment the unity then everything falls apart, shatters, and we cannot understand what is there. The Gospel reading, the offering of the gifts, the eucharist, the dismissal, as much as the singing, the incensing of the priest—everything—is absolutely essential.
And for that matter, that we celebrate the Liturgy . . .
. . . Supposed to be celebrating . . .
Well, exactly! For some reason we don’t often feel much joy at Liturgy; I say that from my own experience. Why is it so?
A friend of mine said it like this: Currently everyone is on the liturgical revival bandwagon, but what we need more than anything is a revival of our own being. The critical thing, don’t you agree, is what drives a person’s actions—whatever it is that we do. It’s the same with Liturgy. It’s one thing to treat the Liturgy as a performance we attend, and another to treat it as a time to seek God. But it’s completely different to recognize that the Liturgy is an essential, life-giving gift.
Sometimes a person expects the Liturgy to be entertaining. It’s not for that. When we are conscious of the meaning of the Liturgy, than we have other expectations. We know we’ve come firstly to experience God’s grace. All the external issues—how to stand, what to do with our hands, when to kneel or not—all perpetual debates—these are secondary. The fundamental etiquette in church is this—be yourself, understand that you are there as a loved and valued person, invited to experience God’s love and action within you.
People often complain that they don’t understand what is going on during the Service . . .
Here are two suggestions: 1. During the Liturgy follow along in the prayer books, either in Ukrainian or English. 2. Find someone who can explain the text, because it was written a long time ago and so has archaic terms and unfamiliar phrases. But I’m convinced that these prayers are actually very current today. Their genius lies in that despite being ancient, they continue to appeal to human emotions and resonate with us. For example, during the Divine Liturgy the priest says: “We hand over our life and hope to you, Lord Lover-of-humanity”. This phrase is brimming with significance! “We hand over” –we bring not only ourselves to God but also our hope; that is, everything that is and will be—the greatest expression of loyalty a person can have to God.
Also we have to take into consideration and cope with the basic factor of individual personalities: does the priest give good welcoming homilies? How pleasant is it to listen to him or the cantor? During Liturgies we are affected by real people.
You say that someone is to explain the text of the prayer book. Who?
Theologians, priests, the liturgical commission, that does this, but I know it’s not enough. I have the impression that Christians, youth and adults alike, would like things explained from the very beginning. Yet we, experts in theology, believe that there are fundamental things known to every Christian, and we have only to explain the odd important nuance. But experience shows that you cannot go wrong when explaining from the simplest to the most complicated points; we’ll always glean some new bit of knowledge.
It’s also extremely important for us, theologians, to be asked questions. Because, let’s say, the need to explain the Liturgy is obvious. But it would be so helpful to us if people asked us concrete questions about what is unclear to them. Because we just see things from our perspective.
What if at Liturgy there are 200 – 300 strangers around me . . . how am I supposed to celebrate?
One might disagree, but I say that at Liturgy it makes no difference if people know each other or have anything in common. Because the fact that they are present for the Divine Liturgy forms the link between them; this is what we have in common. We may not recognize this because we usually emphasize psychological aspects of relationships. On order to relate to someone, to show love, kindness, I need to know that person pretty well. Certainly. But the Liturgy leads us to a higher level of awareness of what it is to be human, and what it means to relate to each other. We are united by the ineluctable fact of our humanness, our baptism, our being loved by God. The Liturgy manifests us, who have gathered for it, as a community of God. The “kiss of peace” during Liturgy—whether it be a handshake or embrace—is a symbol of how, just as God loves every one of us, we too are to love each other, regardless of whether we know each other or not. Hence, Christian love refers to something deeper than the popular notion of love.
I know that I’m speaking a bit mystically, but it’s impossible to avoid this when describing the Liturgy, because it is a view not from this world. The Liturgy arises from the words of Christ: “The Kingdom of God is among us.” Yet who of us can say what the Kingdom of God is actually? It cannot possibly be explained in sociological, economic, or psychological categories. And the Liturgy—this is our participation in what we ultimately do not understand. This we also must understand (he laughs). Not all can be explained . . .
Is it mandatory for a Christian to receive the Eucharist?
In the same way that it is to attend the Divine Liturgy.
The Liturgy is a unity. The Gospel reading, the offering, the eucharist, the dismissal, just as our singing and the incensing of the priest—are all equally important.
But you said that Liturgy is not an obligation . . .
Exactly. Neither Eucharist nor Liturgy are obligatory. The Eucharist is a way of life: I live in Christ and with Christ and so I receive his body and blood. In this way that is absolutely unfathomable to human understanding I unite myself to Christ, who leads me to God. If we want to live fully, if we want to live the life to which God has invited us, he has provided us the way: the Eucharist. Jesus said that whoever consumes His body and blood with have life within them.
Naturally, the question arises: “How does going to Communion or not influence a person’s life?” or “How is it that some people who constantly receive the Eucharist can be much worse individuals than others who have never once had the sacrament?” This touches on the question of how to live authentically as a Christian. The influence of the Eucharist in this case is a topic for its own separate discussion.
Sometimes people say their own prayers during Liturgy . . .
These people aren’t feeling their role in the community event that is Liturgy. They simply have not grasped what is taking place at the Liturgy and naturally they would want to spend that time doing something that is spiritually engaging. . .
What is the meaning of other Services in our Church, besides the Divine Liturgy?
In our rite we have a great number and variety of services with fascinating music and texts. Each one, I must emphasize, has its own worth. Too often we make the mistake of measuring other liturgies as “less than” the Divine Liturgy. This is totally incorrect. Each liturgy is a glorification of God. We sing various biblical texts, hymns, chants, thus achieving the pinnacle of human ability—the celebration of God. Paradoxically, engaging in these liturgies helps us to recognize and value the gift we receive in the Divine Liturgy.
But what does this mean: to praise God?
Christianity is not a religion. Maybe it’s so when we look at a map of world religions; yes, that is one of them. But for us Christians—it is far more than a religion—because the initiator of the Christian relationship is God, rather than the person. God speaks to Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and then reveals Himself through His son. He is the one to disclose Himself. He is the one who found us, who contacted us. Praising God—this is our response to Him.
God’s search for us cannot be left without a response. We can reject Him, ignore Him. But we praise God because we recognize that He has reached out to us and we have met Him. This brings great wonder, great joy. The heathen principle was to chant and sing hymns in honour of the gods in order to placate them, to sway their sympathy towards humankind. The Christian praise of God has a radically different ethos. Our praise springs from gladness for God’s generosity and constant grace bestowed on us. And in praising God we enrich ourselves. Thus, praising God is for our benefit and not for the benefit of God.