The Old Testament in Orthodox Worship

Pambo, our holy father, being an illiterate man, went to one of the fathers who knew letters for the purpose of being taught a psalm. And, having heard the first verse of the thirty-eighth psalm, "I will take heed to my ways lest I sin with my tongue," he departed without staying to hear the second verse, saying, "this one will suffice if I can learn it in deed." And when the father who had given him the verse reproved him because he had not seen him for the space of six months, the blessed one answered that he had not yet learned in deed the verse of the psalm. After a considerable lapse of time, being asked by one of his friends whether he had made himself master of the verse, he answered thus, 'In all of nineteen years, I have only just succeeded in accomplishing it" (from the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus).

 As in the story above, one of the first places to begin in speaking about the influence of the Old Testament in Orthodox worship is with the Psalms. Anyone who attends Vespers, Matins, one of the hours, or hears the Antiphons sung at the Liturgy or the Prokeimenon or the Communion Hymn, is aware that the Orthodox Church makes extensive use of the Psalter in Her worship.

This tremendous influence of the Book of Psalms in Orthodox worship was already noted by St. John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century:

 If we keep vigil in church, David comes first, last, and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last, and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if the virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last, and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last, and central. In the convents of virgins, where there are the communities of those who imitate Mary, in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last, and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep; David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

 The Church, long after its definitive separation from Judaism towards the end of the first century, did not abandon the Old Testament nor replace it with the New. Rather, the Church continued the use of the Old Testament on two levels. The first level was a carry over from the Hebrew synagogue. The Gospels all tell us that it was the habit of Jesus to attend the synagogue service on the Sabbath:

And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and He went to the synagogue as was His custom, on the Sabbath day. And He stood up to read.... (St. Luke 4:16).

In the Gospel we find Jesus and the disciples making attendance in the synagogue and participation in its services a priority.

Originally, the purpose of the synagogue service may have been to allow those who lived far from Jerusalem to join their prayer with the prayer offered up in the Temple. It has been theorized that the synagogue's origin can be traced back to the grouping of the priests and Levites into twenty-four courses or sections. Each section took a two-week turn at officiating in the Temple. The worship of the synagogue may have begun as a way of continuing their prayer throughout the year. We see some evidence of this in the narrative of St. Luke regarding the birth of St. John the Baptist. It was in the Temple, St. Luke tells us, during the course of his service, that Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies to burn incense and encountered the Angel Gabriel.

After the Resurrection of our Lord, the Apostles did not abandon either the Temple worship or their participation in the Synagogue. The first "church" in Jerusalem may have been seen by other Jews as another "synagogue," the followers of Christ gathered for prayer. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the believers did hold their own worship apart from that of the Temple and the synagogues, both of which they still attended.

Acts 2:46 tells us of the first believers' lifestyle: "day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts...."

Acts 3:1 tells of how Peter and John encountered a crippled man as they were going up to the Temple at the "hour of prayer, the ninth hour," the time of the offering of the incense.

It was in the synagogues of Damascus that the Apostle Paul began his career preaching the crucified and risen Christ and it was in the synagogues of Asia, Greece and Rome that he found so many who were willing to "repent and believe the Gospel."

On the first level, then, the Church continued to practice the forms of prayer that the Lord and the Apostles themselves practiced and were familiar with as Jews. Indeed, the Apostle Paul tells the Church at Ephesus: "Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves in Psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs; singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:18, 19).

The Psalms referred to by the Apostle Paul in this passage, according to Dr. Egon Wellecz, a recognized authority on Byzantine Hymnography, are the Psalms of the Hebrew synagogue.

The Apostle Paul, in his famous passage on the Resurrection of the dead in I Corinthians 15, may be making reference to a petition from the Shemonah Esreh, the Eighteen Benedictions - a litany used in the Synagogue Service:

 You are powerful; You humble the proud; You are strong; You judge the tyrants; You live eternally; You give life to the dead; in the twinkling of an eye You make salvation send forth its shoots. Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives life to the dead (2nd Benediction). 

 We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet... (I Corinthians 15:51, 52).

It was these practices that fostered the influence of the Old Testament in the worship of the Church.  We cannot speak of the Old Testament without reference to the Hebrews, whose book it was. We remember many of them as Saints in the Church: Abraham, Joachim and Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth, St. Symeon the Translator, to mention a few. It would be like speaking about the New Testament without making a reference to the Orthodox Church, whose book it is. The Orthodox Church has never seen a "break" between the two Testaments, but rather, a seamless continuity, just as there is a great deal of continuity between the worship of Israel and the Church. They are joined as one in the one Lord Jesus Christ. 

It is in Jesus Christ that the forms of the synagogue were transfigured. As we stand in any Orthodox Church we see the Eternal Light, the people standing at prayer, the singing of the Psalms, the vigil for Sundays and Feast days beginning at sundown (just as the Jews still practice today), Vespers, Matins and the other hours of prayer - all of these cherished elements of our Orthodox Tradition are aspects of the Jewish home and synagogue that our Lord Himself knew and observed during His earthly life.

Apart from this practical inheritance from the synagogue worship, the Old Testament has influenced the worship of the Church in a way that is as equally profound. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:

 "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work"(II Timothy 3:16).

 From the time of the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church have discovered in the Old Testament a treasure of inspiration for prayer and liturgical worship. The Old Testament was for them the essence of those things that were hoped for in Christ Jesus and the conviction of those things that were not seen, except through faith in Him.

Through their inspired creativity in liturgical poetry and services, the Old Testament continues to be heard in the Church.

- Fr. Lawrence Barriger