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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
- Fr. Lawrence Barriger