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The liturgy is not just what happens in church, declares Adrian Leak

26 July 2013

Greek tradition: the village church at Anos Volos, Pelion, in Greece; the city of Volos in the background

Greek tradition: the village church at Anos Volos, Pelion, in Greece; the city of Volos in the background

Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of hosts,
heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord most high.

from Common Worship Holy Communion: Order One (Traditional)

AN ENGLISHMAN on holiday in Greece decided to attend the liturgy at the local village church. The tiny building was packed with a crowd of worshippers, who came and went as they pleased, lighting candles before the icons, crossing themselves, and murmuring their private devotions.

Against this background of continuous disturbance, the liturgy unfolded her mystery - slowly, solemnly, magnificently.

Suddenly, the Englishman felt someone pulling his sleeve. He turned to find a man holding a basket. Would he like to buy some onions? No, no, thank you. Why not? Was there anything wrong with the onions - perhaps they were bad onions? No, no, they were excellent onions, but not now - perhaps after the liturgy.

"After the liturgy?" the Greek replied. "After the liturgy? But the liturgy" - and his look embraced the whole scene: the priest, the candles, the vestments, the incense, the music, and the murmuring congregation - "the liturgy is eternal."

At the eucharist, we sing the words that since earliest times have introduced Christians to the central mystery of worship - what the onion-seller understood as the eternal liturgy:

Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying, Holy, holy, holy . . .

The praise which we give, we do not initiate. Before we enter church, the cherubim and burning seraphim, those great sentinels of heaven, are already singing alleluias. That is the sound that Isaiah heard when he saw "the Lord, high and lifted up" in the Temple (Isaiah 6).

John, too, heard it in his vision of heaven (Revelation 7). It has reverberated down the centuries in both Jewish, and, later, Christian worship in Temple, synagogue, cathedral, church, and chapel.

It began before the introit, and it continues after we return home to prepare the vegetables, or read the papers, or wash the car.

After the service, the congregation chats. In Greece, the young men light their pungent cigarettes. The onion-seller persists. A continent away, outside a village church in Sussex, they talk about the weather, and the fête next week, as the sidesmen count the collection and the churchwarden puts away the sacred vessels.

We measure out our daily lives. Breakfast, lunch, tea, supper. Today, the golf course; tomorrow, the office; one day, the hospital. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. The planet turns - to some, a world laid waste by sinful humankind; to others, a land of delight and God's redeeming.

Yet always, beneath the surface restlessness of our daily lives, the getting and the spending, the arrivals and departures, there lies that other continuum of being where the eternal liturgy unfolds her mystery, slowly, solemnly, and magnificently; and the angels sing "Holy, holy, holy."

The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement, Priest-in-Charge of Withyham in the diocese of Chichester.

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