Our Divine Liturgy here at my parish of St. Herman’s does not actually occur in Langley, B.C.—nor, if it comes to that, does the Eucharist you attend occur in the city in which you live. Rather, both of our Liturgies take place in the same place—in heaven. Our bodies may be standing on earth on some terrestrial piece of prime real estate on Sunday morning, but the worship there still occurs not on earth but with Christ in heaven. When the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews said, We have an altar (Hebrews 13:10), he was not talking about the table at which the first-century celebrant stood. He was talking about the heavenly and ideal altar before the throne in heaven. One can read all about it in the previous chapters of his letter: Christ the great high-priest entered into the Holy Place in heaven through His own blood, appearing there in the presence of God on our behalf (Hebrews 9:11-12, 24). It is before that throne that we appear on Sunday when we draw near to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
St. Paul said the same thing. God blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, and that is where we go to receive those blessings, for God raised us up with Christ made us sit with Him (literally, “co-sit with Him”, Greek sugkathizo) in the heavenlies (Ephesians 1:1, 2:6). It is also what your priest says every Sunday. Before he begins the anaphora, he bids you “Lift up your hearts!”, and you respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord!” When he says, “Lift up your hearts”, he is not simply telling you to cheer up; he is telling you to ascend to heaven where the Lord is. As Father Alexander Schmemann reminded us in his book For the Life of the World, Orthodox worship takes place in the key of ascent, not descent. We do not ask for God’s grace to descend and come down upon us so much as we ask for that grace to help us ascend and to lift us up to Him.
Given that our worship takes place in heaven it is not surprising to see so many icons on the walls around us, nor that we ask for the prayers of the Mother of God and the saints and angels. Since we have ascended to heaven, we find ourselves invisibly surrounded by the saints who also stand with us in heaven’s court. With what else should be adorn our church walls and icon corners but their images? These images remind us of where we are. And how could we not ask for their prayers and intercessions, since we stand alongside them?
Realizing that our worship finds its true locus in heaven—both our corporate Eucharists on Sunday and our private prayers during the weekdays—should be a tremendous encouragement to us. We might imagine that our little mission choir or aged cantor, perhaps singing a bit off-key, are on their own. We might imagine that when we say our personal prayers while standing tired and distracted before our home icon corner, we also stand alone. When the only voices we hear are ours and the few standing around us, we can sometimes feel like lonely soldiers, cut off from the rest of our battalion, struggling on our own, and might suppose that we are praying in isolation. It is not so. All of our prayers as Christians are offered in heaven, where we stand amidst a great and numberless throng. We never pray alone, but as a part of that vast Body of Christ. From that heavenly throng comes a great swelling chorus of praise, a thundering symphony, and we are called to add our few little notes to it. We might think that if we skip our prayers our little contribution will not be missed. This also is not so. The One who hears the sparrow when it falls also hears whatever comes from our lips as well. He listens to that chorus to hear our voice as well. Let us not tire and faint and skip our prayers, thinking that we pray on our own and that no one will know or care if we stop praying. We are part of a mighty choir in heaven, and our notes are needed.