by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)
Orthodox Divine Services are an enormous treasure, one which we must carefully keep. Whether in the Liturgy, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, Midnight Office, or Compline, from the very opening exclamation we immerse ourselves into our element, into prayer, that nothing is capable of interrupting. One after another, psalms, litanies, sticherae, troparia, prayers and exclamations by the priest: the entire service moves like a single, constant, unfolding mystery, breathing as one, everything in one rhythm, nothing distracting from prayer.
Byzantine liturgical texts, filled with the most profound theological and mystical content, alternate with the prayerful singing of the Psalms, whose every word finds a response in the heart of one who is praying. Even those elements of the “choreography” characteristic to Orthodox Divine Services—solemn entrances and exits, prostrations, and censings—are not intended to distract the attention of the faithful, but rather, to pre-dispose them toward prayer, to attract them into that Service in which, according to the teachings of the Church, not only the Earthly Church, but also the Church in Heaven, not only people, but also the Angels, are taking part.
For Orthodox Christians, the texts of the Divine Services are of indisputable theological and educational authority. In dogmatic irreproachability, they come right after the Sacred Scriptures.
I would propose that, as the texts of the Divine Services are not merely compositions of accomplished theologians and poets, but rather, part of the experience in prayer of those who have attained sanctity and theosis, they occupy a loftier position in theological authority than do the works of the Fathers of the Church. Not everything in the works of the Fathers is of equal value, and not everything in those works received the recognition of the entire Church.
To the contrary, the texts of the Divine Services are recognized by the entire Church as “rules of faith,” for over the course of many centuries they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches: anything erroneous and alien that could have crept into them through misunderstanding or carelessness was filtered out by Church Tradition. What remained was pure, irreproachable theology, vested in the poetic forms of liturgical hymns.
For Orthodox Christians, the texts of Divine Services are of exceptional significance. Thanks to them, participation in Orthodox Divine Services becomes not merely a school of prayer, but a school of theology, of raising the mind toward contemplation of God, and of abiding under the authority of God.