The Five Senses in Worship

Light

Orthodox Christianity is unique in many ways, especially to someone who has never experienced this ancient faith. One of the things that makes us unique is the way in which we worship. How one worships is usually rarely considered or is even deemed unimportant in many faiths, but in the Orthodox Church, the way in which the people worship is very important and can be seemed as a little different to the untrained eye. We are different because we employ all five senses in almost every service, and this idea of worshiping with all our senses has been around since the beginning of the Orthodox Church almost 2,000 years ago and its practices were fine-tuned with the completion of the Bible.

As Orthodox Christians, we believe that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” – Mark 12:30, and our services engage us very effectively so that our whole heart, soul, and mind are focused on God. Let’s look at some of the ways our five senses are utilized during worship.

Sight

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” – Matthew 6:22

Like much of what Christ said, the above statement has a deeper meaning than just the topic of eyesight. It is referring to sinning with your eyes and being careful of what you allow yourself to see. In an Orthodox church, our eyes are bombarded with stimuli: vestments, decorative furnishings, and especially icons. Icons are not simply pretty pictures, but they call to mind the individuals or events that they represent and remind us that these people are worshipping with us, and ultimately direct our thoughts to God.

Also, the entire Liturgy itself if a symbolic representation of the life of Christ. So, when we see the different parts of the Liturgy taking place, these are visual cues to remind us of what Christ did on Earth, as well as what He is doing for us now.

Sound

Christ used this several times:

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

The most important thing we hear during an Orthodox Liturgy is the Gospel, or the word of God. Jesus Christ is the son and word of God. God became man so He could be amongst us and teach us Himself. This reflects a very powerful way in which we are to understand God. This is a point in our worship where we are given a clear chance to love God with all our mind. As the priest instructs us, “Wisdom! Arise! Let us hear the Holy Gospel!”

Another way in which we use our sense of sound is during any service. Nearly the entire Liturgy, and any service, is chanted. The hymns of our worship are to our ears what the icons are to our eyes. They fill our mind and our heart with praise of God and remembrance of His works. They reinforce our theology and convey our doxology. We as congregation members are encouraged to chant the hymns in order to imitate the Angels who ceaselessly sing hymns to God. This can be seen in the Cherubic him, “We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn to the life-giving Trinity…”

Smell

A common practice in the Orthodox Church is the use of incense, which has been used in worship for ages. When we smell the incense in our services, we are reminded that like smoke, our prayers rise to God and are hopefully pleasing to him like the fragrance of the incense. As we chant during our Vespers service and Presanctified Liturgy, “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before You.”

During Easter, or Pascha as we call it, we smell the burning wick and wax of candles or the burning olive oil of a vigil lamp. This reminds us of the light that these produce and why we light them as symbols of our faith.

Taste

When we hear the priest repeat Christ’s commandments during an Orthodox Liturgy: “Take, eat. This is My Body, which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins,” and “Drink of this, all of you. This is My Blood of the New Covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins,” our heart and our mind is focused receiving Holy Communion. When we receive Holy Communion, our mouth is the gateway to the rest of our being. As soon as we taste this gift, our entire body and soul are saturated with Christ Himself. Just like the Apostles who saw Christ give them bread to eat, we as Orthodox Christians are also partaking in the Mystical Supper (Last Supper) as the Apostles did and we are experiencing God in a very unique way.

Touch

In Orthodox worship, our sense of touch is constantly engaged. More broadly, “touch can be expanded to mean any physical activity. We venerate icons, are sprinkled with Holy Water during Theophany (Epiphany), given palm crosses on Palm Sunday, carry crosses and fans in processions, we kneel, make prostrations, make the sign of the Cross (right to left), and are anointed with blessed oil. Our sense of touch is more subtly engaged when we recall the Passion of our Lord and how He suffered bodily and died nailed to the cross for our sins, and when we recall the fate of the many martyrs of our faith. As one Orthodox hymn states, “I suffer for Thy sake that I may reign with Thee; for Thy sake I die that I may live in Thee.”

As you can see, worship in the Orthodox Church is engaging on all levels of our being, not only spiritually or mentally, but physically as well. This is an important aspect of our worship because it is oftentimes the first one most people will forget about. It should be a reminder to us about what Christ said about our eye being the lamp of our body. If we allow our sight, or any of our senses, to be used in ungodly ways, then our spiritual health can begin to deteriorate. We as Orthodox Christians believe that our senses are the doorway between what is inside of us and what is outside of us, and it is up to us what we let through the door.

By: Penelope Antonopoulos

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