[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”1612611648″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51tPOUIerML.jpg” width=”237″ alt=”Vassilios Papavassiliou”]Enriching Our Modern Faith
A Brief Review of
Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2012.
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Reviewed by Amy Gentile.
Fr. Vassilios’ Journey to the Kingdom is a helpful introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy. It takes readers through the Divine Liturgy (Sunday service), explaining the meaning of the different elements of the service as well as some distinctive Eastern Orthodox beliefs. This book would be helpful both to those new to Orthodoxy as well as converts and “cradle” Orthodox who would like to learn more about their own Liturgy. As a former Protestant who converted to the Orthodox faith in my mid-twenties, I especially appreciated this balance.
Fr. Vassilios begins the book with a general invitation to “Come and See,” a phrase I’ve often heard repeated by my Orthodox friends, and that is exactly what this book does. His choice to introduce Orthodox beliefs by describing its Liturgy is apt. You can’t really learn about Orthodoxy apart from its worship—while the theology on its own is beautiful, it is perceived much more naturally through the rhythms and patterns of the weekly Liturgy as well as the special fasting and feasting periods throughout the year. Fr. Vassilios describes all these things clearly and beautifully. More importantly, however, he details their meaning, putting the different acts within their historical and theological context.
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As Fr. Vassilios explains, the Orthodox Liturgy can be divided into two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Holy Gifts, sometimes called the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Faithful, respectively. The first few chapters cover the shorter Liturgy of the Word, which is primarily focused upon the Epistle and Gospel readings. Fr. Vassilios explains the theology contained in the short hymns and the prayers surrounding the readings. In earlier times, though this is not common practice today, catechumens and other non-Orthodox would be dismissed after the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, as they would not be allowed to participate in the Eucharist. Fr. Vassilios takes another chapter to explain the historical role of catechumens in the church, noting the importance of all Orthodox hearing the Scriptural readings and continually being instructed in the Orthodox faith.
The rest of the book describes the Liturgy of the Holy Gifts, paying special attention to the theology of the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The focus of this part of the service is on the Eucharist, and Fr. Vassilios explains in great detail how the confession of faith in the creed and the prayers of repentance prepare the people for receiving it. After working his way to through the rest of the Liturgy, he ends the book with a reflection on how this “Journey to the Kingdom” is similar to the journey of the two disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Fr. Vassilios explains the evangelistic imperative that follows such an encounter, “This is the journey we take at every Divine Liturgy. We have heard God’s word and we have seen Christ in the breaking of bread. What comes next? In the story of the road to Emmaus, after the disciples realize that they have seen Christ, they hurry back to Jerusalem to look for the Apostles to tell them. Having seen the risen Christ, their immediate reaction is to share their joy.” He exhorts readers to remember the journey that they’ve been on through the Liturgy. In Orthodox belief, something real happens in Liturgy: it is where earth and heaven meet, where the Kingdom is real and present. After such an encounter, we should be changed. While Fr. Vassilios is speaking specifically of the Orthodox Liturgy here, that imperative is a helpful one for all of us to remember.
While this book masterfully explains everything with careful thought and attention to detail, sometimes the amount of information can seem overwhelming. Sometimes there are little theological tangents between the different parts of the Liturgy. These happen both in the main text itself as well as in little boxed off comments connected to the relevant text with dotted arrows. While these tangents give helpful background information—especially for non-Orthodox—they also disturb the flow of the book and can be distracting to the reader. The place where this is most problematic is in the section describing the Nicene Creed. Fr. Vassilios goes through the creed in great detail, describing how each phrase connects to Orthodox theology. The Nicene Creed takes only a minute or two to recite within an approximately hour-and-a-half long Liturgy, yet it dominates almost a quarter of the book.
Yet, despite this criticism, it’s hard to imagine the book without these chapters. While they seem to break up the flow of the narrative, it is here that Fr. Vassilios explains some helpful distinctives of the Orthodox faith. While the Nicene Creed is certainly not exclusive to Orthodoxy, Fr. Vassilios uses the creed to explain Orthodox beliefs about unification with Christ (called theosis, though Fr. Vassilios does not specifically use this term), the role of Tradition, the Church, the sacrament of Baptism, and the primacy of the Resurrection; just a few places where Orthodox beliefs slightly diverge from Protestant or (to a lesser extent) Catholic ones. The differences aren’t always as clearly parsed as they could be, but it is helpful information nonetheless.
Vassilios Papavassiliou’s Journey to the Kingdom is a thoughtful book that acts as a good introduction to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Hopefully, the book will encourage readers to learn more about the beliefs and practices of Orthodoxy (perhaps even to visit a service), and to learn more about their own Christian traditions. There is much that our traditions have in common, and studying the diverse practices and theology of Christianity throughout the ages can enrich our own modern faith.