When East meets West, liturgy isn’t generally the sticking point. The errors of the West have by and large not affected the liturgical and devotional practices which have grown out of that tradition. The Orthodox hierarchs, saints, and martyrs who supported the restoration of the Western Rite to the Orthodox Church recognized this fact and encouraged the reception of contiguous Western liturgical practice up until the time the West made an obvious and radical shift away from its own tradition, which was actually quite late.
Those who are willing to dig a bit deeper find that although devotional rites may have developed after the gradual loss of universal communion, these practices are not un-Orthodox by virtue of developing when they did; rather, they are rooted in the Orthodox Western liturgies and embody and express the Orthodox Faith in a way appropriate to their own historical roots. These devotions are “logically derived” from their source; they are organic outgrowths that are true to the root.
It is the uniquely Western devotion of Benediction/Adoration that perhaps best enables us to see how a practice can be deeply Orthodox even though it is not Eastern. Unfortunately, Adoration is also often misunderstood and disparaged by Eastern Orthodox Christians.
And yet Adoration is perhaps the Western devotion that most perfectly embodies and expresses the essence of our Orthodox Life. In this article, I offer some reflections on the import and beauty of Adoration and then follow up by addressing four popular objections to the devotion.
BENEDICTION-ADORATION: A PRIMER
Amidst ceremony, the Blessed Sacrament is retrieved from the tabernacle and placed in a monstrance, which is set on a tabor (throne) that sits on the altar. The Sacrament is thus publicly exposed before the faithful; this element of the devotion, known as the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, is accompanied by incense and the singing of a hymn. The faithful may then adore Christ in the Sacrament; this is what is properly understood as Adoration, which may only last a few minutes. Alternatively, Adoration may extend for hours and even days, in which case the faithful may come and go.
Finally, the celebrant takes up the monstrance and blesses the faithful with the Sacrament; this element of the devotion, known as Benediction, also includes incense and the ringing of bells. The divine praises are said and the celebrant returns the Sacrament to its resting place in the tabernacle followed by a concluding antiphon and psalm or hymn.
I have outlined a basic Benediction service; numerous variations exist on this theme, especially in the period between the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the final Benediction. In my comments on this devotion, I will primarily use the term Adoration to refer to the whole.
THE BLESSED SACRAMENT, ADORED EAST AND WEST
In the Eucharistic Liturgy of both East and West, the Sacred Mysteries are elevated and adored before (and after) being received by the faithful. Indeed, even before the gifts have been consecrated–while they are yet bread and wine–both Eastern and Western liturgies revere them. In the East, the unconsecrated gifts are solemnly processed through the Church; in the West, the gifts are elevated in the offertory and referred to in the prayers as “holy spotless sacrifices” before they are yet such.
These elevations and the worshipful response of the faithful are direct expressions of our belief that the Sacred Mysteries truly are the Body and Blood of our Lord. So the Western devotion of Adoration is merely an extension of the elevation and adoration of the Sacred Mysteries central to both Eastern and Western Liturgies: it is simply a prolonged opportunity for adoration and encounter. And it is perfectly natural for the faithful to desire more time to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; in this way, they have time for quiet, focused reflection.
WHY THIS DEVOTION?
We do not find it strange when someone comes to the Church outside of liturgy to light a candle and pray before the holy icons and relics. Why take the trouble to come to the Church? What makes being in the Church special? Yes, that sacred space is redolent with the residual fragrance of incense and past prayers. Yes, we treasure the icons, relics, and the fragrance of prayer. But it is the presence of the Lord Himself in the Blessed Sacrament that supremely sanctifies this holy space and makes it a desirable place to be. It is Christ Himself in our midst who is the object of our worship and desire.
Adoration opens up a space in our temporal life to slow down. To offer adoration and worship to Christ in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. To encounter and contemplate the great mystery of the Word made flesh and His supreme sacrifice on the cross. To meditate on the ultimate telos of man: his deification. Adoration is not unlike praying with icons-it’s just more direct and unmediated.*
When we regularly and attentively attend Adoration, we eventually apprehend a profound truth. We begin this devotion understanding that we have turned our eyes toward the Lord and only later realize that His gaze has been upon us. To catch the eye of God turned toward us leaves us in trembling wonder and asking with the Psalmist, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”
Adoration enables a sustained, lingering, contemplative encounter with Christ. In His presence a desire wells up in us: the desire to offer ourselves to Him. And what is the source of this desire? We come to realize that He has first offered Himself to us upon the altar of the cross. As we gaze on Him, we come to know that we were first in His eye, and we are His delight. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. We may intellectually ascent to this idea, of course, but Adoration convinces our hearts. Adoration requires us to slow down, get out of our heads, and simply be in the presence of Christ.
FROM ADORATION TO COMMUNION
Let us be clear: Christ is not more present to us when the Blessed Sacrament is visibly present in the monstrance. Rather, we become more present to Him through the adoring gaze of our hearts with which we look on Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Adoration give us the opportunity to contemplate more deeply and open ourselves more fully to the Divine Eucharistic mystery.
Adoration is an act of submission, and submission, when prompted by adoration, is the expression of love by which we enter into union with God. Adoration is a suitable and descriptive name for this most mystical of devotions because it fosters our union with God through the sacrificial gift of self.
Of course Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament does not take the place of communion but helps us to connect more deeply with the Eucharistic Mystery. Whether it comes before and prepares the heart or comes after and fulfils our gratitude. We do not consume without adoring. In the words of Saint Augustine, “No one eats that flesh unless he adores it.”
As we gaze on and adore Christ we become aware that the infinitely more important thing going on is His desire for and delight in us. We awaken to the reason for our existence: the Triune God created us that He might share Himself with us and catch us up into His divine community. Before we loved Him He first loved us. This awareness prompts submission, adoration, desire, and worship in us. And in the presence of His Eucharistic Body we know the Word made flesh, His sacrifice on the cross, and His desire for man’s deification. This understanding simply and organically grows in the Faithful attentive to Adoration.
ABIDING IN CHRIST, OUR FRIEND
Adoration teaches us to abide in Christ because it provides us with time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament during which we are “not doing anything.” As we abide in His presence we come to realize that though He has returned to the Father, he has not left us as orphans: not only has He sent the Spirit but He continues to abide with us through his Eucharistic Body.
And why is it important that He remain with us? We are no longer slaves–Christ has called us friends. Some may hesitate to speak of our friendship with Christ for fear of bringing Him down to our level. And yet He has called us friends, which expresses not just his consubstantial union with us in our humanity but also his genuine affection for us. He gave himself for us out of friendship, and he remains with us through His Eucharistic body as friend. Those who linger with Him in Adoration cannot help but perceive an echo of the beloved disciple reclining on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper. What an appropriate image for Adoration: the occasion on which Christ offered His disciples–His friends–His Body and Blood.
Our adoration and reception of the Blessed Sacrament is a union of friends that simultaneously makes Christ’s sacrificial death ever-present to us. The Eucharist unites us to His death and becomes our acceptable offering to God. Christ returned to the Father, and yet He remains present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice so that we might always be present at this supreme act of love. The devotion of Adoration helps us imitate St Paul in knowing nothing except Christ and Him crucified. Why? Because it keeps the Crucified Lord ever before us.
Let us briefly consider a few popular objections to the Western devotion of Adoration.
1. Jesus said, “Take and eat,” not “take and parade around with.”
This oft-repeated quip refers to the procession of the Blessed Sacrament that takes place on the Feast of Corpus Christi, which is closely related to the devotion of Benediction-Adoration.
It is especially perplexing that this quip continues to circulate among Orthodox Adoration skeptics because, of course, it sounds as though it was lifted straight out of a Protestant tract touting the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which, as Orthodox Christians, we soundly reject. All Orthodox know that we do many things that are not explicitly commanded in the Scriptures, especially when it comes to liturgical practices. We consider these practices Apostolic and divinely inspired. The particular irony of this objection is that the Sacrament is occasionally paraded around in the Eastern Rite–namely, in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy.
2. The Sacrament is meant to be consumed – not looked at.
Actually, the Sacrament is not to be consumed without being looked at. The Sacrament is to be consumed and looked at; these are not mutually exclusive ideas. Examining the Scriptures and Orthodox theology to tease out the integral role that vision plays in our union with God is obviously beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that vision is an aspect of union, and it leads to and aids in our union. “When we see Him we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
Another version of this objection is, “Food is meant to be eaten, not looked at.” In fact, most people understand that we first eat with our eyes and then with our mouths. This objection is actually quite un-Orthodox, stripping communion of a layer of beauty by reducing the eating of it to pragmatism. Rather, we behold the beauty of the thing, and then we taste. This principal extends beyond communion to many of life’s experiences.
According to our own mystical theology and praxis, nothing is more natural for an Orthodox Christian than to adore the very Body of Christ. We venerate icons; how can we not adore the Body of Christ?
Adoration is neither fleshly gawking nor intellectual speculation; it is an affront to Gnosticism because it expresses our faith in the incarnate God who is deified Man. This devotion brings us into an encounter with the glorified Christ. Adoration creates an opportunity for the highest form of prayer: being in the presence of God without need for words. Adoration is the prayer of recognition and trembling, the prayer of desire and wordless worship, the prayer of the sacrificial offering of self. In the presence of the Sacrament one becomes cognizant of the sacrificial offering of the crucified Lord and desires to be joined to His sacrifice. Adoration is the perfect opportunity for time and space to collapse and bring us face to face with Jesus, preparing us for repentance and the reception of His Sacred Body and Blood. True Adoration is prayer of the heart.
Benediction did not develop in the East as a particular devotion, and yet it profoundly expresses our Orthodox ethos and vision. Benediction is “Orthodox” in its very essence and effects and can play a role in returning us to prayer of the heart.
3. Benediction removes the Sacrament from the context of the Liturgy.
The perfected Eucharistic life is one in which we close the space between us and the Holy and enter the eternal, immediate presence of God. Ours is to be an eschatological life in which we realize the future eschaton in the present, and this is nowhere more profoundly realized than through the Blessed Sacrament, which is the presence of the Word made flesh, crucified and risen from the dead.
It is true that the Divine Liturgy (or Mass, as it is known in the West) has a beginning and an end, but it is also true that it transcends time and space. The Sacrifice of Christ is perpetually (not again and again, but ever) offered on the Heavenly Altar. It is only our worldliness and lack of spiritual vision that keep us from recognizing this reality. Our life is to be a continuous Eucharistic Sacrifice, despite the liturgical service’s discernable beginning and end. And of course we routinely reverence the Blessed Sacrament outside of Liturgy: we do so every time we pass in front of and reverence the tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament rests.
For those participating in Adoration there is no disconnect between the devotion and reception of the Holy Mysteries. Are we not seated in Heaven with Christ? Are we not ever present at this Heavenly Liturgy? The collapse of time seems so natural to an Orthodox mind, this objection seems to deny the mystical union we have with the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. It is, I think, an abstract and theoretical objection, not an objection from experience–because those who experience Adoration do not in any way disconnect it from the Eucharist just because it may occur a few hours before or after the Liturgy itself.
4. Adoration takes the place of receiving the Sacred Mysteries.
From an empirical point of view, just the opposite has often taken place: in our experience, it was more frequent communion which caused us to desire regular Adoration. And in turn Adoration fostered a deeper desire for Holy Communion. Adoration does not undermine communion; rather, it effects a deeper appreciation of the Eucharistic feast.
This particular objection to Adoration–that it might take the place of Holy Communion–may be based on a misreading of a historical circumstance. The problem of infrequent communion began early in both the East and West, long before Eucharistic Adoration ever developed in the West. In addition, infrequent communion has persisted for centuries (and continues today) in Eastern Orthodoxy, which does not have the devotion. Eucharistic Adoration was certainly not the cause of infrequent communion, nor does it perpetuate the problem. Instead, those who are most likely to participate in Adoration are also those who are most likely to frequently receive Holy Communion.
In fact, one could argue that the perpetuation of the devotion of Adoration during times of infrequent communion was a blessing, in that it kept the Sacrament before the people while they were overcoming their regrettable practice of infrequent communion. In this view Adoration is not the problem but something of a solution. At any rate, the objection that Adoration takes the place of Holy Communion does not reflect reality, which is that Adoration encourages more frequent participation in the Holy Mysteries.
ADORATION: THE TESTIMONY
“Christ held Himself in His hands when He gave His Body to His disciples saying, ‘This is My Body.’ No one partakes of this Flesh before he has adored it.”
– St. Augustine
“Further, that the Body Itself of the Lord and the Blood That are in the Mystery of the Eucharist ought to be honored in the highest manner, and adored with latria [Gk: adoration or worship]. For one is the adoration of the Holy Trinity, and of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Further, that it is a true and propitiatory Sacrifice offered for all Orthodox, living and dead; and for the benefit of all, as is set forth expressly in the prayers of the Mystery delivered to the Church by the Apostles, in accordance with the command they received of the Lord.”
– The Confession of Dositheus 17 (1672)
“When you come forward to receive Holy Communion, do not come with arm extended or fingers parted. Make your left hand a throne for your right, since your right hand is to welcome a King. Cup your palm and receive in it Christ’s body, saying in response, Amen. Then carefully bless your eyes with a touch of the holy Body, and consume it, being careful not to drop a particle of it, for to lose any of it is clearly like losing a part of your own body.”
– St. Cyril of Jerusalem
“This Fountain [of the Holy Eucharist] is a fountain of light, shedding abundant rays of truth. And beside it the angelic powers from on high have taken their stand, gazing on the beauty of its streams, since they perceive more clearly than we the power of what lies before us and its unapproachable dazzling rays. The wise men adored this body when it lay in the manger;…they prostrated themselves before it in fear and trembling…. Now you behold the same body that the wise men adored in the manger, lying upon the altar;…you also know its power. How many of you say: I should like to see His face, His garments, His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him. He gives Himself to you, not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.”
– St. John Chrysostom
“The angels adore not only the divinity of Christ, but also the footstool of His feet…. Or if they deny that in Christ also the mysteries of the incarnation are to be adored, in which the very marks of His deity are seen and where we note the sure paths of the heavenly Logos, they should read that the Apostles also adored Him when He rose in the glory of His flesh (Luke 24:52)…. The prophet says (Ps. 99:5) that the earth which the Lord Jesus took upon himself, when he took on flesh, should be adored. Therefore by ‘footstool’ we understand the earth, and by this earth we understand the flesh, which we today also adore in the mysteries and which the apostles adored in the Lord Jesus, as we have said above.”
– St. Ambrose
“It is our duty to adore the Blessed Sacrament. No one receives the Blessed Sacrament unless he adores it…and not only do we not sin by adoring, we do sin by not adoring. To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances; to seek Him, the greatest adventure; to find Him, the greatest human achievement.”
– St. Augustine