The Problem with History

One of the first times I noticed a problem with history, as generally conceived, occurred during an Orthodox Liturgy (of all places). I been used to serving in an Anglican context (largely modernized liturgy) where the nature of a service is what I describe as “linear.” First one thing happened, then another, almost never two things at once. The bulletin was therefore very useful, for, just as it indicated, first one thing and then another happened.

The first liturgy I participated in as an Othodox Christian, that is with a liturgical role other than as a layman, was the service in which I was ordained to the Holy Diaconate. Indeed, in the course of that service, I was tonsured a reader, a taper-bearer, ordained as a subdeacon, and later as a Deacon. I had a service book in my hand, but I quickly began to notice that the book was only marginally helpful for someone trained in a linear fashion. For an Orthodox liturgy is highly non-linear. Many things happen at once. They are all written in the book, but while you’re looking at what someone else is supposed to be doing or saying, you yourself may very well be required to do something else and say yet another thing. At some points, it will seem like the entire liturgy is like juggling six or seven things. That none of them are dropped is nothing short of amazing. I would like to say that nothing was dropped during that service of my ordination – but that would not be the truth. Newly ordained as I was, I lost my place, almost hopelessly, and was rescued by a very kind Proto-deacon.

It is hard to describe this to someone else unless they are used to team sports, or playing in an orchestra, or have participated in many of the non-linear events available to us. I like jazz (or at least certain forms of it) and have had the pleasure of occasionally playing some with others in a small combo (this is many years ago). The sheer joy when a band is playing and the score, in any strict sense, has been left behind. Everyone is improvising, and yet everything works. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve had the experience. Jazz is very non-linear.

For that matter, the whole universe seems pretty non-linear. At any given moment a billion, billion things are happening (I know the number is bigger but that’s as high as I can count) and more, some of them so mysterious we have no names for them.

This becomes the problem of history – at least for me. It is often told in a linear fashion (“discuss the three main causes of the Civil War,” the history test asked). But such an accounting never really does justice to the truth of any event. Every telling, if it is told truly, has a “multivalent” character – it means more than it says because nothing is every simply linear.

This is true of Scripture as well, I think. A linear (purely literal) reading is too thin, not nearly rich enough to convey the fullness of truth. Thus Scripture rightly has a liturgical context (especially). The story of Jona and the Whale, read on Holy Saturday (as it is in the Orthodox Church) takes on a completely different meaning because it is read in that context. Thus Scripture is never just Scripture (a book to be read), but is a reading to be heard in the context of the worshipping community and in that context far more of its fullness is revealed.

Of far less import is the question of what an author may have meant than “when is the Scripture read in the Church?” “What season?” “What feast?” What else is read and where else might it be read? Are verses of this Scripture also brought into other places of the Liturgy? When and why?

And so go the questions that begin to realize that Scripture is not able to be read in a merely linear fashion, for the “linear” world is purely the product of imagination – a rational construct and not a description of reality.

A page of Scripture may consist of several thousand words. But the words are several thousand feet deep (at least and some have no bottom at all). Thus reading and interpreting are very difficult things indeed – much like knowing the Living God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





11 responses to “The Problem with History”

  1. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Circles enclosing rubrics and words expanding meaning with each repetition are ways that I describe the facets of prayer and Liturgy in Orhtodox worship. The Greek language(s) are geared toward creating historical circles and words in repetition, which characterize the challenge to describe how we pray or why Orhtodox prayer feels different from linear variants of liturgical practices.

    It is evident in more ways than language, too. Repeated actions in the sanctuary seem non-sensical unless one sees them as circling a point of reference for a purpose. Quick as human beings are to forget what took place, repetition confirms that we really did see and hear and smell and taste and touch the goodness of God.

  2. Fr John Bostwick Avatar
    Fr John Bostwick

    This is very helpful, Father. You identify fairly clearly what I’ve experienced with Orthodox worship but never had words for. Your observation about Scripture in its liturgical context is spot on, too. While I read you blog regularly, I rarely comment, but this was so immediately useful, I had to say something. Thanks for your very fine reflections.

  3. Mary Bethany Avatar
    Mary Bethany

    Yes. Besides my daughter who lives far away, I am the only Orthodox in my family, and a poor example at that, but what you have described is exactly what I experience in the liturgy. Far from “vain repitition” it is emphasis, patient reminding, until even my dull soul begins to see the Glory of the Lord.

  4. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Thank you, Mary Bethany. The Great Litany, and variants there from, returned to mind as I read your faithful reflection. “Again and again let us pray to the Lord…Kyrie eleison.”

  5. Fr. Benedict Avatar
    Fr. Benedict

    It’s interesting that the “non-linear” character of the Liturgy could be said to reflect the “non-linear” character of the cosmos itself, as well as of the multi-layered worship of heaven.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I could not help but repeat some of this post during my homily this morning for the feast of the Akathist. I think only in Orthodoxy would you have a feast for a hymn. But the Akathist itself is an expansion of Scripture, a reaching into the depths. Indeed the whole Tradition found in liturgical texts, canons, etc., are more expansion as the Church reaches deeper and deeper into the Word of God and His revelation to us and in us. All of it becomes richer and richer in word, in picture, in ritual, in song, deeper and deeper into the unreachable depths of God’s Kingdom. I do not mind literal readings where they are appropriate, but I know they are only ever the surface and the depths await us.

  7. Ezekiel Avatar

    Father, Bless!

    Capital post! You put into words something I’ve been trying to say for some time — and I think you’ve captured my dear (Lutheran) mother-in-law’s frustration when she visits our parish! At the same time, you’ve capture in a more positive way the fascination of my granddaughters when they attend, captured by the movement, the sound, the smells, and the like.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. nancy Avatar

    My feeling in experiencing the Liturgy is that it is akin to a sublime symphony, with separate parts, but returning, always returning to the central theme. The repetitions are part of a “whole,” and they bring our minds back to the central theme. When I first began attending Orthodox services, I never quite knew when they would be ending, just as in a symphony, as the music eases toward its end.

    And the richness of the liturgical cycle never ceases to amaze me. After ten years of being Orthodox, I always, always discover new gems embedded in our services. For me, there is nothing like the beauty of Orthodox worship. That is why there is such a huge responsibility placed on the priest, chanters and the choir to make these prayers to God as clear and as complete as possible, and it is also important that I be present at as many services as possible to give this feeble brain the opportunity to come near to the fullness of what the Church has to offer us.

  9. Richard Barrett Avatar
    Richard Barrett

    For an Orthodox liturgy is highly non-linear. Many things happen at once.

    As a polite, linear Anglican (at the time, anyway) this was exactly what really stuck out at me at my very first Divine Liturgy. The place where it was inescapable (and thus, has always stayed with me) was in the Great Litany where the petition is given, “Calling to remembrance our most honorable, pure, and blessed Lady Theotokos…” and the choir had the nerve to step on the priest’s toes while he was talking(!) and intone, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” But it didn’t seem to faze the priest in the least that the choir had come in too early, he just went on.

    When they did it again at the First Little Litany, I realized it was intentional. From that point on, any service I’ve ever attended where this *hasn’t* happened has simply felt wrong. For me, anyway, it typifies the non-linear nature of the liturgy in such a way as to be nearly non-negotiable.


  10. LynneA Avatar


    Thank you for your reflections about the problem of history: “it is often told in a linear fashion, and never really does justice to the truth of any event…Every telling, if it is told truly, has a multivalent character…”

    This insight helped my understanding of the canons of Holy Week and Pascha…the topics jump around so much: the three youths, Jonah, Christ’s birth, Moses, Christ’s death and burial, Daniel, Habbakuk, and Christ’s resurrection, to name a few.

    Now I’m beginning to understand the multivalent character of the event.

    It’s like having lots of pieces fall together to make a kaleidoscopic image, but not quite, because that image is so transitory. Or maybe it’s like a really complex fugue, or maybe like a pointillism painting. Or maybe an icon would be a fitting metaphor, being built up of many layers. Or maybe a whirlwind.

  11. Karen Avatar

    I’m a theologian — a historical theologian — and I liked what you said. When I listen to any liturgy, my mind goes off in a million directions and way past the space the liturgy occupies. Indeed, it’s often that the liturgy is a starting place for me. I remember listening to Gregorian chant beautifully performed in Latin by cloistered nuns and going back through the thousands on thousands of voices who have sung it over the last 1500 or more years. That led to thoughts about the history of music and then the mathematical structure of music and so on. Again, thanks.

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