The Liturgy is eternal, rooted in the Mystery of Christ’s Self-emptying, suffering, death, burial, and third-day Resurrection from the dead. When we liturgize, we participate in the ONE offering of Christ: He is both Priest and Victim, “the One Who offers and the One Who is offered” (Prayer of preparation before the Great Entrance, Liturgy of St John Chrysostom). So, although the Liturgy is celebrated repeatedly in time, it is mystically one in eternity.
The Liturgy is served on any day, all year long, with an important exception: during the Great Forty-day Fast, known as Lent, no Liturgy with the Eucharist, or consecration of bread and wine, is served during Lenten weekdays. Instead, we serve a special form of the (non-eucharistic) Liturgy, without the consecration, called the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Also, during Lent, the older form of the common liturgy, that of St Basil, is served on Sundays. Although other forms of the liturgy are served periodically at certain times of the year, the most common form of the Divine Liturgy celebrated in the Orthodox Catholic Church throughout the world is that of St John Chrysostom.
We must first look at the place which the Liturgy has in the normal flow of time. Then, we can examine its basic shape and proceed from there to walk through the Liturgy from beginning to end in order to follow its detailed movement with understanding.
The Liturgy in time
In its broadest sense, the Liturgy is a rising up from the daily cycle of time. This temporal movement is marked in the Church by special services: Vespers at sunset (the beginning of the new day), Compline after the evening meal, the Midnight service, Matins before sunrise and the canonical Hours (First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth) through the daylight hours. Each of these services of prayer mark time and sanctify it. But the Liturgy itself transcends time and therefore does not mark time in any way. It is in a class of its own. Although the Liturgy can be served at any time of day or night, usually it is served in the morning, after Matins. Therefore, faithful Orthodox Christians make it a habit to attend Vespers the night before the Liturgy and to keep a quiet evening with prayer and vigil, as strength enables. Early in the morning, the faithful return to the church temple for Matins and remain for the Liturgy. This is the context in time, as usually celebrated.
The “temporal services,” as I have called them, assist the faithful to ascend noetically (spiritually) the “holy mountain” of the heart to converse with God liturgically. Imagine when one is preparing a meal for his family and for his guests. He says that it will be a seafood dinner. Does he place a nice looking fish on each plate and invite all to be seated? Of course not. He prepares many dishes, both in anticipation of the bill of fare and of some more afterward: appetizers, beverages of various kinds, salad, fish prepared a certain way with trimmings of some kind, a side-dish of rice or the like. Then there is some dessert to complete the meal and yet more kinds of drinks, cold and hot. All this is accompanied by dinner conversation, seating at a properly adorned and set table, and so on. The same is true of the Liturgy itself. We have seen that the Liturgy is, basically, a meal. This meal needs the same preparation, accompaniment, and after-course that our fish dinner had. So, you can see how unprepared and ill-fitted each of us might be, if we showed up merely to “get communion.” We are not really “there” and so dishonor our Lord by being late and ill-clad for the dinner He prepares, not just to feed our corruptible flesh but rather our immortal soul!