In my last post on the Divine Liturgy, I pointed out the fact that there are three sections to the Liturgy. The last post dealt with the first section, the only one which is celebrated without the mandatory presence of the laity; namely, the Proskomidia. In this post, I write about the Liturgy of the Catechumens.
With the second portion of the Divine Liturgy, we now begin the common prayer, or the synaxis. St Paul admonishes all, “Do not neglect your assembling together (synaxis), as the manner of some is” (Hebrews 10: 25). From this point on, the community of the faithful joins with the presiding minister, the bishop, or his delegate, the priest, in celebrating the Liturgy as a whole. The chief assistant to the presiding minister is a clergyman as well, the deacon. One or more altar-servers usually assist in the altar as well, all of whom are vested for that service. The liturgy of the catechumens is made up of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5: 19) and has as its climax the reading of the selection from the Apostle (the Book of the Acts or one of the apostolic epistles–the only book not read in the New Testament is the Revelation, aka the Apocalypse, because of its liturgical nature) and from the Gospel. In the primitive Church, the Bible was the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, the Old Testament. They would listen to the readings from the Scriptures (Law, Prophets, and Writings: see Luke 24: 44), then circulate the apostolic letters, and read “the memoirs” (St Justin the Philosopher, 2nd century) which, once all assembled, became the written Gospels. Now (and since the mid-first millenium of our era), we reserve Old Testament readings to festal and lenten Vespers and devote the Scripture readings of the Divine Liturgy to the two most important kinds of lessons from the Bible: the Apostle and, greatest of all, the Gospel itself. After the Gospel reading, the homily, or sermon, is delivered. The preacher bears the important task of interpreting to our own situation the sacred words we have just heard. This is not the time for the preacher to promote his opinions, but rather, to bring the holy Word of God to bear on our lives so that we become accountable to obey it, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1: 22). We call this portion of the liturgy “of the catechumens” because this was the portion of the liturgy in which the catechumens were required to be present, so they could learn the teaching of Christ in preparation for their baptism. At the end of this portion of the liturgy, they are dismissed. From this hinge event in the liturgy, the “dismissal of the catechumens” (in Latin, missa catechumenorum), comes the common Western term for the liturgy, the “mass.”
Throughout the Liturgy of the Catechumens, all of us, faithful, catechumens, and those inquiring, are presented with holy teaching accessible to the ear. Consider that, of the five senses, the hearing is the one sense which cannot be turned off. One may close his eyes, shut his mouth, pinch his nose, and refuse to touch anything. But the ears remain always open. This is God’s way of ensuring that there is always a way to bring His holy message into the hearts of men, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God” (Romans 10: 17). Having said all this, and to give comfort to the hearing-impaired, we must also keep in mind that all the senses are employed in liturgical action, in order to raise the whole person to God: we see ikons and processions, we smell incense burning and beeswax candles, we touch the ikons and make the Sign of the Cross, we taste Holy Communion. God “speaks” to us through all of our senses, and beyond—to the heart.