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The hymnody after the Gospel Entrance: Part VIII of the series on the Divine Liturgy

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on July 23, 2008 at 10:46 pm

After the Gospel Entrance, the choirs chant the appointed hymns of the day, which are called troparia, “stanzas,” and almost always are concluded by the patronal saint’s or titular festal troparion of the church temple after whom (or which) it is named. Every Orthodox Christian temple is dedicated to a patron (or matron) saint, or saints, or in honor of a great feast or divine event. All the faithful should learn to sing their own parish’s patronal or titular festal troparion by heart. After this sequence of troparia, the clergy (or in some churches, the choir) will sing the appointed seasonal kontakion. This latter hymn provides a seasonal “atmosphere” to the worship. The kontakia are very ancient, some extending from the early centuries of the Church.  Some of the troparia (and kontakia) are sung so often, they, too, can be memorized. When all of the faithful sing, they show their active ownership of the liturgy and so fulfill their God-given vocation, to be “a holy people, a royal priesthood.”  Especially in our Antiochian Orthodox ethos, the whole synaxis of the faithful is encouraged to sing.

Now, after an exhortation to pray, the priest exclaims the holiness of God and all sing majestically the very simple and profound Trisagion, “the Thrice-holy.” The faithful now emulate the angelic chorus in heaven whom Isaiah the prophet heard, when he beheld the Lord in His holy temple: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6: 2). The attribute, “holy,” cannot be described adequately in human analogies. Basically, “holy” means “separated unto and thus belonging to God.” Only God is holy in and of Himself, utterly holy, and He makes holy all who come to him, “Be ye holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and “Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).  On certain great feasts of the Lord, in place of the Trisagion, we sing either the baptismal hymn, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia” or that of the Cross, “Before Thy cross, we bow down in worship, Master, and we glorify Thy holy resurrection.” 

When the Bishop celebrates, the Trisagion is sung very elaborately, with a special prayer and episcopal blessing given three times, interspersed. The bishop holds in his left hand the dikerion, a two-branched candelabrum symbolizing the two natures of Christ, and in his right, the trikerion, a three-branched candelabrum symbolizing the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, in his hands the central dogmas of the Church are shown forth as living and abiding truths which give our lives order and meaning. Dogmas in Orthodoxy are not dead concepts inscribed on paper. They are living truths which correct our waywardness and heal our lives from the disorder of sin and corrupting passions. We Orthodox do more than just believe in the Trinity, we lead a triadic, or trinitarian, way of life.  This chiefly means love. We more than believe in the two natures of Christ, we practice a two-natured spirituality: body and spirit in a synergistic combination, what we call mystery. What we see with our material eyes is flesh; what we see with our nous, the eye of the soul, is spirit.


Divine Liturgy: antiphons and little entrance. Part VII of the series.

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on July 19, 2008 at 8:15 pm

We continue now with a more detailed look at the Divine Liturgy. After the opening blessing and great litany:

After the great ektenia, we begin to chant a series of antiphons, or short repetitions of refrains, interspersed with verses from the Psalter, the great prayer-book of the church. These refrains help us to ascend from the affairs of this world to a vibrant and sober realization of the presence of God in our midst. In the first antiphon we ask the Mother of God to intercede for us. Here, our Orthodox understanding of the role of the Mother of God (Theotokos, God-bearer) is clarified. She is, above all, our great intercessor. She is not an apostle who teaches; rather, she is a mother who entreats for us. In the second antiphon, we implore the Son of God Himself to save us; and in the third, we take up the apolytikion (“dismissal hymn,” since we heard it first near the dismissal from the vespers on the evening just past) of the day as the refrain, celebrating the Kingdom within and among us. As a unit, the antiphons prepare us for the solemnities ahead. We are still in the beginning stage of the Liturgy. There are some alternatives during this portion of the Liturgy, depending on the parish and the practice of each diocese. Sometimes, the older practice of chanting the so-called “typical psalms” (Psalms 102 and 145, LXX) is followed by the chanting of the Beatitudes with interspersed hymnody taken from the Matins service just past.

Each antiphon (or typical psalm) is completed by the intonation of a little ektenia. We use the little litanies so often that the question is often posed, “why do Orthodox services repeat so much material constantly?”  Indeed, the little ektenia begins, “Again and again, let us pray to the Lord.”  There is a basic tenet of pedagogy: repetition is the mother of learning. Every school teacher knows that new things to be learned must be presented, drilled, practiced, and re-presented, re-drilled, and re-practiced, many times before learning takes place.  The wisdom of the church Fathers is present here: we are imprinted at the liturgy, so that the holy words we hear there will self-actualize in our memory later on.  The many repetitions impress us deeply, even before we have come to think about the meaning contained in these words.

Through the three antiphons the priest offers specific prayers which dedicate the liturgy to God and underscore the divine promises which make the liturgy possible, including the word of Our Lord, “wherever two or three are gathered in My Name , there am I in the midst.”

During the third antiphon (or toward the end of the singing of the Beatitudes), the deacon carries the Gospel-book aloft in a liturgical procession, preceded by candle-bearers and processional cross. Following him comes the presiding cleric who will give the blessing to make the Little (or Gospel) Entrance. The deacon cries out the first of several utterances to come: “Wisdom!” This cry always precedes some very important utterance or action and exhorts us to pay special attention at the deepest level of our being. Let us now be aware of Christ, along with the ministering angels in our midst! “Stand aright!” At this point, any of the faithful who were sitting now arise to join all who have been standing, ready to make a bow as the Entrance is made. Standing is the basic posture for prayer, not sitting. “Bless ye the Lord, all ye servants … that stand in the house of the Lord,” (Ps 133: 1-2). Now the great recognition of Christ in our midst occurs as the entrance hymn is intoned by the clergy and choirs, “O come let us worship and fall down before Christ…” On Sunday, all make a bow from the waist; but on weekdays (except during the 40 days following Great and Holy Pascha), it is a good and very traditional thing to make a great bow, a prostration, all the way to the floor, to honor the manifestation of Christ in His public ministry which this Entrance symbolizes. The Gospel-book is the image of Jesus Christ, the living and abiding Word of the Father. “The words which I speak to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6: 63).

When the Bishop presides at the Liturgy, only at this point does he enter the altar to begin actively celebrating there. Up to this point, there is no difference between a liturgy presided over by bishop or priest. But now, when the bishop enters the altar, we see the fullest display of our apostolic heritage. When the priest serves alone, it is not easy to see the apostolic nature of the Church. But when the bishop presides, a living apostle is before us. All this shows us that the beginning part, the enarxis, is passed and now the liturgy of the Word enters its most important stage.

The Liturgy of the Catechumens in detail. Part VII of the series.

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on July 17, 2008 at 10:07 pm

“Blessed is the Kingdom…” and the enarxis, or beginning, of the Liturgy

The opening of the Beautiful Gate symbolizes the act of God drawing near to us in this world. God takes the initiative in coming into our darkened space. Remember, in the ancient Israelite temple, this curtain was permanently closed. No one could ever open it! The evangelist St Matthew reports, however, that when the Lord died on the Cross, “the veil in the Temple was torn into two, from top to bottom” (Mt 27:51). So the first words of the common liturgy now sound forth with a great voice from the priest, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” The Liturgy begins with the exclamation of God’s awesome Kingdom breaking into human affairs. “Blessed is…” not “Blessed be…” It is truly an exclamation, not a wish. Now He enters our world again, right now, through us!

All the people sing “Amen.” This simple prayer, “Amen,” is very powerful. The laity should learn to pray it with great intention. It basically means that the one saying the Amen takes up the prayer or exclamation which has just been uttered as if it were his or her very own. St Jerome of Bethlehem said that the Divine Liturgy as it was celebrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, right at the Empty Tomb itself, was so robust that the laity said “Amen” with the force of a thunderclap! Reach for this prayer and use it often. Consider it your responsibility as a layperson to say the Amen properly, in order to mark your active prayer in concert with the presiding minister and the rest of the community.

The Great Ektenia

Now the deacon utters the ektenia, a chain of biddings, in response to which all the people sing the simple and deep prayer, “Lord have mercy.” The deacon does this, standing on the solea, the area in front of the Beautiful Gate, raised up a bit from the rest of the nave. St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the 7th century, says that spiritually the solea represents “the river of fire separating the sinners from the righteous” (see Dan 7:10).  Later, the faithful will approach the solea to receive Holy Communion, thus crossing this symbolic barrier.

Perhaps you have heard of the Jesus Prayer. When we pray, “Lord have mercy,” this is a very short version of it which is very often used in the Liturgy. Some people are confused in thinking that God is stingy and hesitant to give mercy; therefore, so they think, the prayer insists that He do so. This is a worldly and false way of viewing it. God grants mercy, “He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5: 45). The place where the blockage occurs is on our part. When we pray this prayer with constancy and faith, we are purifying our own hearts which are crowded with the corrupt desires of this world. We do not know mercy, only because we ourselves are merciless to others.  We are invited to discover the rich mercy of God which already abounds toward us: “And the Lord passed by Moses and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD GOD, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth’” (Exodus 34: 6).

The choir leads the singing of “Lord have mercy.” All of the people should take it up in concert and pray it with meaning. The choirs (properly two, one on the right and one on the left) exist in the churches in order to lift up all of the laity in their prayers and hymnody to God. There is a beautiful synergy of worship between clergy, choirs, and people. The laity benefit by becoming “caught up” in this triad. Those with fine voices ought to join the choir in order to put their talent to good use for the Master. Choir-singers comprise a ministerial rank in the holy church and benefit from certain prayers in their behalf: “for those who serve (clergy and their assistants) and for those who sing…”

The great ektenia, also called the great litany, is a school of prayer unto itself. Notice the progression of biddings and reflect upon the course of prayer as it unfolds from a simple plea for peace to an encompassing of the whole world and everyone in it in the loving and merciful embrace of the Lord. Notice the beginning: first, the proper atmosphere of true prayer is peace. Without peace, we cannot pray at all: “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.”  Then, with peace, we pray for the highest kind of peace: “the peace from above…” Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world giveth, do I give unto you” (John 14: 27). Only then, having this “peace which passeth understanding,” do we pray for “the peace of the whole world.”  Sometimes our priorities are askew. The great ektenia helps us organize our prayer, so that first things come first. We pray for the most important persons first, our spiritual fathers who care for our immortal souls, then the civil authorities who govern our temporal lives. After that, we pray for all humanity, in its various states and conditions, and lastly, for ourselves with a final prayer from the deacon, “help us, save us…,” to which we add our “Lord have mercy.”

The deacon, like an angel, intones these biddings in a fulsome voice. If there be no deacon, the ektenias (and some other diaconal parts) are assumed by the priest. Happy are the parishes where the diaconate is active, since they see a beautiful “ministering angel” holding his orarion (the long, fluttering element of his vestment which draws our attention to where it should go) aloft, carrying the prayers of the people from the nave to the altar and the Holy Gospel from the altar to the nave. Since the deacon moves so often to and fro, between altar and solea, we call the north and south doors (on either side of the Beautiful Gate) through which he so often passes the “deacon’s doors.”

The Divine Liturgy within sacred space: church architecture

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on July 17, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Continuing our sustained reflection on the Holy and Divine Liturgy, we must take a little side detour to view the space in which the Liturgy is normally celebrated. I say normally, since from time to time special circumstances may arise in which the Liturgy is served in some other setting, even outside in the forest or desert. In fact, during the darkest years of the godless communist regimes in eastern Europe, there were many occasions when such a thing took place. But this is not the norm.

We liturgize in a church temple, so called because it is a building which houses the Church per se, i.e., the faithful gathered together for worship.  Just as the physical body of a faithful Christian is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (St Paul to the Corinthians), so the physical structure set apart for Orthodox Christian worship is a temple for the Church.

The Orthodox church temple is divided into three sections.

The worshipper enters the narthex from the noisy world outside and there prepares for prayer: putting off the coat, turning off the cell-phone, taking a breath and warming up or cooling down as needed. Then, after leaving the offering of money in support of the parish and of the good causes sponsored by the parish, the worshipper takes candles and any printed aids available for the divine services.

The narthex is also the place where certain prayers are said (churching prayers for new mothers, enrollment to the catechumenate, etc.; and even whole services (9th Hour, Compline, etc. But this usually is only observed strictly in monasteries.) Classically, the baptismal font is located near the juncture of the narthex and the nave, since it stands at the central portal by which new Christians enter the Kingdom of Heaven and become fit to stand with the faithful in the eucharistic synaxis (gathering).

The worshipper stands before the doors leading to the second area: the nave, or the holy place. these doors are those mentioned later on by the deacon, just before the anaphora: “The doors! the doors! Wisdom, let us attend!” Opening the door (or passing through the colonnade), the worshipper makes a bow and reverently enters, after ensuring that there will be no interruption of the sacred action being performed in the nave. Assuming he has arrived on time, at least as Matins is concluding, he will notice the Beautiful Gate (sometimes called the Holy Doors, or the Royal Doors) being opened just prior to the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. This Beautiful Gate both separates and conjoins the nave with the holy altar or the bema, the “high place,” where the Holy Table is centered.  Here, only the clergy and their assistants enter, in order to fulfill their work. We all face east; we are properly oriented, both literally and metaphorically.

So, to sum up, there are three spaces: narthex, nave, and altar. The narthex is for all classes of inquirers and catechumens; the nave is for the faithful; and the altar is for the clergy. These three areas are in direct continuity with the ancient Israelite temple, whose shape was revealed by God Himself directly to Moses the Prophet and God-seer. In that ancient temple, there was an inner court where sacrifices were offered and cleansing was accomplished (our narthex). Then, passing through the outer curtain, the priests alone entered into the ancient holy place where prayer with incense and lights was offered, by the Table of the Bread of the Presence (our nave). And, finally, the Holy of Holies, separated by yet another curtain, beyond which only the High Priest passed and that only once a year, where the Ark of the Covenant lay (our holy Altar, where the Holy Table is, on which the eucharistic mystery is fulfilled). We will have much more to say about these things in further posts.

The Divine Liturgy in detail: a guide to attentive participation. Part VI of the series…

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on July 16, 2008 at 6:51 pm

The Divine Liturgy is an ascent in silence to the Holy Mountain of God! There, with the holy ones, we rejoice in word-less wonder as we tremble with reverence before the Lord and His Saints.

In general, prayerful participation in the Divine Liturgy calls for preparation well before coming to the church temple. It is important to find silence and inner composure before coming to church. Remember the long period of silence in which righteous Job immersed himself before speaking about God. Also, the Lord himself observed silence with His disciples before ascending the Mount Thabor, when He was transfigured in glory. Practically speaking, in our busy world, we should at least keep the evening before the Liturgy in quietness and prayer.  The practice of “partying” on the eve before the Liturgy should be laid aside. Find a “holy excuse” from such revelry and opportunities for too much talking (in which sin is not lacking) or gossip. If you are with group of people, do not stay late. Excuse yourself at a decent hour, go home, try to keep quiet and say the pre-communion canon from your prayerbook before going to sleep. Try to avoid rich foods and much wine after Vespers in Saturday evening; that can affect your calmness on Sunday morning. Take a little water before bed, since you will be keeping a strict fast in the morning after arising.

Holding our hearts in prayerfulness, and not speaking too much before the time, we depart to church. It is amazing how often the evil one succeeds in getting us to argue with our loved ones before church! Rob him of this by deferring any important family decision-making until after the Liturgy.

Now let us take a closer look at the Liturgy… with a copy of the Divine Liturgy in our hands, let us walk through it, seeking to understand what we are doing. The emphasis here falls not on exhaustive liturgical commentary, something desirable for theological students and clerics, but rather on a practical way of understanding which will yield more active and more attentive participation in the movement of the Liturgy as prayer. In the material which will be provided in further posts, we begin with the priest’s opening exclamation of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, “Blessed is the Kingdom…”  So, keep posted!

You Tube postings to provide autobiography…

In autobiography on July 14, 2008 at 8:56 pm

For those of you who wish to watch and hear an evening talk jointly presented by my dear wife, Kh. Christina, and me concerning our journey in life into the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, you will find that on You Tube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSIy-yKbZZM is part ONE. For the continuation, goto:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P2s65YIIrA is part TWO. For the continuation, goto:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0GjeRLUOV8 is part THREE.  There may be further YouTube postings, which, if provided, I will pass on here.

These three comprise the opening night’s presentation of the retreat we led at St John the Wonderworker (Serbian Orthodox Diocese of the West) Orthodox Church (Eugene, Oregon), in May 2008 (during the Paschal season).

My thanks to Peter and ChrisAnn Mead for their planning and initiative, to the Rev. Fr David Lubliner for his hospitality, and for the parish community of St John the Wonderworker Church for their love.