Archive for the ‘Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity’ Category
Now, we come to the holiest moment in the Divine Liturgy: the epiklesis (eh-PEE-klee-sis), or invocation of the Holy Spirit “upon us and these holy gifts.”
At once, God answers the elevation by His action. The priest invokes (epiklesis, “invocation”) the Holy Spirit “upon us and upon these gifts,” thus rendering the bread to be the Body of Christ and the contents of the cup to be the Blood of Christ, “changing them by Thy Holy Spirit.” We speak of metabolism in the human body as it processes material or physical energy; now, the priest mentions a special kind of metabolism (“changing,” from the Greek word, metabalon) in which the Divine Energy infuses the material gifts offered. Our reception of these gifts will be a meal, but now a very special one, for we will, by faithful partaking of them, become communicants in the divine nature. Unlike the Scholastics of old (with their “transubstantiation”), or the Protestants (with their opposite error in which they deny transfiguring grace to this mystery), we have no need to explain this dyophisitic (dual-natured) mystery: we have bread, it is the Body; we have wine, it is the Blood. Our Chalcedonian way of understanding gives us the key which holds all together, “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (I Timothy 3: 9).
To summarize, the sacred exchange takes place: the worshipping community, represented by the presiding bishop or priest offers their whole life embodied in the bread and wine, “Thine own of Thine own.” In response, God receives this offering and “places His own Life in the Gifts, ‘the Holy for the holy’” (Elder Zacharias of Essex).
Once the epiklesis is completed, we enter the third section of the anaphora, the commemoration of the whole Catholic Church. We begin with the greatest members of the Church, the Mother of God, and the Apostles, along with all the saints, mentioning especially those saints we are commemorating on that day. The choir begins singing the megalynarion (magnification hymn) to the Theotokos, as she justly receives prime attention. During that hymn, the priest mentions all the other saints, and names among them the names of deceased Orthodox Christians who may be on the list of commemorations. At the same time, the deacon stands by the Holy Table, as he reads out the diptychs, a record of names of living and dead who are to be commemorated. We see ourselves standing by the very Altar of God, with no difference between heaven and earth, “behold, the tabernacle of God is with men” (Apocalypse 21:3). The commemorations continue with the first of importance among the living: “our father and metropolitan [Name], and our father and bishop [Name].” We receive our hierarchical authorities not as worldly princes or “strongmen,” but rather as “fathers in Christ.” In this spirit, they nourish us with apostolic teaching and authority and become the visible, personal, and concrete principle of catholic unity in the Church, “wherever the Bishop is, there is the Church” (St Ignatius of Antioch). The commemorations are only complete once every estate of Christian is mentioned, including the monastics and all the people, especially emphasized in the unique Greek way, literally “and of all men and women.”
The anaphora is concluded with a doxological exclamation in the name of the Holy Trinity, “Thine all-honourable and majestic Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The anaphora, however, is not sealed until the whole synaxis asserts the “Amen.” Recall what St Jerome said about this, mentioned above. We have eucharistized, given thanks. “The Christ is in our midst! He is, and ever shall be!”
 At the Fourth Oecumenical Synod, held in the city of Chalcedon in the fifth century, the dogma of the “two natures” (dyo physeis) of Christ was decreed, while insisting in the utter unity of His divine-human Personhood.
The Eucharist proper: the opening dialogue and Anaphora (eucharistic prayer)–Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, continuedIn Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on November 10, 2008 at 4:08 am
Now we come to the high point of the Divine Liturgy in which we “offer the sacrifice of praise, giving thanks unto the Lord.”
The Anaphora: the dialogue
The climax of the Divine Liturgy now takes place. The holy anaphora, the oblation or “offering up (to God)”, now begins. A very special dialogue serves to awaken and employ the highest human sensitivity: the noetic, or spiritual faculty of the soul. After the call to attentiveness, the deacon says, “that we may offer the holy oblation in peace” and the faithful add to this a further description of the oblation, thus defining it: “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” The due sacrifice to God amounts to “the weightier matters of the Law: judgment, mercy and faith” (Matthew 23: 23). “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6: 8).
Before the prayer of the anaphora is uttered, the priest bestows the apostolic blessing, from the earliest times of the Church’s life: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!” With this blessing, all is in order for the liturgical act. Apostolic orders and blessing have been given; it remains to fulfill them. The faithful have already “laid aside” all earthly cares; now they are exhorted to an even higher, noetic awareness: “Let us lift up our hearts!” The wording suggests a specific action here, not just mental attention, but something much more profound—spiritual attentiveness: “Hold your hearts upward!” “We hold them toward the Lord.” All join together now for the Eucharist per se, “let us give thanks unto the Lord” (in Greek, eucharistesomen). To this the laity, by singing the initial words, urges the celebrant to begin the anaphora proper, “It is truly meet and right.”
The anaphora proper
The anaphora itself is a mighty condensation of the whole of the apostolic eucharistic tradition. In it we hear all about “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2: 11). As mentioned at the beginning, there are various “liturgies” in use in the Orthodox Church: most commonly, those of St James, of St Basil, and of St John Chrysostom, in chronological order. Each of these differs most clearly in the variety in size and content of the anaphora. Yet other liturgies exist as well, but are not widely used today. Each of these liturgies receives its name from the saint who composed the anaphora in it. In the beginning, the apostles and their successors prayed and eucharistized, “according to their ability” (St Justin the martyr, First Apology, 67, written c. A.D. 150). As the faith spread, there was an increasing need for the distillation of this holy Eucharist, especially as the bishops ordained presbyters to serve in their absence, since they could not be present themselves at every eucharistic synaxis. Thus, the written anaphorae came into being as we now have them.
The anaphora falls into three distinct sections, the juncture of each of which is marked by a special hymn sung by the people. The initial expression of thanks to God for His mighty acts culminates with the singing of the thrice-holy, directly using the words of the angelic hosts themselves, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of sabaoth (a Hebrew word which means “armies [of angels]”)…” Then, the center of the anaphora, the second section, stresses the manifestation of the love of God by the offering of the Son. Many people, even heterodox, love that verse in St John’s Gospel which occurs in this section, “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that whosoever should believe in Him, would have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The remembrance of the economy of salvation is developed at much greater length in the Liturgy of St Basil. The culmination of this section is the rehearsal of the very words of our Lord Himself, uttered by the celebrating priest, as though Christ were physically present, “Take, eat, this is My Body… Drink of this, all of you. This is My Blood…” After these holy words which provide a unique authorization for the whole of the Liturgy, the deacon (or priest) elevates both the diskos and chalice, holding them in a cross-wise fashion. With this action, the anaphora comes to the apex of human ability. This is our offering, the simple basics of life, through which the Life of the world will come to us. “Wine maketh glad the heart of man… and bread strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 103: 16-17). With the elevation, the priest intones very solemnly, “Thine own, of thine own, we offer to Thee, in behalf of all and for all.” In such a short expression the priesthood of the whole body of the Church is expressed. Together, clergy and laity, the whole of creation, “Thine own,” is voluntarily offered back to God Who gave it. And this with a special purpose: for the salvation and reconciliation of the whole of creation, “in behalf of all and for all.” This is the ministry of Jesus Christ in miniature; this is the ministry of the Church in depth—to bring all back to God, voluntarily, in the freedom of love.
Immediately, the choir appends a sung augmentation to the words that the priest just uttered: “we hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks (eucharistoumen) to Thee, O Lord, and we pray to Thee, O our God.” This is meant as a completion of the priest’s words. Among many other things, this should emphasize that the liturgy is accomplished by the whole synaxis, not just the priest alone.
And, here is the final graphic, of the Liturgy of the Faithful from the Prayer of Bowed Heads unto the dismissal.
I would welcome any comments!
Here is the next section, the Liturgy of the Faithful, from the cherubic hymn (Great entrance) to the Lord’s Prayer:
Click on the above to get a nice graphic organization of the first half of the Divine Liturgy, including the preparation. Read from top to bottom for linear progression, and from left to right for increasing detail of organization.
I extend my gratitude to Maria Dome (forgive any misspelling!) who gave me the idea, and Kh. Christina, my beloved wife, for taking my outline and adorning it as you see here!
“Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess…” How can we dare to confess the holy dogmas of our faith, while we harbor hatred or unforgiveness in our hearts? The Church’s liturgy examines us carefully in this regard. So, the exchange of the “kiss of peace” is our guarantee of Christian charity and reconciliation, each person with his neighbor. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God… and thy neighbor as thyself.” Each rank of clergy and the laity, as necessary, then exchange a fraternal greeting before we confess our faith together. St Paul tells us, “faith…worketh by love” (Galatians 5: 6) and “greet each other with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13: 12).
The Symbol of Faith, or the creed (credo, Latin, “I believe”), consists of very specifically composed words which were authorized by the First Oecumenical Synod held in the city of Nicaea in A.D. 325, augmented by the Second Oecumenical Synod held in Constantinople in A.D. 381, and sealed with divine authority by a synodal decree at the Third Oecumenical Synod held in Ephesus in A.D. 431. The exact wording is so important to the maintenance of the faith, that even the addition of a single word is cause for ceasing to be Orthodox. This is exactly what took place over the Roman Catholic Church’s addition of the word, filioque “and the Son,” thus introducing a distortion of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. Imagine a compass heading for a large ship sailing the Pacific Ocean. A mere one-degree error of heading by the compass would yield a massive error in sailing, by the time the ocean was crossed. The ship’s pilot would miss his port by hundreds of miles! Thus, we carefully preserve “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
Before the common recitation of the Creed begins, we hear the diaconal exclamation, “The doors! The doors!” This is a call to secure the doors between the nave and the narthex, in order that no unworthy person, heretic, or persecutor, or unbaptized, be allowed in. During the recitation of each of the twelve articles of the Creed, the church annunciation bell is struck once, if such a bell exists in the parish. This striking of the bell underscores the sobriety and seriousness of our confession. The Creed is truly the flag of the Church. As the recitation continues, with the voice of the whole of the people, not merely the reader, the priest takes up and waves the aer (the covering cloth) over the diskos and chalice. Such actions, as this waving or fluttering of the aer, are amenable to a very great many interpretations of a fine spiritual nature. For example, many see in this a depiction of the hovering of the Holy Spirit, Who is about to descend upon the gifts. “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1: 2). At the words, “and He ascended into heaven,” the priest folds up the aer and resumes waving it in a circular motion over the gifts. From the beginning, many liturgical actions arose from very practical purposes, such as to keep any flying insects from alighting upon the prepared holy things, now uncovered (see Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, which is the text of the ancient Clementine Liturgy). Unlike those who see only exterior meaning to things, we Orthodox see both: the waving of the aer to keep off flies as well as symbolizing the earthquake which occurred at Christ’s resurrection or the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, among many other meanings, as with all holy things.
 the classical style of spelling is employed here to avoid confusion with the word, “ecumenical,” which refers chiefly to relations between the Orthodox Church and heterodox Christian communities.
The Augmented Ektenia, and the Peace be to all!
Once the gifts have been placed on the Holy Table, a prayer and a litany are offered which sum up all our desires for salvation in every state of life. We “complete our prayer unto the Lord” by appealing to God for the fulfillment of our needs, culminating in the greatest need of all, “that we may have a good defense before the fearful judgment seat (bema) of Christ.” This petition is important, since the name of the very place where the gifts have been placed is the bema, “the judgment seat,” one of the many names for the altar. We realize that the judgment is not only in the future, but even right now! Are we ready to meet the Lord? Will we be found worthy to partake of Him?
With this sober reality before us, once again we hear the holy words to calm our hearts, “Peace be to all!” Now we will confess our faith together, but this again is never done without a deep connection to our spiritual state. Without inner peace, what can mouthing empty words mean?
It is interesting that we heard “Peace to all!” just before the high point of the first half of the liturgy; namely, the reading of the Holy Gospel. Now we hear it again, just before we celebrate the climax of the second and more solemn half of the liturgy, the Holy Eucharist itself.
The Cherubic Hymn and the Great Entrance
After two very brief ektenias in which the celebrant prays for worthiness and the proper spiritual disposition to celebrate the Eucharist, the Cherubic Hymn is sung, very slowly with great ornamentation and beauty. This hymn is an expression of our emulation of the holy angels who accompany the Lord in glory. The image is actually drawn from the ancient Roman military ritual of acclaiming a new emperor. The soldiers would hoist the newly chosen leader on a shield and all would point their spears straight up, and utter their oath of loyalty, thus the words in the cherubic hymn, “the King of all, Who comes invisibly up-borne (“carried with raised spears”) by the orders of angels.” Thus, we present ourselves in an angelic state, bearing the Lord Himself as we utter the thrice-holy hymn (which is about to be sung in its oldest form, in the anaphora, discussed below). Most importantly, we now put aside (actually, apothometha, ‘let us reserve for later use,’ as in our expression, “put by,” or “save for later”) the cares of daily life. These cares are not bad or sinful, merely mundane and transitory. We ought, then, to leave them for later action, as we place our attention fully on the holy oblation. God does not want us to shirk our daily and mundane responsibilities; however, He does want us to put them in proper perspective. Right now, all else is secondary to the Eucharist.
While the choirs are singing the cherubic hymn, the priest says a prayer beseeching God for the grace to serve Him without offence in the coming Eucharist. There, we learn that Christ Himself is both the Chief celebrant and the Victim: “for Thou Thyself art He that offereth and is offered.” There is a special censing, showing the solemnity of the moment. After this censing, during which the celebrating priest prays Psalm 50 (LXX), the most profound expression of repentance in the entire Bible, he makes a reverence toward the people. This is the expression of reconciliation and forgiveness we must extend to each other, if we are to “bring our gift to the altar” in a worthy manner. We ought never to liturgize, clergy or laity, if we bear ill-will against another human being.
The procession leading to the Great Entrance divides the cherubic hymn in the middle. Whereas in the Little Entrance, the Gospel-book is borne, symbolizing Christ’s appearance in His public ministry, so now in this Great Entrance, the diskos and chalice are borne, symbolizing Christ’s willing self-oblation in His holy passion (suffering), death, and burial for our salvation. The deacon bears the diskos, and the priest the chalice, and they are preceded by candle-bearers and cross. In antiquity, there was a separate building or side-chapel where the bread and wine were prepared and lodged. As this part of the liturgy approached, the deacons would take up the gifts and bring them in a procession to the bishop who awaited them in front of the altar. Now, we keep the gifts on the prothesis, for there were they prepared in the proskomidia, earlier. The procession from the prothesis to the Holy Table marks the formal beginning of the anaphora or holy oblation (offering). In the procession, special commemoration is made for all Orthodox Christians, including the chief hierarch of the local church and the diocesan bishop. In addition, we remember the civil authorities. It is always important to bear in mind that the Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church does not subscribe to any political party or specific political system. We do, however, pray for the welfare of the civil authority, recognizing that all authority comes from God (see Romans 13: 1). After remembering both the living and the dead, the procession is concluded by the completion of the cherubic hymn and the deposition of the bread and wine on the Holy Table. These are placed upon the antiminsion, a special cloth bearing the ikon of the repose of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This cloth is signed by the metropolitan archbishop of the local church over whose synod of bishops he presides, or by the diocesan bishop himself. The antiminsion is the authorization from the hierarch for the Divine Liturgy to be served at the specific church temple where it is placed. It is always protected, when folded up, by a red cloth called the eiliton.
There is also an interesting custom in my particular patriarchate (Antioch): while the procession bearing the bread and wine to be offered is taking place through the nave, the people reach forward and touch the phelonion (the large, outer vestment worn by the priests). In this way, they demonstrate the fact that the offering is indeed from THEM; i.e., the whole kosmos brings its gift to the Lord for His blessing.
While the Great Entrance is taking place, there is a dramatic shift in the tenor of the Divine Liturgy. There are no more readings and very little variable hymnody. The cherubic hymn now being sung is very ornate and reflective, even mystical in ethos. We are leaving the world and all transitory cares behind in order to complete the mystical sacrifice, bringing our whole life unto Christ our God for His holy blessing. Indeed, if the Great Entrance has been completed, the priest may not break off the Divine Liturgy for any reason, even if someone comes into the church requesting an emergency baptism for a dying person! In such a case, the priest must complete the Eucharist. Only then may he leave the Lord’s Presence.
The transitional stage with ektenias:
of Fervent Intercession, of the Catechumens and their dismissal, and of the Faithful.
The transitional prayers now are said, in the form of several ektenias. An ektenia is a drawn out series of petitions announced by the deacon, to which the laity ought to actively respond. The usual responses are either “Lord have mercy” or “Grant this, O Lord”. These ektenias, or litanies, are sometimes shortened, or entirely omitted, depending on the local situation. The first very meaningful act which takes place after the reading of the Gospel is the procession of the prepared bread and wine from the prothesis, through the nave, to the Holy Table. This is accomplished in the Great Entrance, which will be discussed shortly. As mentioned earlier, important liturgical actions need proper preparation. Thus, the ektenias of this transitional section of the liturgy accomplish the proper disposition of the worshippers. We pray for all in the ektenia of fervent supplication (we say “Lord have mercy” now three times after each petition). Unlike the earlier Great Ektenia, we even pray specifically for persons by name, both living and departed. Here, specific names can be supplied to the deacon before the liturgy for mention in prayer. We mention only the names of Orthodox Christians aloud in these ektenias. If the laity wish to exercise their priesthood in behalf of the whole world, each and every one can offer his or her quiet, heartfelt intercessions in behalf of any and all persons. As the deacon will say shortly, “for any and all whom we have in mind.” To this the people affirm, “for any and all!” (In our Antiochian translation, “for all mankind”).
After beseeching God for the catechumens who are preparing to enter the Church, their dismissal marks the formal end of the Liturgy of the Catechumens. In the primitive church, the catechumens were ushered out of the synaxis of the faithful in the nave and the doors from the narthex to the nave were secured. In the beginning, the catechumenate was in a vibrant state of development. Adults came to Christ directly from paganism and thus needed long and thorough instruction in prayer, knowledge of Holy Scripture, and formation in Orthodox Christian ethics. They had to rid themselves of many un- and even anti-Christian habits of thought, speech, and action. After Christianity was officially recognized, and even promoted by the state, the catechumenate fell into abeyance. But now, increasingly in our day and age, when paganism and unbelief flourish in so many places, and where the Christian spiritual and ethical conscience in society-at-large is in such precipitous decline, the adult catechumenate is increasingly being reinstated. Thus, it behooves us to encourage the catechumens, if not to leave, at least to stand piously to the side or to the rear, and to take their time to learn. So, whereas beforehand this litany in behalf of the catechumens was omitted, it now finds new currency as increasing numbers of converts are finding their way home to Orthodoxy. And, all of the faithful can hear in these words a dismissal of all evil thoughts, and an expulsion of every distraction.
Some are embarrassed to hear the diaconal command, “Let all catechumens depart!” Their embarrassment stems from a misunderstanding of the place of the catechumens in the holy Church. They do not yet possess the competency spiritually to share in the synaxis of the faithful. They cannot yet receive the Holy Mysteries and are working on the basic principles of Orthodox Christian life: repentance, baptism, confession of sins, fasting, humility, examination of oneself, obedience to our apostolic order, and the acquisition of Holy Tradition. Let us give them the space to gain these things before thrusting them into full responsibility! I have never catechized anyone who objected to this path of discovery. Once received into the Church, they are most likely never to deny their Lord by defiling their Orthodoxy.
With the dismissal of the catechumens, along with all those “for whom the liturgy is no concern” (dismissal, as said in the Romano-Byzantine liturgy in southern Italy in the first millenium of the Christian era) the synaxis of the faithful proceeds with as little interruption as possible. For now the faithful attend to the serious acts which lie before them: the bringing of the gifts of bread and wine to the Holy Table and the Eucharist itself. As St Justin the philosopher and martyr reports in his 1st Apology (written in the early 2nd century), “then we bring bread and wine to the president of the synaxis.”
Dear blog-readers! Beginning with the very next post, I am resuming my commentary on the Divine Liturgy. Our precious liturgy is the God-given gift of eternal life and the very portal into heaven, while we live in the body. Why do we hesitate? Why do we draw back from holy confession? Why do we live in the dregs of the corrupting passions and do not ascend to the heights to meet the Lord of Glory? He awaits! “Go, tell my disciples that I wait for them on the mountain in Galilee”
In the next post, you will find the first post on the third section of the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Faithful, or the Eucharist proper.
Having experienced the divine Mystagogy, let us not be of the world anymore, but be wholly Christ’s!
For those who are following my blog, I am turning my attention to other themes for a while. We have been giving special attention to the first half of the Divine Liturgy, up through the sermon. When I return to this theme, we will look at the second half of the Liturgy, the liturgy of the faithful, or the Eucharist, per se.
Let me know if you may have any questions, or if there are elements which I have inadequately explained. Sometimes persons coming from various backgrounds need differing points of detail to be more deeply thought through. Anyway, I hope you are enjoying this sustained reflection as much as I am enjoying its composition.
Remember, the whole point in this endeavor is to help all Orthodox Christian laity, and those seriously inquiring into the Orthodox Christian Faith, to participate in the Divine Liturgy with a greater depth. If I am helping to bring this about in any of my readers, the return favor which I request is that you pray for the salvation of the soul of this writer!
Having heard the Holy Gospel, we are now ready for the preacher to explain the meaning of the holy words which were just uttered. In our holy Faith, the role of preaching is the fundamental way in which faith is stimulated in the hearts of those who hear. St Paul said, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God” (Romans 10).
The authorized preacher is the priest or deacon, and the permitted themes for the sermon are the appointed scripture lessons and spiritual commemoration of the day. Sometimes the bishop gives special instruction concerning what is read or said “from the pulpit.” In any event, the homily or sermon (both words, from the Greek and Latin languages, respectively, mean simply “a talk”) provides the hearers with a more clear understanding of the sacred words they have heard and the meaning of the specific teachings conveyed by the day’s commemoration.
In many other Christian gatherings, the sermon becomes the center-piece for the assembly. For Orthodox Christians, the sermon, although far too often undervalued and even in some places woefully neglected, remains an important but integral ingredient to the whole of divine worship. We do not break up the liturgy into segments, but rather take it as a uniform and spiritually enriching whole. The sermon provides its unique and very specific function, perhaps the part of the liturgy where the personal impress of the celebrant is most clearly stamped. For example, we know so much about St John Chrysostom, simply because of all the sermons he had recorded and left to posterity. God speaks through men, and men differ in idiosyncrasy of character and personality.
We must keep in mind, however, that the sermon plays a much less prominent role in Orthodox Christian worship than it does in Protestant assemblies. The reason for this is simple. Our purpose for gathering in the church temple is not to hear what the priest may happen to say on any given occasion, but rather to offer our “sacrifice of praise” to the Lord. There are, of course, times when the sermon is longed-for: times of personal or civil distress, or at the cusp of some important ecclesiastical event.
The role of the laity during the preaching of the sermon is to listen carefully and to take to heart those elements from the homily which “strike home.” Our homilies are usually quite short; frequently the Orthodox homily is no more than 15 minutes long. Therefore, even small children can learn to listen with care. If the priest as preacher tends to speak too long, the laity have a responsibility to let him know so that he can learn to perfect the art of preaching. Elder Zacharias of Essex says that the core of a good sermon is “one simple thought, deeply expounded.”
So now we come to the first of the two climaxes of the Divine Liturgy, the high point of the Liturgy of the Catechumens; namely, the readings from Holy Scripture.
While the Trisagion is being completed, the reader, or someone capable of assuming this task, if there be no tonsured reader in the parish, approaches the solea, receives the Apostle (Epistle Book) from the priest and prepares to intone the lesson, a reading appointed for the day.
In the early church, there were more readings than offered nowadays. For example, in the Liturgy of St James there is a provision for a prophetical reading from the Old Testament. This points to the original way in which the Holy Scriptures came down to us. All of the canonically approved texts to be read in the Liturgy (apostle and Gospel) were eventually assembled into one place, and bound together. This is what we call the New Testament. Liturgically, the New Testament is made up of the two liturgical books (Apostle and Gospel), along with the non-liturgical book, Revelation.
New-comers to an Orthodox service of worship notice right away that the manner of speaking in the church differs from that which one finds in our everyday world. Ours is a special kind of language, elevated, classical (“thees and thous”), a kind of “sing-song,” either in what the ancients called recto tono, “straight-chant,” or according to ancient, well-established melodies. Even our churchly way of reading differs from that of secular society: the reader intones, or reads out in a melodic fashion, plainly but piously, confidently yet compunctionately. St John of San Francisco said that chanting and reading in a proper church fashion delivers the message contained much deeper into the souls of those listening than mere recitation, as when one reads out a newspaper article, or delivers an academic paper. Because readers require specialized training, the Church includes them among the minor clerical orders.
The choir (or reader) intones the prokeimenon, “a text before (another) text,” a “pre-text,” if you will. It consists of a refrain along with a verse, both drawn from the Psalter. These are properly sung according to one of the eight liturgical tones, but sometimes are merely read out. The prokeimenon prepares us for the lesson from the Apostle. Once again, an important liturgical moment (the reading of the Apostle) is anticipated by a special action (the intonation of the prokeimenon), so that our hearing is adjusted spiritually to take in the profound message. In parishes where the prokeimenon is properly intoned, the laity can learn to sing these along with the choirs.
Now we are ready to hear the Apostle: a lesson either from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, or from one of the apostolic epistles. We do not read from the Book of Revelation. There is always a specific lesson appointed for the specific day of the week in a given order of weeks after the previous Pascha, and frequently another one for the saint or commemoration of the calendar date. We select one of those to be read out, according to specific rules. Everything is done in the Church “decently and in order,” with no one, not even the priest, exercising his own willfulness apart from the common and holy tradition. We may listen to the apostolic reading seated and with attentiveness. Notice that the deacon said, “Let us attend!” Try not to look at other persons and ignore the usual distractions for this moment.
Now, as the choir begins to sing the alleluiarion, the triple “Alleluia,” and the priest is censing about the altar, we are ascending even higher. Everyone stands. The smoke of the incense honors the Lord and indicates the climax of this section of the Liturgy. The Apostle warmed our heart for Christ. Now Christ our God will directly speak His life-bestowing Word through the Holy Gospel. No layman ever reads the Gospel liturgically. That role is designated for deacon or priest. It is always chanted and accompanied by lights. Even before the Gospel is read, we engage in the first substantive liturgical dialogue with the presiding celebrant. He encourages spiritual readiness, “Wisdom! Let us attend…” and grants the dominical blessing, “Peace be to all.” This is what Jesus said when He appeared to His disciples and apostles after the Resurrection. They were locked up in their chamber “for fear.” Now Christ gives us the peace, as we are locked up in the chamber of our heart and beset with many fears. How often did Our Lord say, “Do not fear”!
The Gospel-book lies front and center on the Holy Table, always the prominent position. The book itself is usually very ornate and costly, its binding and covers made of fine metal, enameled or set with stones. When this majestic Book is opened, we stand attuned as described above for the Apostle. Before and after the Gospel reading, we sign ourselves with the cross while saying, “Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee.” The sign of the cross is the most profound act of prayer which the limbs of our body are capable of. At important liturgical moments like this, but also in or out of the church temple, by day or by night, during any endeavor, and facing any temptation, we can make the sign of the cross and immediately be refreshed with a vibrant spiritual realization of Christ’s holy presence.
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.
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.
“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.”
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 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!
Liturgy of the Faithful–the third and climactic part of the Liturgy: a continuation of Part V of the seriesIn Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on June 22, 2008 at 4:55 am
And now the third section of the Divine Liturgy, which forms the climax of our worship, the Liturgy of the Faithful.
After the dismissal of the catechumens, the faithful continue in prayer toward the high point at which the mystical sacrifice will be accomplished. When we say, “mystical sacrifice,” we mean the timeless sharing in the once and for all sacrifice of Christ Himself. He is the one high priest; “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ.” This priesthood of Christ is mystically visible in the presidency of the bishop or priest at the Holy Table. That is why we adorn him with very decorative vestments, to obscure his human personality and to show forth his divine ordination to serve as the very hands of Christ.
After a series of litanies in which petitions are offered “for all men…with uplifted hands” (I Timothy 2), the solemn offering is made. The bread and wine, prepared earlier, now are taken up and placed on the Holy Table. With very great compunction of heart, the faithful join with the celebrant in remembering the saving life, death and resurrection of the Lord, including His command to “Take, eat” and to “Drink.” The celebrant calls down the Holy Spirit upon the “people here present” and upon the gifts, remembering the saints and all the faithful. The faithful then join in saying the Lord’s Prayer together, and with other prayers all make ready the chamber of the heart and body to receive Holy Communion. After the Precious Gifts are distributed to all, with concluding prayers the dismissal is said and all “depart in peace.”
Thus, we have presented an overview of the entirety of the Divine Liturgy, the highest, noblest, most sublime act of worship ever practiced by mankind. The Liturgy is the product of divine revelation and has remained stable and deeply rooted among the faithful for 2,000 years. As we now look more carefully into its details, let us resolve to learn it, to be formed by it, and to pray it all the days of our lives, until we lay down our body at the end. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”
This whole catechumen business needs more clarification. Here is some explanation:
When the Church was incarnated on the fulfillment of the great feast of Pentecost (Shavuot: 50 days after Pascha), the catechumenate of the first Jewish believers (they were ALL Jews then) had lasted many centuries. You can read about this in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2. You see, the first believers had been catechized by the Law of God and their deep knowledge of Sacred Scripture. Their pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem to keep the feast shows this. Once the apostles proclaimed the resurrection, and they believed, everything fell into place. They were ready for baptism. We see this take place through the early portion of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Now when Philip the evangelist encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on his way home, reading the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, he catechized him regarding the things of which he was ignorant, thus elevating him to baptismal readiness. It is important to see all the personal encounters of the New Testament and the early Church in this way. The Church as a living presence personally receives persons! This means each and every person possesses certain needs and requirements which must be addressed in the way of readiness.
There are three stages of preparedness which the Church has always recognized from the earliest times:
1. those who show interest, but without exercising any level of commitment are called in antiquity, “hearers” (in Greek, akroomenoi; in Latin, auditores). These hearers, nowadays in our American Orthodox context called “inquirers,” are free to attend the holy services of the Church. They are encouraged especially to listen to the reading of Holy Scripture (psalms, Old Testament readings, apostolic readings, and the Holy Gospel), the homily (sermon), as well as the theological hymns in which our holy doctrine is poetically expressed. The hearers, since they have no level of expressed commitment, do not have any personal relationship with the Church as of yet, although any Orthodox parish or monastery sees it as their bounden Christian duty to show them all the hospitality possible, without “smothering” them. We are not proselytizers, since we respect the express freedom and dignity due to each and every human person. We speak to hearers of the “holy things” to the degree they show respect for and interest in, these holy things. We take seriously the teaching of our Lord Jesus, “Do not throw pearls before swine.” That is to say, we do not speak of things which the inquirers are not ready to hear, lest we offer a scandal by arousing their passionate (and potentially blasphemous) response. Usually, for many anyway, sufficient time must pass before it can be clear that inquirers learn all that is necessary before encouraging them to take the next step. Hearers / inquirers are seeking; we respect that.
2. those who express a desire for undertaking the formative path toward entering into communion in the Holy Church are called catechumens. Since these are now making an initial commitment, they are received in a special relationship with the Church. This relationship is expressed by the writing down of their names on a special roll. This process, called “enrollment,” is important, since it is a signal to the holy community where they are enrolled that these new persons present a new responsibility of love and care. Katakhoumenos, (one who is under instruction), is a Greek word which remains untranslated in Latin and also in English, since the kind of instruction given to a catechumen differs from that given to hearers / inquirers. It is spiritual instruction, not like anything in the world. The emphasis here is on formation of the heart, rather than mere information of the head. The sum of catechetical instruction is the submission of the catechumen to confession of sins and the reception of an elementary rule of prayer to get them started on the spiritual life. Somewhere within the catechumenate, usually if the catechumen is preparing for holy Baptism and not only Chrismation, exorcisms are prayed over him or her, as part of the path toward readiness for election to holy initiation.
Catechumens will be interested to know that, should they die while still a catechumen, they would be buried with a full Orthodox funeral. (I did this once, for a 19 year old catechumen who died in an auto accident; it was deeply moving).
3. those catechumens whose catechumenate has ripened to the point where readiness for entry into full communion in the Church are called “those preparing for illumination,” (photizomenos, or in Latin, illuminandi). Those “elected” to be illumined have demonstrated their readiness by achieving a fundamental grasp of the trajectory of the Orthodox Christian way of life: death to self, and the undertaking of the ascetical struggle to live the life of the Gospel according to Our Lord’s commandments and in the power of the All-holy Spirit of grace. Those to be illumined are received into full mystical (sacramental) communion with three mysteries which together form initiation into Christ: holy Baptism, holy Chrismation, and holy Communion.
When we Orthodox receive non-Orthodox Christians, we serve only the imposition of holy Chrism (the mystical continuance of apostolic laying on of hands, dating from the era right at the passing of the Apostles from this life). After confession of sins and examination of faith, then comes holy Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ from the reserved Holy Gifts. The point here is that there is only ONE baptism. If we discern that the baptism already administered was “of the Church,” then we recognize their Christianity. That means we fill up what is missing: the seal of the Spirit by which the new convert is integrated into the Church, and first holy Communion which unites them to Christ and us. We never re-baptize; if what has been administered actually BE baptism, it is done. If not, we baptize.
I am most interested in knowing if I have anticipated all the usual questions… BTW, blessed leave-taking of the Feast of Pentecost!
In the last post, I offered some thoughts on the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Since there were several questions regarding the dismissal of the catechumens (as said nowadays, “let all of the catechumens depart! Depart, ye catechumens; let none of the catechumens remain!”), which concludes that section of the Divine Liturgy, this post addresses that issue.
The Christian Liturgy, in all of its forms, ancient and modern, East and West, includes a vocal dismissal of catechumens (and others). This invitation to leave the nave of the church is issued in a loud voice by the deacon as he stands on the soleas (the slightly raised area extending out from the templon, or iconostasis, where most of the proclamatory acts of worship take place). In antiquity, the dismissal was significantly longer: not only catechumens, but also heretics (many by name!), Jews, pagans, and then a general one: “cuius non cura est, procedat!” (He who has no business here, depart!). The exact language differed a bit from one liturgy to another, but the principle of dismissing those not worthy to participate in the Eucharist was firmly established from the earliest times. Later, before even the end of the first millenium, the Orthodox Church did not get rid of this, even when the catechumenate faded (everyone was a Christian from their earliest years; adult baptisms became quite rare). So, the habit was maintained in preserving a high spiritual climate in the Eucharist.
Nowadays, we faithful may best hear this dismissal as a reminder of the solemnity of the spiritual ministry we are embarking on in the Eucharist! We can take the dismissal issued by the deacon as a clarion call to rise to a high spiritual state and to dismiss from ourselves every evil thought and unworthy distraction.
But, also, it seems fitting in our day when many people come into the Orthodox churches to learn, that they should have a clear reminder that what follows this dismissal is really beyond their competence to share. They have not (yet, for some) entered into the same level of spiritual preparedness, so the dismissal tells them that although they need not physically remove themselves from the nave of the church, they should be aware that they are not yet initiated into the holy ministry we have together.
In some classically laid out Orthodox church temples, the narthex is much larger and becomes a functional place of worship. In such temples, the junction-point of narthex and nave can be a series of columns or a low wall with icons and the baptisterion conjoining both. The catechumens and inquirers (classically called “auditores” or “akroomenoi“–hearers) could take their place in this area of the church and still participate according to their status.
It may interest many to know that in most monasteries the catechumens are REALLY ushered from the nave, before the Liturgy continues on into the eucharist (the Liturgy of the Faithful).
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.
Now we are prepared to look at the general shape of the Divine Liturgy. There are three major parts.
1. The Proskomidia
The first of the three parts of the Divine Liturgy is called the Proskomidia, “prohs-koh-MEE-dee-ah,” from the Greek word for it: proskomidi. It is the provision and preparation of the eucharistic elements, the bread and the wine. In this preparation, from the five breads (prosphora, “offerings”) offered by a member or members of the congregation, the “Lamb” (the main element, which will become itself the Body of Christ at the Eucharist) along with the wine, are carefully arranged on the diskos (liturgical plate). (There is also a special stamp which allows all five loaves to be presented as one loaf.) Wine and a small amount of water are poured into the chalice (liturgical cup) in preparation for their being carried in a procession from the Prothesis, the Table of Preparation, to the Holy Table at the Great Entrance, later, at the beginning of the third major part of the Divine Liturgy which we call the liturgy of the faithful. The bread must have no other ingredients than what the Church prescribes: water, flour, salt, and yeast. No oil or other additive may be used, not even on the pans. It must be well-baked, after careful preparation. Yeasted bread is always used, since the bread rises and “lives.” We never use unleavened bread. The wine must be pure red grape wine (not blush, but dark) and sweet. The Preparation is completed by the priest in the altar, usually during the course of the Service of Matins. This is the only portion of the Divine Liturgy which may be served by the priest alone.
After the priest says some introductory prayers (he himself having already said earlier the pre-communion prayers as the Church provides for all the faithful), he enters the holy altar area and dons his vestments with the usual vesting prayers and then washes his hands. Once vested, the priest does nothing in his own name, but rather all “in the Name of the One Who sent him.” The vestments are indicative of the divine, changeless and life-bestowing grace of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, Who is “He that offereth and He that is offered.” Now the priest is ready to begin the Proskomidia. At the Prothesis Table, which is like the cave of Bethlehem, Christ will issue forth for us. Each of the 5 small loaves mentioned above provides one element of cut bread to be placed on the diskos. Each portion is cut out with very exacting detail, all accompanied by specific prayers and exclamations. From one loaf is cut the “Lamb” marked with the monogram of Christ, along with another Greek word (IC XC NIKA), all of which says “Jesus Christ overcomes.” The Lamb will become the Body of Christ for Holy Communion. The mingling of the wine and the water in the chalice shows that Our Lord on the Cross shed both blood and water to accomplish our salvation: “pierced with a spear, from His side flowed blood and water.” A second loaf yields a triangular portion symbolizing the Mother of God: “the queen stood at Thy right hand” (Psalm 44). Then from a third loaf are cut nine small particles symbolizing the ranks of angels and saints. The names of many great saints are read as these are cut and placed on the diskos. Finally, the fourth and fifth loaves yield particles for the Orthodox faithful living and dead, respectively. The priest keeps a book of commemorations in which he records the names of very many persons for whom he prays: his faithful parishioners, family members, other Orthodox Christians, and the names of those for whom prayer has been requested. Note that the particles for both the living and the dead are assembled together on the diskos. We are in communion with our beloved departed; the Church does not forget those who have died in the faith!
It is customary in the parishes for the faithful who bake prosphora to include a small slip of paper upon which they write the Christian names of those whom they wish to be commemorated. To provide this slip, make two columns divided by a center line. At the top of the right-hand column, draw a cross: +. Then, write the names of the living in the left column and the departed under the + in the right column. Place this paper on top of the prosphora offering as you give it to the deacon or priest. It is a great honor and a holy work to bake bread and provide wine for the Divine Liturgy. Now that the diskos is populated with the various particles, we see in a microcosm the whole Church of the living and the departed in one body compact, with Our Lord, “the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sin of the world,” in the very center. The Oblation is covered with veils and a large cloth over both, the aer, and it is censed with the prayer of blessing. This part of the Liturgy ends with a general censing; usually at about the time the choirs are singing the Praises, toward the end of Matins. The remnants of the loaves are gathered together and cut up into bite-sized pieces to be served after the dismissal of the Liturgy to those who were not prepared to receive Holy Communion; these are called antidoron, (pronounce: ahn-DEE-thoh-rohn”) which means “(a consolation) instead of the Holy Gifts.” The Church never likes to leave anyone empty-handed!
Orthodox Christian worship is thoroughly liturgical. That is to say, it is a holy conversation, quite different than that which one would have in the marketplace. Here are some fundamental aspects:
In the original Greek language of pre-Christian antiquity and in the Bible, the word “liturgy” is actually compounded of two elements (leitos, “people” + ergeia, “working”) the oldest and primary meaning of which is “the work of the people,” or “a public service.” In pre-Christian antiquity, this meant the duty one would fulfill for the public good at his own expense. Thus, the “liturgy” is not something one gets, but rather what he gives. At the same time liturgy means “the work of prayer,” this stemming from a play on the words, leitos ~ liti, “prayer, entreaty” (the first syllable of both is pronounced identically). It is work: nothing good is ever achieved without effort. So, we must go to some effort in order to participate actively and meaningfully. It is prayer: let us begin by listening carefully, in order to learn to pray properly. It is “of the people,” thus necessitating a community. At least one other Orthodox Christian must be actively present with the bishop or priest in the praying of the Liturgy in order for it to take place; there are no “private liturgies.” This would be an oxymoron. Thus, the Liturgy needs a community for its proper celebration, as discussed above. With the apostolic minister presiding at the Holy Table, at least one other person, and with an offering of bread and wine, the Liturgy may proceed. The Liturgy is a mosaic of Holy Scripture and prayer, all interwoven into an organic whole. Many have attempted to enumerate how many scriptural quotations and allusions are contained in the Liturgy. Such exercises are profitable, yet it is very difficult to make an exact accounting, since almost every word of the Liturgy is deeply scriptural in tone and content, one phrase running into and even overlapping another. By praying and, in time, memorizing the Divine Liturgy, one learns to pray and even memorize a great deal of the Bible. It has been said that while many Christians study the Bible, we Orthodox pray the Bible!
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!
2. The Liturgy is the product of divine revelation as well as the greatest human cultural achievement.
The Divine Liturgy comes to us from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and is celebrated by His Apostles and their successors, the Orthodox Catholic bishops, right down to our time, in an uninterrupted continuum. This living process will continue, without a doubt, by God’s holy providence, until the Lord appears again to raise the dead. St Paul informs us, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, that he “received from the Lord” (11: 23) that which he passed on to the Corinthians; namely, the Eucharist in which bread and wine are offered. The bread becomes for us the Body, and the wine, the Blood of the New Testament. This practice of liturgizing was spread by all of the Apostles, throughout the ancient world. After their passing from this life, the liturgy was celebrated in every place with both exacting uniformity and marvelous diversity. The uniformity is expressed in the central act of calling down the Holy Spirit, a little Pentecost, in which Christ becomes present, making the Paschal mystery present for the faithful. This is the divine nature of the liturgy: changeless, mystical, transcendent, surpassing the understanding, pure prayer. The diversity is expressed by the out-growth of localized liturgical families. For example, the liturgy was celebrated in a certain precise way in Jerusalem and in Antioch. This Antiochene way of liturgizing was carried by St John Chrysostom to Constantinople, where it became the basis for the Constantinopolitan, or imperial, “Great Church,” liturgy. There was a different way of liturgizing in Alexandria; and yet different again in Rome, Lyons, and Milan. This is the human nature of the liturgy. Like Jesus our Lord Himself, Who possesses two natures “inseparable yet unconfused,” so the liturgy possesses both a divine, changeless aspect as well as a human, linguistic and cultural expression, which is subject to constant change. These changes, however, do not touch upon the mystical unity of the liturgy, which is not subject to change; namely, the showing forth of the Body of Christ, the Salvation of the world.
Where does the Divine Liturgy come from?
1. The Liturgy is the apex of the age-old tradition of worship:
“Thy processionals have been seen, O God, the processionals of my God, of my King Who is in His sanctuary. Princes went before, and after them the chanters, in the midst of timbrel-playing maidens. In the congregations bless ye God, the Lord from the well-springs of Israel”
(Psalm 67: 25-27, LXX; written about 3,000 years ago).
Immediately after the exile of our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, from the Eden of delight, men built altars and prayed to God, accompanied by sacrifices of various kinds. Noah built an altar after the great deluge, as did Abraham and the patriarchs, our forefathers who received the first promises from God. Moses was instructed to build a specific tent of worship, the tabernacle in the wilderness. Later, King David’s son, Solomon, received the command to build God a house of worship, the first Temple in Jerusalem. All this was to teach man that liturgical worship, under the direction of the ministers duly appointed by God, comprises the highest form of prayer—the acme of spiritual experience: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘let us go into the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 121: 1, LXX).
The Holy and Divine Liturgy practiced by Orthodox Christians is the composite of the formal worship taught by God to Moses in the ancient covenant, augmented by the practice of interpreting Holy Scripture, dating back to the ministry of Ezra the scribe (sixth century before Christ), and fulfilled and completed by the direct instruction given by Our Lord Jesus Christ on the eve of His philanthropic Passion and Crucifixion. After Christ’s glorious Resurrection on the third day (on Sunday), He appeared many times to His Apostles and taught them “concerning the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1: 3). The Church has always understood this to mean direct instruction to them concerning the Liturgy, among other things. For example, in the Book of the Acts, we learn about the sending forth of St Paul in his apostolic journeys. He went out from Antioch, where the Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, laid hands on him to commission him for that work. The text actually says “while they were celebrating the Liturgy [Greek, leitourgountes, “liturgizing”] unto the Lord, and praying and fasting” (Acts 13: 2, 3, my translation). So the Liturgy is the fundamental and most profound way in which the Church shows herself to be what she is: the New Israel, the Bride and Body of Christ.
The Divine Liturgy is the highest form of prayer in which a sacred exchange takes place. Mankind offers to God “his temporal and limited life (in exchange) for the eternal and infinite life of God” (Elder Zacharias of Essex).
The Liturgy is the common prayer of Christians
Christians have gathered together on the first day of the week, and at other special times, to offer their prayers in common and to bring gifts of bread and wine, according to the commandment of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Liturgy is the holy tradition of worship, the “sacrifice of praise,” which accomplishes these things.
When an Orthodox Christian places his first priority on the remembrance of God, he begins the new week by attending the service of Vespers on the eve before the first day of the week, keeps a holy silence in his heart until the Liturgy “on the morning of the Day of the Sun” and defers all other obligations in his life until after accomplishing the mystical sacrifice. By putting God first he finds meaning in all his labors in the new week now unfolding before him. As the Apostle James teaches us, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, Who giveth to all liberally…” (James 1: 5). Every one of us needs wisdom to face the myriad problems which present themselves to us every day: personal, familial, work- or school-related. If God comes first, then we can meet every problem with confidence, knowing that His merciful grace will guide us toward what is pleasing to Him and good for our salvation.
Why must one pray at church? Why not pray alone, in one’s home, or in the woodlands, or in any beautiful place indoors or out? Why must a person pray at a certain place? Does not the Bible say that “God does not live in houses made by man”? These questions are constantly posed by many in our times. And, to tell the truth, the answer is simply that one may pray to God in any place, at any time, and under any circumstances. However, God has always summoned man to pray to Him and to offer Him due worship at specific times and in specific places for specific purposes. Not all prayer is of the same depth—or height. Our Lord told us through his disciples, “For where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18: 20).
The Liturgy is better experienced than understood
Above all, the Liturgy is known through experience. Jesus said to His very first followers, in response to their inquiry, “Come, and see!” Our Lord did not engage them in a theological dispute or a long-winded talk; rather, He invited them to experience Him, the Life. However, St Peter, one of those early followers, also admonished us to “add to your faith, virtue, and to virtue, knowledge” (2 Peter 1: 5). So it helps a great deal if one attends the Liturgy with some knowledge of what is going on. The posts bearing this category (Orthodox Christian liturgics) will attempt to provide you interested readers with basic information about the Liturgy, as an aid in participating in it with deeper awareness.
Ask the Lord to help you to put into practice the holy things taught here and to be obedient to these exhortations. If you do so, you will find “the peace which passeth understanding” in all that you do.
This post will be followed by many others on this theme. Taken together, they will form a small book to be published, should our Bishop grant the blessing. In the meantime, I humbly solicit your comments, both critical and commendatory, as the case may be, in order to improve my work for the edification of the Orthodox Christian faithful.
To be continued…