Posts Tagged ‘divine liturgy’

Guest article on first encounters of the Orthodox liturgical kind

In Orthodox Christianity: liturgics on May 29, 2009 at 9:51 pm

I have been working on an essay, Orthodoxy 201: On being a Neophyte.  Currently, I’m collecting perspectives from new, adult converts on their experiences after a year of being Orthodox Christians. So, I am thinking alot these days about what life after entry into the Church is like from the perspective of new converts and what issues may need to be addressed.

Christina Douglas, in a discussion with me about these new convert issues, mentioned the written comments of one of her acquaintances, a protestant pastor, Gordon Atkinson. After reading his FIRST impression of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, I had to post it!  So, by way of introducting Orthodoxy 201, here is a “hearer’s” (a specific kind of seeker) impression, well before he (might?) take up Orthodoxy 101!

I present to you Pastor Gordon Atkinson, to whom I render gratitude for his gracious consent for me to publish his article here. My readers must not be in a hurry to read to the Orthodox part. He shows his searching colours in the first section…

Not for Lightweights
By Gordon Atkinson

Sunday was the 4th of 13 in my sabbatical time. Each of them is precious to me. Each week I will choose a place and a way to worship. I’m not being a tourist. I’m seeking authentic spiritual experiences. I want to worship. I can’t define what I’m doing beyond that. I’m making no plans until a few days before Sunday.
The first two weeks I kept silence with the Quakers. One of the Friends told me their central doctrine was simple: “There is that of God in every person.” Quakers are rather like Buddhists – heavy on method and light on doctrinal statements. Having grown up in the evangelical world, where what one says about Jesus is thought to be so incredibly and insanely important, I have been seeking practice more than doctrine of late. So I enjoyed my time with the Quakers greatly.
The third Sunday I went to Austin to visit Journey: An Imperfect Faith Community. http://www.journeyifc.com/ That’s their name. They rather lay it on the line, don’t they? Rick and David are two of the most delightful, unpretentious, interesting pastors I’ve ever met. Funny, earthy, deep thinking. If you’re used to church with a lot of clear rules and traditional boundaries, Journey will be like a postmodern slap in your face. The mind spins and reels. Everywhere is mismatched furniture, icons, stacks of books, music equipment, Christmas lights, and unexpected things of all kinds. It’s man-cave meets the Upper Room. Once I was there and found a hotdog, in its bun, with a line of mustard on it, that had petrified to the point where I had to bang it on the table to see if it was real or a squeaky dog toy. I really wasn’t sure at first. It was real. I showed it to Rick, who said, “Cool.”
I SO wish I had stolen it and brought it back to my own man-cave, my office at church. I think it would be fine there. I doubt if even bacteria are interested in it now. Seriously, I have the strangest urge to wander though Journey picking things up and taking them home with me. And unless it was a microphone or something they really need, I think they’d be okay with that.
Having spoken there once and been there a number of times, I think I might have stealing privileges. Rick, David, if you see this, just leave a comment and let me know if it’s okay for me to snag some things when I’m there. If that hot dog is still there, I have dibs on it.
Dibs count at Journey. I saw it in their bylaws.
Saturday night Jeanene and I still hadn’t decided where to go. I experienced something common to our culture but new to me. The “Where do you want to go to church – I don’t know where do YOU want to go to church” conversation. I found the Saint Anthony the Great website, http://orthodoxsanantonio.org/ It’s an Orthodox church that has beautiful Byzantine art in the sanctuary.
We decided to go there.
Shelby and Lillian went with us. On the way we warned them that this was going to be different. “They might not have changed their worship service much in a thousand years or so,” I told the girls.
That was an understatement.
Saint Anthony the Great isn’t just old school. It’s “styli and wax tablets” old school. We arrived ten minutes early for worship and the room was already filled with people lighting candles and praying. There was one greeter. I said, “We don’t know what to do.” She handed me a liturgy book and waved us inside.
Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn’t too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer.
I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations. It was an ADD kids nightmare. Robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling and emerged from the other side of the room where no one was singing. The acoustics were wild. No matter who was speaking, the sound came out of everywhere. There was so much going on I couldn’t keep up with all the things I couldn’t pay attention to.
Lillian was the first to go down. After half an hour of standing, she was done. Jeanene took her over to a pew on the side wall. She slumped against Jeanene’s shoulder and stared at me with this stunned, rather betrayed look on her face.
“How could you have brought us to this insane place?”
Shelby tried to tough it out. We were following along in the 40 page liturgy book that was only an abbreviation of the service we were experiencing. I got lost no less than 10 times. After 50 minutes Shelby leaned over and asked how much longer the service would be. I was trying to keep from locking my knees because my thighs had gotten numb. I showed her the book. We were on page 15. I flipped through the remaining 25 pages to show her how much more there was. Her mouth fell open.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. And I think there’s supposed to be a sermon in here somewhere.”
“They haven’t done the SERMON yet? What was that guy doing who said all that stuff about—all that stuff?”
“I don’t know” I said.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. I looked around and saw the door at the back of the sanctuary swinging shut.
And then there was one.
I made it through the entire 1 hour and 50 minutes of worship without sitting down, but my back was sore. Shelby came back toward the end. When it came time for communion I suggested that we not participate because I didn’t know what kind of rules they have for that. We stayed politely at the back. A woman noticed and brought some of the bread to us, bowing respectfully as she offered it. Her gesture of kindness to newcomers who were clearly struggling to understand everything was touching to me.
Okay, so I started crying a little. So what? You would have too, I bet.
After it was over another woman came to speak with us. She said, “I noticed the girls were really struggling with having to stand.”
“Yeah,” I said. “This worship is not for lightweights.”
She laughed and said, “yes,” not the least bit ashamed or apologetic.
So what did I think about my experience at Saint Anthony the Great Orthodox Church?
I LOVED IT. Loved it loved it loved it loved it loved it.
In a day when user-friendly is the byword of everything from churches to software, here was worship that asked something of me. No, DEMANDED something of me.
“You don’t know what Theotokos is? Get a book and read it. You have a hard time standing for 2 hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. What made you think you could worship the Eternal one without pain?”
See, I get that. That makes sense to me. I had a hard time following the words of the chants and liturgy, but even my lack of understanding had something to teach me.
“There is so much for you to learn. There is more here than a person could master in a lifetime. THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE. Your understanding is not central here. These are ancient rites of the church. Stand with us, brother, and you will learn in time. Or go and find your way to an easier place if you must. God bless you on that journey. We understand, but this is
the way we do church.”
I’m going back again on Sunday. I started to write, I’m looking forward to it.” But that’s not right. I’m feeling right about it.
And feeling right is what I’m looking for.


The Eucharist, continued: the Epiklesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on November 27, 2008 at 8:26 pm

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.”

The Epiklesis

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[1] 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!”

[1] 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, continued

In 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.

Protected: Systema Typikou: Divine Liturgy for Sunday #147-156

In Orthodox Typikon: Systema Typikou in English on November 8, 2008 at 11:40 pm

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Divine Liturgy: graphic, #3 of 3

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on November 8, 2008 at 8:47 pm

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!

Divine Liturgy: graphic, #2 of 3

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on November 8, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Here is the next section, the Liturgy of the Faithful, from the cherubic hymn (Great entrance) to the Lord’s Prayer:


Divine Liturgy: graphic, #1 of 3

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on November 8, 2008 at 7:56 pm


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!

The Great Entrance (Offertory); continuation of series on the Divine Liturgy

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on October 7, 2008 at 5:16 am

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.

Liturgy of the Faithful: prayers before the Offering (Great Entrance)

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity, Orthodox Christianity: liturgics on October 5, 2008 at 6:07 am

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.”

We take a break from our sustained study of the Liturgy!

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on August 18, 2008 at 1:27 am

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!

The homily (or, sermon). Part X of the series on the Liturgy

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on August 18, 2008 at 1:21 am

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.”

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 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!

Liturgy of the Faithful–the third and climactic part of the Liturgy: a continuation of Part V of the series

In 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!”

What is the Divine Liturgy? the first of a series on this theme.

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on May 26, 2008 at 2:34 am

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…