AN INTRODUCTION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN WORSHIP,
Part 1: The Divine Liturgy
Volume 3 in the Series, WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?
Written by St. Innocent/ FIREBIRD Multi-Media, a ministry of St. Innocent Religious Community, Redford, MI
This is the text of the narration, that doubles as an essay, of a future 30-minute DVD that will be made, the second of a DVD series, where icons, photos and video footage that correspond to the text, plus music, will be added to the recorded narration.
WHAT IS THE DIVINE LITURGY?
When a non-Orthodox person first attends an Orthodox Christian Church Service, it can be rather overwhelming. We will try to explain and make sense out of some of what you will encounter. This series is intended for instruction of both non-Orthodox and Orthodox who wish to learn more about their Orthodox Faith and its practices. In this Volume 3 of our series, WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?, we will seek to explain the meaning of the most important of the Divine Services — the Divine Liturgy. This is the Service you are most likely to attend first and most frequently, because it is the worship Service done on Sunday mornings. There are many different Divine Services, but the Divine Liturgy is the most important one, during which specially prepared bread and wine are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of Christ, which the Orthodox Faithful receive in the ‘Sacrament’ or ‘Mystery’ of Holy Communion, after proper preparation. Other Christians use different names for a somewhat similar service: the Mass, the Eucharist, the Communion Service — based on the Lord’s Last Supper.
WHY DO ORTHODOX CALL THEIR COMMUNION SERVICE “DIVINE LITURGY”?
The Orthodox call all their worship services “Divine Services,” and the Eucharist is called the “Divine Liturgy.” It is “Divine,” because Orthodox worship is understood to reflect and correspond to divine worship before God’s throne in heaven; it is “Liturgy,” which literally means, “work of the people,” because, as the “priesthood of all believers” by virtue of their Baptism and Chrismation, all the faithful are called to participate in offering divine worship along with the priest. In fact, the Divine Liturgy is not allowed to be served by just a priest alone — there must be at least one other person present. Public worship is not a private affair, but the corporate work of all the faithful — the Church of God, which is the Body of Christ.
WHAT DO ORTHODOX BELIEVE ABOUT WORSHIP?
To begin with, let us emphasize that Orthodox believe that to know God is to want to worship Him as deeply and fully as possible. The overall patterns of Orthodox worship are drawn from heavenly worship, as described in many places in the Bible and received from Holy Tradition, wherein we on earth participate in the continual Divine worship, which is focused on worshipping God, not on entertaining us. We strive to use all the senses in making Divine worship as beautiful as possible in every way, worshipping “in the beauty of holiness.” The Greek word “orthodox” means both “right belief” and “right worship,” and the Divine Liturgy is the chief example of how Orthodox worship is a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. We recall the account of the representatives of Prince St. Vladimir of Kiev, Rus’, when they experienced the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Wisdom—Hagia Sophia—in Constantinople in the late tenth century — that they didn’t know if they were in heaven or on earth. It was on the basis of this transforming experience that the ambassadors recommended to their Prince that he adopt Orthodox Christianity for his people, rather than Latin Christianity or Islam. Right worship and right belief, divine beauty and splendor are precisely what is supposed to be experienced in all Orthodox Divine Services, but most especially in the Divine Liturgy.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
Now let us briefly look at the different parts of the Divine Liturgy and their meaning. There are three main parts of the Liturgy: first, the Liturgy of Preparation; second, the Liturgy of the Word; and third, the Liturgy of the Faithful.
WHAT IS THE FIRST PART OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
The first part of the Divine Liturgy is called the Proskomedia, which can also be called the “Liturgy of Preparation,” or “Oblation.” This part people rarely see, because it is done prior to the public parts of the service, in the sanctuary at the Table of Preparation, located against the wall to the left of the altar. However, it is very beautiful and meaningful to see the Proskomedia, and it makes the later parts of the Liturgy more meaningful to have seen it. (A DVD showing a complete Proskomedia is available on another DVD produced by St. Innocent/ Firebird Multi-Media.) After vesting while saying designated prayers, the priest prepares the bread and wine, which later will become the Body and Blood of Christ. The specially-made leavened holy bread, called the Prosfora (or Prosfora), with a special pattern impressed on the top, can be made as one large loaf or five smaller loaves, from which a large square is cut out, called the “Lamb,” because Christ is the “Lamb of God,” and the “Paschal Lamb.” It is this “Lamb” that will be consecrated as the Body of Christ. From other portions of the Holy Bread small particles are cut out and placed on the “diskos” (a small gold plate with a footed base), as the priest commemorates first, various saints in a particular order, and then all the names of the living and the departed whom he wishes to remember. [This can include up to five-hundred or a thousand people or more, depending on the priest, and can easily take 30 to 45-minutes or more.] The priest then pours some wine and water into the chalice with accompanying prayers, after which the “Holy Gifts” are censed with incense and the whole sanctuary is censed. We might note here that incense is used at various times in most Orthodox Divine Services, as a means of blessing holy things and people, continuing the Old Testament and Apostolic traditions of offering incense to God as a prayer offering and as a sacrifice, as mentioned in many places in the Old and New Testaments, for sacrifices were always accompanied by incense. One such example is a verse from Psalm 141, always heard in Vespers: “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense...” and the Book of Revelation refers to the prayers of saints ascending like incense before God’s throne. After the censing of the entire sanctuary, nave and narthex, including all the icons and people, the public part of the Liturgy begins.
IS THERE MORE THAN ONE DIVINE LITURGY?
Yes, there are three major Divine Liturgies that are celebrated: the most customary one is attributed to St. John Chrysostom. Another Liturgy, called the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, is served only on Sundays during Great Lent and a few other days. The primary difference between the two Liturgies is that the St. Basil’s Liturgy has longer, very beautiful priest’s prayers. The Presanctified Liturgy is also a major Liturgy, but its structure is quite different, and it is served only during Great Lent. What we are explaining here is the usual, customary parish Sunday Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, without going into various possible variations.
SHOULD I SIT, STAND OR KNEEL DURING DIVINE SERVICES?
It is important to mention that it has been customary for 2,000 years for Orthodox to stand to worship God. (Sitting is a very recent innovation, reflecting a very different attitude towards worship.) Traditionally, the elderly, infirm, pregnant women and young children are permitted to sit during the Litanies or as necessary, but if one’s health permits, we should stand reverently to worship God, standing in His Holy Presence.
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WHAT IS THE SECOND PART OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
The second part of the Divine Liturgy is called the “Liturgy of the Word”— this is the public part of the Liturgy that starts at the scheduled time. It is a great privilege to participate in the Church’s worship of God, and the faithful customarily make every effort to be present before the Service begins, preparing themselves for what they are about to do — to enter into the divine realm and participate in worshipping God with those who stand before God’s throne, having a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.
The entire Divine Liturgy is a gradual crescendo and building up to the climax, which is the twin mountain peaks of the Consecration of the Precious Body and Blood of Christ and the receiving of them in the Sacrament or Mystery of Holy Communion. Actually, it is Christ Himself Who presides at the Divine Celebration, by means of the bishop and the priests he ordains to stand in his place in front of the altar, offering the Holy Gifts. The people participate in the offering of this worship, as though they were standing before God’s Holy Throne in heaven offering continual worship of God, along with all the angels and saints. This is the work of the Church — praising and worshiping God.
HOW DOES THE LITURGY BEGIN?
We start out with the Holy Doors being opened and with the priest’s exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages!”, while the priest makes the sign of the cross over the altar with the Gospels Book. This sets the stage, so to speak, for what we are about to be doing — we are entering into and participating in the Kingdom of God, and if we think about it, this is truly awesome and mind-boggling — indeed a gift from God Himself. We are not there to be entertained, or to be passive observers as though at some sporting or entertainment event in an auditorium, theatre or arena.
The deacon (and when there is no deacon, the priest takes his part in any Divine Service) starts the Great Litany, which is a set of short petitions asking God’s blessing and aid for basically every aspect of our life and our world, to which we the people, led by the choir, respond, “Lord have mercy.”
Two important characteristics of Orthodox worship are immediately noticed. First, almost everything is chanted or sung, and second, that the back-and-forth responses are supposed to overlap the last syllable of what the priest, deacon, or reader is chanting, or what the choir is singing. Both of these distinctive Orthodox liturgical practices reflect that in divine worship, we are standing with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. Before God’s throne heavenly worship is sung, not spoken, (as mentioned in many places in the Bible), and it is continuous, which is conveyed by the overlapping and not stopping after each petition and response, and by not having ‘empty holes’ in what should be a continuous, seamless, non-interrupted liturgical flow. This helps to convey that in our worship we have entered the eternal realm that transcends ordinary time, and that we are no longer in the ordinary worldly realm, where nothing starts till the previous thing has stopped.
We then sing the three Antiphons, which are either parts of two Old Testament Psalms and the Beatitudes, or refrains on various verses from the Psalms. Through these, we not only offer worship to the Lord, but also participate in a type of ‘procession,’ that helps us to make our transition from the world into the divine realm, so that we may become receptive to our Lord’s coming to us.
WHAT IS THE LITTLE ENTRANCE?
During the Third Antiphon, the Little Entrance occurs. At this time there is a procession by the priest and the deacon out of the north deacon’s door of the sanctuary onto the raised area in front of the Holy Doors, called the “solea,” in which the deacon carries the Gospels Book (which represents Christ Himself), accompanied by the altar servers who carry candles. This Little Entrance represents that Christ is in the process of coming to us — that Christ is the Light of the World and is revealed to us right here and now through the proclamation of the Word of God contained in the Gospels, and through the sermon that explains the meaning of the appointed Gospel reading. We immediately sing a short hymn, in which we respond with a call to worship: “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ....”
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE LITTLE ENTRANCE?
The Little Entrance is followed by several short hymns that are for the specific day and its saints and feasts, called Troparia and Kontakia. And then, as the crescendo of prayer and worship is increasing, an important and widely used hymn is sung in praise of the Holy Trinity, called the “Trisagion” or “Thrice-Holy”: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!” This distinctively Orthodox Hymn, which echoes the thrice-holy hymn sung by the angels before God’s throne, helps to prepare us to hear the proclamation of God’s Word to us, first in the reading of the Epistle, and then the Gospel.
We have now approached the first major crescendo that has been building up from the beginning — a three-pointed peak, with the highest peak—the Gospel—in the center, flanked by two lesser peaks — the Epistle and the sermon.
The Epistle is usually chanted by a Reader in the middle of the church, and is a designated passage from the New Testament, taken from one of the Epistles, or “Letters,” written by an Apostle, or from the Acts of the Apostles, and is preceded by the Pro-kei-men-on—comprised of selected Psalm verses. During the Epistle-reading, in preparation for the reading from the Gospels, the deacon censes the sanctuary, the icons and the people.
WHAT IS THE GOSPEL PROCESSION?
As the Alleluia is being sung three times, (with the Reader chanting Psalm verses in between), in preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel, another procession occurs, in which the Deacon carries the Gospels Book out the Holy Doors, accompanied by altar servers carrying candles and processional fans with seraphim depicted on them, who come out the deacons’ doors. They all stand in the middle of the church for the chanting of the Gospel, with the deacon facing the altar and the priest, with whose blessing the deacon reads the Gospel. (In the absence of a deacon, the priest chants the Gospel in front of the Holy Doors, facing the people.) Everyone is standing and no one moves an inch during this very special part of the Liturgy, for the Gospel reading is as though our Lord Jesus Christ Himself were standing in our midst proclaiming His words of salvation to us at this very present moment. After the procession returns to the sanctuary, the priest delivers the sermon in which he explains the meaning of the passage that was read from the Gospels, which is designated by the Church for that particular day.
The Epistle, Gospel and Sermon comprise the crescendo high points of the Liturgy of the Word, in which our Lord speaks to us and reveals Himself to us in His Holy Word—the Bible.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE GOSPEL AND SERMON?
After we have been enlightened by these proclamations of the Word, we pray the Litany of Fervent Supplication, which offers additional petitions on behalf of the world and its people, to which we respond fervently with “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.” This provides a transition from the second to the third part of the Divine Liturgy.
At this time something important occurs that the congregation doesn’t usually see — the bottom portion of the antimins is opened on the altar. (Part 2 of this series includes an explanation of the antimins or antimension, but in short, it is a special cloth with an icon of Christ lying in the tomb on it, with relics of a martyr sewn into it, and signed by the bishop, upon which the Liturgy must be served.) After this Litany, the Litany for the Catechumens is immediately chanted, at the end of which the catechumens are blessed and dismissed. [A catechumen is someone who is preparing to become Orthodox. In the early Church, they were not permitted to remain for the rest of the Liturgy, but this is not practiced today.] At this point, the transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Faithful concludes, and the next part of the Divine Liturgy begins without a moment’s pause.
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WHAT IS THE THIRD PART OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
The third part of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Faithful, during which the bread and wine that were blessed and offered in the Liturgy of Preparation are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and received by the Faithful, who have prepared themselves to be united to Christ, by receiving Him in the Mystery (or Sacrament) of Holy Communion. There are what we might regard as four “mountain peaks,” so to speak, in the Liturgy of the Faithful: (1) the Cherubic Hymn and Great Entrance; (2) the Symbol of Faith or Nicene Creed; (3) the Anaphora or Consecration; and (4) the reception of Holy Communion.
As the catechumens are being dismissed, and the faithful are called to pray in peace to the Lord, the rest of the antimins is unfolded on the altar, and there is an immediate change in the nature of the priest’s prayers, usually said quietly at the altar. First he prays for himself—for the grace to worthily stand before the holy altar offering divine service—and then he prays for the people, that they may worship the Lord “blamelessly with fear and love,” and may “partake without condemnation of the Holy Mysteries.”
WHAT IS THE FIRST “MOUNTAIN PEAK”?
We are now in a very different mode than we were in the Liturgy of the Word, during which we were focusing on learning and hearing the Word of God. Now the crescendo of worship builds and accelerates. Now we have come to the first “mountain peak,” the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, during which the deacon censes the sanctuary, iconostasis and the people, while at the same time, the priest quietly recites a lengthy beautiful prayer at the altar, in which he expresses how unworthy he is to stand before the holy altar and perform the sacred mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, and prays that he be made worthy by the Lord’s grace to offer the Holy Gifts. The words of the Cherubic Hymn, (one of the major hymns of the Orthodox Church), set the stage for what is about to happen as we more fully enter into and participate in the realm of heavenly worship. Think about the meaning of these incredible words that are being sung:
“Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity,
now lay aside all earthly cares.”
If there were any question about what we are doing in the Divine Liturgy, these words make it crystal clear: there is a correspondence between what we are doing on earth, and what is occurring before God’s throne in heaven: we on earth, represent the Cherubim. This is an awesome and mind-boggling declaration! The cherubim stand in God’s Presence before His throne, and offer continual worship to Him, and we are told in this hymn that we mystically represent the Cherubim in the earthly dimension of the heavenly Divine Liturgy. This assertion is unique to Orthodox Christianity! That we can mystically represent the Cherubim before God’s throne is indeed a great mystery, and must be accepted as such, for the human mind cannot understand how this can be so. This hymn basically explains two major characteristics of Orthodox worship: first, that our worship on earth corresponds to heavenly worship; and second, that Truths are mystical — mysteries, that cannot be comprehended by the human mind, but only by the heart set on fire by the Presence of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of worship is to stand in the Presence of God and to commune with Him, and to do so we must lay aside all earthly cares, while realizing that to know God is to desire to worship Him and to be united with Him.
WHAT IS THE GREAT ENTRANCE?
The Cherubic Hymn is usually sung slowly and reverently, and is repeated continuously, as necessary, until the procession comes out from the sanctuary through the north deacon’s door into the nave, in what is called the Great Entrance. Accompanied by the altar servers carrying candles and processional fans, the deacon carries the diskos with the Holy Bread and the priest carries the chalice with the Holy Wine, both having been prepared during the first part of the Divine Liturgy, and which had been on the Proskomedia Table. In some parishes the procession goes all the way around the interior of the church and down the center aisle, and in other parishes, the procession remains on and in front of the solea. The procession stops at the center of the solea, in front of the Holy Doors. During this Great Entrance, various prayers for the living and departed, and for the whole Church, (usually mentioning many people by name), are offered by the priest while holding the chalice, before processing through the open Holy Doors, and placing the Holy Gifts on the antimins on the altar. This comprises both the offering of the holy bread and wine and their transference to the altar. Then, while the choir completes singing the Cherubic Hymn, the priest and the deacon recite several prayers quietly; the priest removes the two little veils; and then he covers the Gifts with the large veil; and he censes them.
WHAT IS THE TRANSITION TO THE SECOND “MOUNTAIN PEAK”?
As we transition to the next major mountain peak of the Divine Liturgy, the deacon chants the Litany of Supplication “for the precious Gifts now offered,” and offers petitions for all those who have entered God’s holy temple “with faith, reverence, and the fear of God,” after which we exchange The Peace: “Peace be unto all!” When more than one priest or deacon are serving, the exchange of the Kiss of Peace occurs at this point. The liturgical dramatic movement is now accelerating and intensifying as we are approaching the highpoint of the Divine Liturgy — the Consecration of the Holy Gifts. Before we dare approach this sacred mystery, we, and especially the celebrants at the altar, must express outwardly that we are at peace with those around us, affirming that Christ is truly in our midst. Only if we love one another, can we also be united in our Faith about Who God is, and that He has revealed Himself to us as the Holy Trinity: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One in Essence and Undivided.”
WHAT IS THE SECOND “MOUNTAIN PEAK” OF THE LITURGY OF THE FAITHFUL?
We are now at the second mountain peak of the Liturgy of the Faithful — the vigorous and glorious singing of the Symbol of our Faith, the Nicene Creed: “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty...” In order to combat various heresies that attempted to undermine the Apostolic Faith, in the fourth century our Holy Fathers met together in the first two of the seven Ecumenical (or Universal) Councils that defined the Orthodox Faith against heresies, and wrote this Creed, guided by the Holy Spirit. Only as we affirm that Jesus Christ is One in Essence with the Father, and is true God and true Man, can we proceed to the third “mountain peak” of the Liturgy of the Faithful — the Anaphora. During the first part of the Creed, the priest waves the large veil up and down over the Holy Gifts, symbolizing the activity of the Holy Spirit Who is about to come and transform the Holy Gifts.
WHAT IS THE THIRD “MOUNTAIN PEAK” OF THE LITURGY OF THE FAITHFUL?
The Anaphora is the first part of the apex of the entire gradually accelerating crescendo of the liturgical movement of the Divine Liturgy, starting from the very beginning with the vesting of the priest and the Proskomedia — this is the peak of the mountain that we have been gradually ascending. This is when the Lord consecrates the bread and wine and changes them into His own Precious Body and Blood, in a way that we do not attempt to define, because it is a great mystery that transcends our puny human mind’s ability to comprehend. During the Anaphora, no one should sit or talk or move around or come or go, because of the great sanctity of what is happening.
One of the ancient names for this Service is the “Eucharist,” which comes from the Greek word “to give thanks,” and its liturgical source is right here: “Let us give thanks unto the Lord!” The Anaphora is the oldest part of the Liturgy, dating to the first century. We offer a sacrifice of praise and give thanks to the Lord, while the priest recites a prayer praising and worshipping God and thanking Him for creating us, for redeeming us when we had fallen away from Him, and for deigning to accept this Liturgy from us on earth, though there stand by Him thousands of angels, Cherubim and Seraphim, who sing the “Thrice-Holy Hymn”— “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth!....” whom we join by also reverently singing the hymn sung by the cherubim, seraphim and other angels by the throne of God. The priest’s prayers, offered on behalf of us all, continue to make present for us now the saving and redeeming acts of God and His Son, Jesus Christ, repeating our Savior’s words, recorded in the Scriptures, how He took bread and blessed it, broke it and gave it to His holy disciples saying: “Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And, taking the cup, the Lord said: “Drink of it, all of you. This is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins!” These are called the “Words of Institution,” (that is, instituting or establishing the rite of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper) and are the Lord’s own words, and He does not lie. Jesus Himself said that the bread and wine at His Last Supper are His Body and Blood — they don’t just symbolize or represent His Body and Blood, they are in reality His Body and Blood. Jesus also said that if we do not partake of His Body and Blood, we have no part of Him. However, we are not so audacious as to attempt to define how they are transformed. As sacred as His words are, the bread and wine are not transformed simply by the priest repeating Jesus’ Words of Institution.
The Consecration of the Holy Gifts continues as the priest “remembers” our Lord’s saving acts: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection, the Ascension and His second Coming. It is important to point out that the usual and very poor translation of the Greek word, a-nam-ne-sis as “remembrance”—as in “Do this in remembrance of Me”—is not only very misleading, but also leads to the faulty theology that the bread and wine merely “represent” Christ’s Body and Blood. The Greek word actually means to “re-present” — that is, to make a past event present now.
WHAT IS THE HOLIEST PART OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
We are now at the holiest moment of the whole Liturgy, the apex of the Consecration, called the “Epiclesis,” in which the Holy Gifts are elevated by the deacon and offered back to the Lord: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” The response is sung slowly and reverently: “We praise Thee. We bless Thee. We give thanks unto Thee, O Lord. And we pray unto Thee, O our God.” Traditionally the priest says these prayers quietly at this time, but there is a growing practice today in some parishes for the priest to say the prayers loudly after singing “We praise Thee,” and the people join in in saying the “Amens.” At this time of the Epiclesis, the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to come upon the Holy Gifts: “O Lord, Who did send down Thy Most Holy Spirit upon Thine apostles at the third hour: Take Him not from us, O Good One, but renew Him in us who pray to Thee.” The priest repeats this invocation three times for the Lord to send down His Holy Spirit as He did on Pentecost, and continues to pray: “And make this Bread the precious Body of Thy Christ....” And in some churches, the people join the deacon in responding loudly, “Amen!” And the priest continues: “.... And that which is in this Cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ....” And again, the people in some parishes join the deacon in responding loudly, “Amen!” And the priest continues: “.... Making the change by Thy Holy Spirit.” And a third time, in some parishes the people join the deacon in responding loudly, “Amen! Amen! Amen!” The clergy then make a full prostration before the Holy Gifts, thus expressing their faith that the Holy Spirit has indeed truly transformed the bread and wine into Christ’s actual Body and Blood — but in a way we do not attempt to define.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE ANAPHORA IS COMPLETED?
The Anaphora or Consecration is now complete. The priest then continues to pray, first, that those who will partake of the Holy Gifts may do so worthily, and then offering our worship on behalf of all those who have fallen asleep in the faith, and especially for the Most-Blessèd Birth-Giver-of-God and Ever-Virgin Mary. Since people frequently do not hear these prayers, their significance probably go unnoticed. A very important element of the Orthodox Faith is being expressed here, that is, the unity between the Church on earth—called the “Church Militant”—with the Church in heaven—called the “Church Triumphant.” In other words, Orthodoxy maintains that there is no rigid line between those alive on earth and those alive in heaven — this is the “Communion of Saints,” wherein those on earth are united with those departed in the same One Body of Christ, which is His Church.
We are now only slightly descending from the apex mountain peak of the Consecration as the glorious Hymn to the Theotokos (or “Birth-Giver-of-God”) is sung: “It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos....” During this hymn the priest continues to pray for all the saints and for those fallen asleep before us, and then continues praying for the living — for Orthodox bishops, priests and deacons. Then the priest offers our worship on earth on behalf of the whole world, for the whole Church, and for civil authorities, concluding with a prayer for one’s hierarchs, that they might “rightly define the word of Thy Truth.”
WHAT IS THE TRANSITION TO THE FOURTH “MOUNTAIN PEAK” OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
We now are further descending from the third mountain peak and are making the transition to the fourth and final mountain peak— the receiving of Holy Communion. The deacon chants the Litany Before the Lord’s Prayer, filled with wonderful petitions for God’s grace in our lives, and that we may “commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” Then the priest prays that the Lord would “make us worthy to partake of the heavenly and awesome Mysteries with a pure conscience,” and that we may dare to call on the Lord as Father, and say: “Our Father, Who art in heaven....” At this important moment, everyone present vigorously sings together the words of the prayer that Jesus Himself taught us to say, uniting us to each other and to the whole Church. After this the priest continues to pray on our behalf, giving thanks to God for all His great mercies, and praying that as “the physician of our souls and bodies,” He will distribute the Holy Gifts “according to the need of each.” And then the priest continues with a powerful prayer that usually goes unnoticed — that the Lord Jesus, Who is both on high with the Father, and also invisibly present with us, would by His mighty hand impart to the priest His most-pure Body and precious Blood, and through the priest, to all the people. This is reminiscent of how when the Lord miraculously fed the many thousands of people in the wilderness — after blessing the loaves and fish, He gave them to His disciples to distribute to the people.
Then a very significant liturgical act is done, the importance of which may go unnoticed because the doors are being closed. This is the Elevation of the Holy Gifts: the priest elevates the consecrated Body of Christ slightly above the diskos, saying “The Holy things for the holy!” While reverently standing, we respond by singing “One is Holy, One is the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father! Amen.” This a beautiful and very special liturgical moment! — first of all, because Christ’s precious Body is being elevated, which should evoke great awe and reverence, and secondly, because we are being called holy, as Christ’s Body and Blood are Holy. Appropriately, we respond to such a claim by asserting not us, but the Lord is holy.
WHAT IS HAPPENING AT THE ALTAR WHILE THE CURTAIN IS NOW CLOSED?
Following this is a very holy part of the Liturgy (and not an “intermission”), but people don’t see it because the curtain is closed: the priest and deacon are now preparing the Holy Gifts and receiving Holy Communion at the altar. While the choir sings appropriate hymns, first, the priest cuts the Lamb of God into four pieces and places one piece into the chalice. Then warm water is added, signifying the warmth of the Holy Gifts and of faith, full of the Holy Spirit. The priest then gives a portion of a second piece of the Body of Christ to the deacon, and then to himself. After this, the priest takes three sips of the Blood of Christ from the chalice, and then holds the chalice while the deacon drinks of Christ’s precious Blood. And then the other two portions of the consecrated Lamb of God are cut up for the Communion of the people and placed in the chalice. When this is completed, the Holy Doors are opened and the deacon brings the chalice with Christ’s Body and Blood out through the Holy Doors, proclaiming to all in a loud voice: “In the fear of God and with faith, draw near!” The choir and people respond, affirming this manifestation of God’s Presence in our midst: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord! God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!” And immediately the Prayer before Communion is said.
WHAT IS THE FOURTH MOUNTAIN PEAK OF THE DIVINE LITURGY?
We now have arrived at the fourth and final mountain peak, the apex and climax of the Divine Liturgy, towards which everything else has been pointing and ascending to reach this mountain peak. Our Lord Jesus Christ is now literally and physically standing in our midst, and all the faithful are invited by Him to unite themselves with Him by partaking of His Body and Blood. The Orthodox faithful who have prepared themselves by fasting, repentance, Confession and prayer, reverently and prayerfully line up and approach the Holy Gifts, children first, with their arms crossed against their chest, as they receive one of the wonderful Mysteries or Sacraments of the Church. The priest administers Holy Communion to the Orthodox faithful, using their Christian saint’s name, as they receive from the chalice both Christ’s Body and Blood together on a special spoon, with the words: “The servant of God (name), partakes of the Precious and Holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.” Since Christ has literally come to us and is at this very moment manifesting Himself to us during Holy Communion, everyone stands reverently, without talking, and sings repeatedly: “Receive the Body of Christ; taste the fountain of immortality.” After Communion people break their fast by drinking a little diluted wine, and eating a small piece of bread. (This is not Communion, but is from the portion of the loaf or loaves of the Holy Bread not put on the diskos during the Proskomedia, and therefore not consecrated as the Body of Christ.)
WHY DO BABIES AND YOUNG CHILDREN RECEIVE COMMUNION?
In the Orthodox Church even babies receive Holy Communion after they have been baptized, because this is their vital and indispensable spiritual food and nourishment that both children and adults need. Orthodoxy totally rejects the concept that one must understand what is happening for a Sacrament or Holy Mystery to be effective, and that therefore one must be old enough to understand before receiving Holy Communion. The Sacraments are “Holy Mysteries.” It is impossible for us to understand how God does His saving work, and in fact, it is presumptuous for anyone to claim that the human mind can understand God and His activity.
HOW DO WE COME DOWN FROM THIS MOUNTAIN-PEAK EXPERIENCE?
The clergy return to the altar while saying three hymns of the Resurrection, and then the deacon does something very important that people don’t usually notice. Remember how in the Liturgy of Preparation—the Proskomedia—the priest removed particles of the Holy Bread while praying by name for many hundreds of people, both living and departed? All these particles were on the diskos along with the Lamb at the Consecration. It is at this moment now that the deacon puts all these particles into the Communion chalice that still contains the Blood of Christ and the remaining pieces of the consecrated Lamb, while saying: “Wipe away, O Lord, the sins of all those remembered here, by Thy precious Blood; through the prayers of Thy saints.” This is a beautiful way in which the living and departed are united together in the Communion of Saints, in the Holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, being united with loved ones who were commemorated in the Proskomedia — especially for those who have accepted the Lord’s invitation to be united with Him in receiving Holy Communion.
We are now descending from the mountain peaks that we have been privileged to ascend, rather like descending with Christ from Mount Tabor after experiencing the Light and glory of the Transfiguration. Thus we jubilantly sing:
“We have seen the True Light! We have received the heavenly Spirit!
We have found the True Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us!”
This magnificent and distinctively Orthodox hymn sums up in a nutshell so much about the meaning of the Divine Liturgy that we have just experienced. By ascending the mountain peaks of the Divine Liturgy and fully participating in the glory, light and truth of its divine worship, we have had the saving opportunity to temporarily transcend time and space and to truly encounter the Lord and bask in His Presence — to be filled with His Spirit and be united with our Lord, having Him to dwell in us and thereby making us His holy temples. When we reflect upon this, it is truly overwhelming!
As we continue our descent from the mountain tops, we continue singing our joyful response to our experience of the Lord’s goodness to us, as we meditate and reflect on what we have just participated in:
“Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise, O Lord, that we may sing of Thy glory;
for Thou hast made us worthy to partake of Thy holy, divine, immortal and life-creating Mysteries.
Keep us in Thy holiness, that all the day we may meditate upon Thy righteousness.”
HOW IS THE DIVINE LITURGY CONCLUDED?
While we are singing these hymns, the deacon and priest transfer the diskos and chalice to the Table of Preparation. Then the deacon leads us in a short Litany of Thanksgiving, in which we thank the Lord for having made us worthy to partake of the “awesome Mysteries of Christ.” The priest also gives thanks and offers further prayers on our behalf, and, having folded up the antimension, makes a large sign of the Cross over it with the Holy Gospels book, and places the Gospels on top of the antimension. This action parallels how the Divine Liturgy began—we have made a full circle—we have participated in the divine worship of the Kingdom of God. We have ascended the Lord’s mountain and then have descended. And now we re-enter our daily lives, but, hopefully, having been changed by basking in the Lord’s Presence and by being made temples of the Lord’s Body and Blood, so that “the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless,” and that we may “commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.”
In the Prayer before the Ambon, the priest offers one final prayer, that beautifully sums up the Church’s extensive petitions and prayers on behalf of the faithful, the Church, the world, the clergy and those in civil authority, and includes the request that the Lord “sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy house,” which reflects a distinctively Orthodox attitude. After receiving the priest’s blessing at the altar, the deacon then goes to the Table of Preparation where he consumes what is still left of the Holy Gifts and carefully cleans the chalice, while the priest concludes the Service with the dismissal and final blessing.
After the announcements are made, all the people go up to the front, kiss the icons and venerate the cross that the priest is holding, and kiss his hand — the hand that blesses them and from which they receive the Holy Mysteries. The people take a piece of holy bread that is called the “An-ti-dor-on,” which is part of the Holy Bread that was not placed on the diskos and consecrated — the same bread that the faithful eat immediately after receiving Holy Communion. The ‘rubrics’ or ‘directions’ in the Liturgy service books state that “Those who received the Holy Mysteries now listen as the Prayers of Thanksgiving are read,” which the clergy also are praying as they remove their vestments.
We thus conclude our explanation of the meaning of the Divine Liturgy. We hope that this will help those who are already Orthodox, and those who are inquiring or learning about Orthodoxy, to participate more meaningfully in the most important and glorious of all the Orthodox Divine Services, that can and should change us and our lives!
GLORY TO GOD FOR ALL THINGS!