Suppose one day you were to open your post and find a letter from a well-known celebrity inviting you to dinner at the Savoy Hotel. How excited you would be! You might possibly frame the invitation, and tell all your friends. Above all else, you would make sure you were there.The Divine Liturgy is an invitation from the King of Kings to dine with him. The surroundings may be more modest than the Savoy Hotel. But in reality we are taken by the Holy Spirit into heaven on earth and the splendour eclipses anything that man can provide. In the words of a song I learned many years ago: ‘God and man at table are sat down’. And as far as we are concerned, God’s invitation is not for one occasion only, but on a regular basis.
The Orthodox call it ‘The Divine Liturgy’, but it is given other titles by western Christians; and their understanding of it differs in some ways from that of the Orthodox. Roman Catholics call it ‘Mass’, Anglicans, ‘Holy Communion’ and others ‘The Lord’s Supper’. The word ‘Eucharist’ (a Greek word for thanksgiving) is used more commonly than any other to describe this service. All these words tell us something different about its meaning.
It has certain features that I want you to note:
From the very first days of the Church this service was central to the life of all Christians. When Jesus Christ had supper with his disciples on the eve of his arrest and subsequent crucifixion, we are told: ‘And he took bread, and when he had given thanks ([the word ‘Eucharist’ is derived from the Greek word here]), he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”’ (Luke 22:19).
So the Church has from the beginning seen this service as a faithful and obedient response to the command of Christ. It is a divine imperative because it is in the Divine Liturgy that we meet the Lord and consume Him. We have no choice in the matter, if we want to be eternally alive in Him.
The events that took place at that time were linked closely with the Jewish feast of the Passover. The Passover recalled every year the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Lambs were sacrificed to commemorate this event. Now, the Lamb of God was being sacrificed for the deliverance of all generations from slavery to sin and from captivity to Satan. St Paul refers to Christ as ‘our paschal lamb’ who has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).
We are all brought up to enjoy the excitement of special parties to commemorate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, reunions, sporting triumphs and so on. The Divine Liturgy is God’s banquet to remind us regularly that Christ did come, that He did die for our sins, and that He rose from the dead on the third day. But it is much more than a reminder; it is a fresh experience of the love of God for us all, ‘shed abroad in our hearts’ as St Paul puts it – a new entry into the joy and reality of salvation. In the service we are enveloped in the peace of God.
We are not, therefore, surprised when we see the service mentioned as part of the life of the Church from the day of Pentecost onwards. In Acts 2: 42, immediately after the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower the Church at Pentecost, we read, ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship ([the earliest example of ‘The Way’]), to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ [italics added]. So we see that the Church from the very beginning was liturgical at its core. We can say simply that the Christian community is a Eucharistic community.
That the Divine Liturgy was central to the life of the earliest Christian communities can be seen from the importance given to it by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. There he declares that he had received this teaching ‘from the Lord’. He uses virtually the same words as Christ had used at the Last Supper, but adds words of warning about the possible misuse of the service and eating the bread and drinking the cup ‘unworthily’.
So in the New Testament we see the vital place this service had in the life of the early Christians. It continues to hold that same position in the Orthodox Church to this day.
If we go into any Orthodox Church we are immediately aware of the brightly coloured icons which cover the walls, the lit candles, and the smell of incense. Before the Liturgy begins it is traditional to have the service of Matins; and when the service is over the choir continues to chant.
We respond to all this, by bowing to and kissing the icons, and by lighting the candles: a sign that we acknowledge Christ as the light of the world, that we ask him to enlighten us, and also as a symbol of prayer for individuals we know. So from the very start we are getting personally involved in the service. People move around in a relaxed fashion, for they feel at home. Bowing before the icons and kissing them, lifting up young children to do likewise, and greeting one another, they show in human and bodily ways their faith in God and their love for Him, and all the people of God.
We are here at this service for a two-way encounter; to meet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and to meet one another for ‘holy communion’. At both the beginning and the end of the service we invoke the Holy Trinity. The service begins and ends with the Trinity. In the opening sentences, the priest declares ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. At the end of the service, in a sentence added later in the Greek and Antiochian practice, the priest blesses the people with the words, ‘The Holy Trinity keep all of you’.
Life on earth can be for us a difficult and harassing experience. We get worried, tired and stressed. We bring to the service often a sense of heaviness. We feel, as the Bible says, distinctly ‘of the earth’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). Someone wrote about this once: ‘Out of the gloom a voice said to me, “Smile and be happy; things could be worse”. So I smiled and was happy, and behold things did get worse.’
But in this service we enter heaven on earth. What does it mean to say that? In the first Litany, called the Great Litany, the Deacon says, ‘In peace let us pray to the Lord’. And the first prayer is ‘For the peace from above’. So we are handing over our cares to God, and entering God’s peace. Nicholas Cabasilas, a Byzantine commentator on the service, refers to this petition and suggests that if we have prepared ourselves properly, by silence, prayer and fasting, we will have already entered into that rest and peace. As we say in the Cherubic hymn, ‘Let us ... lay aside all worldly cares, that we may receive the King of all’.
St Germanus of Constantinople once wrote, ‘The Church is an earthly heaven in which the heavenly God dwells and moves’. When the pagan Prince of Kiev wanted to find out about religion in the west he sent his envoys to search. When they visited Constantinople they reported about the service in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth’. It is true there are other ways of retreating from the world and its cares. For some it can be a day in the garden, or a holiday in the sun. But the recharging of our human batteries is effected first and foremost in the Divine Liturgy, when we come in touch with the very source of life itself – God Himself. And this in turn helps us to have proper and wholesome communion with our fellow human beings.
In the Divine Liturgy we are surrounded by the colours of heaven – for example, the gold of the holy icons. We enter the courts of heaven. We hear the music of heaven, chanted by the choir, and in many parts of the service by the whole congregation, unaccompanied by any musical instruments. We worship God with the instrument we have – the human voice. We experience the scent of heaven in the incense which is liberally wafted by the priest. ‘Christianity’ wrote Georges Florovsky, ‘is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.’ The priest and the people face East, because our worship is centred on God, not on ourselves.
The service is also a listening-post. We are there to hear God. We listen to the readings from the Epistles and the Gospels. We hear the Church’s teaching. But we are also experiencing the Scriptures in the service itself. Just as ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ – St John’s description of the Incarnation – so in the service the Bible comes alive, the truth of Christ is enacted before us in the richness of the symbolism of movement and actions.
The world we live in seems geared to ‘getting’. In it there is a lot about what we call ‘consumerism’. Even Christmas, the one season of the year when ‘giving’ becomes fashionable, is often clouded by commercialism. Christmas has become very profitable for some, and expensive for others. That is why it is so healthy to come to a service which is fundamentally about giving.
There is first of all our own offering – of ourselves, which is symbolized in the bread and the wine, which are carried by the priest to the altar, the symbol of heaven. The priests are described in the service as ‘those who offer these precious and holy gifts to the Lord our God’.The bread and the wine are the fruits of nature refashioned by human hands. The fruits of nature are re-created by human hands as humanity becomes co-creator with God. So we offer the whole of creation back to God. St Irenaeus likens our offering in this service to that of the first fruits in the Old Testament. By offering these gifts we offer everything back to God, the whole cosmos. But we also offer ourselves – not just what we have, but what we are.
We also offer the Christ ‘who has been slain’, who also offers Himself. In the service itself the priest says the words, ‘Thine own from thine own we offer Thee, in all and for all’. Christ is both the victim who is offered, and the one who offers. In the service the priest refers to Christ with the words, ‘Thou art He who offers and He that is offered’. But Christ is the real offerer – the invisible priest. Everything belongs to Him, and everything is to be subservient to Him.
Above all – Jesus Christ is gloriously present. There is truly a real presence of the Son of God with us. He is with us throughout the service. There are also some special focal points, one of which is the so-called Epiklesis (invocation), when the priest invites the Holy Spirit to come upon the people as well as on the bread and the wine, which become for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It is not just a reminder to us, or a symbol of that reality. It is the reality itself.
We all affirm this in the words said before we receive the Holy Gifts – ‘I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body and that this is truly thine own precious Blood’.
It is also about entering
The Priest at the Little Entrance prays for ‘an entrance of holy angels, serving with us and glorifying Thy goodness’. It is such a marvellous invitation I always speak the words loud and clear for all to hear.
In the case of the Little Entrance, there is the symbolism of the taking out of the Gospels to the whole world. The Gospel book at the Little Entrance symbolizes the Word of God incarnate who came down from Heaven (represented by the Holy Altar) and who is now is among His people, preceded by a candle that symbolizes Christ as the Light of the world as well as standing for St John the Baptist who is his Forerunner. The Little Entrance has sometimes been called ‘the entrance of the gospels’.
Later, the Gospel will be taken again by the deacon to the outside lectern, where he reads the passage for the day. This bringing of the Gospel from the altar to us in the body of the church signifies that it is a heavenly revelation, a God-given truth handed down from on high to us on earth – and by its guidance, we will be brought back into heaven.
An Orthodox Church building usually has now a screen called the iconostasis – which separates the altar area from the rest of the building. The whole of the area behind the screen is called the ‘altar’. The altar-area symbolizes heaven and the presence of God, even though the whole Church building during the Liturgy becomes heaven, and God’s presence is with everyone in a special way.
In some non-Orthodox services the emphasis tends to be on the descent of Christ; but in the Orthodox Church it is on our ascent to the place where Christ is. The priest by his movements and particularly through the Entrances, which are so prominent in the service, symbolizes our ‘going up’ – like the pilgrims going up to Jerusalem, but in our case to the New Jerusalem in heaven.
In the Little Entrance there is the carrying of the Gospel Book, but in the Great Entrance the priest or the deacon carries the diskos, on which the bread has been placed and prepared by the priest, and the chalice containing the wine. In the Little Entrance the procession is short. But in the Great Entrance, by contrast, the procession takes place through the whole body of the whole Church. The diskos has small pieces of bread on it.
In the Greek Church, a single round loaf known as the Lamb is used, whereas in the Russian Church five small round loaves are used.
As the markings on the Lamb and the pieces taken from it have important meanings we need to give some details:
The diskos has the Lamb inscribed with the letters IC XC NIKA which in Greek stand for ‘Jesus Christ conquers’. It is placed in the centre of the diskos, and on its left is a triangle-shaped piece out of the loaf placed in honour and memory of the Virgin Mary, while on its right there are nine smaller triangles:
Under the Lamb small particles of bread are placed in memory of the living faithful and of the dead.
What is important to discern is that the whole body of Christ, the Church, victorious and militant, is here placed around the Master who is her Head, who is going to be sacrificed at the altar, saving, sanctifying and giving himself to the faithful for them to consume Him worthily so that they can have life in Him.
The priest prays for the bishop, the world, the nation, and the people as he walks in the procession. His prayer asks that God will remember them ‘in his heavenly kingdom’ – thus putting us all in the position of the humble and repentant thief who was crucified beside Jesus and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his heavenly kingdom.
Here the high point is the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ and the symbolism is of our earthly pilgrimage – our offering ourselves to be carried by the grace and power of God through this life, and then into heaven itself.
The pieces of bread – by which we remember the living and the dead – are very close together, symbolizing the truth that death cannot separate us from one another. We are the one Body of Christ. As St Paul writes, ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8: 38-39).
When Christ died on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. When the Liturgy begins, the curtain covering the holy doors is drawn aside. That is because Christ’s death and resurrection have opened the entrance to heaven to all believers. The Great Entrance is a mystical and symbolical re-enactment of this drama, brought alive and into reality by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The service is also about giving to God our grateful thanks. The Greek word eucharistiameans thankfulness or gratitude, and hence the commonly used word for this service – ‘Eucharist’. We have so much to thank God for. This is our chance to do this together with everyone else. At the heart of this service the priest says the ‘anaphora’ (literally, repetition) – which begins with the words ‘It is meet and right to hymn thee, to bless thee, to praise thee, to give thanks unto thee and to worship thee in every place of thy dominion’. Elsewhere the priest says, ‘Let us give thanks unto the Lord’, and the people reply, ‘It is meet and right so to do’.
It is interesting that – if we know anything of a foreign language – it is nearly always the word ‘thank you’. Sometimes it is the only word we know in that language. Alexander Schmemann describes thanksgiving as ‘the experience of paradise’. At the centre of the celebration of Pascha comes the ringing words, ‘You have opened to us the gates of paradise’. Schmemann also sees thanksgiving as ‘the fulfilment of freedom’. He writes: ‘The Church lives in thanksgiving; it is the air she breathes’.
How much is there to thank God for! It is not only right to do so, it is healthy and healing to soul and body. Above all, we give thanks for everything the Triune God is. In the words of the Liturgy of St Basil:
For most of the year the service begins with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. ‘O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the treasury of good things and Giver of life: come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O good One.’ Then at the most sacred of all parts of the service the priest invites the Holy Spirit to come ‘on us and upon these gifts here offered’. This is called the epiklesis, the calling-down of the Holy Spirit, and it is central to our understanding of what happens. For this service is always a divine happening. Nicholas Cabasilas describes this service as a continual miracle: ‘This is the final mystery, beyond this it is not possible to go, nor can anything be added to it.’ ‘It is the sacrament of the Kingdom in time and beyond time.’
All the sacraments, or holy mysteries of the Church as the Orthodox prefer to call them, have a sacred relationship to the Holy Spirit. He comes to us at our baptism, as He did at Christ’s baptism, when the candidate is ‘sealed with the Holy Spirit’ through the anointing of chrismation. The Holy Spirit also unites us to one another; St Paul writes about ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3).
It is important to notice that the priest asks for the Holy Spirit to come upon the people to bless them, as well as upon the gifts to change them into the Body and Blood of Christ. At Pentecost the laity as well as the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, including, of course, Mary, the Mother of God, who was present with the others. St Seraphim of Sarov spoke of receiving the Holy Spirit as the essence and goal of life. It is an intrinsic part of the service. But we need to see that the whole of the service is under the blessing of the Holy Spirit. He is with us from beginning to end.
Alexander Schmemann sees the whole service as a transformation. He writes: ‘In the Liturgy each of its parts, each solemn ceremony, each rite is transformed by the Holy Spirit into that which it is: a real ’symbol’ of what it manifests’. What is happening in the service is what happens in our lives too. We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit, a process called ‘Theosis’, into the likeness of Christ, into real Christians. Paul in 2 Corinthians writes of the veil being removed: ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). But the coming of the Holy Spirit has a corporate dimension also. He comes to unite us – all of us, and this is clearly stated in the words the priest says, ‘Unite all of us to one another, who become partakers of the one Bread and Cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit’.
Music plays an important part in the Liturgy. A prayer used to bless choirs begins with the words of Psalm 68:25, ‘Christ our true God, in the solemn procession you placed the singers in the front ...’ The choir plays a significant part in the worship of the service. In heaven, we are told, worship never ceases. The joy of heaven is expressed in two primary ways, by music and feasting. In Revelation Chapter 4 there is mention of the form in which the music is expressed – call and answer. The whole theme of the Gospel, starting in the Garden of Eden, centres on God who calls out to us, and our human response to that call. Dumitru Staniloae writes well about this: ‘The Church is the dialogue of God with the faithful through Christ in the Holy Spirit’.
So we are not surprised that Orthodox worship requires someone to call out; in the Liturgy it is the priest who does this; and it requires the people to respond, led by a choir. A priest is not permitted to serve the Liturgy on his own: he must have people to share with.
The music has evolved over many centuries, with numerous anonymous contributors, especially from monasteries in various parts of the world. It was St John of Damascus in the eighth century who established the eight tones. He wrote troparia or short hymns in each of these tones or modes so that they became the basis for the Byzantine chant, and in the Orthodox Church, normally, no musical instruments are used.
There are about 60,000 items of Orthodox music, an immensely rich collection reflecting the life of the Church down the centuries.
Yes, we are spectators of an incredible drama. We watch, and we listen. In the solemnity of the service, our faith in God grows and deepens. Although we are mostly repeating the same words and doing the same actions at each service, it never goes stale on us. It always refreshes us. We also respond frequently by crossing ourselves. This is a major way of worshipping as a whole person – body and soul, by using our hands in particular. We affirm the Trinity by joining our thumb and the first two fingers together. The two natures of Christ are represented by the other two fingers. The movement of the right hand as we cross ourselves recalls the headship of the Father in the hierarchy of heaven, the coming of Christ down from heaven to be born of Mary, and the strength of the Holy Spirit, as well as the Cross of Christ.
But the service is also about ‘partaking’. In the Liturgy of St Basil there is a petition: ‘Unite all of us to one another who become partakers of the one Bread and Cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit’.
On the question of how frequently we receive the Holy Gifts, Orthodox have different practices. In the Antiochian churches, the practice is of frequent and regular communion, with or without confession though this is changing and there are constant reminders as to the danger of receiving communion ‘unworthily’, that is, without confession. In the Greek churches, the practice tends towards infrequent communion, though this also is changing, and in the Russian churches, there is a strong emphasis on confession before communion.
We need to resist two tendencies. The first is to see Communion as essentially an individual act – ‘making my communion’, as some say. The bread we receive comes from one loaf, which symbolizes the fact that we are united to one another, not mere individuals.
The second tendency can be to treat communion superficially – either through receiving the Holy Gifts without proper preparation, or by refraining from receiving them because of an inadequate understanding of them. We should strive for the ideal expressed in the Liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil. In their words we are to be ‘partakers of the one Bread and Cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit’.
To come into the presence of God for such a holy event requires careful preparation. For the priest, in addition to fasting and prayer, there is a short service called the kairon, and the preparation of the Bread and the Wine called the proskomedia.
For all of us preparation involves fasting – abstaining from food and alcohol for several hours before the service. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh described fasting as ‘tuning up the body’. We should fast for at least six hours, and if we are going to the Sunday morning Liturgy, it is best to fast from midnight.
It may involve confession to God in the presence of a priest. Some parts of the Orthodox Church are stricter about this than others. Some make confession obligatory before every service if one is going to receive the Holy Gifts. Others are less strict, the pattern of confession being less frequent.
It should also involve prayer. We should get to church in good time, and resist the Orthodox assumption that we must be late! We should always be there when the service starts; and if possible at least ten minutes before the service – so that we can prepare ourselves properly, venerate the icons, listen to Matins or the Hours being chanted by the choir.
During the service itself, we should seek to:
Let us not forget the lessons of the parable of the talents. We must not be like the man who stored his talent up – rather than trading with it. God’s blessings are to be shared, not stored.
At the end of the service the priest, in an action only to be found in the Orthodox Church, offers bread – called the antidoron , which has been blessed in the altar, to everyone present and no questions asked. This is a symbolic action of great importance. It is saying: ‘You have received so much – now go and share it with the world’. Let me conclude with the reminder from one of the Church Fathers: The Eucharist does not stop at the end of the Liturgy, or when we leave the Church, but it remains a continuing reality.
The love we have received, we must share with the world. In the early days of the Church, the Liturgy held centre-stage. But it was never allowed to become a self-centred religious ego-trip. The Church shared the good news in one generation from Jerusalem to Rome. If we choose to do the same, God will bless our words, and increase his blessing within us as well!
St John of Kronstadt says that in the words ‘take, eat ... drink’ ‘there is contained the abyss of God’s love for mankind’. He goes on to say, ‘O perfect love, O all embracing love, O irresistible love! What shall we give to God in gratitude for this love?’
The Divine Liturgy is, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, ‘the feast of the Kingdom’. It is in another sense the fore-feast of the banquet of the Son of God when He returns in glory at His Second Coming. We should always have in mind that return of Christ – and the Divine Liturgy should be a constant reminder of it.
Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus!
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