The Divine Liturgy - 1
Today we will begin our examination of the most important and sacred of all the Divine Services of the Church, the Divine Liturgy. The word ‘liturgy’ means a ‘corporate action’, something done by the people together. And it is indeed the case that the Divine Liturgy emphasizes and reinforces the unity of the Christian community – uniting not just those of us who gather together here each Sunday morning, but also gathering together the entire body of Orthodox believers both near and far, both living and departed – as we pray together and as we commemorate our brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer and in the offering of the Bloodless Sacrifice.
One of the things we will notice as we begin looking into the language of the Divine Liturgy is that the prayers and chants are focused on the collective, on the people together. We say, ‘Let US pray to the Lord’; ‘OUR Father Who art in heaven’; ‘Peace be unto ALL’; etc. The work of the Divine Liturgy is a work of the people of God, of the Christian community gathered together. That being the case, we must realize that our presence here on Sunday morning is not a passive one… the Liturgy is not a spectator event. It is not just the clergy and the choir who have a role to play in the Divine Liturgy. Each and every Orthodox Christian must participate through prayer, through consent and support and affirmation as we unfold this amazing touchpoint between heaven and earth, between God and mankind.
In order for us all to participate, in order for the Divine Liturgy to be fully and properly a ‘corporate act’ of the body of believers, we must know and understand what we are doing, what we are saying, what is the significance of the Divine Liturgy. Over the course of the next several weeks we’ll take some time to examine the Liturgy so we can better understand what is happening and so we can more fully participate in it.
The Liturgy is indeed special and stands out among the cycle of services of the Church. The great distinguishing characteristic of the Divine Liturgy is that it is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist - the taking, blessing, breaking, and giving of the Body and Blood of Christ. As we will see in our upcoming discussions, the Divine Liturgy is both a symbolic and a very real unfolding of the birth, life, teachings, sufferings, resurrection, and communion of our Lord.
Because of this incomprehensible holiness of the Divine Liturgy, let us begin our discussion by taking a moment to talk about how we prepare ourselves for this Eucharistic celebration.
I think most of you are aware, but it never hurts to re-emphasize and remind ourselves, of the appropriate preparation for participation in the Divine Liturgy. As I mentioned in our talks on the Vigil service, we should spiritually prepare ourselves to come to the morning Liturgy by spending a quiet and prayerful evening the night before. The best way to do this is by participating in the evening Vigil service. If this is not possible, then we should take care and attention to avoid or minimize worldly distractions the evening before we will come to Liturgy.
If we are going to be approaching the chalice for Holy Communion, then our commitment to preparation is all the more important and required. We should attend the Vigil service, we should make our Confession that evening, and we should read through the prayers and Canons of preparation found in our prayerbooks. If we are preparing appropriately, we will find little time for worldly distractions the night before in order to attend to these preparations. We should observe a strict fast from midnight onward so that the precious Body and Blood of Christ is our first food that day.
On the day that a Liturgy is to take place, there are a number of prayers and things that go on in the early morning hours before anyone else arrives that are quite instructive and that underscore the solemnity and holiness of the Divine Liturgy.
The service books indicate that ‘the priest that desireth to celebrate the Divine Mysteries must first be at peace with all, have nothing against anyone, and insofar as is within his power, keep his heart from evil thoughts, be continent from the evening before, and be vigilant until the time of divine service.’ Entering the church, the priest and deacon stand at the bottom of the steps before the Royal Doors and say their Entrance Prayers. They venerate the icon of Christ and of the Mother of God at each side of the Royal Doors and then, standing directly in front of the Royal Doors, as if before the Gates of Paradise Itself, the priest prays, ‘O Lord, stretch forth Thy hand from Thy holy place on high, and strengthen me for this, Thine appointed service; that, standing uncondemned before Thy dread altar, I may celebrate the bloodless ministry. For Thine is the power and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.’ The priest then turns to face toward the congregation, even though at this early hour there is usually no-one but the angels present in the church, and he bows, asking forgiveness for his unworthiness. He then enters the holy altar.
There are special prayers that are said as the priest vests himself. From the earliest times, the priests would clothe themselves in special garments consecrated and reserved especially for service in the holy altar. This helps emphasize and illustrate the other-worldly nature of the divine service. We do not perform the sacred services in the same clothing we would wear outside the holy church. Indeed, just like a soldier ‘gears up’ for battle, so too does the priest put on himself the garments suitable for divine service to the Lord. The prayers accompanying the putting on of each article of clothing reflect the sense of being ‘girded with power’, of being transformed into readiness to approach the holy altar for the dread sacrifice.
These preparations, both for the participating laity and for the clergy, are important – not because in fulfilling them we become in any way worthy to participate in the Divine Mysteries, but because they help to draw us up, up above the distractions of our worldly life and toward the contemplation and focus on God and His Divine Things. As we sing during the Great Entrance, we must ‘lay aside all earthly care that we may receive the King of all’.
As we move forward in the coming weeks in our examination of the Divine Liturgy, may God grant that these studies help us to gain a deeper understanding of the profound significance of what is happening, and may this then inspire us and draw us upward into those heavenly spheres where God is unceasingly glorified.