The Divine Services Liturgy - 3
Today we begin our discussion of the second part of the Divine Liturgy… the Liturgy of the Catechumens. This second part of the liturgy is focused on expressing our various petitions to the Lord, on spiritual instruction, and preparing us for the great and holy Mystery which will be performed during the third part, the Liturgy of the Faithful. It is this focus on spiritual instruction which characterizes this portion of the liturgy specifically for the catechumens, who are learning about the faith in their preparation for baptism.
As we mentioned last week, the first part of the liturgy takes place somewhat privately within the altar, as the priest prepares the holy offering of the Proskomedia. Now, with the beginning of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, we come to the fullness of the participation of all those gathered in the church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
The priest stands before the holy altar table and, raising the Holy Gospel and making the sign of the cross with it, says, ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.’ Let’s pause here, right at the beginning – for this proclamation has much to teach us about the nature of the Divine Liturgy and what it means.
In declaring ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, we are acknowledging and announcing the kingdom of heaven, which, in a very real way, we enter into as we participate in the Divine Liturgy. The liturgy is taking place here on earth, in the physical church building where we are at the moment, but in a broader sense, the liturgy is connecting us to the full body of believers both on earth and in heaven. The holy fathers tell us, and several have even verified with their own eyes, that the angels and saints participate with us in the prayers of the Divine Liturgy. And, as we shall see as we progress in our study of the Divine Liturgy, we have the active participation and action of God Himself throughout the Divine Liturgy. In this initial declaration that begins the Liturgy of the Catechumens, we are blessing and glorifying the kingdom of God into which we are invited, not only in the wonders of the Divine Liturgy, but each and every moment of our lives.
The choir responds to the priest’s statementwith the response, ‘Amen.’ The word ‘Amen’ means ‘so be it’ in Hebrew – it is a response of acknowledgment, of consent, of affirmation.
We then begin a series of Litanies in which we pray for peace, mercy, health, salvation and all good things for our earthly and spiritual needs.
Between the Litanies, the choir sings hymns which are called ‘Antiphons’. The First Antiphon comes from Psalm 102, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits…’ We praise God for all the many blessings bestowed on us by the Lord and for His great compassion shown to us.
The Second Antiphon declares: ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live, I will sing praises to my God while I have being...’ We are again glorifying God and the Psalmist inspires us to praise God for as long as we live and have our breath.
This is the true purpose of mankind and of our life… we were created by God and it is to God Whom we owe our life and to Whom we must give praise. There is nothing of greater importance in our life – not our interests, not our amusements, not our work, not even our family nor our health, there is not anything that is more important than humbly acknowledging our gratitude to God, our dependence on Him for all good things, and expressing and living our love for Him. If this is so, then how important is it for us to make the time to pray, to come to church, and especially to attend and participate in the Divine Liturgy? What possible worldly distraction should keep us away from such a divine calling and privilege?
At the end of the Second Antiphon, the choir sings a very special hymn which clearly articulates the Orthodox teaching about Jesus Christ. We sing: ‘O only begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the Holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ, our God, trampling down death by death, save us!’
Christ is the eternal Son of God, Who, by the exceeding greatness of His love, willed to become a man and to suffer and die for us and, by the greatness of His love and the power of His divinity, trampled down death and opened the gates of Paradise for those who would unite themselves to Him.
While the choir sings this hymn, the priest prays the following silent prayer in the altar: ‘O Lord our God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance; preserve the fullness of Thy Church; sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy house; glorify them in return by Thy divine power; and forsake us not who hope in Thee… O Thou who hast bestowed on us these common and united prayers, and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in Thy name, Thou wilt grant their requests, fulfill even now the requests of Thy servants as is expedient for them, and in the world to come, life eternal.’
Think about what is being said here… he priest prays for all the people, he prays that the Church would be preserved in its fulness, and that those who are gathered and love the beauty of His Temple would be blessed and glorified by His grace. God has revealed to us the worship of the heavenly altar and unites us by these prayers of the Divine Liturgy and He promises that when we are gathered together in His Name He will hear our requests and grant them as is appropriate toward our salvation.
After the next Small Litany, the Choir then begins singing the Third Antiphon, which takes its text from the Beatitudes. We begin with the cry of the thief upon the cross, ‘In Thy Kingdom remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.’ We are reminded here again of the Kingdom of God, the heavenly banquet to which we have been invited in the Divine Liturgy.
The Beatitudes are those commandments of blessedness that our Lord spoke about in His famous Sermon on the Mount. They lay out before us the keys to the Kingdom of God and describe the path of ascent from earth to heaven.
Through the teachings of the Beatitudes, we are taken from the lowliness of our poverty of spirit and mourning to a spirit of meekness and humility which readies the soil of our heart so that God can work with it. When we have finally quieted our pride and selfish distractions, then we begin to hear the still, small voice of God which comes to us like a whisper of wind. Touched by this love of God, zeal begins to grow in us as we hunger and thirst for righteousness. God meets us with His mercy and the more we interact with God, the more He sweeps away the filth from our heart and gives us a heart of purity and simplicity. Our Lord has promised us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and kindness. Peace is not a ‘cause’, it is an ‘effect’ - peace becomes a consequence of what now resides in our heart. As St Seraphim of Sarov counseled, ‘Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved.’
And as the final Beatitudes remind us, as the Grace of God begins to manifest itself in our lives, we will encounter evil and resistance. There is an old saying that says, 'no good deed goes unpunished'. This is true… As beautiful as this world is, it is a fallen world and we should not be surprised or frustrated at the manifestations of evil we encounter, especially as we begin to resist sin and work toward the good. These realities of persecution and hardship help us to retain that necessary humility, that broken heart which God can work with and allows the spiritual progression of the Beatitudes to continue doing their work on us.
During the singing of the Beatitudes, the Royal Doors are opened and we begin to make preparation for the first entrance of the Divine Liturgy. We will take this up and talk about the great spiritual significance of the entrance when we continue our examination of the Divine Services next week.