Understanding the Teachings of the Orthodox Church - Page 3
by Reverend Thomas Fitzgerald (edited)
The Divine Liturgy as celebrated In the Apostolic Age
From the beginning of the Christian Church, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist part of a common meal, called the "feast of love" (or Agapai), which was a symbol of Christian love. This Feast took place every evening and at its close the Holy Eucharist was consummated in which all participated; both rites, being regarded as forming one service, were called the "Lord's Supper". Prayers and benedictions were said, hymns were chanted and sermons were delivered (Matt 26:30, Acts 2:42 47, Eph 5: 19).
The connection of the Feast of Love with the Holy Eucharist gave rise to abuses, which led, somewhat late in the Apostolic age, to the gradual separation of the two. The Holy Eucharist was performed in the morning and the Feast of Love in the evening. After the separation of the two rites, the Holy Eucharist was not celebrated every day, but on the morning of every first day of the week, namely, the Lord's Day (Kyriaki), which the Christians set aside as the day to commemorate the Lord's Resurrection (Acts 20:7, Rev 1:10). In addition, after the separation of the two rites a likeness of the Holy Eucharist was preserved with the Love Feast: breaking of bread and blessing of wine, without being Holy Eucharist. In later years it became a separate rite, performed, usually at the close of the vespers and called "Artoklasia" (breaking of bread). In those early years the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was the task of the Apostles. It was they, after all, who had assisted at the Last Supper. Therefore, it was natural that what our Lord had done and said was indelibly impressed upon their memories. Consequently, they did not need any liturgical book.
However, as the number of Christians increased with time the celebration of the Holy Eucharist became a task of the Presbyters (priests) and Bishops, whom the Apostles ordained and to whom they transmitted, through the Grace of the Holy Spirit, the power of performing this Sacrament (in addition to the other Sacraments). Since then, prayers, supplications and hymns used in the Holy Eucharist were recorded in books. The various types of liturgies were written down for use by future generations up to and beyond our own.
Parts of the Divine Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy is divided into several parts. Each part corresponds to a particular event of our Lord's Life, thus giving to the Divine Liturgy the form of a corporate dramatic action, by which the whole Life of Christ is re-enacted, The priest and the worshippers (the latter's role having been replaced now by the chanters or the choirs) have their distinct roles for the proper representation of the Divine Drama. Before every Divine Liturgy the Offertory is made, in which the priest in the Sanctuary prepares the Elements of the Sacrament for consecration. This part of the Liturgy commemorates Christ's early Life, which was a preparation for His public ministry. The Offertory service is performed during Matins without being seen by the congregation, just as Christ's early Life was not shown to the world as being the revelation of God's Life (Matt 11:27, John 14:9). The Liturgy is divided into the Proskomide Service (preparation of the Offerings), Liturgy of the Catechumens, and Liturgy of the Faithful.
These parts of the Divine Liturgy are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship. For this reason, Orthodox Christians must attend the entire Divine Liturgy; and this they do not as a duty, but as a distinct privilege. They may feel unworthy to attend it, and yet they know that they are welcome by our Lord, Who numbers them among His chosen people (Matt. 20:16, John 10:14 16).
The Proskomide is the service of "bringing the offered Gifts". It is performed at a small side-altar to the left of the Holy Altar behind the Icon Screen where the gifts are prepared. It is also called Prothesis, the place and the act of placing and preparing the gifts. The Priest does the Proskomide while the morning prayer service (the Matins) is being sung by the chanters. The Priest takes a loaf of bread called Prosphoron which means "offering". This has been specially prepared and has a seal impressed on the top. The center square of the seal has the initials of Jesus Christ and the Greek verb NIKA, which means "is victorious", and represents the Lord, the Lamb of God. It is this which will be consecrated as the Body of Christ. The large triangle to the left represents the Virgin Mary. The nine smaller triangles to the right represent the Orders of Angels, Prophets, Saints, and Martyrs. The lower part of the Cross is removed and particles are taken from it to represent the souls of the living and of those departed this life.
The Priest takes the Spear which represents the spear used by the Roman soldier who pierced the side of our Lord as He hung upon the Cross. With this the Priest cuts around the Lamb (the center square) and places it on the Disk. While piercing the left side with the Spear, he says, "One of the soldiers pierced His side and immediately blood and water came forth". At the same time he pours wine and water into the Chalice. Then he cuts out the triangle representing the Virgin Mary as well as the nine smaller triangles representing the Heavenly Hosts. At this point he mentions the names of the living and departed, placing a particle on the Disk for each one. Finally the Priest offers a prayer for himself, and places an additional particle there. Then he places over the Disk the Asteriskos (Star). This object is formed of two strips of metal (either gold-plated or silver-plated), joined at the center and bent at the ends so that it will stand on the Disk. The Asteriskos symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem. Now the symbolism is complete: the newly born Christ surrounded by His Holy Mother, the ranks of the heavenly Hosts, and the earthly visitors who were privileged to see the Christ child, while over Him hangs the Star of Bethlehem. As the Priest places the Star over the Lamb, he recites the words, "And the star came and stood over the place where the child was" (Matt 2:19). Then he censes the Gifts. The smoke from the incense symbolizes prayer. As the smoke rises to Heaven, so the Prayers of the Priest and the faithful rise to Heaven. Next the Priest takes two small covers (Veils) shaped like crosses, and places one over the Disk and the other over the Chalice. Then he takes a large rectangular cover called the Aer and places this over the two together. Meanwhile he recites Psalm 93 praising the wonders of the universe. The covers represent the layers of the firmament. Aer means "air", which in terms of our modern concept of the universe would be "space".
The Proskomide ends with the prayer of benediction. The Gifts have been prepared and remain at the side altar until the proper time for their removal during the Liturgy of the Faithful. The Liturgy of the Catechumens begins with the pronouncement, "Blessed be The Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages".
Liturgy of the Catechumens
As he recites these words, the Priest makes the sign of the Cross with the Gospel Book. Then follow prayers in the form of petitions to which the choir responds with "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy); hymn in honor of the Theotokos, the Son of God, and the Holy Trinity; also the hymn for the feast day and for the dedication of the Church. Then follows the most dramatic part of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, the Small Entrance. It is called "Small" because it anticipates the "Great Entrance" which is to come later. The Priest, accompanied by altar boys bearing candles or lamps, takes the Gospel Book, moves to the right of the Holy Altar and around behind it in order to come out of the left side door of the Icon Screen. He pauses facing the Royal Doors, holds up the Gospel Book and says, "Wisdom, Arise!". This directs the congregation to be attentive to the wisdom contained in Jesus' Gospels. The procession represents the coming of Christ to preach His Gospel message of salvation to the people. It dates back to the time when Christians were persecuted and had no place where they could openly display the Gospel Book. At this point in the service the Priest would go to the secret hiding place accompanied by his altar boys, remove the Book and bring it before the people to read from it. The candles carried by the altar boys symbolize the light of Christ's teaching. "I am the Light of the world", says the text on the Book which Christ is pictured holding on the icon to the right of the Royal Gate. The Small Entrance is followed by the readings. First comes the reading from the Apostle. This is in the form of an "Epistle" or letter. It is usually read by one of the chanters, since it can be read by a layman. Then follows the reading from the Gospel which is always read by the Priest, or by a Deacon, if there is one present. The readings are intended for instruction, and since the purpose of the sermon is to instruct and frequently to explain the Scripture readings, the traditional place for it is after the readings.
The Liturgy of the Catechumens ends with the priest's exhortation, "Let us stand well; let us stand with fear". This part of the Divine Liturgy is the most sacred, because in it the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist is consummated.
The Liturgy of the Faithful
It is hard to imagine anyone, however small his acquaintance with the Liturgy, who will not be affected by the change in mood and atmosphere which occurs when the choir begins to sing the Cherubic Hymn. This marks the transition from Christ's teaching mission to the soul-stirring events leading to His Great Sacrifice and death on the Cross. While the hymn is being sung, the Priest unfolds the Antimension. This is a rectangular cloth on which are printed Christ in the Tomb with the Holy Trinity, Angels and Prophets looking down from above. Below is the Last Supper, the cock that crowed when St Peter denied Christ (for the third time), the dice that the soldiers cast for Jesus' robe; above are the Cross and Resurrection. In the corners are the four Evangelists, and under the Cross is sewn a Holy relic. This is because the Antimension (the word means "instead of a table") is a form of portable altar. The Altar always represents the Tomb of Christ. The Antimension dates from early Christian times when Christians had no permanent places of worship. Then, as now, each Priest was given an Antimension blessed by his Bishop when he was ordained.
Wherever the Antimension is unfolded, the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated. While the choir continues the Cherubic Hymn, in which the faithful liken themselves to the Cherubim who surround the Throne of God, the Priest recites a beautiful prayer asking Christ to forgive him for his human frailties, yet accept him as worthy to consecrate the offered Gifts on behalf of himself and the faithful who are present. He then recites the 51th Psalm, a psalm of repentance. He censes the Altar Table, the Icon Screen, the congregation, and the side altar where the offered Gifts were prepared during the Proskomide. After asking forgiveness of the faithful, he goes to the side altar, takes the Gifts and leaves the sanctuary in procession with the altar boys. The procession is called the Great Entrance.
The Great Entrance
The Great Entrance procession symbolizes Christ's Great Sacrifice in behalf of the people. The elements of bread and wine on the Disk and in the Chalice represent the Sacrifice which is to be offered. The procession is reminiscent of Jesus' Entrance into Jerusalem and culminates with the Cross at Golgotha. As the thief on Jesus' right said,"Be mindful of me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom"; so the Priest in behalf of the faithful says, "Be mindful of us, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom". The Priest then re-enters the sanctuary through the Royal Doors, places the Gifts on the Antimension (a cloth depicting Christ in the Tomb) which lies there unfolded on the altar table. Then begins another series of petitions to which the choir responds. The Priest prays for peace, safety and remission of sins. He then asks for the spirit of unity that all together may confess their Faith in the form of the Nicene Creed.
We have now come to the core of the Divine Liturgy. All parts have been designed to lead us up to this most Sacred and eventful moment. We have been present at the Nativity when the Maker of Heaven and Earth entered the universe that He created. We have watched Him, in the Person of Jesus Christ, as He came to the people to preach His sermon of love to a troubled and hopeless world. He has taught, healed, and performed miracles. He has won followers. Through our participation in the Liturgy, we have followed Him and asked Him to watch over us and heal us and teach us as He did those who lived so many years ago. We have watched the drama unfold as He carried His Cross to Golgotha, the place of His Sacrifice. Here in the form of the Cross, Jesus restored man's relationship with God, and with His Resurrection, He has opened the way for all time for His followers to enter into the Heavenly Kingdom. However, how are we to overcome the difficulties of the journey when He is no longer in our midst? Our Lord and Savior has not only shown us the way, but He has also given us the spiritual Food to strengthen us on our journey.
This spiritual Food is the Gift of the Last Supper. Now begins a dialogue between the Priest and Choir which sets the scene for the Last Supper. The Priest enjoins us to give all our attention so that we may offer the Holy Oblation in Peace. What is this Holy Oblation offered in peace? It is God's Grace, Love and Mercy which were bestowed upon us in the awesome Sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus died on the Cross to redeem us from the bondage of sin. His Sacrifice was so great that whatever sin we may commit, if we sincerely and penitently ask His forgiveness, we will be saved. This is the Grace that flows from the Cross. God loves His creations - the creatures that He has made - as parents love their children. As parents try to help their children, protect them from injury and harm, welcome them back after they have gone astray, so God loves us. It is the Communion of the Holy Spirit which we are about to receive. "Let as lift up our hearts!" says the Priest. The people chant, "We lift them up unto the Lord". The Priest instructs, "Let us give thanks unto the Lord", and we reply "It is meet and right". This is one of the most ancient parts of the Liturgy, dating from the very first century.