Divine Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy begins where it will one day end-with the kingdom of God: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit….”

These words begin every Eucharistic celebration in the Byzantine tradition. They proclaim the goal of every Liturgy-the heavenly banquet (Luke 13:29. Revelation 19:9) where Christ will be all in all (I Corinthians 15:28).

While our Lord walked the earth, there was no need for sacraments, for he was physically present. When he returns in glory there will be no need for sacred rites. But in the meantime, in that period between the “already” and the “not yet,” we share in these mysteries: “we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). With us “… creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19).

This attitude of expectation and longing finds expression in so many aspects of the Byzantine Eucharist.

The priest and deacon stand facing the East. (It should be noted that due to building regulations and land availability, it is sometimes impossible to construct a church edifice with the holy table placed in the east section: therefore, it is customary to designate as “the East” the location of the holy table.) In their gaze and orientation, they lead the people beyond themselves. The area surrounding the holy table is separated by an iconostasis. Intimating that the mystery celebrated in the Eucharist transcends even the community that has gathered for the celebration. The Church is not only the assembly of those living here and now, but also encompasses the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22). It is not to be a self-enclosed, self-satisfied “association,” but rather a pilgrim people, continually looking forward, growing, and being transformed, who await the “life of the age to come.”

Preparation for the Liturgy

Before the journey to the kingdom can begin, people must be ready. We cannot schedule encounters with God; we can only prepare for them. Therefore, the official liturgical texts of the Byzantine Churches insist:

“He who intends to celebrate the Divine Mystery should be reconciled first of all with everyone and have no animosity toward anyone. To the best of his ability, he must keep his heart clean from evil thoughts. He should abstain starting the night before and maintain a spiritual concentration until the time of the celebration.”

Prayer, fasting and reconciliation – these are the preconditions for a sincere participation in the Eucharist.

The preparation is ritualized when the priest and deacon join in prayer in front of the iconostasis before the beginning of the Liturgy. Prior to entering the holy of holies, they turn to the congregation and bow to them-seeking reconciliation and acknowledging the presence of Christ in the assembly.

Having entered the sanctuary, they reverence the holy table, symbol of Christ who unites all, much like a dinner table that unites those who gather for a meal. The priest and deacon then proceed to vest. The bright sticharion (alb) is the gleaming robe which all received when they put on Christ in Baptism. The epitrachilion (stole) is symbolic of God’s grace abundantly poured out upon his priests, like a precious ointment running down to the hem of one’s garment (Psalm 13 3:2). Finally, the phelonion (chasuble) proclaims the joy and exultation of life in the kingdom (Psalm 132:9).

The deacon with his winged orarion (stole) manifests the sure and speedy diakonia (service) of God’s angelic ministers (Psalm 104). His function at the Liturgy is precisely to serve, to perform the various manual acts. Thus, in the Liturgy, he continues the work which he performs in everyday life: serving at tables and looking after the needy (Acts 6:1-7).

Preparation of the Gifts

In its prayers and gestures, the prothesis (Slavonic: proskomedia) anticipates many of the central themes of the public part of the Eucharist. Memorial, offering, sacrifice, intercession: all these are suggested as the priest prepares the gifts of bread and wine. Cutting the bread, he arranges the particles in a pattern representative of the Church, with Christ at the head. The Mother of God, the angels, saints, the living and the deceased all surround the “Lamb”, the term used to designate the main piece of communion bread.

From the first centuries of Christianity, and in some parts of the Eastern Churches to this very day, Christians have demonstrated the profound link between their everyday lives and the Church’s Liturgy by preparing breads of offering (prosphory) which are brought to church and given to the priest along with a list of names and intentions to be commemorated. The bread that will become the very Body of Christ sacrificed “on behalf of all and for all” is offered by that Body, the Church, as it gathers for the Liturgy. Coming together, the members of the Church do not turn their backs on the world, but rather bring that world into Christ’s presence. They remember the world’s needs and tribulations.

Having covered the gifts, for we often cover that which we hold in esteem, the priest prays for their acceptance. After incensing them the clergy proceed to the holy table.

Liturgy of the Word

As the public part of the Liturgy begins, the royal doors are opened. Heaven and earth are joined as all of us, united in the assembly, are drawn into the mystery of salvation,

The deacon incenses the holy table (altar) the icons, and all of those who have come together to seek union with the One in the Body of Christ. This act serves as a form of greeting. The deacon bows to us and we reciprocate. By incensing the church, the deacon also transforms the very air we breathe.

The re-creation of our world begins as the fragrant smoke hovers over the faces of those assembled, like the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the earth (Genesis 1). The first private prayer of the priest is in fact a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

In the invocation “Heavenly King, Advocate, Spirit of Truth, Who everywhere present and filling all things…”, the clergy asks for the gift of the Spirit who “helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Now the deacon turns to the priest and says. “It is time to serve the Lord, reverend Father, give the blessing.” We must never forget that what distinguishes Christian Liturgy from pagan ritual is that Christians celebrate God’s coming to us. It is he who has acted in Jesus Christ. It is He who through Christ and in the Spirit, will act in this Liturgy to draw us into the intimacy of the Trinitarian “dance”.

Having responded “Amen” to the initial blessing. “Blessed is the kingdom…”, we are asked to pray for the needs of Church and world. These exhortations are framed in the Great Litany (Slavonic: ektenia). The deacon begins, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” While historically this litany followed the gospel and homily (since we should ideally listen to God before asking him to listen to us), one can nevertheless suggest that this petitionary prayer, much like the act of offering prosphora before the Liturgy serves as a “bridge” by which the whole world is brought before God as we enter his presence. Indeed, this sacrament is given “for the life of the world” (John 6: 51). Thus the deacon continues, “For the peace of the whole world…For this city…For those who suffer….” These are but a few of the expressions of concern for the world God created.

The deacon concludes the exhortations with a formula which brings forth the only proper attitude towards petitionary prayer, “Remembering the Mother of God… and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” In making requests of God, our attitude must be one of total abandon. Like Mary, we must say “… let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The Antiphons

The antiphons are psalm verses, with refrains, which always relate to the mystery celebrated. Various feasts have special antiphons which amplify our understanding and celebration of that particular holy day. It is significant that on every Sunday, we employ the same first antiphon as that sung on Easter. Thus every week we proclaim jubilantly, “Shout out to the Lord all the earth…” (Psalm 66:1). Indeed, each Lord’s Day celebrates the totality of salvation experienced every year at Pascha.

The hymn, “Only-begotten Son and Word of God”, is one of the highpoints of the Liturgy of the Word. Composed in 535 by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, the hymn serves as a kind of encapsulized profession of faith. Its prominence in the Liturgy of the Word is certainly appropriate, for in this part of the service we not only contemplate God’s Word as a book or text, but more importantly as a mystical presence acting in our midst.

The procession with the Book of the Gospels originally marked the entrance into the church. In fact, the second verse of the third antiphon reads: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” (Psalm 95:2). However, in contemporary practice, the procession serves to ritualize the importance of the Word of God. Prominently displaying the Gospel Book, the deacon and priest are escorted into the nave by altar-servers bearing candles. In many parishes which follow Ukrainian or Byzantine practice, members of the congregation, especially children, come forward to venerate the Gospel.[1] At the conclusion, the deacon raises the Book of the Gospels and exclaims, “Wisdom! Stand aright!” We respond by inclining our heads as we sing, “Come, let us worship, and bow down before Christ.”

These acts have profound significance. Just as we express our faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist by prostrating before the sacred gifts, so do we manifest our belief in Christ’s presence in the Word by kissing and venerating the holy Gospel. This prepares us to listen attentively and reverently when the Word is finally proclaimed.

The Trisagion

After tropar and kondak (stanzas) related to the mystery being celebrated have been sung by the cantors or choir, the priest intones the conclusion of the Trisagion prayer, “For you, our God, are holy, and we give glory to you….” Together with the angelic choirs we respond by singing, “Holy God, holy mighty One, holy immortal One, have mercy on us.” This is one of the oldest chants of the Byzantine Liturgy and, for a while, served as the original entrance hymn. (To this day at funeral services we process into church chanting this refrain.)

Entering more fully into the mystery of God’s presence in our midst, we are struck by the special nature of that presence. “Holy” is among the few words that shed a feeble light on the nature of God. But “holy” does not mean “good” or “righteous.” It means “set apart.”

In the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom God is “indescribable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible.” As we participate in the Divine Liturgy we become aware that God cannot be manipulated and that his ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8). This growing awareness prepares us to listen attentively to his Word about to be proclaimed.

The Readings and Homily

Having processed to the “high place” (the bishop’s throne), the priest turns for the first time to the people and exclaims, “Peace be with all of you.” It is the greeting of the living Christ, who, after his resurrection, greeted his apostles with these same words. At the time of John Chrysostom this greeting actually began the Liturgy. In order to truly hear someone, we must be at peace. We cannot be distracted either inwardly or outwardly. True peace, however, can only come from Christ. It is the priest who represents Christ, the head of the Body called Church, and so it is the priest who bids us this peace.

After the prokimen (consisting of a verse or two from the psalms appropriate for the day) we hear a reading from the Epistles or Acts of the Apostles. The reading is traditionally referred to as the “apostle” because it is a living text. It is addressed to us here and now, just as it was addressed by the apostles to the early Christian gatherings. We listen to it as if we were being spoken to by St. Paul, or St. Peter. or St. John himself.

Having heard the Epistle we know that we will now hear our Lord himself. A vibrant “Alleluia” is the only logical response. This manner of greeting the proclamation of the Gospel goes back to the most ancient liturgies. The deacon again incenses the church in preparation for this solemn event.

From the earliest times, Church Fathers have referred to a double table at the Liturgy – a table of the Word and a table of the Eucharist. Our attitude to the reading of the Gospel and homily cannot be simply intellectual. What we hear is not only to intrigue, stimulate, or worse yet, to entertain us; what we hear must become our food. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). God’s Word must be internalized. If we are to take on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2), we must immerse ourselves in the words of Christ.

Often, especially in the past, individual worshippers have been so convinced of the vibrant presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Good News that they have actually knelt under the Gospel Book, thereby seeking healing (Luke 7:7) and purification (John 15:3), while also expressing adoration. In either case, all of us respond to the reading of the Gospel with the acclamation, “Glory be to you, O Lord, glory be to you.” In many parishes, candles are held by members of the congregation (in addition to the altar-servers) who thereby witness that Christ is “the light of the world” (John 8:12).

The Prayers of the Faithful

The Augmented Litany provides the Church with an opportunity to pray for more particular needs. The text of the Liturgy stipulates that, “petitions for special intentions can be added here.” Thus we pray for “the peace in the world” and for an “abundance of the fruits of the earth,” we mention not only “captives” in general, but concrete needs through the world. As we intercede on their behalf, we fulfill our nature as Church. For as a priestly people (1 Peter 2:9] and the living Body of Christ, we stand before the throne of the Father, constantly interceding for the needs of the world (Hebrews 7).

Liturgy of the Eucharist

Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the Thrice-holy Hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside all cares of life. That we may receive the king of all, escorted invisibly by ranks of angels, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

This 6th century chant introduces the realities to be experienced in the next part of the Liturgy. Soon we will join the Cherubim in singing the “Holy, holy, holy” of the anaphora. The celebrant will exhort us to lift up our hearts and to lay aside all earthly cares. And finally, in communion, we will receive the King of all. What else can we then say, but “Alleluia!” The two alternate chants prescribed for Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday similarly anticipate the themes and actions of the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The solemn transfer of gifts from the table of preparation to the holy table (The Great Entrance) is a characteristic rite of the Byzantine Liturgy. The church is again prepared by a full incensing.

Preceded by candle-bearers, the deacon and priest process to the ambo while making commemorations of the hierarchy and other members of the Church. As the bread and wine are brought to the holy table for the supreme sacrifice, we follow the procession visually and spiritually ascend with the clergy into the holy of holies. May the Lord God indeed remember us in his kingdom, “a Kingdom of God with power” (Mark 9:1).

The Kiss of Peace and the Creed

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”. (Matthew 5:23-24).

In accordance with this divine admonition, the deacon now turns to the faithful and says, “Let us love one another so that with one mind we might profess…” (and the people conclude the exhortation) the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in being and undivided.” The clergy exchanges the kiss of peace. This is only a remnant from the days when all the faithful embraced each other, thereby creating an icon of Trinitarian love. The practice continued among the laity until the llth century.

We now recite the creed. The creed anticipates the solemn profession of faith to be enunciated shortly in the eucharistic prayer (anaphora). In the creed, which was introduced into the Liturgy in the early 6th century during a period of doctrinal controversy, our faith is expressed in a systematic list of propositions.

Originally, the creed was only recited as part of the baptismal rite. Its introduction into the Eucharist” serves to buttress our baptismal commitment – a commitment that first brought us into the Body now being renewed in this Eucharist.

The Anaphora

“Let us stand well, let us be attentive” The deacon draws our attention to the core of the Liturgy which is about to begin. The priest then turns and quoting II Corinthians 13:14 bids us the grace, love and fellowship of God. These indeed become ours in this sacred Mystery.

We then lift our hearts to the Lord. Truly “impervious to earthly thoughts” we “set your minds on things that are above … For (we) have died, and (our) life is hid with Christ in God.” Christ our life is about to appear. We also “… will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4).

The priest then asks us to thank the Lord and we respond, “it is right and just.” Here we are at the heart of the Liturgy, for Eucharist means precisely “thanksgiving”.

This act of gratitude takes us to the very origins of the Lord’s supper. For Jews it was the Birkat-hamazon, the Prayer of Thanksgiving, that climaxed every solemn communal meal. It was such a prayer that our Lord pronounced as he blessed the final cup on the night he was betrayed.

It is interesting to note that the two eucharistic prayers of the Byzantine Churches, those attributed to John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, both follow a pattern that is reminiscent of this early Jewish form. In their berakoth, Jews usually thanked God for creation, praised him for salvation, and petitioned him for redemption. In the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom we thank God for “bringing us forth from nothing into existence,” praise him for loving us so much “that you gave your only-begotten Son, (so that)… whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life,” and petition him that he send his Spirit upon us and the gifts lying before us. Unfortunately, most of this prayer is now said silently. This, in spite of the fact that in the past, laws were actually enacted mandating that the whole anaphora always be said aloud, (cf. Novella of Justinian, 565).

However, we do hear our Lord’s own words, “Take eat, this is my Body” and “Drink of this, all of you, this is my Blood” to which we in turn respond “Amen.” Thus we proclaim our faith in the reality of Christ’s presence in these precious gifts.

To love is to remember, and to remember is to make present. We now call to mind all that was done for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and anticipate the second and glorious coming. We, the Body of Christ, living in the latter half of the 21th century, offer now the one sacrifice of Christ “on behalf of all and for all.” Jesus Christ came to us and assumed our life, a life that had strayed from its former glory. He renewed this life, raising up and restoring our nature. Through him we return our total selves to the Father as a gift offered in sheer altruism.

Gift begets gift. Love engenders love. And the world – with its cycle of hatred and revenge – is restored to the paradise God intended. In making this Great Thanksgiving [eucharistia] our nature is also restored because it is precisely by expressing our total dependence on God that we vanquish the pride which caused our primordial fall. Alluded to earlier, the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis) now takes place. The Father is asked to send the Sanctifier so that the gifts changed into the Body and Blood of Christ may bring “… forgiveness of sins, fellowship in your Holy Spirit the fullness of the heavenly kingdom.” This theme of fullness resounds several times in the Byzantine Eucharist. At the conclusion of the Liturgy, we also ask God to “preserve the fullness of the Church”. Heresy always involves choosing only a part of the Tradition. Schism reflects a desire for separatism. And sin always involves disintegration within oneself as well as in relation to others.

However, the Eucharist is koinonia (“cum-union”), because the Spirit of Truth descends upon the Church and the precious gifts. By partaking of these gifts, we overcome all forms of alienation, both personal and corporate, for Christ’s Body becomes our body, his Blood flows through our veins, and all of us.

In some ways we have anticipated the communion rites of the Liturgy, and yet almost every aspect of the service after the invocation of the Holy Spirit can be viewed from the point of view of communion. Therefore, the concluding part of the anaphora involves a general commemoration of saints, hierarchs, priests, deacons, civil authorities, and all those in need. For indeed, as we are “built up in love” how can we forget anyone? Thus we exclaim, “Lord, remember all men and women.”

The anaphora concludes with this same theme of unity, “And grant that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise your most honoured and magnificent name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…”

Holy Communion

After another series of petitions, we intensify our fellowship again by calling upon God as our Father. However, Tradition also refers to the importance of the Lord’s Prayer at this point because of the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The “Our Father’ then serves as a means of purification. Tradition also relates the request for “daily bread” to the eucharistic gifts.

Next, we hear the words, “Let us be attentive! The holy things for the holy!” This ancient formula is the original invitation to communion. It does not imply, however, that only “perfect” people can approach the chalice. The “holy ones” indicated here are those consecrated by their Baptism to the service of God. Throughout Acts and the Epistles, “the saints” (that is, “the holy ones”) refers to the whole Church.

Throughout the centuries, various prayers and formulae have been added which emphasize the proper disposition necessary for sincere participation in the “mystical supper”. We are to approach “with reverence for God and with faith”. We also ask that this communion “not be for our judgment or condemnation.”

The Liturgy expresses the tension between the sacredness of the mysteries and the importance of sinners receiving holy communion. The priest communicates each one of us saying, “The servant of God, (name), partakes of the precious, most holy and all pure Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and for everlasting life.” This is of the essence of God’s saving plan, for his Son came precisely to seek out the lost, to heal the sick and to save sinners.

Having partaken of the divine mysteries, we “worship the undivided Trinity who has saved us…” and exclaim. “Let our mouths be filled with your praise, O Lord, so that we may sing of your glory…”

The Dismissal

After an additional prayer of thanksgiving, we are admonished to depart in peace. Christ is our peace. In the Eucharist he has ”… broken down the dividing wall of hostility…” (Ephesians 2:14). For “in Christ Jesus, (we) who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).

We pray for the needs of Church and world and receive a final blessing. Thus we end where we began-praying with peace for God’s creation and partaking of the blessings of his Son’s glorious reign. Finally, just as our coming together was a sacramental moment, so does our departure involve an encounter with Christ, for on our way home we approach the cross, receive a portion of unconsecrated prosphora (bread), and exclaim “He is and shall be” to the priest’s “Christ is with us”. Indeed, in keeping with his promise, he is and shall be with us always, until the consummation of the world. Amen.

[1] The faithful are invited to venerate the holy Gospel, the deacon or the priest is greeting each person saying: “Christ is with us”! The response is: “He is and shell be”! During the Christmas cycle the greeting is: “Christ is born!” The response is: “Glorify him”!  During the Paschal cycle that grating is: “Christ is risen”! The response is: “Indeed he is risen”!

Cfr.Peter Galadza in “He Dwells in our midst” 1988, 39-50 p.