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The Divine Liturgy

The word litur­gy means com­mon work or com­mon action. The Divine Litur­gy is the com­mon work of the Ortho­dox Church. It is the offi­cial action of the Church for­mal­ly gath­ered togeth­er as the cho­sen Peo­ple of God. The word church, as we remem­ber, means a gath­er­ing or assem­bly of peo­ple specif­i­cal­ly cho­sen and called apart to per­form a par­tic­u­lar task.

The Divine Litur­gy is the com­mon action of Ortho­dox Chris­tians offi­cial­ly gath­ered to con­sti­tute the Ortho­dox Church. It is the action of the Church assem­bled by God in order to be togeth­er in one com­mu­ni­ty to wor­ship, to pray, to sing, to hear God’s Word, to be instruct­ed in God’s com­mand­ments, to offer itself with thanks­giv­ing in Christ to God the Father, and to have the liv­ing expe­ri­ence of God’s eter­nal king­dom through com­mu­nion with the same Christ Who is present in his peo­ple by the Holy Spirit.

The Divine Litur­gy is always done by Ortho­dox Chris­tians on the Lord’s Day which is Sun­day, the “day after Sab­bath” which is sym­bol­ic of the first day of cre­ation and the last day—or as it is called in Holy Tra­di­tion, the eighth day—of the King­dom of God. This is the day of Christ’s res­ur­rec­tion from the dead, the day of God’s judg­ment and vic­to­ry pre­dict­ed by the prophets, the Day of the Lord which inau­gu­rates the pres­ence and the pow­er of the “king­dom to come” already now with­in the life of this present world.

The Divine Litur­gy is also cel­e­brat­ed by the Church on spe­cial feast days. It is usu­al­ly cel­e­brat­ed dai­ly in monas­ter­ies, and in some large cathe­drals and parish church­es, with the excep­tion of the week days of Great Lent when it is not served because of its paschal character.

As the com­mon action of the Peo­ple of God, the Divine Litur­gy may be cel­e­brat­ed only once on any giv­en day in an Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty. All of the mem­bers of the Church must be gath­ered togeth­er with their pas­tor in one place at one time. This includes even small chil­dren and infants who par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in the com­mu­nion of the litur­gy from the day of their entrance into the Church through bap­tism and chris­ma­tion. Always every­one, always togeth­er. This is the tra­di­tion­al expres­sion of the Ortho­dox Church about the Divine Liturgy.

Because of its com­mon char­ac­ter, the Divine Litur­gy may nev­er be cel­e­brat­ed pri­vate­ly by the cler­gy alone. It may nev­er be served just for some and not for oth­ers, but for all. It may nev­er be served mere­ly for some pri­vate pur­pos­es or some spe­cif­ic or exclu­sive inten­tions. Thus there may be, and usu­al­ly are, spe­cial peti­tions at the Divine Litur­gy for the sick or the depart­ed, or for some very par­tic­u­lar pur­pos­es or projects, but there is nev­er a Divine Litur­gy which is done exclu­sive­ly for pri­vate indi­vid­u­als or spe­cif­ic iso­lat­ed pur­pos­es or inten­tions. The Divine Litur­gy is always “on behalf of all and for all.”

Because the Divine Litur­gy exists for no oth­er rea­son than to be the offi­cial all-inclu­sive act of prayer, wor­ship, teach­ing, and com­mu­nion of the entire Church in heav­en and on earth, it may not be con­sid­ered mere­ly as one devo­tion among many, not even the high­est or the great­est. The Divine Litur­gy is not an act of per­son­al piety. It is not a prayer ser­vice. It is not mere­ly one of the sacra­ments. The Divine Litur­gy is the one com­mon sacra­ment of the very being of the Church Itself. It is the one sacra­men­tal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the essence of the Church as the Com­mu­ni­ty of God in heav­en and on earth. It is the one unique sacra­men­tal rev­e­la­tion of the Church as the mys­ti­cal Body and Bride of Christ.

As the cen­tral mys­ti­cal action of the whole church, the Divine Litur­gy is always res­ur­rec­tion­al in spir­it. It is always the man­i­fes­ta­tion to his peo­ple of the Risen Christ. It is always an out­pour­ing of the life-cre­at­ing Spir­it. It is always com­mu­nion with God the Father. The Divine Litur­gy, there­fore, is nev­er mourn­ful or pen­i­ten­tial. It is nev­er the expres­sion of the dark­ness and death of this world. It is always the expres­sion and the expe­ri­ence of the eter­nal life of the King­dom of the Blessed Trinity.

The Divine Litur­gy cel­e­brat­ed by the Ortho­dox Church is called the Litur­gy of St. John Chrysos­tom. It is a short­er litur­gy than the so-called Litur­gy of St. Basil the Great that is used only ten times dur­ing the Church Year. These two litur­gies prob­a­bly received their present form after the ninth cen­tu­ry. It is not the case that they were writ­ten exact­ly as they now stand by the saints whose names they car­ry. It is quite cer­tain, how­ev­er, that the eucharis­tic prayers of each of these litur­gies were for­mu­lat­ed as ear­ly as the fourth and fifth cen­turies when these saints lived and worked in the Church.

The Divine Litur­gy has two main parts. The first part is the gath­er­ing, called the synax­is. It has its ori­gin in the syn­a­gogue gath­er­ings of the Old Tes­ta­ment, and is cen­tered in the procla­ma­tion and med­i­ta­tion of the Word of God. The sec­ond part of the Divine Litur­gy is the eucharis­tic sac­ri­fice. It has its ori­gin in the Old Tes­ta­ment tem­ple wor­ship, the priest­ly sac­ri­fices of the Peo­ple of God; and in the cen­tral sav­ing event of the Old Tes­ta­ment, the Passover (Pascha).

In the New Tes­ta­ment Church Jesus Christ is the Liv­ing Word of God, and it is the Chris­t­ian gospels and apos­tolic writ­ings which are pro­claimed and med­i­tat­ed at the first part of the Divine Litur­gy. And in the New Tes­ta­ment Church, the cen­tral sav­ing event is the one per­fect, eter­nal and all-suf­fi­cient sac­ri­fice of Jesus Christ, the one great High Priest who is also the Lamb of God slain for the sal­va­tion of the world, the New Passover. At the Divine Litur­gy the faith­ful Chris­tians par­tic­i­pate in the vol­un­tary self-offer­ing of Christ to the Father, accom­plished once and for all upon the Cross by the pow­er of the Holy Spir­it. In and through this unique sac­ri­fice of Christ, the faith­ful Chris­tians receive Holy Com­mu­nion with God.

For cen­turies it was the prac­tice of the Church to admit all per­sons to the first part of the Divine Litur­gy, while reserv­ing the sec­ond part strict­ly for those who were for­mal­ly com­mit­ted to Christ through bap­tism and chris­ma­tion in the Church. Non-bap­tized per­sons were not per­mit­ted even to wit­ness the offer­ing and receiv­ing of Holy Com­mu­nion by the faith­ful Chris­tians. Thus the first part of the Divine Litur­gy came to be called the Litur­gy of the Cat­e­chu­mens, that is, the litur­gy of those who were receiv­ing instruc­tions in the Chris­t­ian Faith in order to become mem­bers of the Church through bap­tism and chris­ma­tion. It also came to be called, for obvi­ous rea­sons, the Litur­gy of the Word. The sec­ond part of the Divine Litur­gy came to be called the Litur­gy of the Faith­ful.

Although it is gen­er­al­ly the prac­tice in the Ortho­dox Church today to allow non-Ortho­dox Chris­tians, and even non-Chris­tians, to wit­ness the Litur­gy of the Faith­ful, it is still the prac­tice to reserve actu­al par­tic­i­pa­tion in the sacra­ment of Holy Com­mu­nion only to mem­bers of the Ortho­dox Church who are ful­ly com­mit­ted to the life and teach­ings of the Ortho­dox Faith as pre­served, pro­claimed and prac­ticed by the Church through­out its history.

In the com­men­tary on the Divine Litur­gy which fol­lows, we will con­cen­trate our atten­tion on what hap­pens to the Church at its “com­mon action.” By doing this we will attempt to pen­e­trate the fun­da­men­tal and essen­tial mean­ing of the litur­gy for man, his life and his world. This will be a def­i­nite depar­ture from the inter­pre­ta­tion of the Divine Litur­gy which treats the ser­vice as if it were a dra­ma enact­ed by the cler­gy and “attend­ed” by the peo­ple, in which each part stands for some aspect of Christ’s life and work. (e.g., the proth­e­sis stands for Christ’s birth, the small entrance for the begin­ning of his pub­lic min­istry, the gospel for his preach­ing, the great entrance for Palm Sun­day, etc.) This lat­ter type of inter­pre­ta­tion of the Divine Litur­gy is an inven­tion, which, although per­haps inter­est­ing and inspir­ing for some, is nev­er­the­less com­plete­ly alien to the gen­uine mean­ing and pur­pose of the Divine Litur­gy in the Ortho­dox Church.