The Divine Liturgy

‘Do this in remembrance of Me’ — Luke 22:19

The Divine Liturgy does not belong to the daily cycle of services, but is a manifestation of eternity, the Kingdom of God on earth. It is the service in which bread and wine are offered up to God in thanksgiving (eucharistía), and in which God in turn offers Himself back to us by turning those gifts into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Divine Liturgy is the summit of Christian worship, and our encounter with Christ in the Eucharist is the fulfilment of every other act, prayer, and intention. Everything we do, both in Church and outside, every other service and sacrament, revolves around and points to the Divine Eucharist.

Preparation

The Divine Liturgy is preceded by the service of preparation, the Proskomidē, which normally takes place during the Matins. The priest will come out of the sanctuary, wearing only his black cassock and hat, and will stand in front of the altar doors reading a number of prayers asking for God’s help, forgiveness and mercy. He will then venerate the icons of Christ, our Lady, St John the Baptist, and the patron of the church (in our case, St Andrew the Apostle), before reading a final prayer asking God to ‘strengthen me for the service which now awaits me, so that, standing uncondemned before your dread altar, I may offer the sacrifice without shedding of blood’.

The priest then enters the sanctuary and venerates the holy altar table before putting on his vestments. Before putting on each item, the priest blesses it and reads an appointed verse from the Psalms. When he is fully vested, he washes his hands, and then proceeds to the table of preparation (próthesis) to the left of the altar table.

He lifts up the prósphoro (offer bread) and says, ‘You redeemed us from the curse of the law by Your precious blood; nailed to the Cross and pierced by the lance, You became a source of immortality for all. Our Saviour, glory to You’. He then makes the sign of the cross over the bread three times, saying ‘In remembrance of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’. He then cuts out the middle piece of the bread, marked IC XC NIKA (‘Jesus Christ conquers’), while saying, ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as an unblemished lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he does not open his mouth. In humiliation judgement was denied him. Who will describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth’ (Isaiah 53:7-8). The priest places this piece — called the Lamb, which will become the Body of Christ — on the Paten and cuts it crosswise, saying, ‘The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, is sacrificed for the life and salvation of the world’.

He then pierces the side of the Lamb with the lance, saying

‘One of the soldiers pierces his side with a lance, and at once out blood and water…’ (John 19:34)

at which point he pours both water and wine into the Chalice, which will become the precious Blood of Christ.

He then cuts out a number of other particles, symbolising the various members of the Church: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Angels, St John the Baptist, the prophets, apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, ascetics, healers, the patron saint of the church and the saints whose memory is celebrated on that particular day, the saint associated with the particular Liturgy being celebrated[1], His Eminence the Archbishop, and all those Orthodox Christians — living and departed — he has been asked to pray for. Those in attendance at the Liturgy will usually bring a list of names to be commemorated.

Once he has finished, veils are placed over the Holy Gifts and a final Prayer of the Offertory is said. After censing the próthesis, he also censes the sanctuary (in many places also the icon screen and the people) in preparation for the beginning of the Liturgy, in a sense ushering in the Kingdom of God and marking the imminent coming of the Lord.

The Liturgy of the Catechumens

The Divine Liturgy proper begins with the exclamation, ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen’. This exclamation points us both to the future — the Kingdom of God is the destination of the journey we are now embarking on — and the present, in that the Liturgy is truly a manifestation of the Kingdom of God (i.e., God’s own presence) in the here and now. As Jesus says,

‘The hour is coming, and now is’ (John 4:23).

The first half of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. The Catechumens are those who have accepted the Christian faith, but who have yet to become full members of the Church through baptism, and therefore cannot yet partake in the Holy Sacraments of the Church. This first half of the Liturgy, then, is the ‘general’ part of the Liturgy, in which all can participate, whereas the second part — the Liturgy of the Faithful (i.e., the baptised) — revolves entirely around the Holy Eucharist, in which only the baptised members of the Church may partake.

In the Liturgy of the Catechumens, we pray for general needs: for the peace of the world, the welfare of the Church and the union of all mankind to it, for the city and country in which we live, our ecclesiastical and secular authorities, for good weather, for those who travel, for the sick, the imprisoned, and so on. We also sing Psalms praising God for his goodness and mercy, and hymns in honour of the feast or saint celebrated on that particular day.

After the Holy Gospel is carried in procession around the front of the church, the faithful sing the Triságion (the Thrice-holy Hymn) — ‘Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us — before the reader recites the appointed reading from the Book of Acts or one of the New Testament epistles.

Once the Epistle reading is finished, the priest once again censes the Sanctuary, the icon screen, and the people, signifying the coming of Christ; in this instance, His presence through the reading of the Holy Gospel.[2]

Once the priest has read the appointed Gospel reading, he will give a sermon expounding on its meaning, and more generally instructing the people of God in the Christian faith and way of life.

The Liturgy of the Catechumens ends with a final litany asking for the ‘general’ needs of the people — mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, forgiveness of sins — and a prayer for the Catechumens, asking that they in due time will be fully joined to the Church in holy baptism.[3]

Traditionally, the Catechumens — and anyone else who for whatever reason would not be receiving Holy Communion — would leave at this point. While this is no longer the practice in most places, we should still bear in mind what this seeks to emphasise: namely, that we do not attend the Liturgy as passive observers, but as active participants.

The Liturgy of the Faithful

The focus now turns entirely to the encounter with Christ in Holy Communion, and the Liturgy of the Faithful begins with two prayers in which the priest asks that they may be made ‘worthy to offer prayers and entreaties and unbloody sacrifices for all Your people’ and to ‘partake of Your Holy Mysteries without guilt or condemnation’.[4]

The choir then begin to sing the Cherubic Hymn: ‘We, who in a mystery represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, let us now lay aside every care of this life, for we are about to receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Hallelujah’.

While the hymn is being sung, the priest says a long and moving prayer expressing his unworthiness, asking God to enable him ‘clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand at this Your Holy Table and celebrate the Mystery of Your holy and most pure Body and Your precious Blood’. He then censes for a third time the sanctuary, the icon screen, and the people to signify the coming of the King; this time under the forms of bread and wine.

After the censing, he venerates the holy altar table and asks forgiveness from the people. He then takes the Paten and Chalice from the próthesis and carries them in procession around the church before placing them on the holy altar, where he calls on the people to pray ‘for the precious gifts here set forth’ before reading the Prayer of the Offering: ‘…bring us to Your Holy Altar, and enable us to offer You gifts and spiritual sacrifices…that the good Spirit of Your grace may rest on us and on these gifts here set forth…’.

The people are then called upon to ‘love one another’ before confessing their Christian faith by reciting the Nicene Creed, since faith in God as Trinity — a God who exists eternally as a communion of love — can only be understood if we, created in the image of the Trinitarian God, express that same love amongst one another.

The Nicene Creed is first and foremost a baptismal Creed, and so this is also a reminder that what is to come belongs only to the baptised faithful, which is why the recitation of the Creed is prefaced by the exclamation, ‘The doors! The doors’, which in the ancient Church was the point at which the doors to the church would be locked to ensure that the uninitiated (i.e., the non-participants) would not enter.

After the recitation of the Creed, the faithful are told to ‘attend to the holy Oblation’ and lift up their hearts, before the exhortation that gives the Eucharist its name: ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’. The priest prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God who ‘brought us out of non-existence into being, and when we had fallen raised us up again, and left nothing undone until You had brought us up to heaven and had granted us Your Kingdom that is to come’. We also thank God ‘for this liturgy which You have been pleased to accept from our hands’ even though our praise cannot compare to the ceaseless prayer of the angels: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth; haven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest’.

While the choir sings this hymn of the angels (the Sanctus), the priest prays, glorifying God who

‘so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16)

recalling ‘the night in which He was given up, or rather gave Himself up, for the life of the world’, when Jesus ate the Mystical Supper with His disciples.

During this prayer, the priest exclaims what are often known as the ‘Words of Institution’:

‘Take, eat; this is My Body, which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins’.

‘Drink from this, all of you; this is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for forgiveness of sins’.

He then calls to mind ‘all that has been done for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand’ and even ‘the second and glorious Coming again’, which is commemorated as something that has already taken place, pointing to the Liturgy’s eternal significance as a manifestation of the future Kingdom.

We then come to what is perhaps the most solemn moment in the Liturgy: the Epiclēsis, when we call on God the Father to send down the Holy Spirit in order to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. On weekdays, the faithful kneel throughout this part of the Liturgy, though we on Sundays remain standing in honour of the Resurrection.

After this, a long prayer commemorating the living and departed is said, signifying how all are united and made present in the Eucharist. The priest commemorates ‘those who have gone to their rest in faith, Forefathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith’. ‘Above all’, he commemorates the Blessed Virgin Mary, together with St John the Baptist, the holy Apostles, the patron saint of the church, and the saints celebrated on that day. He then remembers ‘all those who have fallen asleep in hope of the resurrection and eternal life’, praying by name for anyone he as been asked to commemorate.

Attention then turns to the living, as he commemorates ‘all Orthodox bishops…the whole order of presbyters, the diaconate in Christ, all the clergy and the whole monastic order…the holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, those who live in chastity and holiness of life, our faithful Christian rulers’. ‘First of all’ among the living, he commemorates the Archbishop, who serves as the visible point of unity in any given area. The Archbishop, when serving, will commemorate the Patriarch, and the Patriarch, when serving, in turn commemorates by name the canonical leaders of all Orthodox churches worldwide.

This commemoration of the living and dead in connection with the Eucharist is extremely important, because it expresses the catholicity[5] of the Church both in its geographical dimensions and through time — one could liken it to the vertical and horizontal bars of the Cross. This also allows us to see where the Church of Christ can be found and how it can be recognised. The one Church, which is Orthodox, Apostolic, and Catholic, is found where the Eucharist is celebrated by a validly ordained Orthodox priest who is connected to a canonical bishop. A bishop is ‘canonical’ when he can trace his lineage back to the Apostles through the laying on of hands, when he ‘rightly discerns the word of truth’ and upholds the apostolic teaching, and when he is recognised by and in communion with all the other bishops of the Orthodox Church.

However, the purpose of emphasising the boundaries of the Church is not so that we can hide within them in some exclusivist insularity. Rather, the Church has clear boundaries so that, when we go out and call the world to Christ, those called will know where to find him. This is why the final commemoration remind us that the faithful dwell in cities, towns and villages, travel by land, sea and air, that we show concern for the sick, the suffering, the imprisoned, and that we remember the poor.

The next litany and prayer prepare us for reception of the Holy Mysteries, and conclude by saying: ‘count us worthy, Master, with boldness and without condemnation to dare to call upon You, the God of heaven, as Father’. We then recite the Our Father, the prayer taught to us by the Lord. The Lord’s Prayer is connected to the Eucharist for a number of reasons: it is only through our union with the Son that we can call God our Father; the Liturgy is a manifestation of the Kingdom on earth as in heaven, the word commonly translated ‘daily’ (epioúsion) literally means ‘super-essential’ or ‘of the future’ — in other words, ‘our daily bread’ is the ‘bread of God which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world’, our Lord Jesus Christ (John 6) —; forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors is a prerequisite for participation in holy Communion, frequent participation in which helps to lead us away from temptation and deliver us from the evil one.

Two further prayers of preparation follow before the priest lifts up the Lamb and exclaims, ‘The Holy Things for the Holy’. ‘The holy’ (or, the saints), is how the members of the Church are described in the New Testament epistles, since they have been called to holiness of life and union with God. The people, in humility, recognising that this holiness is not their own, but God’s, reply: ‘One is Holy, One is Lord: Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father’.

The priest breaks the bread, as the Lord had done at the Last Supper, and then pours boiling water into the chalice, symbolising the ‘fervour of the Holy Spirit’.

The clergy take Communion first, receiving the Body in the hand, and drinking the Blood of Christ from the Chalice. The rest of the Lamb is then placed into the Chalice, and the Body and Blood of Christ together are distributed to the faithful using a long spoon. This spoon is called a lavída, or tong, recalling the vision of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged’ (Isaiah 6:6-7).

The faithful do not kneel when receiving Communion, but receive standing as per the Lord’s command in Exodus 12:11:

‘In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover’.

Having communed, the people sing: ‘We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, as we worship the undivided Trinity; for the Trinity has saved us’.

The Liturgy concludes with two prayers of thanksgiving and the final dismissal. In Greek, the dismissal is called apólysis, literally meaning to be set free or released. This is not to suggest that we are ‘set free’ from the Liturgy, but rather that our encounter with Christ in the Liturgy has set us free, and released us from the cares and oppressions of the world to which we return.

At the end of the service, the priest distributes the antídoron (literally, ‘instead of the Gifts’), which may be received by those who could not partake of Communion. It is also customary to take some home so that we can partake of the antidoron instead of the Gifts on the days we cannot attend the Divine Liturgy.


[1] Today, only the liturgies of St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom are in frequent use in the Orthodox Church, although the liturgies of St James the Apostle and St Mark the Evangelist are also used in certain places.

[2] If a bishop is present, he will remove his omophórion (the vestment distinguishing him from the priests) during the reading of the Holy Gospel in order to indicate Christ’s presence in the Word, since it is not necessary for him at that moment to act as an icon of Christ.

[3] Note that, in most parishes of the Thyateira Archdiocese, these prayers are read silently in the sanctuary.

[4] Again, these two prayers are usually read silently in the sanctuary in the parishes of our Archdiocese.

[5] A term expressing both fullness and universality.