In the Divine Liturgy, after the faithful have received Holy Communion, the service draws to its close. In the early Church, after a final thanksgiving for Holy Communion, the deacon simply announced the end of the service by giving the people one final direction, such as, “Let us depart in peace”, to which the people responded, “In the Name of the Lord” or with something similar. Everyone then went home. There was nothing following, such as the veneration of the Cross or the distribution of blessed bread or the parish announcements. In the words of Bishop Eutychius at the end of the sixth century, “After receiving the precious Body and Blood we say a prayer of thanksgiving and then we go out, each one to his own home”. Somewhat later, by at least the end of the eighth century, the departing bishop stopped at a spot behind the ambo and offered a final prayer in the midst of the departing congregation. In the words of one modern commentator (Hugh Wybrew), “The Liturgy had begun with a prayer as the people were about to flock into church: it finished with a prayer as they prepared to stream out of it.”
This ambo was not simply the raised platform at the front of the church that we think of now. Rather it was a large pulpit placed in the middle of the nave, mounted by steps, from the top of which the reader would read the lessons to make himself heard in a large church. The imposing structure has long since vanished from the nave, but even now (at least in the Slavic tradition) the celebrant goes to the place where it once stood to offer the final departing prayer. Originally of course this prayer was the last liturgical thing heard in the nave during the service, but now the liturgical ending from non-Eucharistic services such as the Hours has been appended to the Liturgy. After the “prayer behind the ambo” the celebrant must therefore now return to his place in the altar for these final prayers.
One might be tempted to minimize the significance of the dismissal. Indeed, such a dismissive approach to the dismissal has a long history, for in Chrysostom’s day many people did not wait for the dismissal but simply left the church after receiving their own communion (which annoyed Chrysostom no end). What is the significance of the dismissal? What does it mean to “depart in peace in the Name of the Lord”?
Here one thinks of a discussion held among three monks. They were debating which part of the Liturgy was the most important. One of them opined that the reading of the Gospel was the most important, for here one heard the very words of the incarnate God Himself, words so momentous that, as Christ Himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away” (Mark 13:31). Another felt that the reception of Holy Communion was the most important part of the service, for here one received the Body and Blood of the Lord, the means whereby one is forgiven and strengthened to fulfill the words of Christ. “Forgive me, Fathers,” said the third, “but I think that the dismissal is the most important part of the service, for it is here that we are sent out into the world to obey Christ’s words and live the transformed life possible by the reception of the His Body and Blood.”
One can see his point: Liturgy is not an end in itself, but prepares us to live in the world as the forgiven, transformed, and obedient servants of Christ. If the power and divine presence we receive while standing before God during the Liturgy does not flow out into our lives after the Liturgy ends, it will all have been utterly in vain. Departing in peace means departing in Christ, for He is our peace. Having received His peace, we are called to take that gift with us into the world and share it with others.
It is true that the Church does not exist for the world in the sense that it is not just another social organization whose raison d’être is to prop up and support the secular status quo. We exist not for the world, but for God, and we no longer citizens of the world, but citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). The Church is eschatological at its very core, and the old cry of “Let grace come, and let the world pass away!” found in the Didache is ever in our hearts. But it is also true that loving God means loving His world as well, and not being deaf to its challenges and its sufferings. That is why we depart in the Lord’s Name, living in His world as His representatives, and sharing with all who will receive it the gift of His peace. The final dismissal in the Liturgy reminds us of this and calls us to share what we have received. Given our frailty and weakness, it is a reminder of which we should not deprive ourselves.