For newcomers exploring the Orthodox Faith, the Divine Liturgy can seem long, meandering, long, repetitive, and long. It can also feel this way for those who have been born into the Church. But if we understand the liturgy as a journey, a pilgrimage with a specific route and a joyful destination, we can follow the roadmap with intentionality, observing the changing seasons on our way to communion with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Divine Liturgy is an ascent, a journey from Earth to Heaven, beginning with the priest’s cry of “Blessed is the Kingdom…” and progressing to the final prayer. Just as a single paved street can change names several times as it crosses city boundaries, the liturgy travels on one unbroken road that is divided into four parts.
The service itself has two sections as well as an on-ramp, the Liturgy of Preparation. This involves the priest’s vesting, prayers, and cutting of the prosphora for the Eucharist, but it also includes the parishioners’ preparation for worship. The off-ramp, the Liturgy After the Liturgy, is a time of grateful fellowship among the faithful before being sent out into the world to exercise our royal priesthood.
For now we’ll set aside the on- and off-ramps and examine the roadmap of the service itself. As we gather on Sunday morning, surrounded by fellow believers both visible and invisible, we begin our travels on a spiritual path that has been in place since the earliest years of Christianity. In the second century, St. Justin Martyr wrote his First Apology to Emperor Antoninus and included an outline of the Christian worship gathering as practiced around 155 AD:
Synaxis (gathering of the congregation)
Readings from Scripture (both the Old Testament and the “Apostles’ Memoirs”)
Prayer followed by the kiss of peace
The homily from the leader (called the “president”)
Dismissal of those not in the Church (catechumens left the service for instruction)
Offertory of bread and wine
Prayers for consecration of the Gifts
Giving of thanks
Collection for charity
If you’ve visited an Orthodox parish even once, this list should seem familiar. Notice the progression of the service, from a focus on the Scriptures to a focus on the Holy Eucharist. This is the order of worship that St. John Chrysostom followed in his fourth-century liturgy, which is the Divine Liturgy used most frequently by Orthodox Christians to this day. Although certain parts have changed and moved over two millennia, the early followers of The Way would recognize a service at any modern Orthodox parish as distinctly Christian.
Not a Spectator Sport
During the liturgy, together we sing, cross ourselves numerous times, kneel, recite prayers and the Creed, and, in many traditions, offer deep bows in reverence. We inhale the fragrance of incense, and we taste and see that the Lord is good as we receive the Eucharist. We consume blessed bread and quietly offer post-Communion prayers. Orthodox worship is active, utilizing all of our senses; we are not mere spectators.
We undertake this journey corporately, because in the Orthodox Church, the canons do not allow the priest to celebrate the liturgy if none of the faithful are present. Liturgy is the “work of the people,” not of the priest, and as 1 Peter 2:9 affirms, we laypeople are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
The Liturgy of the Word
The service in those early years and today includes two parts: the Liturgy of the Word (focused on the Scriptures) and the Liturgy of the Faithful (focused on the Eucharist). The Liturgy of the Word includes psalmody, readings from the Scriptures (first the Epistle then the Gospel), and a sermon or homily to instruct the faithful, usually based on the Gospel text of the day. This order was actually in place long before St. Justin Martyr; it comes directly from the synagogue practices of the Jews.
In many churches, the service of Matins (or Orthros) is celebrated before the Divine Liturgy and followed by the Doxology, an ancient hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity. The choir sings “Glory unto God who gives the light…,” and the familiar melody gives us a few moments to settle in and turn our hearts toward God.
While the choir and congregants sing, the priest and deacon offer quiet prayers. Next, the priest stands at the altar, lifts the Gospel book, and makes the sign of the Cross with it. With his opening exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages,” he proclaims our allegiance to God’s eternal Kingdom and its values. Our amen is our agreement—“so be it”—and also our participation in the life of the Church. We cross ourselves, and this first corporate action is the beginning of a physical, participatory form of worship that engages mind, heart, and body.
As Fr. Lawrence Farley notes in Let Us Attend! A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, with our first amen, “the priest’s utterance becomes the opening prayer of the Church, the first note in the Church’s song, the first movement of the journey to the Kingdom” (p. 15).
The Great Litany
The beginning of the service is a time of joyful anticipation as we journey into the Kingdom, not symbolically but in actuality, leaving behind the worries and distractions of the outside world and entering into prayer with the Great Litany. A litany is a liturgical prayer with a series of supplications, and the deacon and laity engage in a call-and-response dialogue. This first litany is “great” not only because of its length but because it sums up all of human need.
With each petition, the deacon lifts his stole and bows slightly toward the altar while the choir and congregation respond, “Lord, have mercy.” (The lifting of the stole represents angelic activity; lowering it symbolizes angelic rest.) These petitions address all categories of human need; the request for “peace from above and the salvation of our souls” encompasses our greatest need and desire in the journey of salvation, a process in which we have been saved, we are being saved, and ultimately we will be saved by the grace of God.
We lift up our churches and their leaders, the cities and countries of the world, and all civic authorities in obedience to St. Paul’s command: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
We pray for others who are suffering and in need and also for all of creation. In some geographical regions, the prayers are quite specific. When my husband and I vacationed in Hawaii, we visited an OCA mission church where, in addition to the traditional prayer for “deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity,” the priest added, “tsunami and volcanic eruption.” We definitely do not worry about such things back home in Colorado.
The Great Litany ends with words of honor for our unseen brothers and sisters in Christ: “our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints.” We worship along with many generations of our spiritual family, in heaven and on earth, and the Church reminds us frequently that we are not alone in our journey.
The hymns of the Divine Liturgy contains many expressions of praise to God, but the Church also uses her music to teach us theology. In the next blog post we will consider the hymns that follow the litanies, the Little Entrance of the Gospel book, and the beautiful Trisagion Hymn to the Holy Trinity.