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. As I began attending liturgies at a local parish, I remember multiple instances of thinking, “Wait. Didn’t we just pray that same prayer a little while ago?”
Yes. Yes, we did. More on that in a moment.
To my untrained mind and heart, the Divine Liturgy had many high points, but the progression of the service and the purpose of its various parts were not clear to me. Sometimes church attendance felt more like an endurance exercise, mostly because I didn’t know where we were going or why. So, I thought it would be a good idea on Walking an Ancient Path to put together a short series on the Divine Liturgy to help others get oriented.
My goals here are modest. Across the centuries, many deep, scholarly, and prayerful books on the Divine Liturgy have been written. Some of them are quite detailed in theology or history of the development of the Eucharist. Orthodox seminaries even feature courses in liturgics.
But not everyone has the time or inclination to wade through a book about the Divine Liturgy. So, with busy people in mind, I’ve read several such books over the past few years, both for my own personal edification and also as a way of taking one for the team. (You’re welcome.)
This series will include six blog posts—with a pause during the Nativity fast to honor the Theotokos—to better understand the Divine Liturgy and think about our response to God and what He is teaching us through His Church.
Just six posts. That’s why I’m calling this series a Liturgy Quick-Start Guide.
Can you find richer, more detailed material elsewhere? Absolutely. And I hope you will do some reading on your own to enrich your experience of worship in the Church.
But until you can do that, I’m here simply as a gal in the pews, offering you a walking stick and a water bottle as we travel together on this trail. My prayer is that you will come away with a basic understanding of the various sections of the Divine Liturgy and some of the why’s behind them—not as a way to acquire tidbits of Orthodox knowledge, but to grow in your relationship with Christ.
A Spiritual Journey with a Clear Destination
I think of the liturgy as a journey, a pilgrimage with a specific route and a joyful destination. This is not a path through the lowlands; it is an ascent 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 path can change names several times as it merges with other paths, the liturgy travels on one unbroken trail that is divided into parts.
So, where are we headed? In my Protestant days, the spoken proclamation of the Word was really the whole point of the church service. Even though singing and praying together was important, the practical reality was that our destination was really the sermon. And if the sermon was unfocused or didn’t dig into a biblical passage according to a favored interpretation, a lot of people would walk away feeling dissatisfied. Some of them complained vocally.
That’s a lot of performance pressure on a pastor.
But in the Orthodox Faith—the ancient Faith of the historic Church—the destination is not the sermon; it is the Eucharist. The sermon, or homily, might be challenging and edifying, but a large part of the service involves devoting time and effort to prepare our minds and hearts to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
In The Heavenly Banquet, Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis states,
The Divine Eucharist constitutes the central Mystery of our Faith. All the other Mysteries and services of the Church revolve around this Mystery, as planets orbit around the sun. All the other Mysteries (Sacraments) lead to it and are united with it. . . . The preeminence of this Mystery lies in the fact that, unlike all other Sacraments, in it [quoting fourteenth-century Byzantine writer Saint Nicholas Cabasilas (+1392)] “we receive [not] such gifts of the Spirit as we may, but the very Benefactor Himself.” (p. 61)
Author Stanley Harakas, in his book Living the Liturgy, says this another way: “The Divine Liturgy is the way the Orthodox Church conducts the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist” (p. 30).
This shift in emphasis can be jarring to newcomers, especially for those of us who spent years in churches that view communion as a simple memorial supper. Communion in these congregations, including most of the churches I attended in my life, is an act of obedience and a time to remember Jesus’ sacrifice. It is not a mystery, and it is usually not celebrated weekly.
In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for and undertake this journey to the Eucharist corporately. We are not embarking on a solo hike, because the canons of the Church do not allow the priest to celebrate the liturgy if none of the faithful are present.
Father Harakas writes,
The presence of laymen at all Sacraments is a necessary condition for their performance. A Priest may not properly conduct the Divine Liturgy alone, for there are no “private masses” in the Orthodox Liturgical rubrics. This, because the whole Church conducts the Sacrament. (Living the Liturgy, p. 50)
Not a Spectator Sport
Now, this perspective may come as a surprise to anyone from a Roman Catholic background. Father Harakas notes that modern liturgies often say “Priest” and “Choir” before the assigned words, but the ancient texts use the term Laos, or “laity,” instead of “choir” (p. 50). The Church as a whole performs the Liturgy, with clergy and laity together.
Rather than passively watching, we are meant to participate in this journey by singing together, crossing ourselves numerous times, kneeling, responding to the clergy and choir, reciting prayers and the Creed, and, in many traditions, offering 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.
As many of us have heard, the Greek word for liturgy, leitourgia, comes from laos (“people”) and ergon, “work”: the Liturgy is a service to, for, and by the people. Much like an uphill climb to the mountaintop, our path is an ascent that requires work—attention and effort—from us in order for us to receive the blessings and beauty of the destination.
Back to the journey analogy, have you ever noticed that when you go on a long hike, the trail back home often seems shorter than the initial way up the mountain?
I remember the first time our family took a trip to Glenwood Springs, a mountain town to the west of Denver. Depending on traffic, it’s about a three-hour drive from our house, so of course we were driving, not hiking. That’s not an arduous road trip, but it seemed to last so long.
That’s because the landscape was not familiar. The way home seemed much quicker, because we had already experienced the sheer poetry of the highway through the majestic cliffs of Glenwood Canyon, with the bends of the Colorado River below. We knew the stops and detours, the towns along the way, and the mountain slopes of aspen and Ponderosa pine.
And I’ve found that the more I learn about the Liturgy—and I have a suspicion that a lifetime of learning is not enough to unpack all its riches—the service does not feel as long as it did when I first started traveling this Orthodox road.
On our trip to the mountains, our family was traveling together to experience some days of holiday refreshment, knowing that home was at the end of our journey. And in the Divine Liturgy, we are also traveling as a group, with God’s blessings to refresh and renew us and with the Eucharist as our destination. Father Hatzidakis writes,
The aim of our liturgical experience is to become recipients of the Holy Spirit, to experience God and be deified by His uncreated grace, to “become of the same body and blood with Christ,” to unite with the Theanthropos, the God-man Christ—and thus be saved! (The Heavenly Banquet, p. 37)
Now, that’s a destination.
An Ancient Liturgy in Two Basic Parts
We aren’t breaking new ground on this journey. As I’ve said before, this was important to me as an inquirer. I was tired of innovation in spiritual practice and in theology. I wanted the tried and true, and I found it in the ancient Orthodox Church. When we gather on Sunday morning, we are traveling a spiritual path that has been in place since the earliest years of Christianity. Although the structure of the Liturgy has changed over the centuries, the Divine Liturgy that we celebrate today can be seen in the order of service from the very early days of the Church—like a small footpath that has been widened and smoothed by many feet over the centuries yet still reaches the same destination, visiting the same landmarks along the way.
The Divine Liturgy, in those early years of the Church all the way through the centuries to today, consists of two basic parts: the Liturgy of the Word, focused on the Scriptures, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, focused on the Eucharist. These parts are comprised of several smaller sections of varying lengths.
Remember the repetition in the service that I mentioned earlier? After each section, we pause for a short call-and-response prayer that’s basically the same each time, with some variations. You’re not experiencing deja vu.
That prayer is called the Small Litany or the Shorter Litany, and it gets repeated a lot. I found this a bit frustrating when I first began exploring Orthodoxy. In my day job I’m an editor, so I’m always trying to condense and streamline the wording in a piece. The service is already long, I thought, so why can’t we just pray this prayer once, with feeling, and move on?
I’m not sure of all the why’s behind it, but the Small Litany serves as a cue that a section of the service has ended. It divides the Liturgy into units. The wording of the prayer varies, but it remains recognizable; as Father Harakas explains, the Shorter Litanies “stand as a kind of signal-flag, attracting attention to the fact that the section has come to an end” (LL43).
I think of each of these prayers as a scenic overlook on a trail, where we pause to reflect and regroup before continuing on the hike.
The prayer is, of course, chanted, but I’ll just print it here to make sure the words are clear:
Deacon: Again and again, in peace, let us pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Deacon: Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and protect us, O God, by Your grace.
Commemorating our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.
People: To You, O Lord.
[Next comes a changing phrase with ascription to the Holy Trinity]
If we listen carefully and respond to the priest’s or deacon’s words, that prayer can help us regather our thoughts and focus on Christ and what the Church is teaching us in each part of the service. Father Harakas identifies nine sections. The first five sections make up the Liturgy of the Word:
The Great Litany (That’s the really long prayer that the deacon prays at the beginning of the service, when we respond with “Lord, have mercy” and “To You, O Lord.”)
The First and Second Antiphons
The Third Antiphon, which includes the processing of the Gospel Book and is called the Little Entrance
Homily, usually based on the Gospel text of the day. (The homily, or sermon, is sometimes moved to the end of the service for scheduling reasons, but it really belongs here, as part of the Liturgy of the Word.)
This order of service comes directly from the synagogue practices of the Jews.
I had read about this connection to synagogue worship in several places, and a young friend at my parish, who converted from a Jewish background, confirmed that the Liturgy felt familiar to him when he first visited our parish. Even the solea, the raised platform in front of the iconostasis, reminded him of the bema, the platform in the synagogue from which the Torah and Prophets are read.
Of course, the next part of the service, the Liturgy of the Faithful, is about the New Covenant: Jesus as the Word made flesh. This part of the service has four sections, and we’ll get to them later.
Right now we’ll travel the path through the first and second antiphons, and next time we’ll focus on the part of the Liturgy of the Word where the Bible readings really take center stage.
Okay, let’s get going.
The Journey Begins
After the choir has ended the Orthros service with the Doxology, the beautiful hymn that starts with “Glory unto God, who gives the light,” the Divine Liturgy begins with the priest’s familiar words, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”
This is the beginning of our journey into the Kingdom of God, not symbolically but in actuality. We try our best to leave behind the worries and distractions of the outside world and join the angels and saints around God’s throne. We sing “Amen” to affirm the priest’s words, then our corporate prayer begins with the Great Litany. A litany is the name for 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.
It begins with a call to prayer from the priest or deacon to the congregation:
In peace, let us pray to the Lord.
For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.
Because of these initial prayers, the Great Litany is sometimes called the Litany of Peace. We begin our journey with prayers for peace because we must be at peace to pray sincerely.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter To the Ephesians from AD 107, agrees. He wrote, “There is nothing better than peace, in which all hostility is abolished, whether it comes from the powers of heaven or the powers of earth” (XIII).
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: We lift up our churches and their leaders, the cities and countries of the world, and all civic authorities.
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 a few years ago, we visited an OCA mission church. 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.
Notice that ten of the eleven deacon’s petitions aren’t actual prayers; they are calls to prayer addressed to all of us gathered together, exhorting us to pray for the common good. We respond in prayer, “Lord, have mercy!” This is a good time to focus in and pray silently for these things, although the petitions go by quickly.
The Great Litany ends with the Small Litany’s words of honor for our unseen brothers and sisters in Christ: “Commemorating 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 this journey.
Musical Theology: The Antiphons
After this first section of the Great Litany, in the next three sections the Church uses antiphons to teach us her liturgical theology. An antiphon is a hymn that is sung antiphonally, with alternating voices or choirs. Nowadays we don’t have dueling choirs, but often the choir will sing a hymn, then the priest will repeat it.
The music acts as a sort of travelers’ guidebook in the journey of worship, telling pilgrims about the season on the ecclesiastical calendar, introducing saints—the fellow travelers who have taken this path before us—and describing the One who is the destination of our journey.
Section 2, the first antiphon, is very short, with the priest asking God’s mercy, love and compassion “upon us and upon this holy house.” Then we respond three times with the refrain, “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, Savior, save us,” followed again by that repeated prayer, the Small Litany.
We then move into the third section, which is the second antiphon. It begins with the priest’s moving prayer for the Church, “Lord, our God, save Your people and bless Your inheritance.” Father Harakas describes this prayer as a “beautiful appeal to the saving power of the Risen Lord” (p. 81). The chanter then sings snippets of praise from the Psalms, and we respond three times, usually with “Save us, O Son of God, risen from the dead. We sing to you, Alleluia.”
This section includes the beautiful hymn, “Only begotten Son and Word of God,” which is a short creed emphasizing the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is from the sixth century and was possibly written by Emperor Justinian.
Only-begotten Son and Logos of God, being immortal, You condescended for our salvation to take flesh from the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary and, without change, became man. Christ, our God, You were crucified and conquered death by death. Being one with the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: Save us.
This third section of the Liturgy again ends with . . . You guessed it. The Small Litany.
We’ll save section four, the Third Antiphon with the Little Entrance of the Gospel book, for next time.
I hope this initial trail map has helped orient you as we travel together through the Divine Liturgy. One of the many wonderful aspects of these first few sections of the Liturgy is the way they help center us for worship. Usually I don’t arrive at the service as prepared as I want to be. As you well know, just getting to church can be an ordeal, whether we’re dealing with unexpected traffic, a poor night’s sleep, a diaper disaster just after the baby is strapped into the car seat, or the pain of moving slowly in the mornings because of stiff, arthritic joints. But the prayers and hymns draw our attention to Christ and to our fellow travelers, guiding our minds and hearts.
When we resume our Liturgy Quick-Start Guide, we will consider the readings of the Gospel and epistle and the homily in the Liturgy of the Word. I hope you can join me then!