The Divine Liturgy: An Introduction

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by Wesley (Isaac) Giesbrecht.

Opening.

Worship is the central activity of the Church. In the second chapter of the book of Acts we read that the Church, devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” as well as they were, “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes,” (Acts 2:42, 46). The text also tells us that they were coming together “day by day” (Acts 2:46) to worship. The fact that the text tells us that they devoted themselves to their worship and that they were coming together on a daily basis reveals to us how important worship was to the Church from the start but we are left with the question: what is worship? What does it look like? Those who have been raised in non-liturgical communities are used to a certain form of worship which is vastly different from liturgical worship. A common order of worship that we would encounter in a non-liturgical community goes something like this:

  • Some music is played while the members of the congregation gather in the sanctuary and await the determined time that the service will start.
  • As the time comes the pastor stands at the pulpit and offers an opening greeting, some remarks, and possibly a prayer.
  • Next the worship leader(s) will come up and lead the congregation is some singing (depending on the congregation it could be anything from singing traditional hymns to contemporary praise and worship music).
  • At this point there are various things that could be done on a week to week basis: sometimes a time for congregational testimonies is given, perhaps a guest speaker (such as a missionary) may give a short talk, a scripture reading may be done, or a children’s story may be given.
  • Here some more music may be sung or a prayer in preparation for the sermon may be said.
  • This point is the focus and highlight of the service: the sermon. The sermon can last anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour (depending on the minister).
  • The sermon is usually followed by the rising of the congregation and the pastor gives a benediction.
  • After the benediction the worship leaders may come up and lead the congregation is a closing song or two which brings the service to an end.
  • On certain Sunday’s, usually following the sermon and preceding the benediction, a communion service will be held where it is typical for the deacons and ministers of the church to hand out to the congregation the bread and the wine (or in some churches wine and grape juice is handed out, or in some cases only grape juice is distributed). The frequency of these communion services vary from church to church, though it is not uncommon for these to be held only four times a year (“quarterly”).

This is just a generalized overview the form of worship that we could find in the churches of non-liturgical communities (though it must be stated that it’s generally a guarantee that we would find unique differences in every church within this community when it comes to the order of the service and the type of worship). The Orthodox Church does not worship in this manner. The form of worship found within the Orthodox Church is described as being “liturgical”. The word “liturgy” is commonly defined as “the work of the people”. Liturgical worship is first and fore-most a work of community; done together as an offering to God. Liturgical worship is usually characterized as having a very set form of worship that consists of the recitation of written prayers by the leader of the congregation (usually a priest, though some communions that do not have priests (rather they have pastors) practice liturgical worship) with congregational responses to the prayers of the leader. There are usually specific movements done both by the clergy and the laity during the liturgy and it’s culmination is in the participation of Holy Communion rather than a sermon (though sermons are present). It’s very common for people who attend churches with contemporary forms of worship to look at liturgical worship as being “empty rituals” and some even go so far as to say that this type of worship is detrimental and should be abolished entirely in favor for a more free form or worship where the people are free to do as they please (or as they commonly say, “to move as the Spirit leads them”). This now leads us to ask another question: why does the Orthodox Church worship the way that she does? Part of this paper will be to answer this question while the rest of the it will be focused on explaining various elements of the liturgy; such as why the priest has his back turned towards the people, why we stand the entire time, why icons, why incense, why candles, why everything is either sung or chanted, and so on. As we will come to see the liturgy of the Orthodox Church is rooted in the ancient worship of the people of Israel which was given to them by God Himself to be a pattern of heavenly worship. With the coming of Christ and his life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension, and with the sending of the Holy Spirit the life and worship given to the people of Israel is fulfilled, rather than abolished; such as Christ proclaims that He has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Christ is now our Great High Priest Who serves in the Heavenly Sanctuary and through Him, in the Spirit, we have access to the Heavenly Sanctuary with the Church of the Firstborn (as it is called in Hebrews 12:23) which consists of the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, the Saints, and the angelic hosts (the Great Cloud of Witnesses; Hebrews 12:1). Thus the liturgy of the Church here on earth is both an image of, and a participation in, the Heavenly Liturgy. The liturgy on earth is filled with symbols and images that reveal to us Heavenly realities as well as the Gospel itself, from the birth of Christ to His Second Coming, is revealed to us through the actions, movements, and words of the liturgy itself. The liturgy also incorporates the entire human person and all of their senses so that the entire person might be able to participate in worship and be reoriented towards Christ. Ultimately the Orthodox Church worships the way She does because through the Divine Liturgy the people come together as the Body of Christ in a procession into the Kingdom of Heaven where the entirety of our humanity worships alongside the Heavenly Host and experiences in part the life of the age to come through the Spirit, which transforms us more and more into the likeness of Christ. Now let’s address various elements of the liturgy which may seem strange to those of us who have not grown up with liturgical worship.

Standing and Facing East.

During the entirety of the service (apart from the reading of the Epistle and the sermon; or if a portion of the lives of the saints is read before communion; though in Orthodox countries – such as Moldova – the people stand during these moments as well) the people stand. This is strange to those who have grown up in a non-liturgical community. Normally the only time the congregation stands in a non-liturgical church is during the singing, or perhaps everyone will rise to greet their fellow church members, or at the end during the benediction. The reason we stand during the entirety of the liturgy in the Orthodox Church is expressed by the fourth century bishop St. Basil of Caesarea, “We stand for prayer on the day of the Resurrection to remind ourselves of the graces we have been given: not only because we have been raised with Christ and are obliged to seek the things that are above, but also because Sunday seems to be an image of the age to come.” The reason we stand during worship is to proclaim the resurrection of Christ and how we too have been raised from death and corruption through Christ; thus by standing we give witness to the salvation given to us by Christ; standing becomes a witness to the Gospel itself. Another reason we stand during the liturgy is because we are not mere spectators. Sitting seems to imply that we are merely watching the liturgy take place, rather since we are all members of the royal priesthood we actively participate in the liturgy by standing; since liturgy means “the work of the people” all of us must be active in offering prayers and thanksgiving. Standing is a position of work and activity while sitting is a position of inactivity. Another aspect of the liturgy is that everyone, the priest included is facing East. This is the ideal orientation of the liturgy, though for practical reasons it’s not always possible for the Church to be facing East. Typically in Protestant and Catholic services the minister, or the priest, is facing the people during the service, while in the Orthodox liturgy the priest has his back towards the people. The reason that we face East is once again explained by St. Basil, “we all pray facing east…because we are seeking Paradise, our old Fatherland, which God planted in the East in Eden.” East is a symbolic direction for the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 24:27 we read, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” Another point is that the sun rises in the East and early Christians were quick to draw a parallel between the rising sun and the Risen Son of God. Thus we see that the facing of the people towards the East is a proclamation of our anticipation of the coming of Christ in His Kingdom and reminds us that we must at all times orient ourselves towards Christ; we must spiritually be facing east at all times. This is why the priest is also facing East during the liturgy. Our focus is not on the priest but rather towards Christ. The priest leads us in worship and prayer and by having his back towards the people he shows that he is not the to be the object of attention but rather Christ who he leads us towards.

Processions, Candles, Incense, Icons, and Architecture.

Another curious element of Orthodox worship is found in the use of processions, candles, incense, and icons during the service. These are usually seen as being mere rituals to non-liturgical Christians and when it comes to the use of icons, idolatry. The use of processions in the Orthodox Church have Jewish roots where in the synagogue the scroll would be brought out in procession among the people and the scroll of the Torah would then be kissed. According to Ronald L. Eisenberg, “To kiss a holy object displays veneration. This symbolically represents one’s devotion to Judaism and loyalty to God.” For the Orthodox the kissing of the Gospel book and the icons likewise is an act of veneration and represents our devotion to the Christian faith and our loyalty to God. The use of candles in worship is also carried over from ancient Jewish liturgical use. The use of candles in Jewish life is filled with many symbolic features and we can see the use of candles in the worship of Israel, such as the Golden Lamp-stand found in Ex. 25:31-40. For the Orthodox the candles are symbolic of Christ Who is Himself the Light and Who illumines mankind who sits in darkness and ignorance through sin. Thus the candles remind us of the continual presence of Christ among us and how He illumines our darkness and gives us light. The use of incense is also carried over from Jewish use. There are numerous accounts of the use of incense throughout the Old Testament (such as in 2 Chronicles 13:11, Numbers 4:16, Deuteronomy 33:10, etc..). In the Revelation of John we see that there is an angel with a golden censer (Rev. 8:3) as well as the elders with the bowls of incense (Rev. 5:8). There are numerous explanations as to the use of incense in the Orthodox Church; some of which are that the incense is a symbol of our prayers rising up towards God as a pleasing fragrance to Him. The incense can also be seen as the presence of the Holy Spirit coming our from Heaven to us here on earth, just as the priest or deacon who comes out from the altar to cense the Church and the people. It can also be seen to be the love of God coming out from Heaven and embracing all of creation. A more troubling aspect of Orthodox liturgy to many non-Orthodox is the use of icons. For many they see this as to be a violation of the commandment not to make any graven images. The problem or turning to this verse as a be-all-end-all rejection of images is that afterwards God explicitly commands the use of images in the tabernacle, such as the images of Cherubim sewn into the veil, or the golden Cherubim carved into the ark of the covenant, as well as there are images of Cherubim and the palm trees. The images within the tabernacle and the temple serve to be an image of Paradise; the Garden of Eden and the angels who guarded it. In the Orthodox Church we are surrounded by icons of the angels as well as the saints since we look not unto the former earthly paradise but to Heavenly paradise. The images of the angels and the saints reminds us of our access to the heavenly places in Christ through the Spirit and that our worship here on earth joins in with the Heavenly worship where the angelic hosts and the saints worship God continually. Even the architecture of the Church communicates to us the reality of the union of the worship here on earth with the worship of Heaven. Some aspects of Church architecture are found in the fact that the Church is divided into three sections (just as the tabernacle and the temple in Israel): there is the entrance, the place where the people stand, and the alter. The entrance represents a place of transition where we leave the world outside and begin to turn towards God. The place where the people stand represents the redeemed world where men and women of all classes and nationalities join together with all of creation to worship God. The altar represents the Kingdom of Heaven. The screen that separates the altar and where the people stand (called an “iconostasis”) reminds us that there is still a difference between the world we live in and the Kingdom of Heaven, yet there are times when the doors of the iconostasis are open and the clergy comes out into the midst of the people, just as there are times in our lives where we are able to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven all around us. Much more can be said about all these aspects of Orthodox worship but for the sake of brevity we will stop here for now.

Chanting and Singing.

Another stark contrast for those raised in non-liturgical communities is how practically everything is either sung or canted throughout the service. It can also be noted that the Orthodox Church uses no instruments other than the human voice during the liturgy. All of these practices also have Jewish roots. After the destruction of the Jerusalem, along with Solomon’s Temple, by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC where the people of Israel were carried off into Babylon into slavery, as recorded in 2 Kings 25, the people of Israel were no longer able to conduct temple worship and so developed the synagogue. In the synagogues there were no instruments used. One modern Jewish writer informs us that, The destruction of the Second Temple also served as the catalyst for a vast change in the music of worship. In the Temple, the Levites had employed instruments–drums, cymbals, horns, lyres, trumpets–but after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis forbade the use of instruments during prayer. Two reasons for this proscription have been suggested. First, the absence of musical instruments would serve as a sign of mourning for the Temple. Second, the rabbis of the Talmud opposed the use of instruments in prayer services because of their anti-Hellenistic sentiments.Other ancient Jewish sources, such as the Talmud, inform us of the practice of reading the text and the prayers of the synagogue liturgy in a form of canting. Since the early Christian worship and liturgy grew predominantly out of the Jewish synagogue worship it’s not surprising that the early Christians continued celebrating their liturgies without instruments, preferring rather to sing and cant the psalms, hymns, prayers, and litanies. It’s interesting to note that the witness of many of the Church Fathers affirm the lack of instruments in ancient Christian liturgy as well as the absence of instruments in the early reformers is notable; figures such as John Calvin showed an opposition towards the use of instruments and this position is found even as late as Charles Spurgeon. A quotation from John Wesley is helpful, “I have no objection to the instruments of music in our chapels, providing they are neither seen nor heard.” Another reason given for the lack of instruments in Orthodox liturgy is the fact that the Orthodox liturgy is seen to be both an image of, and a participation in, the Heavenly worship. Thus our voices echo the voices of the angelic host singing praises continually to God.

The Incorporation of the Whole Person.

In the Orthodox liturgy the entire person is incorporated into worship. In comparison to non-liturgical communities, where the focus of the service is directed towards instruction – therefore being predominantly a rational experience – the Orthodox liturgy is directed towards the entirety of human experience, as St. John of Kronstadt – a Russian priest who lived from the 19th to the 20th centuries – explains, “The Church, through the temple and Divine Services, acts upon the entire man, educating him wholly; it acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of the bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the phosphoras, the singing and the sweet sound of the reading of the Scriptures.” In Orthodox thought since Christ assumed the entirety of human nature and redeemed the whole of the human person all of the human person must be used in worship of God. Not only do we pray and sing with our minds and our mouths but we use our bodies as well in acts of prayer, worship, reverence, and veneration. The practice of kissing holy objects, such as the Gospel book, icons, and even each other, we have seen earlier is inherited from Jewish practice; as is the practice of bowing and making prostrations. In 1 Chronicles 29:20 it says, “Then David said to all the assembly, “Bless the Lord your God.” And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and did obeisance to the king.” The act of prostrations is found likewise in other Jewish texts such as the Talmud. Orthodox Christian practice has maintained the practice of bowing and making prostrations as a sign of honor and reverence and this can be seen most clearly during the liturgy as the people bow towards the priest as he comes out of the altar and senses the Church and all the people and when the priest turns to face the people and bows towards them. One may ask the question: why do you bow to the priest? Isn’t this a form of idolatry? In the Orthodox Church the priest is seen to be a symbol of Christ, Who is Himself our Great High Priest, and when we bow to the priest it is to Christ that we bow; just as when we kiss an icon it is an honor given to the person depicted in the icon rather than to the mere elements of wood and paint. The priest himself is acting in the liturgy in the place of Christ, but as St. John Chrysostom reminds us, “to act as an image is not to replace or to stand in for a prototype that is absent. It is the share in and to make visible a prototype which is invisibly present.” Christ Himself acts through the priest and the priest makes the High Priestly ministry of Christ visibly present. St. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century also attests to the practice of bowing and prostration as an ancient tradition of the Church. He explains that, “every time we bend our knees for prayer and then rise again, we show by this action that through sin we fell down to the earth, but our Creator, the Lover of Mankind, has called us back to heaven.” Another physical element of Orthodox worship is the practice of making the sign of the cross. This obviously is a practice of early Christian origins and it’s first mention in early Christian writing appears in the North African writer Tertullian in the third century who says, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.” The sign of the cross reminds us that we must love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and that we must daily take up our crosses and conform our lives, including our bodies, to Christ through the cross.

Mercy.

People new to the Divine Liturgy often notice the frequency that the phrase “Lord have Mercy” is said. After almost every petition made by the priest or deacon the people respond, “Lord have Mercy.” The word mercy is used approx. 140 times during the entirety of the Divine Liturgy. But why is it said so often? It’s not uncommon for people to think that having to ask God for mercy means that He is angry at us and that we have to beg Him not to pour out His wrath upon us. This is not the Orthodox understanding. In the Orthodox Church we do not see God as an angry, wrathful, vengeful God; rather God is love. The Greek word for mercy is rich and contains echos of the word “healing”. So on one level, asking God for mercy is asking for Him to heal us of our wounds and our sins. Another element of asking God for mercy is explained by St. Nicholas Cabasilas, “to beg God’s mercy is to ask for His Kingdom, that Kingdom which Christ promised to give to those who seek it, assuring them that all things else of which they have need will be added unto them. Because of this, this prayer is sufficient for the faithful, since it’s application is general.”

The Priesthood and Sacrifice.

Another point of difference between the Orthodox liturgy and non-liturgical worship is the function of the priesthood. While some protestant communities have maintained an episcopal hierarchy (that is the governance of the church in the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon) many of the protestant groups, especially those that came our of the anabaptist and evangelical movements, have abolished the priesthood. The order of the priesthood goes back to the beginning of the Church and is constantly seen throughout Church history. Many Christians oppose the order of the priesthood based upon their reading of 1 Peter 2:9 which reads, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood..” The problem with using this verse to support the absence of the priesthood is the fact this passage is an echo of Exodus 19:6 where God says to Moses, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” referring to the whole of the people of Israel yet they continued to have a distinct order of a priesthood, consisting of the Levites, the Priests, and the High Priest. One of the early bishops of Rome, Clement of Rome, wrote a letter (dated to either the late first century or the early second century) where he uses the Old Testament imagery of the Levites, Priests, and High Priest to relate to the present structure of his time of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. The early Christians though did not see their orders as being a continuation of the Judaic priesthood (one can consult the book of Hebrews to see this clearly). The Judaic priests were the ones who offered the animal sacrifices which had been fulfilled in Christ, thus the Judaic priesthood was obsolete. Rather now the priests of the Church offered that sacrifice which is Christ Himself in Holy Communion. The notion of Holy Communion being a sacrifice is constantly attested to throughout early Christian writings, such as the Didache in the second century, as well as writers such as St. Justin Martyr (second century), St. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century), Tertullian (third century), St. Cyprian of Carthage (third century), St. John Chrysostom (fourth century), and so on. The priest is therefore the one who serves the function in the Church of the one who offers the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ. This is not seen to be a re-sacrificing of Christ, since the book of Hebrews is clear that Christ was sacrificed once and for all. St. Nicholas Cabasilas sums up the understanding of Holy Communion as a sacrifice as being “not the real and bloody immolation of the Lamb, but the transformation of the bread into the sacrificed Lamb.” It is therefore not a re-sacrifice of Christ but a representation of the once for all sacrificed Lamb of God. The place of the priest in the Church is the fulfillment of a necessary role which is not at the expense of the rest of the people because we are all indeed members of the royal priesthood, yet all the members of body – whether they are hands, feet, eyes, etc.. – are necessary for the edification of the body.

The Two Sections of the Liturgy and the High Point of Communion Rather than the Sermon.

The Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church can be broken up into two sections: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (or “communion”). The order and structure of the Liturgy of the Word is heavily based upon the order of the ancient synagogue worship of the people of Israel (as we shall explore a little more later on) while the Liturgy of the Eucharist is based upon the ancient Temple worship. The primary function of the Temple was the offering of the sacrifice for the sanctification of the people of God and the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the fulfillment of the Temple worship with Christ as our Great High Priest and as our sacrificial Lamb; the priest makes the priesthood of Christ present to the people and the elements of bread and wine take the place of what is offered to become the very sacrificed Lamb of God, Christ Himself. We can see this structure of worship in early Christian writings, such as in St. Justin Martyr, who wrote in the second century. St. Justin tells us that, “on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader has finished, the Ruler in the discourse instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers; and, as we have said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought and wine and water, and the Ruler likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and the distribution and the partaking of the eucharistized elements is to each.” The first section of the Liturgy climaxes in the reading of the Gospels and the giving of a sermon, receiving Christ in His written Word, while the second section of the Liturgy climaxes in the partaking of Holy Communion, receiving Christ in His body and blood. What is interesting to note is the the climax and focus point of the entire Liturgy then is Holy Communion rather than a sermon. This stands in stark contrast to non-liturgical churches whose main focus and emphasis is on the sermon, but only until a few centuries ago the main focus of the worship of the Church has always been Holy Communion, as the Methodist historian Justo L. Gonzalez writes, “The Christian Church has seen in communion its normal and highest act of worship. Only after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century – and in many cases much later – did it become common practice in many protestant churches to focus their worship on preaching rather than on communion.”

The Liturgy of the Synagogue and Orthodox Inheritance.

As I had mentioned earlier the first section of the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Word, is heavily influenced by the ancient synagogue worship; something I wish to briefly examine and then to compare it to the Orthodox Liturgy of the Word. A Jewish convert to Christianity, Alfred Edersheim, wrote a book called, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,” in which he describes the standard synagogue worship during the time of Christ; in other words, he discusses the type of worship that Christ Himself would have participated in when He entered into the synagogues (what follows is a brief overview).

  1. The leader of the day, the representative of the people, would begin with the recitation of specific prayers to open the service.
  2. After the opening prayers are completed a series of psalms and hymns are sung or canted; this section is known as the Pesukei d’Zemira.
  3. Next comes the recitation of the Shema; a prayer which consists of the joining of the texts Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41.
  4. After the Shema a series of short prayers, 19 in total, consisting of blessings for God and petitions from Him are recited; this is known as the Amidah.
  5. Next the scroll of the Torah would be presented and processed around the synagogue. Portions from the Torah would be read to the people present.
  6. Following the reading of the Torah would be a discourse, or sermon, on the passage which was read for the day.
  7. Concluding the service would be a final benediction.

(I have used other sources as well, other than “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” in constructing a basic overview of the synagogue liturgy).

We can see in the first part of the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Word, many parallels with the synagogue liturgy.

  1. The Divine Liturgy opens with prayers recited by the priest and deacon.
  2. Following the opening prayers comes ‘The Great Litany”; a series of petitions made by the priest or deacon to which the people respond, “Lord Have Mercy.”
  3. Following the Litany is the singing of sections of the Psalms; known as the “antiphons.”
  4. Another short litany is offered followed by more singing of the psalms as well as a hymn to the Trinity.
  5. A final short litany is offered which is followed by the procession of the Gospel book among the people.
  6. Some daily hymns are sung as well as a selection from the Epistles is read.
  7. Next the priest reads the daily selection from the Gospel and gives a sermon.

Although we can see that the shape of the synagogue liturgy and the Liturgy of the Word are not exactly identical we can nevertheless see how the shape of the synagogue liturgy had a profound influence of how the Liturgy of the Word was, as is, shaped.

Liturgy as an Image of Heavenly Worship.

Throughout this paper I have constantly been pointing out as many of the Jewish roots to the Orthodox Liturgy as I can. We now must ask ourselves a question: why does it matter? What’s the point of worshiping in an ancient manner inherited by the People of Israel? The reason it is important is because the manner of worship in Israel was explicitly given to them by God Himself. All throughout the book of Exodus we can see God giving the People of Israel explicit directions on how to conduct their worship (see for instance Ex. 20:24-26, 23:10-19, and 25:1-40). Hebrews 8:5 refers to this manner of worship given to Israel as, a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.” The worship that was conducted by Israel was seen to be an image of the worship that was taking place in Heaven. Throughout the entirety of the Scriptures there are not too many instances of Heavenly worship but we are occasionally able to catch a glimpse. In Isaiah 6:1-8 we can see the Heavenly Temple where God sits upon His throne. He is surrounded by Seraphim who unceasingly sing His praises, one of which takes a piece of burning coal from the Heavenly altar and touches Isaiah’s lips with it. Likewise in Revelation 4-5 we have many images of Heavenly worship. Once again it is seen to take place in a Heavenly temple (Rev. 11:19) with seven lamps of fire (just as the seven lamps inside the earthly tabernacle; Ex. 25:31-38) which are the Seven Spirits of God (Rev. 4:5). Not only are the Seraphim worshiping God as Isaiah saw but now we see twenty four elders (Rev. 4:4) and four living creatures (Rev. 4:7-8) who worship God unceasingly; representing the continual worship of the people of God and the entire cosmos. The elders and the creatures offer up incense (Rev. 5:8; just as there was continually incense burned before God in the earthly tabernacle; see 2 Chronicles 13:11 for ex.) as there is also an angel with a golden censer offering incense before the Heavenly altar (Rev. 8:3-4).

Hebrews 8:1 refers to Christ as our, “high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord.” The liturgy of Israel was an image of the Heavenly liturgy; and this form of worship was given to Israel by God. This Orthodox Church continues to worship the way that She does because She sees how the worship given by God was an image of Heavenly worship which, as the book of Hebrews attests to, is fulfilled by Christ and so She continues this form of worship; though we will see later that it is no longer simply an image of Heavenly worship but is in fact a participation in it through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Liturgy as Gospel.

Another dimension of the Divine Liturgy is found within the very actions and movements of the Liturgy. Throughout the entirety of the Liturgy the Gospel is manifested through symbolic actions and movements. This aspect of the Liturgy is frequently highlighted when one reads historical commentaries and is only one aspect of the Liturgy but it is worth noting. While it could be the subject of an entire talk in itself I will only highlight some major symbolic moments throughout the Liturgy that manifest the Gospel (though the chronology of the Gospel isn’t specifically spelled out chronologically throughout the Liturgy).

  1. The singing of psalms before the reading of the Epistle, a section called the antiphons, represents the prophecies of Christ throughout the history of Israel.
  2. The altar area of the Church can be seen as the cave that Christ was born in. As the priest separates the bread which will be used for Holy Communion from the rest of the bread can be seen as the Incarnation of Christ and His dedication at the temple. During the preparation of this bread it’s put upon a plate, called the patin, which represents the laying of Christ in the manger. Another piece of metal in the shape of a star, called the asterisk represents the star that shone over Him in Bethlehem.
  3. The procession of the Gospel book represents the beginning of the ministry of Christ as He came out among the people to preach about the Kingdom of God.
  4. The reading of the Gospel proclaims the teaching of Christ.
  5. The exhortation by the priest or deacon to be attentive represents the words of the Father on top of Mount Tabor as He exclaims, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.”
  6. The procession of the Holy gifts of the bread and the wine into the altar represents the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem in preparation for His crucifixion.
  7. The cutting of the bread used for Holy Communion in the shape of a cross represents the crucifixion of Christ.
  8. When the raise grabs the patin with the bread and the chalice with the wine and the water, crossing his arms, and raises them up represents the raising of the cross.
  9. When the priest prepares the bread he pierces the side of the bread with a lance shaped knife; representing the spear the pierced the side of Christ. After this he pours wine and water into the chalice; representing the blood and water that pierced the side of Christ.
  10. Before the serving of Holy Communion the priest draws back the curtain and closes the royal doors of the iconostasis; representing the covering of Christ in His burial clothes and the sealing of the door of the tomb.
  11. The opening of the doors with the priest emerging with the chalice to serve communion represents the resurrection of Christ.
  12. The calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the people represents the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
  13. The dismissal of the catechumen from the faithful represents the final judgement.
  14. The serving of communion also represents the Second Coming of Christ and the Wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Much more can be said about the symbolic dimension of the Liturgy but we’ll limit ourselves to these few observations. On top of this observations it can be noted how much of the words of the Liturgy are taken directly from Scripture itself; it is estimated that there are between 400-500 quotations of the Scriptures within the text of the Liturgy itself. The Liturgy itself can be seen then to be instructive both in her words and in her actions. The nineteenth century Russian bishop St. Theophan the Recluse notes that, “All of our liturgical hymns are instructive, profound and sublime. They contain the whole of our theology and moral teaching, give us Christian consolation and instill in us a fear of the Judgment. He who listens to them attentively has no need of other books on the Faith.” The Liturgy through her hymns, prayers, actions, and movements becomes the Gospel in motion; the Gospel in prayer; the Gospel manifested and made real to us.

Participation in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So far I have highlighted some of the practical aspects of the liturgy – why we stand, why we face east, why we cross ourselves, etc – as well as some of her historical foundations within the ancient synagogue and temple worship of Israel. I’ve shown how the worship of Israel was an image of the worship in Heaven but I want to now finish this paper with talking about how the Liturgy is not merely an image of heavenly worship but is in fact a direct participation in the heavenly worship itself. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox writer from the 20th century, describes the liturgy like this, “the liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom.” The Liturgy is a spiritual ascent into the Kingdom of Heaven. At Christ’s ascension into Heaven He raised all of creation, by way of His retaining of His physical body, into the Kingdom of Heaven. Through the descent of the Holy Spirit men, and all of creation, experiences this Heavenly life; since the life of the Kingdom is the life in the Spirit as St. Paul says in Romans 14:17, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  Through Christ, in the Spirit, we now have access to the very throne of Grace and worship God along side the angelic hosts and all the saints; since we are all united through the same Spirit we are all still members of the same body of Christ; and as members of the ascended body of Christ we too enter into the Kingdom of Heaven as the Church. A comprehensive analysis of the liturgy here and commenting of how it manifests this entrance into the Kingdom is beyond the scope of this paper but I will make a few comments. At the beginning of the Liturgy the members of the Church have left their normal lives behind to come together as the Church; those who have been united by the Spirit through baptism into the single body of Christ. As we have seen that the liturgy is an image of the Heavenly worship but since we are members of the body of the Great High Priest Who serves in the Heavenly tabernacle in front of the Heavenly altar, offering Himself, we too, through the possession of the Spirit are participators in this Heavenly worship. The icons of the saints and the angels manifest the very real presence of the saints and the angels along side us since we have ascended into the Kingdom. The singing of the angelic hymn of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Your Glory” is the manifestation of the ceaseless praise of the angels. Here in the Liturgy we eat and drink with Christ in His Kingdom as when enter into the bridal chamber of the Lord to feast at the wedding banquet of the Lamb in Holy Communion. For a more in depth discussion on this aspect of the Liturgy it would be recommended to read the second chapter, entitled “The Eucharist”, of Fr. Alexander Schememann’s book “For the Life of the World.”

Closing.

For all of the reasons given here there are innumerable more things that can be said about the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. When it comes to the worship services of non-Orthodox churches we would not necessarily say that they are wrong, but simply lacking the fullness, the depth, the richness, and the beauty of what the Divine Liturgy is. The Orthodox Church wouldn’t abandon the worship given to Israel by God and fulfilled in Christ; worship in Spirit (the Holy Spirit) and Truth (Christ). This worship reveals to us and makes us con-celebrants in the worship of the Kingdom. This worship is a proclamation of the Gospel message that Christ is Risen and in Him we have eternal life. When an Orthodox Christian looks at the typical worship services of non-liturgical Christians, which have the shape of a concert and a lecture, we wouldn’t see everything that a worship service should be, or could be. Worship is so much more and in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church the very Kingdom of Heaven is handed to us on a spoon for our salvation.

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