This is the text of a class given at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS on June 6, 2007.

II. The Divine Liturgy

Where does it come from?
The Orthodox Church believes that the Mystery of Holy Communion was instituted by Christ Himself at the Last Supper with His Apostles. The Divine Liturgy is the name given to the service where the Sacrament of the Eucharist is performed. “Liturgy” means work of the people—the people of God gather together in the Temple to offer themselves in worship to Christ and to receive the life of Christ into themselves through the Holy Mysteries. The service is often called “the Eucharist,” which means thanksgiving—an offering of worship to God as thanksgiving for all that God has done for man’s salvation. From the earliest days of the Church, this service was done in one form or another. The Apostles would meet together, sing hymns, and break bread together, i.e. celebrate the Mystery of the Broken Body and the Spilled Blood of Christ God for our salvation. Already from the Apostles we have certain forms and rites and prayers for the Mystery, we can see this in the Acts of the Apostles, as well as in extra-Biblical writings like the Didache (which dates from the 1st century and gives instructions on serving the Eucharist). These Traditions of serving the Eucharist pass on through the Church, and soon after the Church becomes legal, St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom write down the Liturgy as it was done in their sees. So the service of the Liturgy that we have today is around 1600 years old, with very few modifications since that time. This is another reflection of what we talked about last week—worshipping God in the way that He has revealed that He wants to be worshipped. Once the Liturgies are written down and begin to be passed on in that way, they basically remain unchanged.

That is a very brief introduction to the Divine Liturgy. Now we’ll begin to look specifically at the text and the serving of the Liturgy. Before anyone can approach to celebrate the Liturgy (this includes the ordained celebrants as well as the people of God who gather to offer this work), certain preparations must be made. The service books say “be peace with all, have a pure heart, fast from the preceding evening, and remain in a proper spirit until the Service.” We understand and practice this as the Communion Fast, Prayers of Preparation, and recent Confession. But it is important to understand that not only should the outward motions be done, and they should be done (we should confess and fast and say our prayers), but our spirit should also be prepared. The prayers should be offered from our heart; our Confession should be from true repentance and a new beginning. Everything we are and everything we have should be totally offered to Christ at all times.

Prayers of Entrance
So, to the beginning of the Liturgy. After the priest prepares himself for the service, when he enters the Temple he begins by saying the Entrance Prayers and putting on his vestments. Basically everything the priest does from the moment he enters the Temple is done with prayer, and done as part of the offering of the Liturgy. When the priest enters the Temple, after he venerates the Holy Icons, he goes before the foot of the amvon and makes three bows and begins the Entrance prayers with “O Heavenly King,” and the Trisagion through the “Our Father.” [Basically the way we begin any prayers.] The prayers then continue with three Troparion—two praying for mercy, and one to the Theotokos.

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for devoid of all defense, we sinners offer unto thee as Master this prayer, have mercy on us. Glory: Lord, have mercy on us, for in thee have we hoped; be not very wroth with us, neither remember our transgressions, but look down now upon us, since thou art tender-hearted, and deliver us from our enemies, for thou art our God, and we are thy people, we are all the works of thy hands, and we call upon thy name. Both now: Open unto us the door of thy tenderheartedness, O Blessed Theotokos; in that we have hoped in thee,may we not perish, but through thee be delivered from adversities, for thou art the salvation of the generation of Christians.

From the very beginning the celebrants are recognizing that they have nothing to offer and that they need the mercy of God both in their own lives and especially at this moment in the fulfilling of their sacred ordained duties. The celebrants then approach and venerate the Icon of Christ on the Iconostasis, asking forgiveness and remembering with thanksgiving the saving work of Christ.

Thine immaculate icon do we venerate, O Good One, asking pardon of our offenses, O Christ God; thou wast pleased of thy good will to ascend the Cross in the flesh, to deliver those whom thou hadst fashioned from bondage to the enemy. Wherefore, in thanksgiving, we cry out to thee, with joy hast thou filled all things, O our Savior, having come to save the world.

The Icon of the Theotokos is then venerated, with a remembrance of her place in salvation history.

A fountain of tenderness art thou, O Theotokos; make us worthy of compassion. Look upon the people who have sinned; show thy power as ever, for hoping in thee, we cry out to thee, Hail, as once did Gabriel, Chief Captain of the Bodiless Ones.

They then stand before the Holy Doors and pray for the grace and strength to do this awesome task of serving the Liturgy.

Stretch forth thy hand, O Lord, from thy holy dwelling-place on high, and strengthen me for this, thine appointed service, that standing uncondemned before thy fearful Altar, I may fulfill the sacred, bloodless rite. For thine is the power and the glory unto ages of ages. Amen.

To do the work of God is to co-operate with Him in our salvation, to become co-workers with Christ. And this not only extends to the clergy (although it is understood that the clergy have a unique calling and role this operation), but all of us as Christians become part of what God is doing for the salvation of the world. And this great honor is approached with fear and trembling. At the completion of this short prayer, the celebrants bow to the people and then enter the Sanctuary with a prayer from the Psalter.

I will enter into thine house; I will worship toward thy holy temple in thy fear. Lord, guide me in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; direct my way before thee. For there is no truth in their mouth, and their heart is vanity. An open grave is their throat; with their tongues they have used deceit. Judge them, O God. Let them fall through their own counsels; according to the multitude of their impiety cast them out, for they have provoked thee, O Lord. And let all those who hope in thee be glad; they shall rejoice forever, and thou shalt abide in them. And those who love thy name shall boast of thee, for thou shalt bless the righteous man, O Lord, as with the armor of good will thou hast crowned us.

And after this prayer, they venerate the Holy Altar and then prepare to vest for the service.

Vesting of the Priest (and/or Bishop and Deacon)
Each article of a priest’s vestments has special significance, and as a priest vests a prayer is said as each item is blessed and put on. [We’ll talk specifically about the vesting of a priest, with a few mentions of subdeacon and deacon, but we won’t talk about the vesting of a bishop] The Sticharion (or Alb) is put on first.

The priest vests himself thus: taking the sticharion in his left hand, and making three reverences toward the east, as aforesaid, he signs it, saying: Blessed is our God always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Then he puts it on saving: My soul shall rejoice in the Lord; He hath clothed me with the garment of salvation, and He hath vested me with the vesture of gladness. As a bridegroom He hath set a crown upon me, and as a bride He hath adorned me with ornament.

Traditionally this garment is white, reminding us that the grace of the Holy Spirit covers us with the garment of salvation, the wedding garment from Christ’s parables, the baptismal robe. Anyone who serves, even as altar boys or subdeacons, vests in a sticharion—when we enter the holy place to offer worship, we put on our baptismal robes. Next comes the orarion, or stole, or epitrachil.

Then taking the epitrachelion, and having signed it, he puts it on, saying: Blessed is God, who poureth out His grace upon His priests, like unto myrrh upon the head, which runneth down upon the beard, even the beard of Aaron, which runneth down to the hem of his robe.

This vestment represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the person who has been called and ordained for service to Christ in the Church. A subdeacon wears this vestment wrapped around himself in the form of a cross, representing that through his meekness and purity he is found worthy to be ordained and to wear the robe of purity. And in the Russian Church, once a man is made a subdeacon he is considered to be an ordained man—any impediments for ordination to the priesthood would keep a man from being made a subdeacon, and all of the responsibilities of a clergyman also fall to the subdeacon (cannot marry after ordination, requirements of life such as you can’t enter a bar). The deacon wears the orarion over his left arm and holds the end in his right hand whenever he’s doing anything in the service. The deacons minister around the altar and imagery of angels is often associated with them for this reason, and some deacon’s orarions have embroidered on them “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the angels hymn from the Apocalypse. The orarion of the priest is doubled and worn around the neck and called the epitrachil (which means “that which is worn around the neck”). It represents the consecrating grace of the priesthood, and any service that a priest does he must wear an epitrachil. The next item the priest puts on is the zone, or belt.

Then taking the zone, and girding himself, he says: Blessed is God, who girdeth me with power, and hath made my way blameless, who hath guided my feet like those of a hart, and hath set me on high places.

This is a reminder that God strengthens the priest with His own strength—at the service of ordination a prayer is said that God complete what is lacking is the man who has been called to this service. The zone is a reminder of the blameless life that the clergy (and all Christians) are called to live. Next the priest puts on the cuffs, first the right and then the left.

Then putting on the epimanika, he says, as he puts on the right: Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorified in might. Thy right hand, O Lord, hath shattered the enemy, and in the multitude of thy glory hast thou crushed the adversaries. And with the left, he says: Thy hands have made me and formed me. Give me understanding and I shall learn thy commandments.

The cuff is an indication that the priest must not hope in his own strength, but must rely on God. The Saints who comment on the Liturgy say that the hands of the celebrant become the hands of God, specifically in the consecration of the Holy Eucharist. God works through the hands of the priest, Christ accomplishes this great work through the hands of a man. The deacon also wears cuffs, and for the same reason—to remind him not to trust in his own strength, but to rely on God in all things. [It is important for everyone to hear all these prayers, because the calling of the clergy is no different than the calling of all Christians, and it’s good for us to be reminded of this in such an immediate and every present way—the priest vests for every Liturgy.] Finally the priest blesses and puts on the phelonion.

Then taking the phelonion, and having blessed and kissed it, he says: Thy priests shall clothe themselves with righteousness, and thy saints shall rejoice with joy always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

It reminds us that we are called to clothe ourselves with righteousness, and to proclaim and share “the reason for the joy that is in us” (St. Paul) with all mankind. Two other (in the Russian Church) vestments may also be given to the priests to wear—the palitza and the nabedrennik (or epigonation).

Then taking the epigonation, if he has that dignity, and having blessed it and kissed it, he says: Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O Powerful One. With thy vigor and goodness, draw thy bow, andprosper, and reign, because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall guide thee wondrously always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

These vestments are to remind the priest that he is protected by the armor of God, and he carries the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, Christ’s salvation. The priest is called not only to serve, but to teach and to preach the Truth, and to smite down all that is false and sinful. On top of all of his vestments the priest also wears his pectoral cross, as a reminder that we not only bear the Cross of Christ in our hearts, but we’re also called to confess Him before all men. St. Paul says that we preach the Christ and Him crucified—the Cross of Christ. After fully vesting, the priest washes his hands before proceeding to the Table of Oblation for Proskomede.

Then going to the,piscina, they wash their hands, saying: I will wash my hands among the innocent, and I will compass thine altar, O Lord, that I may hear the voice of thy praise, and declare all thy wonders. Lord, I have loved the beauty of thine house, and the place of the abode of thy glory. Destroy not my soul with the impious, nor my life with men of blood, in whose hands are transgressions and their right hand is full of gifts. But 1, I have walked in mine innocence; redeem me, O Lord, and have mercy on me. My foot hath stood in uprightness; in the churches will I bless thee, O Lord.

The next class will look at the service of Proskomede.