We can talk about the structure of the Divine Liturgy in several different ways—as a whole (the Liturgy), in its individual pieces (Great Litany, Entrance, Theotokian, etc.), or in its three major divisions (Proskomede, Liturgy of the Catechumens, Liturgy of the Faithful). In our last class we looked at the Proskomede, and before that we looked specifically at the vestments of the priest and the prayers of entrance into the Temple that the priest prays before serving the Liturgy. Today we will look at the second major section of the Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Catechumens. This section basically begins with “Blessed is the Kingdom” at the beginning of the service, and concludes with the dismissal of the catechumens after the Litany of the Catechumens.

The Liturgy of the Catechumens is so named because it is the portion of the Divine Liturgy that anyone could be present for—the faithful, the catechumens, the penitents, and visitors. Traditionally, at the dismissal of the catechumens people actually had to leave—anyone who was not going to commune of the Eucharist would not be present for the celebration of the Mystery (exception—penitents sometimes had to leave, others had to stay and not partake as a part of their repentance, to really drive home the point that our sin separates us from God literally).
[Why don’t people leave today? In some places they do. But in the early Church, the only way to know what was happening in the service was to be there. The Christians didn’t talk about the Liturgy—“I will not speak of Thy mystery to Thine enemies” we say in the prayer before Holy Communion—and there weren’t books published for people to read about it. So there was a protection of what is sacred, a respect for the Mystery. Today, I believe we still have this respect for the Holy, perhaps dulled some by sin, but the reality of our situation in the world has changed. People find the Church by reading the Saints and studying the services. Would it still be better for catechumens to leave? It would depend on the situation, I guess, but I tend to think they should remain in the Liturgy. We can mis-learn things from books, and the exposure to the services gives people the chance to ask any clarifying questions they might have. A reverence for what is holy still has to be learned, but perhaps in a different way than it was in the past.]

This first section of the Liturgy consists of prayers, hymns in honor of the Holy Trinity and the Saints, readings from the Word of God, and the sermon. Those who were not fully joined to the Church were not (are not) ignored—they were fed by hearing the Word, while the faithful were fed both by hearing the Word and receiving the Word in the Eucharist.


The Liturgy begins

BLESSED is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.
Choir: Amen.

We begin by offering glory and worship to the life of the Holy Trinity—the kingdom of God is His life, His truth, His peace, His mercy, His grace, His very existence. And we proclaim God as He truly is, in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. We worship the true God as He has revealed Himself to be. As we mentioned last week, the Liturgy begins for us at this moment, but we should be very aware that the Divine Liturgy doesn’t begin with our “Amen.” The Liturgy, the worship of the Holy Trinity, is going on without ceasing around the throne of God. We have a glimpse of this in St. John’s Apocalypse. The Liturgy never stops. With our “Blessed is the Kingdom” at the beginning of our Liturgy, and “Amen” at the end, these exclaimations define the time that we enter into and participate in the never ceasing worship of God the Holy Trinity.

We then pray the Great Litany, also known as the Litany of Peace, where we ask God to give us His peace from above.

In peace let us pray to the Lord.

The Church teaches us how to pray. We must pray in peace. If we’re discontent or ungrateful to God, we can’t pray in peace, and if we don’t pray in peace, we can’t worship God with a pure heart. When we worship God, we lay aside ourselves, and everything in the service is focused on the will and the life and the glory of God. If we don’t pray in peace, then we’re tempted to pray selfishly, which is exactly the opposite of God, who pours out His life for us.

Choir: Lord, have mercy.

So why do we the people respond to every petition with “Lord have mercy?” St. Nicholas Cabasilas asks this very question in his commentary on the Liturgy (which I am using in the preparation of these classes…I will put a list of sources for further study later), and in it he says why is it that the priest/deacon asks the people to pray for so many different things, but the people only respond by praying for mercy? Firstly, the prayer implies both gratitude and confession—we only pray for things that God is giving us, that He wants to give us. In our response to the petitions we confess that God is doing these things, and we give Him thanks for His activity for our salvation. Secondly, to ask for God’s mercy is to ask for His kingdom, and as we’ve already said, the kingdom of God is His will/life/grace/truth/love. To say “Lord have mercy”—Fr. Hopko says this really is to say “Lord be how you are to me.” What more can we say? God, be how You are, and may You give me the grace to respond appropriately. This prayer, Lord have mercy, is sufficient for all things. St. Nicholas reminds us of our Gospel reading from last Sunday, in fact—seek the kingdom of God, and everything you need will be added to you.

After we begin the Liturgy by asking to be able to pray in peace, then we begin to offer our petitions to God. And the first one is for the salvation of our souls. Seek first the kingdom of God.

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.

After we pray for the peace and the salvation of Christ, then we’re free to continue by praying for the peace and salvation of the world. We pray for all mankind—God is the God of all, and so the whole world is joined to us in our petitions before the throne of God. And we pray not only for “spiritual things”—we pray for good weather and healthy crops, we offer everything of human existence to God for His blessing. Christ commanded us to pray about all things, even our daily bread. And so these petitions follow.

For the peace of the whole world, for the good estate of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all men, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For this holy house, and for those who with faith, reverence, and fear of God enter therein, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For our ([lord, the Most Blessed] Metropolitan N., for our [lord, the Most Reverend] Archbishop N., and/or [the Right Reverend] Bishop N.,) for the honorable presbytery, the diaconate in Christ, and for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For the President (or title of the highest civil authority), for all civil authorities, and for the armed forces, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For this city (or this village), for every city and country, and for those who in faith dwell therein, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For favorable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For travelers by land, by sea, and by air, for the sick and the suffering, for captives, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
For our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by thy grace.
Choir: Lord, have mercy.
Remembering our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed, and glorious Lady, Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.
Choir: To thee, O Lord.

After we offer our petitions, we commend ourselves and the whole of the world to Christ our God. What St. Nicholas Cabasilas says here about commending our lives to Christ is worth reading: “It is not given to all to commend themselves to God and to pace themselves in his care. For the words of commendation are not in themselves enough; it is necessart that God should accept us. It is essential that we have assurance (of this acceptance) [or we can’t in truth give ourselves to another], and that only comes from a clear conscience; such a conscience as we have when our own heart does not reproach us, when we concern ourselves with the things of God, when, in order to care for his interests, we do not hesistate to neglect our own. For then we abandon all anxiety for our own affairs, confidently committing them into God’s hands, in the sure and certain faith that he will accept our trust and will preserve it. Since this matter requires so much wisdom and thought, we do not make this commendation until we have first summoned to our aid the all-holy Mother of God and the choir of all the saints and also sought for unity of faith and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. After this we commend ourselves and our lives to God to be placed in his keeping.” (A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, SPCK, London, 1960, p. 49)

Prayer of the First Antiphon:
O Lord our God, whose might is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is infinite, and whose love of man is ineffable, do thou thyself, O Master, in thy tenderheartedness look down upon us and upon this holy house, and grant us and those who pray with us thy rich mercies and compassion.

I want to draw attention specifically to the prayers of the antiphons in each of the three opening litanies at the Divine Liturgy. During the petitions (if a deacon is present) or at their conclusion (if the priest serves alone), the prays in silence in the sanctuary for the people present, that God would pour out His rich mercy and compassion. The prayer then concludes with the reason for the supplication—“For to thee belong all glory, honor and worship.” It’s not that the people present are too sinful to pray for themselves, but rather that all glory is from God. The priest offers this prayer because all good things come from God, because all is His.

For to thee belong all glory, honor and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.
Choir: Amen.

The exclamation is then given aloud, to invite all present to worship and praise God. And we all participate in the offering of the prayer with our assent—“Amen.”

To be continued next post, Part B