Someone asked me recently to briefly describe the Divine Liturgy, the main worship service used in the Orthodox Church. I referred them to this classic explanation which gives a succinct overview both of the Liturgy and its significance.
The Divine Liturgy is a heavenly service on earth. It is a supper, the table of God’s love to us. Christ gives Himself to be our food and drink, “that we might live through Him”.
When we participate in the Divine Liturgy, we do not merely act out something that happened about 2000 years ago at the Last Supper, we re-live the Last Supper as if it were the first.
We live the kingdom of God.
We hear Christ’s words, as much of the Liturgy is based on the Bible. We taste Christ when we receive His Body and Blood.
For this reason, the priest raises the Gospel book and begins the Divine Liturgy: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. God’s Kingdom is here before us. And it is in “the Kingdom” that we live and act the whole Liturgy.
What follows is the Great Litany which is our prayer for everyone and everything.
Now that we are in the “Kingdom of God”, the Church asks us to pray “in peace” (John 20:21), for the “peace of God passes all understanding” and keeps our “mind in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). We ask for “peace from above” (James 1:19) which is real peace and justice (Matt 6:33). We pray for “the salvation of our souls” which is God’s Kingdom. We pray “for peace in the world” (John 14:27), “the stability of the Holy Churches”, for our “Holy House”, and for “the Archbishop” (Hebrews 13:17) who is the successor of the Apostles. We pray for “every city” and that God may provide “seasonable weather … abundance of the fruits”, for those “who are travelling” and that God may protect us from all “affliction, anger, danger and distress”.
In response to all these prayers, we only ask for one thing: “Lord, have mercy”, believing Christ’s words, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt 5:7).
The priest completes the prayer by calling us to focus all our life on Christ.
We ask the Theotokos, the Mother of God, to pray for us. The choir asks for “the intercessions of the Theotokos” to help save us.
We then chant “Alleluia” (Praise be to God) (Ps 115:1) to Him “Who rose from the dead” and ask that he may save us.
Following our request, we chant “Only Begotten Son and Word of God”. Here we are reminded of the teachings of our Church; about the birth of our Lord, that He took on human flesh (Titus 3:4), that He conquered death. We profess His immortality and ask that He save us (John 3:16).
We reach a significant moment in the Liturgy when the priest, representing all the people, moves through the Church to the Altar. He holds the Gospel high and says “Wisdom, Attend”. Let us pay attention to Jesus, who is the living Word of God.
This Holy act reveals Christ’s entry into the world. “When He brings the first-bom into the world, He says Let all God’s angels worship Him” (Heb 1:6). The choir chants “Come let us worship (Him), save us Son of God” (Ps 94:6).
Trisagion – Thrice Holy Hymn
Now that we have seen God, the Word, we praise Him.”Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal”. With the Thrice Holy Hymn we praise the Triune God. It is taken from the hymn the angels chant to God, “My soul thirsts for the mighty and living God” (Ps 42:2). We join with the angels to glorify God. “Holy God” who is the Father, “Holy Mighty”, the Son of God, “Holy Immortal” the Holy Spirit, who is the giver of Life, “have mercy on us”.
We have seen God in the Small Entrance, we have just praised Him. Now we will hear the Word: the Good News.
God speaks to us directly through the Epistle and Gospel readings. Because of this great event, the choir chants “Glory to You, 0 Lord, Glory to You” (I Cor 10:31).
Cherubic Hymn – Great Entrance
With the Great Entrance, Christ enters the Holy Altar to offer Himself for us.
In singing the Cherubic Hymn, we are asked to lay “aside all earthly care that we may receive the King of all” (Matt 24:44). We are asked to leave this temporary world so that we may make the “great entrance” with Christ into His Kingdom. For this reason, during the Cherubic Hymn, the priest says to the people: “May the Lord God remember all of you in His Kingdom”.
The Holy Gifts are placed at the Altar and covered with a cloth. This represents the covering of Christ’s body by Joseph of Arimathea after he took Christ’s body down from the cross.
Now that Christ has made the “Great Entrance” into Jerusalem, we “complete our prayer” to Him. In a set of prayers, we are asked to focus completely on essential matters of our life. The simple response is:
“Grant this 0 Lord”.
The priest offers peace to all of us. Peace is the provider of all good things and opens the door to love. Only with love and peace can we honestly confess “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.
The Creed – What we believe
“Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess” (John 13:34, James 5:16) what we believe. Only through love towards one another, only if we have the one mind can we begin to affirm what we believe.
The Creed, also known as the Symbol of our Faith, is recited. It is our human response and wisdon to God’s wisdom. We stand confidently and show our love to God by affirming Him.
Anaphora means “lifting up” because in this part of Liturgy the priest, on our behalf, lifts the bread and wine to God. The priest asks that the bread be made into the “precious Body of Christ” and the wine into the “precious Blood of Christ”.
But before this, we are asked to “Stand well”, that we may be filled with the “love of God”, to “lift up our hearts” (Col 3:2) to God.
We “give thanks to the Lord” by joining the angels to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy”.
When we are ready, we offer the gifts (bread and wine) God gave us, back to Him so that He may bless them (John 14:17). Likewise, our whole life should be offered to God so that He may bless and transfigure it.
We do this “in remembrance” of Him as Christ asked at the Last Supper. This act is not merely a repetition of the Last Supper but rather an extension of that Holy Event. Christ offered His Body and Blood then and does so now. We re-live His sacrifice in every Liturgy. This is His constant love for us: “He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood abides in Me and I in him” (John 5:56).
The Lord’s Prayer
Having remembered all the Saints and “especially… our all-holy, pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos”, the priest calls on us to boldly dare to call on our Heavenly God as Father. We respond with “Our Father in Heaven. . .” (John 16:23).
Now that we have called “Our Father”, we prepare to receive Him and affirm that only “One is Holy, One is Lord…”
We prepare ourselves with prayers acknowledging that Christ will save sinners (Tim 1:15). This is His sacred Body and Blood. Despite our fallen state, we must not lose hope but ask forgiveness and that he make us worthy to receive the “Mysteries” so that we have “Life Everlasting” (John 6:53).
All members of the Church, young and old – the whole family of Christ – receive Holy Communion (I Cor 12:27).
We chant “The Body of Christ come take. Of the fount of Immortality come taste”. Christ belongs to each of us. “Come take” (Ps 71:8).
With Holy Communion, we pass from death into the Resurrection of Christ. We live again. Christ offers Himself to “whoever believes in Him” (John 3:16).
Having armed ourselves with Christ, we may continue our life.
Following our offering of thanks to Christ for giving us His Body and Blood we are asked to “go forth in peace, in the name of the Lord”. We receive the blessing of Christ and are asked to leave as witnesses to what we have just experienced. We take Christ, the Word, whom we have seen in the Small Entrance, heard through the Gospel and tasted through Communion and make Him a part of our whole life in this world.
We begin the Liturgy with “in peace, let us pray”. We are now asked to “go in peace”. We depart chanting “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Ps 112:2).
The Divine Liturgy is a joumey, the aim of which is to meet and unite ourselves with God. During the Liturgy we have received Christ. Now we are asked to receive Him into our whole life.