WHAT IS THE DIVINE LITURGY?
Liturgy before Liturgy
In today’s Epistle reading from 23rd Sunday (Ephesians 2:4-10), the Apostle Paul says that, God has raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (v.6). Last week we said, the way Orthodox remember the past is by summoning God into our present reality and at the same time, being mystically transported into the heavenly reality of the eternal Mystical Supper. In essence, this is the work of the Divine Liturgy.
We are the Ekklesia, a people called out to be separate and holy. We are working towards the Kingdom of God and our particular focus is the Eucharistic Mystical Supper of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. The holiness we strive for is found in the Divine Energies of God that we receive in Holy Communion—the Eucharist—which we receive into our very being. This face-to-face meeting with the Lord cannot be taken lightly. It requires preparation.
This preparation, let’s call it the “the Liturgy before the Liturgy.” It is the work we do before arriving here on Sunday morning. It lays the foundation for the fullest experience of God’s Divine Presence. The old adage, “You get out of something what you put into it,” is also true here. So, how exactly do we prepare?
Perhaps the first thing that comes to our minds is fasting. The canons clearly define that the only fasting required to prepare for Holy Communion is a complete fast upon waking on Sunday morning, so that we may be hungry, both physically and spiritually, for the Bread of God. The 64th Canon of the Holy Apostles forbids fasting on Saturday. The 69th Canon requires all Orthodox Christians to fast on Wednesday (remembering Judas’ betrayal) and Friday (remembering the Crucifixion) regardless of whether they will receive Holy Communion or not.
Fasting involves much more than just food. We are called to fast from sin. Lying, stealing, cheating, adultery, fornication, gossiping, swearing, etc. are all incompatible with becoming holy. If we are under slavery to sin, then we are not prepared to become a slave (doulos/doule) of God. Fasting from sin does not take the place of fasting from food and vice versa. They go together. They are not an end in themselves but a means to receive Jesus Christ.
About an hour and half before Liturgy starts, the priest begins several services. Kairos prayers. These remind him of the holy place in which he stands and the divine duty which he is about to begin. Right after comes the Vesting Prayers in which special scripture verses are read for each piece of garment that he puts on. These prayers remind him of the special grace of priesthood he received at ordination.
The second service is the Proskomide—the Service of Preparation of the gifts of bread and wine in which the birth, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ are remembered. The bread on the paten/diskos is like Christ hanging on the Cross. The wine in the chalice is His blood poured out from His side. The third service is Orthros and it consists mostly of hymns. The word Orthros means ‘straight up’. It implies the rising of the person in the morning to stand before God in worshipful expectation. In the middle of Orthros, we read one of the eleven post-Resurrectional Gospels and the Holy Gospel book is brought out for veneration by the faithful. It represents the risen Christ greeting us as we enter the church.
Now some of us may not be able to attend these services before Divine Liturgy. However, most of us are able and should participate at least periodically. These three services are instructive. On Sunday morning we should rise early with joyfulness of heart to continue our preparation, or more accurately, to intensify it. We should fast from distractions such as television, radio and Internet before Liturgy. We should take care to be patient and kind with our family. We should pray that Christ helps us to be prepared. The prayers before Holy Communion are actually to be read before Divine Liturgy, not during or immediately before the Eucharist. Reviewing the Scripture readings of the day before liturgy is very helpful so their words will penetrate further into our heart and mind when we hear them during the liturgy. This of course, assumes that we are on-time to be present for them. As we dress for church, we should think of the special grace of new life given to us in Baptism and Chrismation that is renewed each day through prayer and each week through worship. We should be inspired by Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross to make the necessary sacrifices to prepare, attend and participate in liturgy, receiving Christ into our body, heart, mind and soul.
All these preparations on Sunday morning are affected by what we do on Saturday. What time do we go to bed? If late, it will be more difficult to be on-time, and peaceful. If our weekday and Saturday activities are not Christ-like, this too will impair our motivation and preparation. The reason we do not fast on Saturday is because it is the Sabbath—the day of rest. We should stop working enough to enjoy the blessings God has given us. Some of us do our regular career work on Saturdays, some of us exhaust ourselves with work around the house. Certainly, it’s better to do them on Saturday, rather than on Sunday. However, if we overextend ourselves on Saturday with paid work, house work, errands, chores or other activities then we can put at risk proper preparation and participation in Sunday Divine Liturgy.
Some of us may feel that we do not have a good handle on all these preparations or were not sure exactly where to start. Or we do not know how to overcome habitual sins in our life. God does not expect you to handle these things by yourself. He provides helpers to give you guidance and encouragement. The special person trained and ordained for this task is the priest. The relationship between spiritual father and spiritual child is very well-established and prominent in our Orthodox Christian Tradition. Each and every saint, the persons we elevate as examples of Christ-like living, had a mentor or a guide to help them learn how to live the life in Christ: denying themselves, taking up their cross and following Him.
The Sacrament/Mystery of Holy Confession is a beautiful gift given by Christ to the Apostles and handed down through the life of the Church, and presented to us so that we may repent and receive forgiveness for our sins. The priest is here to help us rise above the problems in our life. Priestly ministry is one of guidance and encouragement.
As we close today, let us remember today’s Gospel reading from the Fifth Sunday Luke (16:19-31). In the parable of the rich man and Lazaros, Jesus reveals two essential truths: 1) there is life after death--eternal life, and 2) how we live our life on earth, determines how we will live in heaven—either with God or apart from Him. Divine Liturgy is the place where we rediscover the true meaning and purpose of our life in God through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.