The main thing Orthodox Christians do is pray, and nowhere is this clearer than at what roughly constitutes the halfway point in the Divine Liturgy, where we say several litanies of prayers. In one of these litanies—simply called the “Little Litany”—the deacon (or priest) even says, “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord…” While these prayers repeat many of the things for which we ask in other prayers, rather than being dully repetitive they instead serve a wonderful purpose: drawing us closer to God, and to each other.
The act of praying after the homily is a particularly ancient part of the Divine Liturgy; for example, St. Justin the Philosopher said in the second century, “(After the homily) we all rise together and send up prayers.” While this litany was originally said primarily during times of particular need—such as famine or plague—it is now said during every Divine Liturgy.
I like Fr. Lawrence Farley’s term for this litany—he simply calls it “the intercessions,” because we are praying on behalf of other people: our government and military, our bishops and clergy,the founders of our parishes, those who now rest in Christ, our friends and family (including, notably those who are not Orthodox), for those who offer their time and abilities to serve the Church, and finally for everyone present at that Liturgy.
Notice what this litany is called: the prayers of fervent supplication. We should not be bored and inattentive when these prayers are made—we should pray for these people with all our heart and soul. We should approach these prayers in the way described by Fr. Lawrence, “It is as if the people cannot restrain themselves from crying out to God over and over again, begging for His help and laying hold of His boundless compassion. In this litany, the Church stretches herself heavenward, reaching to God with every fiber of her being.”
Catechumens are individuals who are learning about Orthodoxy as they prepare to be baptized; St. Germanus of Constantinople says Christ refers to catechumens as the “other sheep” who will listen to Him (see John 10:16). We are fortunate today to have many catechumens in the Church; Fr. Lawrence says that in this “the days of the early Church have returned!”
The special place and needs of the catechumens explains the prayers said for them: that God may teach them “the word of truth” and reveal “the gospel of righteousness;” that He may unite them to His Church; and that they may be made worthy of baptism and salvation. As with everything in the Liturgy, while this is a prayer for the catechumens, its focus is ultimately on God—we pray God will do these things for and in the catechumens so that they may glorify the Holy Trinity.
At the end of this litany the catechumens are dismissed. This dismissal confuses many visitors to the Divine Liturgy because, despite the priest telling the catechumens three times to leave, most churches do not actually expect the non-Orthodox to go away. I remember my wife’s first visit to an Orthodox church: at the dismissal of the catechumens she hurriedly picked up her purse to leave, and was baffled when people chuckled and told her she could stay; “I know when I’m not wanted!” she replied.
In the early Church the catechumens were sent out to be taught about Orthodoxy; they could not stay for Holy Communion, since they could not receive Communion, and—when the prayers of Fervent Supplication came after the dismissal—they were also sent out because it was forbidden to pray with the non-Orthodox. Catechumens have been allowed to stay for the entire Liturgy since approximately the eighth century, but all of us can nonetheless benefit from this part of the Divine Liturgy: it reminds us of the deep holiness of the Liturgy of the Faithful (as the rest of the Divine Liturgy is called), and of the tremendous blessing we are given in being allowed to participate in it.
The laity are not the only ones reminded of this holiness and blessing: immediately after the dismissal of the catechumens, the priest thanks God that He has counted the clergy worthy of standing before the altar, and prays that He will enable the clergy to serve “blamelessly and without offense.”
The clergy’s prayers are followed by a small litany in which the deacon and people pray for peace, the spiritual health of the people in the parish, and for deliverance from all suffering (these prayers are left out when there is not a deacon present). We then engage in another great, cosmic moment of worship: the Cherubic Hymn. Two amazing things are packed into just a few words: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.” First, as the cherubim surround the throne of God, we now surround Christ in worship. Secondly, we are called to lay aside all earthly cares, meaning, Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis says, we should “concentrate with longing and anticipation to receive Christ, ‘the King of all,’ quieting our outer and inner senses and feeling deep within us the transforming grace of God.” Elder Amphilochios of Patmos puts it quite simply: “For God’s grace to come during the Liturgy you must be concentrated and untroubled.”
The Great Entrance itself—when the bread and wine are carried through the north door, and then to the altar through the Royal (or Holy) Doors—was originally a practical activity; in Constantinople the bread wine, chalice, etc, were kept in another building, and were brought into the church. This developed into a great ceremony—because the bread and wine would become the Body and Blood of Christ, their being brought into the church was celebrated, and we retain this attitude of celebration today. It’s important to realize that our celebration during the Great Entrance is directly tied to our laying aside all earthly cares: by paying attention to God and the blessings He gives us—not only during the Divine Liturgy, but during every moment of every day—we will increasingly experience true joy. St. Peter of Damascus explains it like this, “Freedom from anxiety makes (the heart) rejoice and give thanks; and the grateful offering of thanks augments the gifts of grace it has received. And as the blessings increase, so does the thankfulness, and so does the pure prayer offered with tears of joy.”
The Great Entrance concludes with the final verse of the Cherubic Hymn, in which—after the priest prays that the Lord may remember us in His kingdom—we reply with our desire to receive the King of all, Who is borne by the angelic hosts. St. Germanus says this verse puts us all into the action of moving with Christ: “The Cherubic Hymn signifies the entrance of all the saints and righteous ahead of the cherubic powers and the angelic hosts, who run invisibly in advance of the great king, Christ, Who is proceeding to the mystical sacrifice, borne aloft by material hands.”
In the next unit we continue on our journey toward receiving Holy Communion.
Pay attention to how the Divine Liturgy highlights the importance of catchumens—Orthodox Christianity has always understood the importance of bringing people into a transforming relationship with God and His Church. But how can we do this? We Orthodox rightly reject the high-pressure, fear-based tactics of some Christian groups, but what other kind of evangelism is there? One effective way to communicate our Faith to others, and interest them in entering a relationship with God, is through what is commonly called lifestyle evangelism. This involves using the normal situations of our lives to gently introduce people to Orthodox Christianity, and to involve them in the lives of our communities.
First, we should pray that, as we go through daily life in our schools and communities, there are people who are so impressed with the way in which they see us living that they desire a closer relationship with us, and ultimately with the God in Whom we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
We can then invite our friends to participate in a church function. Many people will be upset if we ask them point-blank to attend church services, but would be interested in attending a parish festival and experiencing the customs and celebrations of a traditionally Orthodox culture. Some parishes also offer language classes, which would be another way of involving friends in the life of our community.
We will hopefully come to a point where our friends are interested in experiencing an Orthodox worship service. The best service for newcomers is usually Vespers; the shorter service will enable them to experience Orthodox worship without being overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the Divine Liturgy.
Finally, be patient: while some people immediately fall in love with Orthodoxy, far more require a substantial amount of time as they wrestle with the theology and traditions which differ from those with which they are accustomed. Furthermore, remember that our friendships are not contingent upon people becoming Orthodox—we should remain friends even if the other person never shows an interest in Orthodoxy.
For additional resources for this unit visit http://www.worshipandyou.com.