It is impossible to talk about true, transforming worship—in other words, about Orthodox worship—without talking about the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is far more than simply our “Sunday morning (and feast day) service;” it is true life in the full, as Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou says, “The Divine Liturgy is worship; there is prayer and a whole life there, the life of Christ. In the Holy Eucharist, we accomplish the exchange of our limited and temporal life for the unlimited and infinite life of God…God accepts our gifts and fills them with His life, and He renders them back to us.”
This is why we’ll spend the next several units of this study looking at the Divine Liturgy, talking not only about what we do and why we do it during the Liturgy, but also the impact this can have in our daily lives. In this study we’ll only have time to talk about some of the main features of the Liturgy—this is why, on the Worship & You website, I give a short list of additional books you can read—but you’ll nonetheless better understand and experience the power of this worship.
The Divine Liturgy begins with a particularly powerful statement: it both calls to the Holy Trinity—because, St. Nicholas Cabasilas says, “From the very beginning the Trinity must shine forth and be proclaimed”—and tells us that, in the words of Fr. Philip LeMasters, “The Church is raised to the life of the Kingdom as her members gather to glorify and commune with the Holy Trinity.”
Finding such meaning in this life-changing statement is itself enough but, Fr. Lawrence Farley tells us, the words are also “a prophetic shout of defiance; we throw down a gauntlet before the feet of the world, offering a ringing challenge to all the dying and deadly values of this age.” The world tempts us with lies about such things as money, power, and health; by responding “Amen” to these opening words we counter the world’s lies with the truth of the Holy Trinity and our destination in God’s kingdom. Our work as a community in Christ now proceeds with love and awe through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Great Litany is a series of requests to God. St. Symeon of Thessalonica calls these requests the “Litany of Peace” because the emphasis is on peace: peace for ourselves, for the Church, and for the world. Fr. Lev Gillet notes that we must begin by praying in peace—we must free ourselves from all “worldly cares” and instead quietly place our attention on God. We then pray that God will give peace to others, knowing that true peace can only come from God. St. John Chrysostom states, “Therefore we pray, asking for the Angel of peace, and everywhere we ask for peace (for there is nothing equal to this); peace, in the Churches, in the prayers, in the supplications, in the salutations; and once, and twice, and thrice, and many times, does He that is over the Church give it, ‘Peace be unto you.’ Wherefore? Because this is the Mother of all good things; this is the foundation of joy.”
Notice the things for which we pray in these petitions: they are not noble but vague concepts, such as truth or goodness, but instead are concrete needs. We pray for the overall health and unity of our churches; for our local parish (and specifically for those who come into it “with faith, reverence, and the fear of God”); for all the people in the church; for national and local governments and the people who preserve our physical safety; for good weather and adequate food; for safe travel; and finally, for “our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity.” St. Nicholas says we ask for not only the spiritual things we need, but also the physical things we require, “in order that we may recognize God as Creator and Provider of all things and may look always to Him.”
At the same time, we’re not inactive and waiting on God to hand us these things; Fr. Emmanuel Hazidakis says that, by remembering the Theotokos and saints and offering ourselves to God, we are engaging in a “call to arms” because “armed with the aid of the Saints, and first among them the most holy Theotokos, we are ready to go to battle against evil and overcome it, as they did.” As St. Symeon reminds us, “It is essential that we perform this offering by works.” The Great Litany is therefore also a prayer that God will bring peace into the world in part by working through us to accomplish this holy task. Do people live in danger and fear? In this Litany we offer ourselves to God to accomplish His work in combatting the sources of danger. Are people hungry? Then we offer ourselves to God to accomplish His work in providing food. The Litany is an all-encompassing prayer, in which we pray not only for God to meet these often desperate needs, but also to work through us to do so.
After stating our needs, we then demonstrate how we should respond to our situation: we thank God for everything He does for us (we are talking here about the normal or typical antiphons; on feast days we sing festal antiphons which contain prophetic verses related to the feast). The priest begins by praising and thanking God for His power, glory, mercy and love; the people then sing the first antiphon (taken from Psalm 102), blessing the Lord and thanking Him for His love and care for us. The antiphon refers to our physical illnesses, but also begins addressing our spiritual illness by thanking God for forgiving our iniquities. The priest follows this antiphon with a little litany that ends in asking God to preserve His Church, and to sanctify and glorify the people who love both Him and His people.
It is essential that we place our hope for these things in God rather than human rulers because, we sing in the second antiphon (taken from Psalm 145), there is no salvation in mortals. From whom does salvation then come? We answer in the hymn, “Only Begotten Son,” that it comes from the immortal Word of God “Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” It is therefore fitting that, in the litany after this antiphon, the priest not only prays to Christ, but also proclaims that Christ is in the midst of those who gather together to worship (remember two points from the previous unit—Orthodox worship is Trinitarian and involves a group).
The third antiphon contains the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), in which we proclaim that true happiness comes from God, even in the midst of suffering. This antiphon is not somehow separated from the Kingdom of God proclaimed at the beginning of the Liturgy; instead, St. John Chrysostom says, all these promises are based in the Kingdom, “In all these things the blessed One does nothing but hint at the kingdom of heaven. For people who enjoy these things will certainly reach the kingdom of heaven. So do not suppose that the reward of the kingdom of heaven belongs only to the poor in spirit. It also belongs to those who hunger for justice, and to the meek and to all these blessed others without exception.”
During the third antiphon the priest and those serving with him carry the Gospel into the nave in a procession called the Little Entrance; we’ll discuss this momentous event in Unit 4.
Remember that the peace for which we pray isn’t exclusively something God gives to us (although it is, of course, that more than anything)—it is also something, through God’s work in us, for which we should strive in the world around us.
FOCUS North America, a pan-Orthodox ministry, gives an excellent statement of some of the needs we can work to meet: Food for the hungry; Occupation for the jobless; Clothing for the naked; Understanding for the hopeless; Shelter for the homeless. Whether through FOCUS’ ministry (http://www.focusnorthamerica.org) or through charities in our local communities—or, best of all, through both—we have many opportunities to bring God’s love and comfort to people who are in desperate need.
We can also work for peace within our relationships. Do you find yourself frequently arguing with family members, or criticizing people in your parish, or even hating people at school? Such conflicts obviously prevent or destroy peace in our lives, but there are two ways we can overcome them. First, we can work on changing the attitudes and actions that lead us into such conflict, which St. Gregory of Sinai identifies as “disobedience, argumentativeness, self-gratification, self-justification and (a) pernicious high opinion of oneself.” Secondly, we can refuse to be offended by the hurtful words and actions of others, as St. Seraphim of Sarov teaches, “We must bear offenses from others with equanimity and accustom ourselves to such a disposition of spirit that these offenses seem to concern not us, but others. Such a practice can give quietness to the human heart and make it as dwelling for God Himself.”
Of course, as we saw from Fr. Lev Gillet, we can only demonstrate such peace when we engage in a peaceful relationship with God. As you grow in your worship of God, you’ll experience what St. John of Kronstadt describes, “The greatest gift of God, which we mostly need and which we very often obtain from God, through our prayers, is peace or rest of heart. As the Lord Himself says: ‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Therefore, having obtained this rest, rejoice and consider yourself as rich and possessing all things.”
For additional resources for this unit visit http://www.worshipandyou.com.