Practical Preparations for Liturgy
Fr. Thomas Hopko · April 23, 2012
Before the Divine Liturgy begins, we must be prepared from a practical standpoint. Fr. Tom gives some personal reflections on doing things decently and in order.
In this 31st podcast in our series Worship in Spirit and in Truth, our commentary and reflection on the Divine Liturgy, we are at the point now where in the last podcast we spoke about the actual beginning of the Liturgy; how the Liturgy begins before the actual beginning so to speak. These are the last words that are said before the kingdom is blessed and the Great Litany is chanted, and we get into the actual act of worship.
And we mentioned last time that there’s an invocation of the Holy Spirit. There’s a declaration of the evangelical proclamation of the salvation of the world through Christ that the angels sang when Christ was born. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men.” And then the prayer, “O Lord, open my lips. My mouth will show forth your praise,” to show that God is going to inspire our prayer, open our mouth, and put the words into our mouth that we are glorifying Him with and praying to Him with.
And then we commented about that line from Psalm 118/119 verse 126, “It is time for the Lord to act.” And then the direction, “May the Lord God direct your steps,” the celebrant says to the deacon. “Now it is time for the Lord to act,” and that’s the great proclamation that actually launches us into the Divine Liturgy. “It is time for the Lord to act.”
And we say again that the word leiturgia means a common action. But it’s not just a common action of human beings, it’s the common action of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in and with human beings and human beings in and with communion to God and in God through Christ and the Spirit.
And so this is what the time, the kairos, is said, to begin; that this is beginning and that God is acting. This is how it begins. We reflected on that last time. But today, perhaps briefly I hope, I just have some practical comments; some practical considerations, and this is especially for our Orthodox people – members of our own churches and our own communities. But I just feel inspired to share my convictions here; my opinions and suggestions further at this particular point. And that is this very simply.
If indeed, the Liturgy is beginning and it really is the time for the Lord to act and we’re ready to co-act with God, synergia with Him in this worship and worship is a work; it’s an act; it’s a common work, then all the preparations that that work will entail, that that action will entail. Or you might put it another way, everything that is necessary from our side, so that the activity of God within us, in our worship, would be real and genuine and true, all that we have to do to make that happen has to be in order at that particular point.
In other words, we cannot possibly begin the Liturgy, and certainly no deacon can say to any bishop or priest, “It is time for the Lord to act, bless master,” and here get a blessing, “May the Lord direct your steps,” if everything is not in order and everything is not already arranged and everything is not already set in order to have that common action that we call the Divine Liturgy.
Now, the reason why I say this and it might be kind of silly to say and you might think it silly to say, but I feel obliged to say it anyway, is that very often, I’m afraid to say, God forgive, more often than we would really imagine, things are not ready. The congregation, the community, is not ready for God to act within them.
Not only are we not ready spiritually, in other words, we’re not prepared. We’re not striving to keep the commandments. We are not trying to live the Christian life. We have not said our preparatory prayers for the Liturgy. We have not kept a vigil before the Liturgy like the Church prescribes be it Vespers or Matins or whatever. In other words, we come very ill-prepared. We can proclaim all we want, “It is time for the Lord to act,” but are we ready for Him to act in us?
Are we there first of all? First, you’ve got to come. You have to gather. We have to be together. The Church has to be there ready at the time when it is time for the Lord to act. And here, this is a very important point, we announce the times of our Liturgies in our bulletins and so on, we ought to keep to that very strictly. If we are going to start at 10:00, we begin at 10:00.
We don’t begin at 10 minutes before or 10 minutes after, because that’s very, very rude to the faithful people who are gathering for the Liturgy. If they believe we are going to start at 10:00, and they come in and it’s already 15 minutes into the Liturgy, that’s a big sin. That’s a great depravation of the faithful. Or if it says we’re going to start at 10:00 and everybody shows up at 10:00, or at least the faithful people and the people who are earnest about the Liturgy do, and then they’re waiting around for another 15 minutes because something is not ready.
Now there can be accidents that happen, but it is very, very negligent when Liturgy is supposed to be at a certain time, and it’s not at the time proclaimed or just because people are lazy or just because people show up late or they’re not prepared or they’re last minute looking up trying to find out where the bread is or what should be sung at the Liturgy or who’s going to sing the responses, that’s really terrible. But that does happen, and I think it’s worth making a remark about it in our podcast series.
Things have to be already set and in order when that line is said, “It is time for the Lord to act.” Now, what does that mean? Let’s begin in the altar area. That means that we know who is serving the Liturgy; that the one who is celebrating that day is there and has done his work and preparation. And of course, we’ll see later that one of the things the priest has to do is prepare the bread and the wine for Holy Communion, which is done before the Liturgy. But we are going to comment on that only when we get to the Liturgy of the Faithful.
So what we have to see is that the clergy and the celebrants have to be ready. They have to be prepared. They have to know that the vestments are ready. They can’t come to church and be scrounging around and looking for what vestment to wear. They can’t find their white sticharion and their white robe in a closet and find one that comes down to their knees or one that’s dragging the floor. They have to have the vestment that’s ready; that fits them. It has to be clean. It has to be nice. It has to be prepared. It has to be in order. It has to be laid out.
And very often, though I shouldn’t say very often, but often enough, it happens that that’s not the case. You go to church, and there’s confusion. And they don’t know what vestment to wear, and they can’t find the one and then even finding the pieces of the vestment. I’ve been invited to churches where they bring me a vestment to wear, and they can’t find the cuffs. So everyone’s looking through drawers. It’s supposed to be time for the Liturgy to start and we can’t find the cuffs to put on.
Well, all of this has to be done, as St. Paul said in the Letter to the Corinthians, “Let everything be done decently and in order.” So that decency and order has to exist from the very beginning of the Liturgy. And that’s part of the preparation so that when we finally say, “O Heavenly King, Comforter, Glory to God in the highest. Lord, open thou my lips. It is time for the Lord to act,” that everything would be ready for that action to take place decently and in order.
Now, there’s a line of Jeremiah the prophet that the Holy Fathers often quote. I don’t have the chapter and verse here. It’s in the 40s somewhere. But it’s this line that says, “Cursed are they who do the work of God negligently.” Now if that is a general sentence of the holy prophet, “Cursed are they who do the work of God negligently,” well how much the liturgical work, the common work, the work of worship?
It cannot be done negligently, carelessly, capriciously. It has to be done carefully. It has to be done in order. And this is very important. It begins with the celebrants themselves. The altar servers have to know what vestment they are going to wear. They have to have one that fits them. It has to be prepared, and they have to be in it and all ready to start when the line is said, “It is time for the Lord to act.” Then, they ought to already be at their stations, be ready, properly vested in vestments that fit. This is very important.
Recently at one of the All-American Church Council of the Orthodox Church in America, one of the bishops, a bishop of Philadelphia; eastern Pennsylvania; Tikhon was telling how his first time he went to an Orthodox church service. He said that when the emissaries of St. Vladimir went to Constantinople, they didn’t know if they were on Heaven or on earth, it was so beautiful.
And he said the first liturgy that he went to in Chicago, he knew he was on earth. He knew he wasn’t in Heaven, just when he saw those altar boys coming out carrying the candles that didn’t match. They were dripping on the floor. One boy’s robe was dragging on the floor. The other boy’s robe was down to his knees. They had on white sneakers. He said, “Boy, I knew I was on earth then.” Well, he became a Christian anyway, an Orthodox, and he’s now a bishop. But in any case, that should not be the case. There’s no reason for that whatsoever. Things have to be prepared, and they have to be ready.
Now, the same thing is true at the reader’s stand. And the same thing is true in the choir area, in the cleros, or where the choir is singing. Everything has to be ready before it said, “It is time for the Lord to act.” In other words, we have to know who is reading. Those who are reading have to know how to read. Those who are singing have to know how to sing. Those who are leading the singing have to know how to lead the singing. They have to be trained, and then they have to be blessed. And then, they have to be assigned. They have to be appointed.
And there even is a rite to appoint readers and servers and taper bearers and chanters, and that should be given to everyone who is doing it. Now of course in the old days, it was only to men, and sometimes was even considered a first step toward being ordained a priest or becoming a bishop. But that being a first step toward ordination to bishop or priest is there because it was simply and practically there.
However, that has to be taken seriously again. In my opinion, we really have to think about taking that seriously. Sometimes, a bishop will come to the church and he’ll tonsure fifteen altar boys to be taper bearers and readers, and half the boys don’t even know what side of the altar is the front. And they’re fooling around in the sacristy, and they’re led out into the middle of the church and they’re prayed over, and their hair is cut. And it becomes like a ritual and there are people out there with cameras and taking pictures. Well, that’s just not serious.
If we wonder why Christianity and Orthodoxy itself is trivialized and why people don’t take it seriously, it’s because those who are leading it are not taking it seriously. The priests, the deacons, the readers, the singers, the servers, they’re not taking it seriously themselves. So why should anybody else take it seriously?
So what this means is, when we’re going to say, “It is time for the Lord to act,” then the readers have to know who is reading. They have to be in place. They have to know what the reading is. You can’t be hustling around trying to figure out what the reading for the Liturgy is when the Liturgy has already started. That is just so awful. It is not only distracting, but it is insulting to God Almighty and to the people who are present there.
And then, the singers have to be on time themselves. And they have to be in their place ready to sing, and they have to know what they are going to sing. And there can’t be any surprises, and they have to be familiar with it so that their leading of the singing and the worship of the whole congregation together can be really, truly worship in spirit and in truth.
So what does that mean? That means that first of all the readings have to be found before the service. They have to be marked. They should be read through ahead of time, especially if there’re hard words in them. If there are hard words in them, the words have to be learned before the Liturgy by the reader; how they are to be pronounced, i.e., how do you say hypostasis or whatever the word is you have to say?
You have to learn how to pronounce those words and not only the names and the technical terms but maybe the other words, which may be difficult to pronounce. Wild profligacy for example is in one of the readings. I think that more than three-quarters of the time I’ve been in church where this wild profligacy was alluded, it was stumbled over by the reader, because he or she had not prepared themselves ahead of time to know they had to say wild profligacy when they were going to read.
They have to know what is there. It has to be pointed out – the text, the pronunciation, and where they are going to read from. And in a lot of our churches, the readers are so stuck in a corner that you can’t even see them; you can’t hear them too well. Then, they put in a microphone, and then you’re so discombobulated because you hear the voice coming from behind you when the reader is in front of you.
And this whole problem of microphones is a huge problem that needs to be discussed at some point. What is helpful and what is harmful? If in the old days, they could build a church with good acoustics, I don’t know why we can’t do it now. And when they can place the readers and the singers in a place where their voices can project and can be heard, why can’t we do that now?
And so the same thing with the choir singers, they have to know what music is there. What are the special hymns of the day? What are the Troparia? What is the Kontakia? Is there a special Theotokos hymn? Are we in an octave of a feast? What is actually going to be sung at the entrance with the Gospel? What Troparia and Kontakia are going to be sung? What Prochymena are going to be sung? If there’re two readings are they both going to be read? If it’s decided that they will just read one of them, which one? And how is that decided?
But that all has to be decided ahead of time so that once they say, “It is time for the Lord to act,” we are really ready to act. Everybody knows what they are doing. They know where they are. They know what is going on. So for the sake of decency and order also, there have to be some folks in the church, some of the members of the church have to be assigned for the care of the order in the congregation itself.
In other words, we don’t need ushers like in a movie theater with flowers on and flashlights, leading people to their seats. As one of my witty friends said, “In some of our Liturgies, the only thing missing is the popcorn.” You have a soft seat. You’re led there by an usher. You’re given a program. We’ll talk about some of this stuff later when we speak about the readings, but that is very unfortunate.
However, one thing is very necessary that there will be doorkeepers or greeters or whatever you want to call them. But that there will be people assigned to be at the door when the people are gathering for the Divine Liturgy. There have to be people at the door, especially because there can be visitors; there can be guests; there can be seekers; there can be people that are coming in who are from some other place. Maybe they know somebody. Maybe they don’t.
But no one should just come into a liturgical congregation without being greeted by someone if they are visitor and a new person. There should be someone there who says, “Good morning. How are you today? Where are you from? Do we know you? Are you a member of the Orthodox Church? Oh no, you’re not. You’re from the Presbyterian confirmation class.”
Now if the Presbyterian confirmation class is coming to that Liturgy, which they may well do, the doorkeepers and greeters should be aware of that. The person who arranged for that to happen should tell them so you’re not caught off-guard that you have twenty young people coming to the Divine Liturgy, and nobody knows that they’re coming. And they don’t have a place to stand or seats where they can sit. It is a question of the pews or benches or whatever.
But there are places where we have to stand in church, and if we know that large groups are coming, we should be ready for them. Now, when people come to the Divine Liturgy, it’s very important that the first part of the Divine Liturgy is even called the Liturgy of the Word or the Liturgy of the Catechumens.
Now here, it’s very, very clear that everybody and anybody is welcome to come to the Divine Liturgy for the Liturgy of the Word. We will speak later on about the Liturgy of the Faithful and the offering of the gifts and the receiving of communion, because there is a huge challenge there. How do we make the distinction nowadays between the Liturgy of the Catechumens, to which everybody is welcome, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, at which only those who are baptized, chrismated, and presently in communion and are not in penance and are not excommunicated in some way are those who are actually celebrating the Liturgy of the Faithful, because the Liturgy of the Faithful has to be celebrated by the faithful; by those who are within the faith.
But the first part of the Liturgy, the people don’t have to be within the faith. That’s even clear in the Liturgy itself, because at some point, those who are not in the faith will be asked to leave or at least to move toward the back of the church. So we’re going to talk about that later in some detail.
But what we want to see right now for today is that people will be coming to the Divine Liturgy in a congregation. The doors are open. Even a lot of our churches have big signs outside that say, “Everybody welcome.” And everybody should be welcome on condition that they come in good will, that they’re not cynical, that they’re not coming to make sarcastic remarks about how we pray, that they’re not coming just to gawk at us and how we pray and comment on the deacon’s voice and vestment.
In other words, everybody is welcome, especially seekers; especially those who are interested in the Christian faith. They are super-duper welcome. But then of course, obviously, they’re expected to act in a proper manner. And sometimes they need a little bit of help to do that. They need to be told where they may stand. They might need someone in the services to say “Okay, you can sit down now,” or on the contrary, they might say, “Please stand at this point.” They need someone looking after them.
They might need to be pointed out or even given a service book if they want to follow. Now the service books sometimes are more trouble than help, because I think if we just stand there, pay attention, and it would be in a language we could understand, after going there five times, you wouldn’t need the book. You would know what you are into, and you would be familiar with it.
I believe that books and pamphlets and printing out of the readings are more distracting than helpful. I’ll speak about that when we get to the readings and the hymns of the Church. But sometimes for the people to have the printed hymns so they can sing along, that’s very helpful. That would be very helpful, especially if they are unusual and only done once or twice a year or during certain seasons. It would be helpful for the people to have it, but all that has to be done ahead of time.
But especially when we are dealing with people who are not familiar with church, we want to make them feel as at ease, as welcome if are sign says “Welcome,” and as comfortable so to speak. We hope that they will be spiritually uncomfortable. We should all be very spiritually uncomfortable.
I can’t resist saying this. But recently, I was giving a talk and someone said to me, “Do you feel that many gay homosexual people when they come to our Liturgy are not comfortable?” And I answered, “I hope that no one who is at the Liturgy is completely comfortable.” Even the bishop and the priest should not be comfortable when it comes to what is being said and what is being prayed. We are all very discomforted and sometimes pained by what is being prayed because we are so far from it ourselves.
Nevertheless, practically speaking, people should be made as comfortable as possible. In other words, they should know where they’re going to be; when they’re going to stand. They should have some idea what’s going to happen. There should be someone that they could ask their question to. They should not feel as if they are abandoned. How many stories do you hear of people who enter Orthodox churches, no one even says hello to them. They stand in the back. Some people even stare at them wondering why they are there. And then, they just decide they better not come back again.
Once, I was driving a car around Washington D.C., and I picked up a girl who was hitchhiking. She had on this long, flowery dress and was holding a bouquet and had daisies in her hair, and I thought, “Well she’s probably okay.” This was years ago. And so she got in the car, and I said, “Aren’t you scared that you’re hitchhiking there by yourself?” And she said, “Oh I won’t hurt anybody. I won’t hurt anybody.”
Then, she saw that I was a priest, the way I was a dressed. And she said, “Are you a priest?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “What church?” And I said, “An Orthodox church.” And then she told me how once she was in a big city and she was walking by an Orthodox church and she looked through the open doors and she saw the icons in there and heard them singing in a foreign language. And she looked in, peeked in, and she got attracted and she walked in.
And then she told me how after she was there for a while, apparently it was Matins that was going on when she walked in. There weren’t many people, and there were some older ladies who stared at her, and they were dressed in black. And one of the deacons or priests came around with an incenser. When he came by her and swung the incenser her, he kind of glared at her with an inquisitive, “What are you doing here?” look on his face.
And then she said, she got so scared and felt so uncomfortable that she just ran out, and she just left after a few minutes. Well, that’s not really a nice story for us to hear. It’s not a good story for us to hear. Hopefully, there will be someone there, even if its Orthros, even if there’s a handful of people; that someone will be there just in case someone wanders in, and just say, “You’re welcome to come, and this is what we’re going to do.”
And then of course they would be watching later on relative to Holy Communion, and maybe even say to the people later on, “If you’re a guest and not a member of the Orthodox Church, we just want you to know that if you’ll remain through the service that when it comes to Holy Communion this is reserved just for the people who are baptized, chrismated, members of the Orthodox Church and have been to confession and are prepared for Holy Communion,” so they would know and not be embarrassed.
But we’ve got to help the people who come. And we’ve got to help the people ourselves. And we’ve got to help the people who serve. We have to have everything decent and in order before we say, “It is time for the Lord to act. And it’s very, very important.
And in addition to this, we could go on even a little bit more. The church itself should be decent and orderly. There shouldn’t be bulletins laying around the floor or wherever or come in and there’s a table of bulletins piled up for the last three Sundays. Or you come in and see next to the wall on the floor some icons or equally bad and you see that the church is dirty; when you come in and see that the icon stands are covered with cloths that look like they’ve been there since the Church was consecrated 50 years ago with wax dripped all over them.
This is no good. The church has to be clean. It has to be in order. There can’t be flowers on the floor of the altar area that have been there since the previous Holy Week, and it’s already summertime. You see that in churches. I see it. Oil cans and wine bottles in the altar area. Stuff put on the altar table: wristwatches, notebooks, pads. This is not being ready for the Lord to act. And all of this has to be taken care ahead of time.
Now, about everybody who’d be welcome at the Liturgy of the Word, it’s very important that we would know that and welcome people, and say, “Yes, you’re ready to come.” However, we also know that the singing is led by the faithful people, even at the Liturgy of the Word. Those who read the readings have to be members of the church. They can’t be some visitor or ask to read the Epistle, no matter how friendly we want to be.
And then, there’s the issue of children. The children have to be care for. The children have to be prepared. The children have to know what’s going on. The children have to know where their place is. And we should never ever try to include children by giving them songs to sing and readings to read that they are incapable of doing.
If we’re going to include the children, then they have to be prepped. If they’re going to do some readings; if they’re going to do some singing, then they have to know what they’re doing, and there has to be someone in charge. And they have to know that this is serious business. This is not just fooling around. And it’s not being done to please grandma, and it’s not being done so your picture can be taken to send to your uncle in California or Greece or wherever. In other words, children at the Liturgy must be prepared too.
But you can’t stress too much that those who serve, those who sing, those who read, those who care for order in the church have to be trained, prepared, and know what they are doing and be ready for what is going to be done at any given Liturgy. So there are to be no stumbles or a minimal amount of stumbling. There would be no wondering what’s going to happen. There would be nothing surprising, nothing shocking, no mispronounced words that would sound bad and people would start giggling.
All of this has to be put in order ahead of time. Before we say, “O Heavenly King;” before we say, “Glory to God in the Highest;” before we say, “Lord, open thou my lips;” before we say, “It is time for the Lord to act,” these things have to be in order. They must be in order. Everything has to be in its proper place. So this is very, very important. It cannot be overstressed. Cleanliness, orderliness, proper vesting, proper cloths, neat and clean, people prepared, and all the readings in order.
There was a rule in a Benedictine monastery in the old days that if a monk or a nun read in church and read the wrong reading or mispronounced a word that if they had checked it ahead of time, they could have found out how to prepare it, they were punished, because that’s negligence. Now anybody can make a mistake. Anybody could look at the wrong day and then they would not be punished or they would not be chastised for that. That has happened.
But when there’s preparation, those kind of mistakes are at a minimum. If you check the book twice, and you check with the other people and check with the priests and say, “Is this the one for today, Father?” Then, those are eliminated. Or you check with someone and find out how to say the name, how to pronounce a place, or how is a word pronounced.
It was interesting. I read this somewhere, and I can’t remember where. Now in the Benedictine monastery, if a monk or a nun read the wrong out of sheer negligence or they weren’t careful enough, or if they mispronounced words that they should have known how to pronounce if they were careful enough, they had to eat at a separate table from the other members of the monastic community, and their food was not blessed. They had to eat unblessed food for like a week or something like that.
That was one of the penances that was given to a person who made a negligent mistake, not an understandable mistake. People can stumble. They can mispronounce. You could forget. All of that is forgivable. We have to be merciful. We’re Christians, and we’re human beings. But sometimes, and it sometimes even happens regularly that the same mistake will be made again and again just out of sheer negligence.
Then, when people come to the services, including not only visitors, guests, seekers, or people who want to learn about Orthodoxy, but even the members of the church come, and they don’t know what’s going on. And they don’t know what’s going to happen that day, and they don’t know that there’s special hymns or special acts those days. And you just have confusion, and who would even want to keep coming to that?
If you took a child, for example to a football game, and didn’t explain what the rules were or what was going to happen, why would they want to go? If you said that you were going to a circus to see an elephant, and they said, “What’s an elephant?” and you said, “Well, I don’t know, you’ll see when you get there.” Why would they want to go if they don’t know what’s happening.
So this preparation for the Lord to act properly and effectively in our midst at the Liturgy is really crucial. It is really crucial. Once, I was asked to write an essay for a priest’s magazine about my travels around and what I observed in the priesthood and if I had any wishes. I wrote an article called Three Wishes.
I wrote that I wish that the church would be neat and clean and decently in ordered.
I wish that people were prepared with their words, with their readings, with their sermons, and with their homilies ahead of time. And I would pray that the people themselves were prepped and prepared so that when the service is done, it really could be done and worship in Spirit and Truth; it really could be done decently and in order. It really could be done, not negligently but to the glory of God.
For if it is time for the Lord to act, then we better be ready for that action among us. May God help us to be ready when it is time to worship God in Spirit and Truth, when it is time in our Liturgy for the Lord to act.