May 22, 2012

(6) Orthodoxy's Worship: The Liturgy

By Protopresbyter George Metallinos

6. The Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy is the centre of ecclesiastical worship in whole, culminating in the Divine Eucharist, the centre of Orthodox life, experience and conscience. According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a major liturgiologist of our time, “the Divine Liturgy can be regarded as a journey or a course that eventually leads us to our final destination, during which course every stage is equally important.” This course begins, from the moment that the faithful leave their homes to go to the liturgical assembly. The assembling of the body is the first and fundamental act that introduces the faithful into the new world that God instituted in history, i.e., the Church. The faithful assemble inside the temple, in order to participate in the Liturgy, along with all of the saints and their brethren in Christ – both the living and the departed. This act culminates in the “Small Entrance”, during which all of the assembly, along with the Bishop, journey towards the celestial sacrificial altar.

One cannot be perceived a Christian, outside the liturgical assembly. In times of persecutions, the Christians placed themselves in great danger in order to participate in the assemblies of the local communities. The expression “I belong to the Church” means: "I participate in Her liturgical assemblies"; because it is through them, that the “here and now” of the ecclesiastical body manifests itself. It is the synagog√© (=the gathering together) of the people of God - in which even the catechumens and the repentant also participate to a certain extent - and not just an “elite” of chosen ones. The faithful constantly deposit their sinfulness before the Divine Love, so that it may be transformed, through repentance, into sanctity. That is why the Holy Fathers recommend frequent participation in the liturgical assemblies; because that is how “the powers of Satan are undone ..... in the congruence of the faith” (Saint Ignatius the ‘God-bearer’, †107).

In the first part of the Liturgy, up to the end of the Scriptural recitations, it was the custom for the catechumens to also participate, which is why it was called the “Liturgy of the Catechumens”. The remaining part is called the “Liturgy of the Faithful”, and it contains the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist, whose main characteristic is the sacrifice. The Eucharist is a “theophany” (a “manifestation” of God), and as such, it transforms all of Creation into a theophany. With the Divine Eucharist, the Church offers Her “bloodless” sacrifice. The faithful offer God’s gifts ("Thine own, of Thine own, do we offer Thee"), confessing their unworthiness and their spiritual poverty ( “..... for we have done nothing good on earth .....”). The only reciprocation to God’s gifts that we can offer is to consciously subject ourselves to Divine Love.

The Divine Eucharist is not a prayer or a ritual like other services. It is the mystery of Christ’s actual presence in the midst of His praying Church. It is firstly Christ’s Eucharist (=thanksgiving), then it becomes ours also, because, without ceasing to be “co-seated with the Father on high”, Christ is also simultaneously “here below, invisibly, with us”. According to the blessed Chrysostom, “Whensoever (the faithful) receives Holy Communion with a clean conscience, he is performing Pascha (Easter) ... There is nothing more in the Sacrament performed for Pascha, than in the Sacrament now being performed”. By partaking of Christ’s “humanity” (=human nature), which is distinctly and indivisibly joined to His Godhood, the faithful receives inside themselves all of Christ and become joined to Him in this way.

In the Divine Eucharist, the ecclesiastical body experiences a perpetuated Pentecost. Pentecost, Eucharist and Synod in the life of the Church are all linked to the actual presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This is what our liturgical language also expresses; we speak of “spiritual mysteries”, “spiritual sacrifice”, “worship in the spirit”, “spiritual table”, “spiritual body”, “spiritual food and drink”, etc. Everything becomes spiritual during the Divine Liturgy, not in the sense of a certain idealizing or immaterializing on our part, but on account of the actual presence of the Holy Spirit therein.

Above all, however, the Divine Eucharist becomes the sacrament of unification of the Church. Those participating in it become “ONE” in Christ (Galatians 3:28), through the unity of their hearts (“in one voice and one heart ....”). That is what the Apostle Paul teaches in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (10:15-17). The one ecclesiastical body relates therein to the Eucharistic bread: “For we, the many, are one bread, one body”. This is why it is such a contradiction, when all of the faithful do not receive Holy Communion, even though all of them have heard the Eucharist-thanksgiving prayers in preparation of Holy Communion.

Holy Communion transmits Christ’s life into each member, so that it may live in Christ, together with all the other members. Saint Symeon the New Theologian sees this union with Christ as a lifting of man’s solitude: “For the one participating in the divine and deifying graces is in no way alone, but with You, my Christ, the three-sunned light, which lights the entire world ...” . With Holy Communion, the individuals become members of the Lord’s Body and thereafter, individual survival “mutates” into a communion of life. Ever since the first centuries, the very existence of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified (Gifts) verifies the need to participate in the Divine Eucharist. Naturally, none of the above occurs through any kind of automation, but only when the participants live the life of an ecclesiastical body. That is why “he who eats and drinks unworthily, is eating and drinking of a crime unto himself” (I Corinthians 11:29).

During the Divine Liturgy, the Church is literally lifted to the heavens, partaking of the Death, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ and living Her own “ascension” into the heavenly realm. “And You have not abstained from doing everything, until You have lifted us all to heaven and bestowed us with Your future kingdom ...”, we confess during the Liturgy. The Liturgy becomes the Paschal gathering of all those who encounter the Lord and enter His kingdom. We do not move along Platonic forms, by seeking perfection in a certain “beginning”; instead, we seek it in the eschatological, in the fulfillment of that which is evolving within Time, through to the final outcome of the existence of the faithful-to-Christ person. The worship of the Church is thus directed by the historical past of Divine Providence, to the confirmed-in-Christ future. During the Divine Liturgy, even Christ’s Second Coming is referred to as an event of the past! “In remembrance of all that came to pass for us: of the Cross, of the Tomb, of the third-day Resurrection, of the ascension to heaven, of the second and glorious Second Coming…” is what we confess, prior to the sanctification of the Precious Gifts.

To underrate the liturgical congregation is to cloud its eschatological character. Besides, with the proliferation of Eucharistic congregations in a multitude of parishes, in chapels, in monasteries, etc. and the absence of the Bishop – the head of the gathering of every local Church – the term “congregation” has lost its true meaning. Only the joyous character of the Liturgy now testifies towards its eschatological atmosphere, to the point where it could even be regarded as inconsistent with fasting. During the period of Great Lent, a period of strict fasting, no Divine Liturgies are performed on weekdays, only the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. The Divine Liturgy is not one of the many means of sanctification for the “fortification” of Man; it is the Sacrament of the Church, which transposes the faithful into the future age. Church and Eucharist are inter-woven.