The Divine Liturgy

Of all the services of the Christian Church, there is one in which we come most closely into the presence of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is the service at which we commemorate our Lord's sacrifice on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead, at the conclusion of which we share in His Body and Blood. Among Catholics of the Latin Rite, this is called the Mass; among Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians, it is called the Divine Liturgy.

There are actually three forms of the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite:

The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated on fast days, and is not properly speaking a Eucharistic liturgy, since no consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ takes place; instead, the Gifts from a previous celebration of the Divine Liturgy are distributed to the faithful.

The Divine Liturgy as Sacrifice

It is natural for human beings to offer sacrifice - that is, to make an offering of some good thing to another person. A sacrifice may be a sign of honor and respect; it might be made in thanks to the other, or to seal a breach in a relationship. It is usually intended to somehow bind together the one making the sacrifice, and the one to whom the sacrifice it made. The value of the sacrifice depends on what it is that is sacrificed, and its meaning to the two parties; and on the intent and worthiness of the one making the sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, we see such offerings from the time of our first parents – for example, in the story of the sacrifice of Abel, whose offering to God was accepted, and of Cain, whose offering was not. In the Old Testament, fathers offered sacrifices for their families, and priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people. God ordained certain sacrifices to be made in reparation for sin, and as thanksgiving offerings. Such sacrifices could consist of crops, incense, or animals, and were often accompanied by prayers that God would accept these sacrifices. Sacrifice formed a basic part of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai - that He would be their God, and they would be His people, keeping his commandments.

As God prepared to deliver His people from slavery in Egypt, he ordered that each family should sacrifice a lamb, and spread its blood on the doorposts of their home, so that the destroying angel sent against the firstborn of Egypt would "pass over" them; the family would then consume the lamb as "food for the journey." Each year thereafter, the people of Israel were to repeat this meal, recalling their deliverance as if they themselves were present to see it accomplished. Thus, the Passover was both an event in the past, and one kept continually present – a sacrifice, and a meal that renews a covenant.

In the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to be born as a man, to teach, to suffer death on the Cross, and to rise again from the dead. The prophets of the Old Testament had spoken of a new sacrifice that would wipe away the people's sins, and the words of John the Baptist, "There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!", made it clear that Jesus Christ (that is, the Messiah) was to be this new sacrifice. In His death on the Cross, Christ made a new covenant with the human race, in order to save them from their sins; in rising from the dead, He destroyed death and re-opened Heaven to those who had fallen.

In his last supper with the disciples, Christ offered bread and wine in the context of a Passover supper, and declared them to be His body and blood - "the blood of the covenant", telling the disciples to do this "in remembrance of me." For the Byzantine churches, the Divine Liturgy is precisely this remembrance.

As the Fathers remind us, the Eucharist or Divine Liturgy is a true sacrifice: we take God's gifts, formed by human labor into bread and wine, and offer them to God, along with our prayers and thanksgiving. In doing so, we not only obey the command of the Lord Jesus, but our sacrifice is united to the one sacrifice He made on the cross, as the bread and wine become His body and blood by the power of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are then given back to us, to be received as Holy Communion, for our sanctification.

Thus, the Divine Liturgy is the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, made present in our midst, and concluding with a meal that renews our baptismal covenant with God.

Themes of the Divine Liturgy

The central theme of the Divine Liturgy is thanksgiving – in Greek, Eucharist. We acknowledge all that God has done for us in gratitude. And in order to give thanks, we must first remember. (The Greek word for remembering is "anamnesis.")

In the Old Testament, the act of remembering is continually emphasized. We are urged to remember all that God has done for us, as a people and as individuals; it is when we forget God and his goodness to us that we violate the covenant, and fall into sin. At the same time, God is asked to remember those same works, and do them once more in our day; and that He remember each and every one of us, for should He forget, we would return to the nothing from which we were made.

In the New Testament, too, the disciples were told to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice "in remembrance of" our Lord Jesus Christ – and it was in the breaking of bread that the disciples at Emmaus recognized the Lord.

So in the Divine Liturgy, we remember all that God has done for us, recalling it solemnly through the words of the priest in the great Eucharistic prayer called the Anaphora, and offer him all that we have. Together with this sacrifice, we offer the one true, worthy sacrifice: the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – that is, the Paschal Mystery of God's love for us – that we remember and offer.

The Divine Liturgy in the life of the Church

In the Byzantine Rite, the Divine Liturgy is essentially festive - that is, it is an occasion for joy. For this reason, it is not celebrated on days of fasting and penance (the so-called "a-liturgical days").

The Divine Liturgy is normally celebrated on Sundays and feast days, as well as on Saturdays (according to tradition, we do not fast on either Saturday or Sunday). The Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on ordinary weekdays, Monday through Friday, except on the aliturgical days.

In the Divine Liturgy, the local church is most clearly seen as gathered together in an orderly fashion, led by a priest who is empowered by ordination to offer sacrifice and prayers on behalf of the faithful. Word and actions emphasize the unity of the faithful. For this reason, it is traditional in the Byzantine Churches that there should only be one celebration of the Divine Liturgy in a particular church on a given day - "one altar, one liturgy."

The bishop is the original celebrant of the Divine Liturgy, and it is still the case that a priest celebrates the service only by his permission. When the bishop participates in the service, wearing his episcopal vestments, certain hymns are added to the service or performed in a more solemn fashion; this is referred to as a hierarchical liturgy ("hierarch" means "high priest", and is another word for "bishop").

The liturgical books set various times for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated, but it is almost always held at mid-morning. The morning is the time of hope, and the recognition in the light of day of all that God has done for us and given to us.

Other important moments in the life of the local church – baptisms, weddings, ordinations, and the installation of a bishop – normally take place during the Divine Liturgy (although customs for baptisms and weddings have varied over time). In the public character of these services, celebrated in the midst of a gathering of all the faithful, we see the Church gathered together in unity – the "kingdom of God" present in the world.

A Guide to the Divine Liturgy

There are four different Divine Liturgies in the tradition of the Byzantine Rite.

The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is the "ordinary" form of the Divine Liturgy, celebrated throughout the year. The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great was once celebrated on all Sundays and feast days; over the centuries, its use has become restricted so that now it is celebrated about ten times a year: on the Sundays of the Great Fast, the vigils of Christmas, Theophany, and Pascha, on Holy Thursday, and on the feast of Saint Basil (January 1)

These two forms of the Divine Liturgy share a common structure, and differ primarily in the anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) that the priest uses to offer thanksgiving. Follow the links to learn more about each part of the service.

We prepare for the Liturgy
We enter the church
We listen to instruction and exhortation
The gifts are solemnly taken into the altar
Anaphora of Saint John Chrysostom Anaphora of Saint Basil the Great We offer our thanksgiving sacrifice to God
We receive gifts from God
We leave the Liturgy, giving thanks to God

The Divine Liturgy of Saint James, derived from the Liturgy of Jerusalem, is not used among Byzantine-Rite Slavs, though it is occasionally celebrated by Melkite Greek Catholics, due to the the historical links between that church and Jerusalem.

Development of the Divine Liturgy

In the time of the apostles, the Eucharist was celebrated in the homes of the faithful, sometimes at the end of a communal meal; but we have very little evidence of how this took place. We do, however, have the witness of Saint Paul to the "heart" of the service: the blessing of bread and wine, which became the Body and Blood of Christ, to be shared among the faithful.

By the middle of the second century, the Church celebrated the Eucharist early in the morning on Sundays, when it often concluded a nighttime prayer vigil. According to one early writer, the bishop (for it was the bishop who celebrated the Eucharist in those days) "gave thanks to the best of his ability"; then bread and wine were consecrated, and distributed to the faithful. These Eucharistic services sometimes took place at the tombs of the martyrs, which served as the first Christian altars.

Eventually, the thanksgiving prayers used in each part of the Church were written down, replacing the extempore prayers of individual bishops. Each major city had its own anaphora, often composed by or attributed to one of its notable bishops:

These prayers, once they attained their final form, made up the "core" of each Eucharistic liturgy. The surrounding parts have evolved gradually over the centuries, into the forms we have today.

Symbolic interpretation of the Divine Liturgy

Over time, purely practical acts in the Divine Liturgy were given a symbolic meaning: for example, the Small Entrance through the church with the Gospel book was seen as representing Jesus' ministry of preaching, while the altar could represent the tomb of Christ, or the heavenly altar. Some of these symbolic interpretations even made their way into the prayers of the Liturgy. From time to time, we will comment on these, but first priority should be given to the words of the Liturgy itself when seeking for its meaning.

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