The Orthodox Pages




Part 4      24th May 2007















































































































With our Last few talks, we have been looking at the Divine Liturgy and explaining what everything we do and say means. We saw what happens during the office of preparation which the Priest performs before the onset of the Liturgy and at our last meeting we started with the Divine Liturgy proper, and finished with the Little Entrance. Today we pick up again from the Little Entrance.
I mentioned that the Little Entrance is a central point in the Divine Liturgy. In times of Old this was the actual beginning of the Liturgy. This was the time when the Bishop entered the Church and his appearance was an image and type of Christ appearing to the world. The Priest lifting up the Gospel Book from the Holy Altar holds it to the height of his face. We mentioned before that the Holy Gospel is the image of Christ: it is the verbal image of Christ and always represents the very person of Christ. Thus the Priest holding the Gospel in front of his face shows the entrance of Christ into the temple. Before him goes a lit candle, which represents John the Baptist. Christ said of St. John: “He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.” (St John 5:35-37) The lit candle goes before Christ similar to St. John who came first to show the way and reveal Christ. The candle is thus saying “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is the first public showing of Christ to the multitudes. The Liturgy up to this point relied on the Old Testament prophecies to speak of the coming of Christ: now we have no more need of the Old Testament: Christ is now here in person. The Priest exits the Sanctuary from the North Door and comes and stands in the centre of the Church where he will say the following prayer silently:

“O Master and Lord our God, who stablished the heavenly orders and hosts of angels and archangels to minister unto Thy glory: Grant that the holy angels may enter with our entrance, to minister with us, and with us to glorify Thy goodness.
For unto Thee belong all glory, honour and worship, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.”

The Priest prays that with our Entrance into the Sanctuary, we may be accompanied with angels who will assist us in our ministry and glorify God with us; for as the angels were present in Bethlehem glorifying the New born Christ, so now they are present and glorifying God: Angels and men mingle with one another, for where the King is present, there his army also goes. (Lity of Theophany) The Priest will then bless the entrance into the Sanctuary saying: “Blessed is the entrance into the holiest, always, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.” Then holding up the Gospel book shall say aloud: “Wisdom. Stand steadfast.” Here we are told not only to be standing but also that our minds and hearts should be lifted and not to dwell on earthly things. Thus with our whole being standing upright we may be worthy to receive Christ who is the only Wisdom, the source and giver of Wisdom. The people respond with: “O come, let us worship and bow down before Christ. Save us, O Son of God, Thou who art risen from the dead, who sing to Thee, Alleluia.” With this, the Priest will enter the Sanctuary and place the Gospel on the Holy Altar. We have now entered the New Testament and so appropriately we now sing hymns dedicated to the New Testament feasts, to the Mother of God and the Saints who are witnesses of the New Testament.
While the choir sing the hymns, the Priest says the Prayer of the Thriceholy hymn in a low voice:
“O Holy God, who restest in the holies; unto whom the seraphim sing the thriceholy song; whom the cherubim glorify, and all the heavenly hosts adore; who didst bring into being all that exists; who didst create man in Thine image and likeness, and didst adorn him with Thine every gift; who givest wisdom and understanding to him that asketh, and art not wroth with the sinner, but dost grant repentance to salvation; who hast deemed us, Thine humble and unmeritable servants, worthy at this hour to stand before the glory of Thy Holy Altar, to bring unto Thee rightful worship and praise: accept, O Master, from the mouths of us sinners the thriceholy hymn, and visit us with Thy goodness. Pardon our offences, voluntary and involuntary. Sanctify our souls and bodies, and grant us to serve Thee in holiness, all the days of our life. By the prayers of the Mother of God, and of all the saints which have been well pleasing unto Thee since the world began.”
The choir is due to sing the Thriceholy Hymn or we can call it the angelic hymn, thus the Priest prays that grace be sent upon those who are to sing this hymn. He asks that their bodies and souls may be cleansed, that their sins be forgiven, and that they may worship him in holiness all the days of their life. When the choir has finished singing the hymns to the saints, the Priest will then say aloud the doxology to the prayer:
“For Thou our God art holy, and to Thee we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.”

The choir will now sing the Thriceholy Hymn: “O Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us.” The hymn was composed from two sources: firstly from the angelic hymn mentioned in the book of Isaiah. Describing the throne of God he says: “Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. The words Strong and Immortal belong to King David who in Psalm 42 says: “My soul thirsts for the strong and living God.” The Church joining these two sources and adding at the end: “Have mercy upon us” wished to show the harmony of the Old and New Testaments and also that angels and men form one Church, a single choir, because of the coming of Christ who was of both heaven and earth. This is why we sing this hymn after the bringing in and showing of the Book of the Gospels. St. German of Constantinople gives this interpretation of the Thriceholy Hymn: Holy God is the Father, Holy and Strong is the Son and Word, because his strength put in chains the devil, who had the power of death and gave us the life, the strength and the authority to tread him underfoot. Holy and Immortal the Holy Spirit the giver of life through whom the whole of creation is given life. It is said three times, because the three Holies are proper and fitting for each person of the Holy Trinity. Each Person is Holy, Strong and Immortal. During the singing of the Thriceholy Hymn, the Priest imitates the movements of the seraphim who flying around the throne of God continually cry to one another, with incessant voices, hymns of glory. He goes to the Prothesis glorifying the Lord who has come into the world saying:

“Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” He then goes to the Throne on High which we mentioned in our previous talk is found behind the holy Altar saying: “Blessed art Thou on the glorious throne of Thy kingdom, that sittest upon the cherubim, always, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.” With the Thriceholy hymn finished, it is now time for the Apostle and Gospel readings. The reader will first read the Prokhimenon for the reading. The word prokhimenon literally means the pre-texts. These are usually verses from the psalms and are used to introduce us to the mystery of the Word. They are prophetic sayings which foretell the presence of Christ and prepare us to hear the Word of God. After the reader says the first verse, the Priest will say aloud: “Let us give heed” in other words Let us pay attention, let us cast away all negligence and inattention and listen carefully to what is being said. After the second verse he says: “Wisdom”. Now he is reminding the faithful that they should call to mind the wisdom with which they should enter into the holy mysteries and attend to them. What is this wisdom? It is the sum of those thoughts which are in accord with the ceremony, which should occupy those full of faith when they behold and listen to the ceremonies and prayers, so that they are concerned with no purely human sentiment. Such is the wisdom of Christians, that is the meaning of the cry “Wisdom” which the Priest says many times to the faithful during the Liturgy. It is a reminder to collect our thoughts which are forever wandering on vain imaginings. It is a reminder to set aside all earthly cares and listen carefully so that our attendance is not in vain, so that we may benefit from what we are about to hear. The reader then announces the reading and again the Priest tells us to pay attention. Then follows the actual reading from the Apostle. But why do we read first from the Apostle and then the Gospel whereas historically the Gospels came first and then the Epistles of the Apostles? Because the Liturgy is a continual manifestation of the Lord. We saw with the Little Entrance His first appearance to the multitude, now with the readings we are about to receive a more perfect manifestation. The readings represent the time when Christ mingled with the crowd and made himself known not only by his own words, but also by that which he taught the Apostles in sending them to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. With the order of the readings, we wish to show the gradualness of his appearance: the Gospels are Christ’s own words and thus reveal his supreme manifestation and so are kept to the end. After the Apostle reading, the Choir sing the Alleluia which means “Praise the Lord”. Many Churches just sing a quick 3 Alleluias, but in times of old the Alleluia were complete Psalms with the Alleluia at the end of each verse sung by all the people.
But why do we sing the Alleluia at this moment. What follows immediately after the Alleluia is the Gospel reading and as we have mentioned before, the Gospel always represents the appearance of Christ in person. Christ with his presence brought joy into the world thus we sing Alleluia which is a joyous greeting to the Lord. The singing of the complete psalm was abolished long ago and was reduced to singing the Alleluia with 2 verses from the psalms. This is also an old observance which many Churches are tying to reintroduce back to the service. At our parish here, we have been following this rule for many years, not only because it is more correct, but also because before the Gospel reading the Priest should offer incense and singing the Alleluia with the verses gives him the time to do it. In Churches where they don’t sing the verses, the Priest either doesn’t bother to offer incense or he censes silently during the reading of the Apostle, which no matter how silently he censes, always disrupts the people’s attention from the reading. Is it important to cense before the Gospel? Yes! Before the start of the Liturgy the Priest offered incense which was to welcome the faithful into the house of the Lord. Now he offers incense so that we may receive in return spiritual enlightenment to understand the deeper meanings of the Gospel reading. Remember the Prayer at the blessing of the incense: “We offer incense unto thee, O Christ our God, for a sweetsmelling savour of spiritual fragrance, which do thou accept upon Thy most heavenly altar; and send down upon us the grace of Thy most Holy Spirit.” We need spiritual grace to understand the Gospels because we do not interpret the Gospels just literally with the face value of the words, hidden within the words are many meanings which only God reveals to spiritual people. We can read a passage from the Gospels hundreds of times and not see anything new in it, then when God opens our eyes we see the same passage as though for the first time and with a different meaning and are puzzled why we didn’t see it before. This is verified by the prayer before the Gospel which is said silently by the Priest:

“O Lord and lover of mankind, make the imperishable light of Thy divine knowledge to shine in our hearts; and open the eyes of our understanding that we may apprehend the preaching of Thy Gospel. Implant in us likewise awe of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling under feet all the lusts of the flesh we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing always such things as are pleasing in Thy sight.
For Thou art the enlightening of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thine eternal Father and Thine all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.”
It is dangerous to interpret the Gospels without spiritual understanding, without God first opening our eyes and our heart to apprehend the fuller meanings of his words. That is why today there are so many thousands of Christian denominations because each founder of these so called Christian churches interpreted the Gospels as he wanted to interpret them without his spiritual eyes being opened. As a safeguard we always interpret Scripture within the Church studying carefully what the enlightened fathers have to say for each word.
The Priest now ready to read the Gospel will say: “Wisdom. Stand steadfast. Let us hear the Holy Gospel. Peace unto all.” With the cry of Wisdom Stand steadfast, the Priest is telling us to be upright and alert, to raise our minds above what is earthly and concentrate all our attention on the Gospel which is full of Divine Wisdom. The Priest blesses the people saying Peace unto all. We mentioned before that without peace in our souls we cannot pray, without calmness of the thoughts we cannot concentrate on the task we have before us. Only inner peace can help us keep our mind and soul on prayer and only Christ can give us this inner peace which will prepare us to receive and understand the spiritual wisdom of the scriptures. During the Little Entrance, the Priest covered his face with the Gospel Book to reveal to the people the face of Christ. Now with the reading of the Gospel, the Priest lends his mouth to Christ the Word so that the faithful can hear his voice. St. German (Herman) of Constantinople writes: The Gospel is the presence of the Son of God which has appeared to us. Through the Gospel we see Christ in our midst. We hear him calling us to his kingdom. And because we see him and hear him with the senses of faith, for this very reason we see him clearer than those who saw him in the flesh but without faith. St John Chrysostom speaking on Christ’s saying: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (St Matthew 13:16-18”) says that Christ is not speaking of the external senses but of the inner senses. The Jews saw a blind man made whole and said: It is him, it is not him, it is someone like him, let us call his parents to see if it is him. They doubted what they saw. But we, who were not present, do not say it is him, it is not him, but that it is him. Do you understand that absence does no harm when there are eyes of faith and that there is no benefit being present when there are no eyes of faith. Because what did the Jews benefit by seeing? Absolutely nothing. We see clearer than them. The faithful especially during the Divine Liturgy, hear Christ and follow him for as Christ said concerning the Shepherd and his flock: “the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. (St John 10:4-5)
After the reading of the Gospel the Priest says the Great litany prayers which are also called the Common prayers. They are called Common because they are the last prayers said for both the faithful and the catechumen and at the end of these the catechumen are asked to depart from the Church. The prayers begin with:
“Let us all say with our whole soul, and with our whole mind, let us say.
O Almighty Lord, God of our fathers, we pray Thee, hear us and have mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O God, after Thy great goodness. We pray Thee, hear us and have mercy.”
The prayers continue mentioning the Archbishop and all the priesthood, for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, forgiveness and remission of the sins of the servants of God, and here we mention the names of those who have asked to be commemorated for the feast-day and all Orthodox Christians, the parishioners, the Church committee, those who give help and those who have dedicated gifts to the temple.
We pray for the blessed and ever-memorable founders of the Church and for all our departed fathers, brethren, and Orthodox Christians everywhere who have fallen asleep.
We pray for them that help and work in the church, for them that serve, and them that sing; and for all the people.
Immediately after the Common prayers we have the special prayers for the Catechumen. In our times, because we don’t have Catechumen like they did in times of old, and to save time, we rarely say these prayers. We only say them during Great Lent in the service of the Presanctified Liturgy.
The Priest will say:
“Catechumens, pray ye unto the Lord.
Let us, the faithful, pray for the catechumens.
That the Lord may have mercy upon them.
That He may instruct them in the word of truth.
That He may reveal unto them the gospel of righteousness.
That He may unite them to His Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Save, have mercy, help and preserve them, O God, by Thy grace.
Catechumens, bow your heads unto the Lord.”
And then this prayer:
“O Lord our God who dwellest on high, and dost look upon the lowly; who for the salvation of mankind didst send forth Thine Only-begotten Son and God, our Lord Jesus Christ: look upon Thy servants, the catechumens, who bow down their necks before Thee; and deem them worthy, at the appropriate time, of the washing of regeneration, of the remission of sins, of the garment of incorruption. Unite them to Thy Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; and number them among Thy chosen flock.
That they also with us may glorify Thy sublime and majestic Name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.”

During the period before Baptism the Church prepares the Catechumens to become her members. This period of instructions is called catechism. During the times of the Apostles this period was very short; usually just one talk like the sermon Apostle Peter gave on the day of Pentecost. After this time Catechism would usually last two or three years. Now because the Catechumens are not yet members of the Church and in a sense have not the freedom (boldness) before God, they need our support and love, so the Priest asks the Faithful to pray for them, that God may have mercy upon them and himself instruct them in the Word of Truth, to enlighten and reveal to them the Gospel of righteousness and to prepare them so that at the appropriate time, for their Baptism, they will be united as full members of the Orthodox Church.
After this prayer the Priest will ask the Catechumen to depart saying:
“As many as are catechumens depart. Catechumens depart. As many as are catechumens depart. Let not any of the catechumens remain.”
And there ends the Liturgy of the Catechumen and the Third part of the Liturgy begins called the Liturgy of the faithful.
The Priest unfolds the antiminsion. The antiminsion is a piece of cloth which has imprinted on it the Icon of Christ lying dead in the tomb similar to the Epitaphios. It is sealed and consecrated by the Bishop during the Consecration service of the Church and is in a way a portable Holy Table and with this we can serve the Liturgy in other places other than the permanent Holy Altar. It is kept folded on the Holy Altar under the Gospel Book and is unfolded as this time of the Liturgy. The Divine Eucharist is always served on this cloth even if the Holy Altar is consecrated because if any particles of the holy body should fall from the paten, they are more easily found on the antiminsion and if the priest should miss any they are still safe because they will be folded into the antiminsion at the end.
With the Antiminsion unfolded the Priest calls the faithful to pray:
“As many as are faithful,
Again and again in peace, let us pray unto the Lord.
Succour, save, have mercy and preserve us, O God, by Thy grace.

And the Priest will read the first of two prayers for the faithful
“We give thanks unto Thee, O Lord God of hosts, who hast accounted us worthy also now to stand before Thy Holy Altar and to bow down and beseech Thy compassions for our sins and the errors of the people. Accept, O God, our prayer; make us to become worthy to offer unto Thee prayers and supplications, and the bloodless sacrifice for all Thy people: and enable us, whom Thou hast appointed to this Thy ministry, by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, to call upon Thee, at all times and in every place, without impediment and without condemnation, with a clear testimony of our conscience, so that hearing us Thou mayest be gracious unto us in the multitude of Thy goodness.
For unto Thee belong all glory, honour and worship, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.”

The Priest thanks the Lord for accounting him worthy to stand before him and pray for his sins and for sins of the people and then prays that the Lord make him worthy to offer the Bloodless Sacrifice. This first prayer of the faithful is in fact more for the Priest than for the faithful. It is to prepare him for the awesome mystery of the Divine Eucharist that is to follow, but the faithful are called to share in this preparation and pray with the Priest that God may account him worthy for his sacred ministry. It is taken for granted that the Priest must be pure to offer the Bloodless Sacrifice. St. Theognostos says that: “for the Priest it is required an angelic order and pureness, for if he mixes darkness with the light and the offensive odour with myrrh, he is sure to inherit the woe and eternal damnation.” St John Chrysostom says that the Priest’s soul must be purer than the rays of the sun: when he invokes the Holy Spirit and offers that awful sacrifice – where shall we rank him? What purity and what piety shall we demand of him? Consider how spotless the hands be that administer these things, how holy the tongue that utters these words. Ought anyone to have a purer and holier soul than one who is to welcome this great Spirit?” But a Priest is still a man with a wife and children, and takes part in public life. He has all the problems a normal man has plus the problems of his flock so how can he live up to the purity that is expected of him? What ultimately makes him worthy is his humility by recognizing and confessing his unworthiness, by realizing that everyone is higher and holier than himself, and by remembering what Abraham said: “Now I have begun to speak to the Lord, and I am but earth and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27) On the subject of the Priest humility, we shall see in more detail next week with the prayer before the Great Entrance.
The Priest will again say:
“Again and again in peace, let us pray unto the Lord.
Succour, save, have mercy and preserve us, O God, by Thy grace. Wisdom.”
And then recites the Second Prayer of the Faithful:
“Again and many times, we bow down before Thee and pray to Thee, who art good and lovest mankind, that Thou wouldst look upon our prayer and cleanse our souls and bodies from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit; and grant us to stand guiltless and without condemnation before Thy Holy Altar. Grant also, O God, to them that pray with us, an increase of life, and of faith, and of spiritual understanding. Grant unto them that for evermore worshipping Thee in fear and love, to partake, without guilt and without condemnation, of Thy Holy Mysteries, and to be accounted worthy of Thy heavenly kingdom.
That being ever guarded by Thy might we may give glory to Thee, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.”
As we approach closer to the time of the consecration and Holy Communion, we feel that we must be spotless so that we can receive Christ. Humbly we acknowledge that we cannot by our own efforts cleanse ourselves, thus we beseech God to cleanse our souls and bodies from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, but this is not enough to approach the Holy Mysteries without condemnation, we must approach worshipping God with faith fear and love for when we have these things we approach in an orderly fashion showing that we are conscious of the great gift of life we are about to freely receive. If we approach disorderly as many do, noisily, pushing and stepping on each others toes, this shows great madness and contempt of the Holy Mysteries and worthy of condemnation. And here we shall finish for this week and start next week with the Cherubic Hymn and the Great Entrance.