"The Holies for the Holy"
An Overview of the Divine Liturgy
by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
THE DIVINE LITURGY takes the central place in the prayer-service of the day.
Indeed it is not only a prayer service, but it is the greatest of the Mysteries
(sacraments) of the Church, the mystery of the offering of the bloodless Sacrifice
and the communing of the faithful in the Body and Blood of Christ.
After the prayerful struggles of the whole day, after these prayerful labours,
there is laid before the believers the sacred mystical Table [In previous
chapters, Fr Michael has described the whole cycle of the daily church services,
and obviously sees the Liturgy as the crown of these, rather than as the one
service that we bother to attend, which has sadly become the practice of many
Orthodox Christians todayed.] She is manifestly the completion of
all the supplications, the invitation to the Lord's Table. And actually where
the Divine services are served throughout the day in accordance with the typicon
[the ecclesiastical rule], the Divine Liturgy is accepted in just
the same way as in the circle of their family supper is welcomed, even when
there is nothing for it agreeable or rich, by those who have been working after
their labours. How much then do those people lose, and all the more those parish
communities, for which all the divine services, even the Sunday ones, consist
solely of a Liturgy! It is not to be wondered at, when for these same people
mere attendance at the Liturgy seems in their eyes to be a duty and a labour....
For the greater part of the year the order of the Liturgy, as it is served
daily in the Orthodox Church, follows that of St John Chrysostom. Ten times
a year the Liturgy of St Basil the Great is celebrated. These ten days are as
follows: the five Sundays in Great Lent, the Great [Maundy] Thursday
and the Great Saturday of Passion Week, the eve of the Nativity of Christ and
the eve of Theophany, and the day of the commemoration of St Basil the Great,
1st January. In Great Lent, on Wednesdays and Fridays, on the Thursday of the
fifth week of the Great Fast and on the first three days of Passion Week, the
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated.
The first two orders [St John's and St Basil's] have an identical
structure. The difference between them consists solely in the broader compass,
in St Basil the Great's Liturgy, of the Eucharistic prayer which effects the
There exist innumerable expositions of the Liturgy, some from the holy Fathers
and others from simple, pious Orthodox Christians. As an example of the latter,
we have the "Meditations on the Divine Liturgy" by the Russian writer,
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852). In these expositions those who so wish
can gain a more detailed and deeper understanding of every moment of the sacred
rites. In the present survey of the Orthodox divine services, it is only possible
briefly to explain the course of the Liturgy and to mention the significance
of its most important parts.
The word, "Liturgy," means "common / general service."
Following the Mystical Supper itself, which was celebrated by the Lord Jesus
Christ with the disciples on the night in which He was betrayed, it is a sacramental
act of the closest union with Christ for those who believe in Him, an expression
of the unity between the body of the Church and her Head. The other services
can be served privately, or even in private accommodation, and without any connection
to other prayer services; the other services can even be read or chanted if
the necessity arises without a priest, according to the special order which
the typicon provides for such an occasion. The Liturgy can only be celebrated
by a canonically ordained Bishop or Presbyter on a consecrated Holy Table in
church, or, in exceptional cases, elsewhere on the specially consecrated antimension,
or liturgical cloth. It also requires a special preparation in prayer.
Three parts follow each other in the Liturgy: a) the proskomidi [prothesis],
b) the Liturgy of the Catechumens and c) the Liturgy of the Faithful.
The proskomidi is the liturgical "preparation" celebrated by the
priest. It takes part without the participation of the faithful; their participation
is expressed only by their offering the bread for the proskomidi, the prosphora.
The proskomidi consists in the preparation of the Holy Lamb on the diskos [paten]
and the wine in the Cup for their impending change of the elements. Around the
bread, the Holy Lamb, other, smaller particles are placed in honour of the Mother
of God and to commemorate all the assemblies of the saints, and for the propitiatory
remembrance of living Orthodox Christians and of the departed,"those
that have offered it, and those for whom they have offered it" [From
the Prayer of the Prothesis]. These particles are tipped into the
Cup after the communion of the faithful, at the end of the Liturgy.
The second part of the Liturgy is that for all the people, for the believing
"Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages"the
Priest exclaims. This exclamation raises our hearts and minds to the Kingdom
of the Most Holy Trinity, telling us that the Liturgy is the mystery of the
closest union with God, the mystery of the propitiation of the Heavenly Father
by His Son for the sins of people, the witness of the love of the Heavenly Father
towards the race of mankind, the mystery of the Holy Spirit, Who changes the
gifts that are offered into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Immediately after this exclamation, with the adjoined Great Supplication, or
Litany of Peace, the Church prays for the peace of the world, for the Church
and all the faithful. Immediately after there come a further two psalms, and
we hear in the chants as it were a gathering together into one of the liturgies
of the earthly and of the heavenly Church. At first in the psalms, "Bless
the Lord, O my soul" (Ps. 102), and "Praise the Lord, O my soul"
(Ps. 145), we hear a call to the earthly members of the Church to glorify God,
and after them, there is chanted a short, but complete, confession of the faith
in the Son of God; this is the chanting of "O Only-Begotten Son."
Therein there are contained all the chief dogmas concerning the Person of Jesus
Christ, namely that:
a) He is the Only-Begotten Son of God, and
b) the Word of God,
c) He is Eternal, immortal,
d) that He willed for the sake of our salvation to become man,
e) that His Mother Mary is the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin,
f) that He was united to man unalterably, for ever,
g) that He was crucified, though He was God,
h) that by death He trampled down death,
i) that he is One of the Holy Trinity,
j) that He is glorified equally with the Father and the Holy Spirit; and the
hymn ends with the evangelical cry, "save us."
Then we sing the praises of the blessed holy ones from the Gospels: "Blessed
are the poor in spirit... Blessed are they that mourn... Blessed are the meek...
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in the Heavens." According
to the typicon, between the
verses of the beatitudes, there are hymns from the canon of the saints of
the given day or from the canon of the feast, and a little later the troparions
and kontakions of the day. In this way, the Saints are called upon to Join in
the glorification with us. And the priest, coming out at this time for the Little
Entrance, even calls upon the Angels to join in this common glorification,
when he secretly pronounces the prayer, "O Master, Lord our God ... ordain
that with our entrance there may be an entrance of holy Angels ministering together
with us, and with us glorifying Thy goodness." Thus the earthly, the Saints
and the Angels are made ready and united for the meeting of the Lord, Who comes
for His earthly ministry. This manifestation of the Lord is signified by the
entrance with the Gospel Book, which we call the Little Entrance. The believers
reverently look upon the Gospel as if upon the coming of the Lord Himself, and
they joyously meet Him and cry out: "Come, let us worship and fall down
before Christ." The entrance into the sanctuary through the Royal Gates
should be experienced by the sacred ministers as if it were the entrance Into
a higher world, into the Kingdom of the glory of the Holy Trinity. The rest
of the course of the Liturgy is indeed a glorifying of the Trinity. It starts
with the solemn chanting of the "Thrice-Holy Hymn." The importance
of this moment is made clear from the priest's prayer: "O God, Who art
holy, Who restest in the holies, Who with thrice-holy voice art hymned by the
seraphim, and glorified by the cherubim, and worshipped by all the heavenly
host; ... do Thou Thyself, O Master, accept the Thrice-holy Hymn from the mouths
of us sinners also."
Then we hear a call to greater attention: "Wisdom! Let us attend!"
The reader intones the prokeimenon appointed for the day: this is verses from
the Old Testament Scripture, which are invested by us with a higher, New Testament
meaning. In the centre of the church the reader reads the Apostle [a lection
from the Acts of the Apostles or the Epistles]. After the threefold
chanting of the Alleluia (praise ye God!) the celebrant invites us to listen
to the holy Gospel. We hear the very words of the Lord Himself, as if we were
present when He spoke with the disciples and with the people. Following the
reading of the Gospel, then come the Litany of Fervent Supplication with its
threefold "Lord, have mercy," and the Litany for the Catechumens,
that is for those preparing for Baptism, which brings to an end the second part
of the Liturgy. From here on we transfer to the most important part, the Liturgy
of the Faithful.
Only the actual members of the Church are permitted to attend the Liturgy of
the Faithful. For this reason, the catechumens, those who are not yet baptized,
leave the church after the prayer said for them. Once and again the deacon pronounces
the supplicatory litany, to which the people respond with the chanting of "Lord,
have mercy;" this gives the priest the opportunity to prepare in prayer
for the rest of the sacramental service with the special prayers.
During the chanting of "Let us who mystically portray the Cherubim, the
Great Entrance is made, with the gifts prepared for the Eucharist. It consists
in the transferal of the gifts from the Table of Oblation [prothesis]
to the Holy Table or "Throne" through the Royal Gates. The serving
with the Angels, which distinguished the Little Entrance, is apparent again
with even greater majesty. The transfer of the gifts lifts up our minds to the
coming of the Lord of hosts Himself, at this moment those standing in the church
are called upon to fulfil an angelic ministry This is described in the Cherubim
Hymn: "Let us who mystically portray the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy
hymn unto the life-creating Trinity, lay aside all earthly care, that we may
receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by the angelic orders. Alleluia."
[The Russian has a note reminding us that the original Greek word for escorted
means borne on spearsthis refers to a ancient custom of bearing the Emperor
or a triumphant hero on a shield which was held aloft on spear pointstransl.]
The transfer of the gifts, which have been prepared for sanctification,
represents the laying of the Saviour in the tomb. At this point we must concentrate
upon those sacred remembrances of the things lived through on Great Friday and
on the Great Sabbath of Passion Week, so that, later, at the end of the Liturgy
we might rejoice in the Resurrection and the Ascension of the Lord. Now, as
he bears the paten and cup in and places them upon the Holy Table, the celebrant
prays using the hymns from those great days of Passion Week: "The noble
Joseph, taking Thine immaculate Body down from the Tree, and having wrapped
It in pure linen and spices, laid It for burial in a new tomb," "In
the grave bodily; in hades with Thy soul, though Thou wast God; in Paradise
with the thief; and on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit was Thou Who
fillest all things, O Christ the Uncircumscribable," "How life-giving,
how much more beautiful than Paradise, and truly more resplendent than any royal
palace proved Thy grave, the source of our resurrection, O Christ." [We
have put the complete texts of these hymns in, whereas Fr Michael had shortened
them trusting that his Russian language readers would know them.ed.]
The Royal Gates and the veil behind them are closed after the Great Entrance,
so that nothing should disturb the concentrated prayer which prepares us for
the most important moment of the Eucharist. We must pay especial attention to
the fact that the Church prepares us all for further participation in the sacred
mystery. She prepares us, first of all by the prayer petitions concerning the
offering of the precious gifts and for us, ourselves; and secondly She prepares
us by inspiring us with peace and with mutual love, employing in this those
two exclamations with have but one meaning: "Peace be unto all," and
"Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided." During these,
the priests kiss the veiled holy gifts and each other, greeting each other with
the words: "Christ is in our midst!" "He is and shall be!"
And thirdly, the Church prepares us for the mystery with the confession of the
Faith in the chanting of the Symbol of Faith [the Creed]. From
ancient times, it was laid down by the Church that all the faithful should know
the Symbol of Faith by heart, it being a saving mark of faith, which one must
always have with one. Before the Symbol of the Faith, there is an announcement
to the people: "The doors. The doors. In wisdom let us attend." Let
us guard the doors of the church against everything that is disorderly; on account
of the wisdom of God's mystery, let us, who are attending the Eucharist or are
offering the bloodless Sacrifice, also guard the doors of our soul against every
thought which is alien to the sacredness of the moment.
There is yet another call to heartfelt and reverent attention: "Let us
stand well. Let us stand with fear. Let us attend that we may offer the holy
oblation in peace." The faithful, being united, concentrated, cleansed
by their prayerful sighings, receive a blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity
in the words of the Apostle Paul: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with
you all." "Let us lift up our hearts."
It is after preparing us in such a way for the unfathomable sacred rite of
the universal, mystical and bloodless sacrifice, that the Church, finally, celebrates
the mystery of the offering of the Sacrifice. If the church has a peal of bells,
the Church announces the impending sacred rite with the ringing of the bell,
so that those of the faithful who are not at church can at that moment thank
the Lord. This ringing is called "On the It is Meet."
The priest prays the prolonged eucharistic (this literally means thanksgiving)
prayer during the chanting of "Meet and right it is to worship Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided," "Holy,
Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna
in the highest: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in
the highest," "We hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks to Thee,
O Lord, and we entreat Thee, O our God," and he pauses in this secret prayer
to intone the appointed exclamations in a loud voice. During the singing of
"We hymn Thee," the blessing of the Holy Gifts takes place: the Holy
Gifts arc changed in essence into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist
is an offering to God the Father, and therefore the supplications in that part
of the Liturgy, which falls between the Great Entrance and the end of the Eucharistic
Prayer, are addressed to God the Father. In this concentrated prayer, thanksgiving
and praise are offered and we express noetic contemplation of God's glory, we
bring to mind the creation of the world, the coming of the Son of God, His earthly
life, the Mystical Supper, the death upon the Cross, and the Resurrection, and
we raise up a prayer that the Holy Spirit might be sent down upon the Gifts
that have been set forth.
Immediately after the blessing of the Holy Gifts, there comes a thanksgiving
commemoration of the whole heavenly and earthly Church, "especially"
(that means beyond all compare) the All-immaculate Theotokos, and then the assemblies
of the Saints, and then there is a commemoration for the well-being and salvation
of all those close to us, and for the repose of those who have fallen asleep.
The Sacrifice has been offered. The Church again offers up doxology to the
Most Holy Trinity: "And grant us with one mouth and one heart to glorify
and hymn Thine all-honourable and majestic name, of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit," and She calls upon all who are praying the mercies
of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Experiencing a feeling of the special closeness of God to us, after the petitionary
litany with its response, "Grant this, O Lord," we joyfully express
before God our consciousness of our being adopted by grace as the sons of Him,
Who is our Heavenly Father: "And vouchsafe, O Master, that with boldness
and without condemnation we may dare to call upon Thee, the Heavenly God, as
Father" ... and we chant "Our Father."
There follows a secret prayer of thanksgiving by the priest, and then the exclamation:
"Let us attend. The Holies for the holy;"in other words the Holy
Gifts are for those who are worthy of them. This exclamation is proclaimed at
the approach of the time of the communion of the Holy Gifts. The people, though
the lips of the choir, answer: "One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ;"
the significance of these words is that we do not dare to call ourselves worthy
or holy. The veil is closed across the Royal Gates, and then the communion of
the clergy within the sanctuary takes place, as does the preparation of the
Cup for the communion of the lay people.
Just as at the Resurrection of Christ, the stone was rolled away from the door
of the Lord's tomb, and the Lord appeared to the Ointment-bearing Women and
to His disciples, so, making ready for the communion of the lay people, the
veil is pulled back and the Royal Gates opened, and the Risen Christ, our Pascha,
is revealed to the people. The Church invites us to joyously receive Christ
within ourselves with the words: "With fear of God, with faith [and love]
draw nigh." Those present, meeting with their gaze the One Who is Risen,
cry out: "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. God is the
Lord and hath appeared unto us." And in the sanctuary, at the completion
of the communion, they pronounce the paschal hymns: "Let us who have beheld
the Resurrection of Christ "Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem "O great
and most sacred Pascha, Christ; O wisdom and Word and Power of God! Grant that
we partake of Thee fully in the unwaning day of Thy Kingdom."
The communion of the lay people is thus: the Church calls all the faithful to
the communion of the Holy Mysteries. She expects us to participate at the Divine
Table on numerous occasions. For our own good, we must respond to her call. But
it is necessary that we take care that our communing might be as worthy as is
possible. For this, we must prepare spiritually, by repentance, by being at
peace with all, by strengthening ourselves in faith and in the fear of God,
preparing by prayerful participation in the divine services of that day, and
whenever possible, of the previous day, by the reading of the appointed canons
before Communion, to the Saviour, the Mother of God and the Guardian Angel, and
most especially by the heartfelt reading of the Canon before Communion and the
prayers attached to it.
It was not for a long time that the Risen Lord was seen to converse with the
Church. On the fortieth day after His Resurrection, He appeared to His disciples
for the last time, blessed them and they "worshipped Him." And now the
Church, directing the flock of Christ, calls upon it the blessing of God with
the words: "Save, O God, Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance." And
the faithful respond with a feeling of gratitude that they have accepted with
all their soul the benefactions of the Holy Trinity: "We have seen the true
Light. We have received the Heavenly Spirit. We have found the true Faith, in
worshipping the indivisible Trinity; for He hath saved us." The Church
strengthens us with the Lord's promise to be with us "always, now and ever,
and unto the ages of ages." Then, [as the deacon] "looks upon
us," the Holy Gifts are removed from the Holy Table to the Table of
Oblation after the priest says: "Be Thou exalted above the heavens, O God,
and Thy glory above all the earth." And thus they are hidden from our eyes.
The Church lay upon us that we should chant a thanksgiving for the communion of
the Holy Mysteries: "Fill my mouth with Thy praise, O Lord."
For the sanctification of partaking of Communion, for being united to, and
being filled with the highest joy in, the Lord, we pronounce a thanksgiving
litany, and the Church blesses us to leave the church with the exclamation,
"In peace let us depart," and with the Prayer behind the Ambon [the
long prayer at the end of the Liturgy said by the priest when he comes out of
the sanctuary, and stands below the steps of the ambon in the centre of the
churchtransl]. After the thrice repeated "Blessed be the name
of the Lord," at a festal Liturgy there is usually a homily [this is a
Russian practice, in many churches the homily or sermon follows straight after
the Gospel, so that it remains within the teaching part of the Liturgytransl.]
But if there is no homily, as is often the case on weekdays, those who have
being praying do not leave without a parting exhortation. In this exhortation,
the Church teaches us how to conduct ourselves at all times as Christians in our
relationship with God and with our close ones; the exhortation is the recitation
of Psalm 33, "I will bless the Lord at all times" [sadly often
omitted in present practice, or said during the communion of the clergy transl.]
He who has celebrated the Liturgy blesses the people with the words,
"The blessing of the Lord, and His mercy come upon us," and he
pronounces the dismissal of the Liturgy. The thanksgiving prayers after
Communion are then read, which all we who have received Communion should listen
to with attention and gratitude.
Thus the Lord's Supper is celebrated, handed down by Him to His disciples and
through them to the Church of Christ in all ages. Every moment of the Liturgy,
especially its most important part after the Cherubic Hymn, is in accordance
with the celebration of the Liturgy in the ancient Christian Church, as those
written records that have come down to us testify.
From Prayer in the World, by Fr. Michael Pomazansky. This was reprinted from The Shepherd,
Vol. XIX, No. 12 (August, 1999). Unfortunately this fine book is out of print.