What is the Divine Liturgy?

The totality of the wondrous events performed by God, in order to bring man after his disobedience back to His house and make him His own once more, is called divine economy or dispensation: ‘The divine economy of our God and Savior is the raising up of man from his fallen state and his return from the alienation produced by his disobedience to intimacy with God’ (St Basil).

This reality of our salvation in Christ is what we experience at every Divine Liturgy, for which we give thanks to God: ‘The awesome Mysteries which are performed at every assembly of the faithful and which offer salvation in abundance are called the Eucharist [‘thanksgiving’] because they consist of the recollection of many  benefactions, and reveal to us the culmination of divine providence’ (St John Chrysostom). The Divine Liturgy is the sacramental re-living of these things and the ‘recapitulation of the entire divine economy’. That is why at the end of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the celebrant says: “The Mystery of Your dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected.’

The mystery of the divine economy was made manifest at the same time as man’s disobedience. The Master who loves mankind ‘at once saw the fall and the magnitude of the wound, and hastened to treat the wound so that it would not grow and turn into an incurable injury…spurred on by His love, not for one moment did He cease to provide for man’ (Chrysostom). Through wonderful deeds and prophetic words, God prepared man to partake in the fullness of life and love.

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p. 15)

Let us Lift Up Our Hearts

Let us lift up our hearts.

We lift them up unto the Lord.

(From the Divine Liturgy)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem writing in the 4th Century describes a portion of the Divine Liturgy which is basically the same as we Orthodox are still doing today.

After the priest cries out, “Lift up your hearts.”

For truly that awe-filled hour it is necessary to have our hearts up toward the Lord, and not below with regard to the earth and earthly activities. For this reason the priest exhorts you with authority in that hour to leave behind all everyday cares and household worries and to have your hearts in heaven with the God who is the lover of humanity. Next, you answer, “We have lifted them to the Lord,” having made by this your agreement with him according to what you confessed. But let not such a one enter who with the mouth says, “We have lifted them up to the Lord,” but whose thoughts in the mind are focused on everyday cares. Always, then, keep God in mind! But if, on account of human weakness, you are not able to do this, try to do it especially in that hour. (Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, p. 123)

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim … now lay aside all earthly cares as we receive the King of All who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.  (Cherubimic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy)

The Purpose of the Liturgy

“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”

Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp. 227-228)

Thanksgiving and Ascetical Thinking

Every week in Orthodox churches in which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, we give thanks to God.  Eucharist – the word we use to refer to Communion – is the Greek work for thanksgiving.  Every Liturgy is thus a thanksgiving service.  That is the primary purpose of the Liturgy – it is how we Christians give thanks to God.  We assemble together exactly for the purpose of celebrating our thanksgiving, every week, not just once each year.  For us Orthodox thanksgiving is really a way of life, not a holiday we do one day in November.  Our country’s thanksgiving holiday is just another chance for us to give thanks to God.

A eucharistic ethos means, above all, using natural resources with thankfulness, offering them back to God. Such an attitude is incompatible with wastefulness. Similarly, fasting and other ascetic practices make us recognize even the simplest of foods and other creature comforts as gifts, provided to satisfy our needs. They are not ours to abuse and waste just so long as we can pay for them.

We worship as a community, not as individuals; so a liturgical ethos is also one of sharing. Long before the earth was seen as a whole from space, the Church knew that we stand before God together, and that we hold in common the earthly blessings that He has given to mankind and all creatures. “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs,” Saint John Chrysostom reminds us.

This principle, applied to the whole range of natural resources, is particularly relevant because the global environment is squeezed on two sides: by the over-consumption, greed and waste of the affluent, and by the pressing needs of the poor, often forced to deplete the land around them for the sake of food or fuel in short term. (Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff, “‘Thine Own of Thine Own’ Orthodoxy and Ecology,” Orthodoxy and Ecology Resource Book, p. 15)

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls . . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord. (Petitions from the Divine Liturgy)

St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of North America comments:

Therefore the angels at His very birth already sing “on earth peace, good will toward men.” But perhaps you might ask — where is peace on earth, since from the coming of Christ until this day we see conflicts and wars; when at the present time one nation rises against another and one kingdom against another; when even now discord, hostility, and animosity are seen so often among people?

Where are we to look for peace, which was brought and left by Christ (cf. John 14:27)? “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains”; “all nations will stream toward it” “and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” “and they will not train for war again” (Is. 2:2, 4); “every man shall sit under his own vine undisturbed” (Mic. 4:4). This kingdom of peace on earth, which was foretold by the Prophets of the Old Testament, is indeed the Church of Christ; and it is in it [the Church] that peace should be sought. Here man is given peace with God, since in the mysteries he is purified from sin and becomes a child of the Lord, pleasant to Him. Here also in the services offered to God, in the mysteries, in the order and life of the Church, a Christian draws peace and delight and calmness for his heart.

The nature of man is transformed and renewed, and into his meek, gentle, truly humble, merciful, and loving soul comes the God of peace and love. And a Christian then experiences the heavenly bliss of which there is nothing higher on earth. No troubles or sufferings of any kind can overshadow this blissful peace in a Christian. On the contrary, we know from the history of the Church of Christ that holy men even rejoiced in suffering and boasted in sorrows, captivity and prisons, deserts and dens of the wicked. Amidst all deprivations they were placid and calm, perhaps more so than people who live with all the comforts and prosperity ever feel. They are not afraid of death itself; they calmly expect its approach and depart to the Lord in peace. Peace is dispersed everywhere in the Church of Christ.

Here people pray for peace in the whole world, for the unity of all; here all call one another brethren, and help one another; here everybody is loved, and even enemies are forgiven and cared for. And when Christians listen to the voice of the Church and live according to its commands, then they truly have peace and love.  (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 453-471)

This Life and This World Are Godly

“In receiving the gifts of God and willingly offering them back to him, we are blessed to participate in both heaven and earth, in a mode of ordered liturgical existence. In this way, we are ourselves offered up in order to perform liturgy, by preserving and participating in all that is ‘good‘ (Gen. 1:31). ‘It is this world  (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be.’  With these words Fr. Schmemman expressed that this world is not merely a dwelling place for humanity, but an integral part of humanity’s aspiration towards transfiguration.

Man receives both ‘this world’ and ‘this life’ to be offered up and transfigured. In this way, mankind may truly become human. This offering of one’s self and the world is the purpose of mankind, which is fully realized and expressed in the incarnation of the Word of God himself.”   (Bishop John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 14-15)

“Let Us Depart in Peace”

As the Divine Liturgy is coming to its conclusion, the Priest says, “Let Us Depart in Peace.”   Like in so many other things he says in the Liturgy, the priest is speaking to the congregation, not to God.  It is a continued part of the dialogue between the priest and the people as they speak antiphonally on the way.    The words echo those of St. Simeon the God Receiver who came into the Jerusalem Temple at the very moment the 40 day old Jesus was brought there by His parents.  He saw the salvation of God and was ready to depart.  So too all who have participated in the Liturgy and received Holy Communion have seen the salvation of God and are ready to depart, not from the world, but into it.

  In the book, The Living God (p. 92) we find this explanation:

“Then the priest sends us out into the world, just as Christ sent His apostles: “Let us depart in peace.” We Christians, as communicants, become responsible for radiating the presence of God in the world. Through grace, God grants us the light which shone from the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us ask Him to teach us to transmit this divine Light to mankind and to the whole earth: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15).

Be Nourished by the Eucharist of Love

“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (J0hn 6:55-58)

[St.] Isaac’s use of the symbolism of wine and inebriation is sometimes transformed into a Eucharistic symbolism which is characteristic of the Syriac tradition from [St.] Ephrem onwards. According to Isaac, love is food and drink, bread and wine, and these are at every hour given to those who love God:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. ’He that eateth of this bread,’ he says, ’which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.’ Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love which is Jesus! He who eats love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness saying, ’God is love’…Love is the kingdom where the Lord mystically promises his disciples [they will] eat in his kingdom.

For when we hear him say, ’Ye shall eat and drink at the table of  my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a man. This is the wine ’which maketh glad the heart of a man.’ Blessed is he who partakes of this wine!

Licentious men have drunk this wine and become chaste;

sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling;

drunkards have drunk this wine, and become fasters;

the rich have drunk it and desired poverty;

the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope;

the sick have drunk it and become strong;

the unlearned have taken it and become wise.”

(Hilarion AlfeyevThe Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, page 255-256)

Blessed is the Kingdom

“The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God. To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the ‘pearl of great price’ for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Worship, Vol. 2, pp 152-153)

In All Circumstances Giving Thanks

The Gospel lesson of Luke 17:12-19 –

Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner? And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.

As God’s own children, we are to “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  Yet, we often need to be reminded to thank family, friends, co-workers, those who serve us and those who love us.  “Thank you” does not automatically flow from the hearts of many Christians even when others are kind to them.  And, God who constantly showers us with gifts of life, love, the world, is often taken for granted and we do not have the constant thankful and grateful hearts which we should have for our Creator.

 “Parents always want their children to be happy, content, and thankful to them for all their work and sacrifice. So when they see their children in a bad mood and unthankful, they’re saddened. It’s the same with our Heavenly Father. He has given us everything, but we are unsatisfied and gloomy. Instead of thanksgiving and praising God for everything, we only express our thankfulness with our lips, and our hearts remain cold. Joy is thankfulness, and when we are joyful, that is the best expression of thanks we can offer the Lord, Who delivers us from sorrow and sin.” (Ana Smiljanic in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, p 97)

Every Divine Liturgy is a Eucharistic Liturgy – our thanksgiving to God.  Every Sunday we gather together exactly to give thanks to God for all things.  We should come to the Liturgy with joy and rejoice throughout the Liturgy, for this is our communal thanksgiving to the Holy Trinity for creating us, sustaining us, and redeeming us.   The Divine Liturgy is not the time for our personal petitions to God, it is rather the time for us to join our fellow Christians in giving thanks to God.