Understanding Orthodox Christian Worship at St Nicholas Church
Each Saturday evening we prepare for the Lord’s Day by gathering for prayer at 6:00 PM. This service lasts a little under an hour. Like the Jewish day, the Orthodox Christian day begins in the evening (Genesis 1:23) and so our ‘Sunday’ begins on Saturday night. The word vespers comes from the Greek for evening and our vespers’ services bring to mind the evening sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. The service begins with the church in partial darkness to symbolize the twilight between the Lord’s Sabbath and the Day of the New Creation. Each Lord’s Day service commemorates Christ’s resurrection and is a ‘little Easter’ or Pascha as we call it. Our resurrection vespers begins with a call to prayer and then a rhythmical reading of Septuagint Psalm 103 (i.e Masoretic Psalm 104). This psalm recalls the story of creation from light, the angels, the creation of the earth, birds and fish, to mammals and human beings. It shows us our place in the created world. We then have a series of prayers which fulfill our obligations to intercede for the Body of Christ, our nation, and neighbors (1 Timothy 2:1-3). We also pray especially for the sick, travelers, and those who are suffering for Christ. Finally we call to remembrance the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints who have gone before us and offer our lives and those of all Christians to Christ our God. We call the Virgin Mary here Theotokos. This is a technical Greek word that means ‘God-bearer’ or ‘Mother of God’ because the Child of her body is truly God from conception. These prayers are called the Great Litany.
After these prayers it is our custom to read the first eight psalms since traditionally the entire Book of Psalms would be read weekly. Portions of the Psalter are called Kathisma which is a Greek word that suggests sitting. While we listen to the Psalms we may sit and rest. Following the Psalms we pray briefly again to focus our minds and then we enter the heart of our evening worship ( i.e. the Little Litany). The priest will put on his full vestments and begin a great censing which represents the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:4) and recalls the evening sacrifice of incense in the Jerusalem temple (Septuagint Psalm 140:2). While this is happening the chanters will be singing Septuagint Psalms 140.
After the chanters have completed those psalms, they will then sing verses from Septuagint Psalms 129 and 116 (Masoretic 130; 117) with short hymns inserted between them. The first group of these hymns will be about Christ’s resurrection. These hymns are taken from the Book of Eight Tones. Many of these hymns were used in the Jerusalem Church by the fourth century and they were edited by St. John of Damascus (675-749 AD). Each week we ‘change’ tone. The Tonal system is designed to unite music and doctrine in such a way that worshippers can respond to the message of the Gospel according to the full range of human emotion. Sometimes our response will be joyful, sometimes full of confidence, and sometimes full of sweetness or wonder. Other times, however, we respond to the Gospel as people who have failed to live up to the teachings of Christ or people who face sadness and disappointment with the ways of the world. The tonal system allows Orthodox Christians throughout the world to experience these emotional responses to Christ in communion with each other even though we are separated by language and geographical distances. The second group of hymns inserted between psalm verses concerns the Feast or Saint’s day we are commemorating according to the date of the calendar. These hymns will be in the Tone that best suits the message of the saint or feast.
When these hymns have been sung the priest and altar servers will exit out of the altar area through the side or ‘angel’ doors. The priest will normally be carrying the censor but on great feasts he will carry the Gospel Book. He is preceded by the altar servers who are carrying candles. The priest blesses the entrance into the altar and we sing the hymn “Gladsome Light”. This hymn is the oldest non-Biblical song in Christian worship and dates from before the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Its singing marks the full separation of twilight from evening as we pass completely from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. The Church is now completely lit.
The choir next begins to sing “The Lord is King” (Septuagint Psalm 92) which is called a prokeimenon or a verse announcing a Biblical reading. If the calendar calls for an Old Testament reading, it follows at this time. We next have a series of prayers for the Church as a whole, for our parish in particular including our departed loved ones, and for ourselves. Our prayers for ourselves focus on asking God’s grace that we may be preserved from sin and present ourselves blameless at the Last Judgment (Gal 2:2). The choir will next sing the Aposticha, or hymns after the verses (apo-after; stichei– verses). These are resurrection hymns following verses from Septuagint Psalm 92. Immediately the choir sings St Simeon’s Prayer (Luke 2:29-32) expressing our gratitude in seeing our Savior. The entire congregation now says the Trisagion Prayers. The word Trisagion comes from the Greek and means Thrice Holy. These prayers are to all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). The choir immediately sings the appointed troparia or dismissal hymns. The first of these hymns is almost always a Resurrection anthem that sums up the theme of the Tone of the week. It is repeated during Orthros (Morning Prayers) and the Divine Liturgy the next day. It is followed by a hymn which praises the incarnation of our Lord from the flesh of the Virgin Mary. Together these meditations on resurrection and incarnation prepare us for Holy Communion. The priest and congregation sing a dismissal dialog and then we go up towards the altar area to venerate the Cross and receive the priest’s blessing.
Each Wednesday evening we celebrate a less elaborate vespers service that lasts about thirty minutes. During Lent we celebrate a combination vespers and communion service on Wednesday evenings called the Presanctified Liturgy which lasts a little over an hour. These services, like all evening services at St Nicholas begin at 6:00 PM.
Orthros and the Service of Preparation
The word Orthros comes from a Greek root that means ‘getting up’. These are our Morning Prayers or Matins and they allow us to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and prepare for Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion. Each Sunday morning Orthros begins at 9:00 AM and lasts about an hour. The Service of Preparation either takes place before Orthros or during it. The Preparation Service is practically concerned with turning a loaf of leavened bread baked by members of the congregation into a form where it can be used for Holy Communion. We are also sometimes blessed at St Nicholas by having locally prepared wine for our Communion. The Proskomide (Liturgy of Preparation) is a service that defines what the Body of Christ is and shows how our Lord’s birth, death, burial, and resurrection brought us salvation. The bread which will become the Body of Christ not only commemorates our Lord (the largest portion of bread is called the Lamb) but also all the members of the Church. This includes famous saints like the Virgin Mary, the Angels, Old Testament Prophets, the human Ancestors of Christ, New Testament saints like St John the Baptist, St Joseph, and St Symeon, the Apostles, Martyrs, Teachers, Miracle Workers, Healers, and great Monastics. However, it also includes all the people who are being prayed for including our bishop, the members of our parish, various people in need, and our beloved dead. Holy Communion unites us all with the Lord Jesus and His entire Body. If you would like Fr. John to commemorate you or your loved ones during the Service of Preparation please contact him before Orthros begins.
Orthros begins with the Trisagion prayers and petitions for our civil authorities. The priest censes the altar area, the bread and wine which will become the Body and Blood of Christ, and all the people in the temple to prepare everything and everybody for the spiritual work of the coming day. Symbolically Orthros begins as the darkness of night is giving way to the dawn of a new day. On Sundays this especially reminds us of the hours just before Christ’s resurrection and the joy of the His disciples in discovering the empty tomb and the message of the angel. The chanter reminds us of the angel’s words at Christ’s birth and then reads the Six Psalms. These moving poems recall the believing soul’s experience of death and the hope of resurrection. While the chanter is reading, the priest silently prays for God’s blessing on himself and all the congregation. When the Psalms are ended, the choir offers glory to God and then we pray the Great Litany for the well-being of ourselves, the Church throughout the world, our nation and all nations, the earth, and those suffering or in danger especially those suffering for the sake of the Gospel. We conclude the litany by giving ourselves and each other into the care of our Lord Jesus Christ our true God.
The choir then sings “God is the Lord” in the tone of the week. This hymn affirms that our God and no other God possesses the fulness of Divinity and that He has revealed Himself to us. The choir then sings the resurrection hymn of the tone, followed by the hymn to the feast or saint of the day if appropriate, and then concludes with the ‘Theotokian‘ which praises the incarnation of Christ.
The chanter will then read the kathismata which are meditations on Septuagint Psalms interpreted through the theme of the tone of the week. The choir then sings the Evlogeteria or Blessings which recall the joy of the women disciples at discovering Christ’s resurrection. It is patterned as a response to Psalm 118. Following a short petition, a chanter will read the anavathmoi or Songs of Ascent which are meditations on Psalms which prepared the priests and Levites for worship in the temple of Jerusalem.
We then move into the central event of Orthros, the reading of the Resurrection Gospel. The choir sings a portion of the Psalms which vary according to the tone of the week and the priest prays that we will experience the full impact of the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. It is the custom of our Archdiocese for the priest to read the Resurrection Gospel from the right side of the altar since that is how it is done in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Following the Gospel reading the altar servers exit through the ‘angel’ doors with candles while the chanter exclaims that we have “beheld the Resurrection” of our Lord Jesus and know that this joyous miracle has occurred because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Following this prayer, Septuagint Psalm 50 is them chanted, offering us an opportunity to embrace the Resurrection with repentance. The people then come forward to venerate the Gospel Book which is held by the priest and the center or ‘Royal Door’ of the iconostasis..As the altar servers re-enter the altar area through the ‘angel’ doors, the chanters sing the troparia of repentance connecting the forgiveness of our sins with the power of Christ’s conquest of death. The priest then begins the ‘intercessions’ which call for the prayers of particular saints which are important to the Church.
We now begin the next phase of Orthros with the chanter reading from the Synaxarion, which gathers (synaxis in Greek) the stories of the saints for each day of the year. We also hear the kontakion of the tone of the week which is a short poetic reflection on Christ’s resurrection. The choir will then begin to sing the katavasias. We do not not only go up to God as in the Songs of Ascent; God must also come down to us and katavasia is the Greek word for descending especially into the realm of death. The katavasias are based on the so called Biblical Odes or songs of Moses, Hannah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Isaiah, the Hebrew Children in Septuagint Daniel, Mary the Theotokos, and Zachariah the father of John the Baptist. They poetically prophecy the descent of the Son of God into the womb of the Theotokos and into the earth at His burial. The Incarnation and the Burial of Christ are connected in that each seems to be a diminution of Christ’s Divinity but each is a necessary preamble for the revelation of His Godhood.
The Divine Liturgy
The word liturgy means common work or common action. The Divine Liturgy is the common work of the Orthodox Church. It is the official action of the Church formally gathered together as the chosen People of God. The word church, as we remember, means a gathering or assembly of people specifically chosen and called apart to perform a particular task.
The Divine Liturgy is the common action of Orthodox Christians officially gathered to constitute the Orthodox Church. It is the action of the Church assembled by God in order to be together in one community to worship, to pray, to sing, to hear God’s Word, to be instructed in God’s commandments, to offer itself with thanksgiving in Christ to God the Father, and to have the living experience of God’s eternal kingdom through communion with the same Christ Who is present in his people by the Holy Spirit.
The Divine Liturgy is always done by Orthodox Christians on the Lord’s Day which is Sunday, the “day after Sabbath” which is symbolic of the first day of creation and the last day — or as it is called in Holy Tradition, the eighth day — of the Kingdom of God. This is the day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, the day of God’s judgment and victory predicted by the prophets, the Day of the Lord which inaugurates the presence and the power of the “kingdom to come” already now within the life of this present world.
The Divine Liturgy is also celebrated by the Church on special feast days. It is usually celebrated daily in monasteries, and in some large cathedrals and parish churches, with the exception of the week days of Great Lent when it is not served because of its paschal character.
As the common action of the People of God, the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated only once on any given day in an Orthodox Christian community. All of the members of the Church must be gathered together with their pastor in one place at one time. This includes even small children and infants who participate fully in the communion of the liturgy from the day of their entrance into the Church through baptism and chrismation. Always everyone, always together. This is the traditional expression of the Orthodox Church about the Divine Liturgy.
Because of its common character, the Divine Liturgy may never be celebrated privately by the clergy alone. It may never be served just for some and not for others, but for all. It may never be served merely for some private purposes or some specific or exclusive intentions. Thus there may be, and usually are, special petitions at the Divine Liturgy for the sick or the departed, or for some very particular purposes or projects, but there is never a Divine Liturgy which is done exclusively for private individuals or specific isolated purposes or intentions. The Divine Liturgy is always “on behalf of all and for all.”
Because the Divine Liturgy exists for no other reason than to be the official all-inclusive act of prayer, worship, teaching, and communion of the entire Church in heaven and on earth, it may not be considered merely as one devotion among many, not even the highest or the greatest. The Divine Liturgy is not an act of personal piety. It is not a prayer service. It is not merely one of the sacraments. The Divine Liturgy is the one common sacrament of the very being of the Church Itself. It is the one sacramental manifestation of the essence of the Church as the Community of God in heaven and on earth. It is the one unique sacramental revelation of the Church as the mystical Body and Bride of Christ.
As the central mystical action of the whole church, the Divine Liturgy is always resurrectional in spirit. It is always the manifestation to his people of the Risen Christ. It is always an outpouring of the life-creating Spirit. It is always communion with God the Father. The Divine Liturgy, therefore, is never mournful or penitential. It is never the expression of the darkness and death of this world. It is always the expression and the experience of the eternal life of the Kingdom of the Blessed Trinity.
The Divine Liturgy celebrated by the Orthodox Church is called the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It is a shorter liturgy than the so-called Liturgy of St. Basil the Great that is used only ten times during the Church Year. These two liturgies probably received their present form after the ninth century. It is not the case that they were written exactly as they now stand by the saints whose names they carry. It is quite certain, however, that the eucharistic prayers of each of these liturgies were formulated as early as the fourth and fifth centuries when these saints lived and worked in the Church.
The Divine Liturgy has two main parts. The first part is the gathering, called the synaxis. It has its origin in the synagogue gatherings of the Old Testament, and is centered in the proclamation and meditation of the Word of God. The second part of the Divine Liturgy is the eucharistic sacrifice. It has its origin in the Old Testament temple worship, the priestly sacrifices of the People of God; and in the central saving event of the Old Testament, the Passover (Pascha).
In the New Testament Church Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, and it is the Christian gospels and apostolic writings which are proclaimed and meditated at the first part of the Divine Liturgy. And in the New Testament Church, the central saving event is the one perfect, eternal and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the one great High Priest who is also the Lamb of God slain for the salvation of the world, the New Passover. At the Divine Liturgy the faithful Christians participate in the voluntary self-offering of Christ to the Father, accomplished once and for all upon the Cross by the power of the Holy Spirit. In and through this unique sacrifice of Christ, the faithful Christians receive Holy Communion with God.
For centuries it was the practice of the Church to admit all persons to the first part of the Divine Liturgy, while reserving the second part strictly for those who were formally committed to Christ through baptism and chrismation in the Church. Non-baptized persons were not permitted even to witness the offering and receiving of Holy Communion by the faithful Christians. Thus the first part of the Divine Liturgy came to be called the Liturgy of the Catechumens, that is, the liturgy of those who were receiving instructions in the Christian Faith in order to become members of the Church through baptism and chrismation. It also came to be called, for obvious reasons, the Liturgy of the Word. The second part of the Divine Liturgy came to be called the Liturgy of the Faithful.
Although it is generally the practice in the Orthodox Church today to allow non-Orthodox Christians, and even non-Christians, to witness the Liturgy of the Faithful, it is still the practice to reserve actual participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion only to members of the Orthodox Church who are fully committed to the life and teachings of the Orthodox Faith as preserved, proclaimed and practiced by the Church throughout its history.
In the commentary on the Divine Liturgy which follows, we will concentrate our attention on what happens to the Church at its “common action.” By doing this we will attempt to penetrate the fundamental and essential meaning of the liturgy for man, his life and his world. This will be a definite departure from the interpretation of the Divine Liturgy which treats the service as if it were a drama enacted by the clergy and “attended” by the people, in which each part stands for some aspect of Christ’s life and work. (e.g., the prothesis stands for Christ’s birth, the small entrance for the beginning of his public ministry, the gospel for his preaching, the great entrance for Palm Sunday, etc.) This latter type of interpretation of the Divine Liturgy is an invention, which, although perhaps interesting and inspiring for some, is nevertheless completely alien to the genuine meaning and purpose of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church.