Orthodox Worship As A School Of Theology: Part Five

by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

Lecture delivered at the Kiev Theological Academy on September 20, 2002

The Divine Liturgy

Some of my non-Orthodox friends complain that the Orthodox Liturgy is too long, saying

“why do you have to stretch out the Eucharist when you can serve it in half an hour?”

My experience of the Liturgy is altogether different: two hours are never enough for me, since the time goes by so quickly and the dismissal comes too soon. It is always difficult to leave the altar and to descend from the heavens to earth, from the experience of the sublime to the cares of this world. There is a story about a priest in Saint-Petersburg at the end of the 19th century who had a small room above the church’s sanctuary. After serving Liturgy he would climb into this room by means of a ladder which he would then take with him. Only after two or three hours would he return to the church to talk with people.

Although the majority of clergy in the 21st century cannot allow themselves this luxury, the reasons for this priest’s desire to prolong the sweetness of communion with God and the unearthly stillness and calm that enter the soul while serving the Liturgy, are wholly understandable.

The Liturgy is a “common act”, and without doubt demands the presence and active participation of the laity. Orthodox practice knows of no private Liturgies which priests might serve by themselves, as is very widespread in the Catholic Church. The entire structure of the Liturgy also presupposes the presence of a congregation which, together with the priest, is also a celebrant of the Liturgy. This is a congregation not of spectators, but of participants, who join in communion of the Mysteries of Christ. Many have rightly remarked (including Fr Alexander Schmemann, with special emphasis) that the order of the Liturgy of the Faithful does not at all presuppose the presence of believers who do not take communion. Contemporary practice, where only those who have prepared themselves commune while the remainder content to stand passively in church, does not correspond to the experience of the ancient Church.

I wholly agree with those who support the revival of ancient church practice whereby lay people commune at every Liturgy. Moreover, the guidelines for preparing for Holy Communion should be the same for both clergy and laity. It seems unfair and contradictory to the meaning of the Liturgy that different rules are laid down for clergy and laity. At the Liturgy everyone –bishops, priests and laity – stands before God with the same dignity, or rather with the same unworthiness, for “nobody attached to fleshly desires and delights is worthy to come near or approach” the communion of Christ’s Holy Mysteries. St John Cassian writes the following about this aspect of communion:

We should not abstain from the Lord’s communion just because we consider ourselves sinful, but rather hasten to it even more for the healing of soul and purification of spirit, with such humility and faith so that, considering ourselves unworthy of receiving such grace, we might desire more the healing of our wounds. Otherwise it would be impossible to receive communion even once a year, as some do…who so esteem the dignity, sanctification and salvific effects of the Heavenly Mysteries that they believe that only the holy and blameless should receive them. It would be better to think that it is these Sacraments that make us pure and holy by their imparting of Grace. Truly these people show more pride than their imagined humility, since they consider themselves worthy of them when they commune. It would be much more correct if we communed every Sunday for the healing of our infirmities, with the same humility of heart through which we believe and confess that we never can worthily approach the Mysteries, rather than…believe that we become worthy of them after the passing of a year.

The active participation of lay people in the Liturgy presupposes the possibility of their responding to the exclamations of the priest and hearing the so-called “silent” prayers. In contemporary church practice these prayers, as a rule, are read by the priest silently, which creates an additional barrier between the priest and his flock. More importantly, this habit deprives the faithful since the main point of the Liturgy passes them by. I have heard many arguments in favour of the practice of silent prayers, but none has seemed convincing to me. The so-called “silent” prayers were originally read aloud by the celebrating clergy. I think that in our time the faithful should have the opportunity to hear these prayers in their entirety, not only their concluding subordinate clauses (these signify that the prayers have been read but do not give the least notion of their content: “That being always guarded by Thy might”, “Singing the triumphant hymn, crying…”,“Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee…”). At least the prayer of the anaphora, which summarizes the essence of the Liturgy, should be read aloud.

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The celebration of the Liturgy is a creative act in which the fullness of the Church is involved. The text of the Liturgy is always the same, but each Liturgy grants us the opportunity to experience the mystery in a new light, renewing our encounter with the living God.

Much in the celebration of the Liturgy depends on the clergy. Very frequently the worship is “stolen” from the faithful by hurried or careless serving. The celebration of the Liturgy, whether it be by a bishop in his cathedral or a village priest, must be unhurried and dignified, and all words should be read as carefully and distinctly as possible. It is very important that the priest pray together with the congregation; he should not mechanically utter words that have long since lost their freshness. It is inadmissible to make the Liturgy a matter of habit or perceive it as something ordinary, even if it is served daily.

Theatrality, acting and artificiality in the serving of the Liturgy are unacceptable. The clergy should not openly express their emotions or draw attention to themselves by their manner of celebration. The congregation’s attention must be focused not on them, but on the Celebrator of the Liturgy – Christ Himself. This also holds true for the deacons, who in some cases turn the services into a theatre by exploiting all of their vocal and artistic abilities to make as strong an impression as possible. The role of the deacon is extremely important: he calls the faithful to prayer and is therefore obliged to create a prayerful atmosphere, not ruin it.

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Having made mention of the deaconate, it is valuable to note a special characteristic of the Orthodox Liturgy. At its celebration, a warm, trusting relationship is established between the president of the Eucharistic celebration, whether he be a bishop or priest, and the deacon. The deacon repeatedly addresses the celebrant with the words

“Pray for me, holy master”,

“Remember me, holy master”,

to which the latter answers:

“May the Lord guide thy steps”,

“May the Lord remember thee in His Kingdom”.

Whether taking a blessing from the celebrant or handing him the liturgical vessels, the deacon always kisses his hand; before and after every liturgical action the deacon bows to him. These motions are not just vestiges of ancient Church “etiquette”. They also have an iconic dimension, symbolizing the relationship of absolute trust and love that exists between people in the Heavenly Kingdom and which should exist between those who live in God. Moreover, these actions stress the hierarchical nature of the Church, in which, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, divine “emanations” (proodoi) and “flows of light” pass from the higher orders to the lower: from angels to humans, from priests to deacons, from the clergy to the laity. Finally, the respect shown during services to the officiating clergyman as the celebrant of the Eucharist who, as it were, represents Christ Himself, is similar to that given to sacred images, for the honour rendered to the icon or type (celebrant) ascends to the Prototype – Christ.

The order of the Liturgy does not ascribe particular functions to the concelebrating priests since the main actions are carried out by the celebrant, deacon and congregation (usually “represented” by the choir). This is why priests normally prefer to serve the Divine Liturgy themselves rather than to concelebrate with other priests. During the service, a special relationship of trust and intimacy is established between the celebrant and God. It is very difficult to describe the essence of this relationship owing to its sacramental, mystical character, but I am sure that many clergymen will agree with the following description by Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern):

The essence of the priesthood consists precisely in the serving of the Liturgy by the priest himself, in the independent celebration of the Divine Eucharist, and not in concelebrating with others. A priest must have an insatiable desire to celebrate the Eucharist, which, certainly, in no way lessens his desire to receive communion from the hands of another (why from an older and higher ranking?) brother. The mystical desire, incomprehensible to laymen, to offer the Sacrifice and change the Eucharistic gifts into Christ’s Body and Blood by the power of the Holy Spirit, is totally different from the feelings and experience of communion at a Liturgy celebrated by another. It is possible to measure the level of “eucharisticity” of a priest precisely by his desire to serve himself.

Archimandrite Cyprian considered the Divine Liturgy to be the

“most powerful means of carrying out pastoral service”.

He stressed that

“neither molebens, nor panikhidas, nor akathists… can replace the most holy Eucharistic service”.

If molebens and panikhidas are indeed necessary, they should be served before, and not after the Liturgy. It seems to me, however, that the Liturgy itself, being a universal and all-encompassing service, contains everything for which molebens and panikhidas are served, including the commemoration of the living and the departed.

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If we can call the services of the Orthodox Church a school of theology, then the Divine Liturgy is this school par excellence. It teaches us about the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom because it itself is an icon of this Kingdom, the most complete, perfect reflection of the heavenly reality in our earthly conditions, a revelation of the transcendent through the immanent. In the Kingdom of God all symbols shall pass away, and only the heavenly reality will remain. There we will not commune of the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, but in a more perfect way we shall be united with Christ Himself, the Source of life and immortality. If the manner of our communion with God will change, its essence will remain the same – always a personal encounter with God, not of isolated people, but of people in communion with each other. In this sense it is correctly said that the Liturgy served on earth is but a part of the incessant Liturgy celebrated by people and angels in the Heavenly Kingdom.

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