A HOMILY ON THE DIVINE LITURGY

 

About How the Liturgy Symbolizes the Earthly Life of Christ

 

        Brothers and sisters!

 

        Today I would like to say a few words about the symbolism of the most important of the services of our Holy Church, the Divine Liturgy.  In a single sermon I cannot explain everything in detail, but hopefully I can provide a little basic information that will serve as a reminder for those already familiar with this symbolism, and as an introduction to the topic for those who are not.

        All Orthodox Christians should understand that, according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the various parts of the Divine Liturgy and the actions that occur in it symbolize events in the earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ and are intended to bring us to a state of soul-saving recollection of the redemption of the human race.  All of us should know which parts of the Liturgy symbolize which events in the Saviour’s life, so that, when we attend the Liturgy, we may have a living remembrance of them and Him.  Only by knowing this can we derive the full benefit of attendance at the holy Liturgy.

        The Divine Liturgy begins with the Proskimide, when the Holy Gifts -- the offering of bread and wine -- are prepared.  Except during Bright Week, the Proskimide or “Preparation” is performed with the curtains or doors of the altar closed.  This takes place either while Matins is being chanted or the Third and Sixth Hours are being read, with the priest saying the prayers of the Proskimide in a low voice.  The reason for this is that the Proskimide symbolizes the Nativity of Jesus Christ and the earliest period of His life, which was hidden from most and known only by a chosen few.  Accordingly, the objects and priestly actions associated with the Proskimide are all linked with the Nativity.  Thus, at this time the Table of Preparation depicts the cave at Bethlehem; the discos or paten, the manger; the asteriskos or star, the star of Bethlehem; the chalice covers, the swaddling bands with which the divine Infant was wrapped; and the censing, the incense and the other gifts brought by the Magi.

        The second portion of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Catechumens because, in ancient times, the Catechumens were required to leave when it was over.  The same is true in some places even now.

        The most notable parts of the Liturgy of the Catechumens are the Little Entrance, when the priest processes with the Gospel book into the altar, and the reading of the Epistle and Gospel.  The Little Entrance symbolizes the beginning of Jesus Christ’s public ministry, when the Lord began to proclaim the Gospel to the world.  The candle carried before the Gospel book stands for Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist who, as Christ said, was a burning and a shining light[1] preparing the people for His own coming.  In addition, seeing the candle being carried before the Gospel as before Christ Himself, we call to mind how the light of grace and truth came to the world by Jesus Christ[2] and His holy proclamation of the Gospel.  Remembering this blessed truth, we all bow down in worship before the Saviour during the Little Entrance, and we chant the hymn, “O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ.”

        The actual reading of the Epistle and Gospel represents the teaching of the Saviour, which the apostles spread throughout the world.  We should always listen to this reading with attention and reverence, as though Christ Himself were speaking the words directly to us.  During the reading of the Gospel especially, we observe the ancient custom of bowing our heads, both to show our reverence and to increase it.  After the Gospel we chant, “Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!” to express our gratitude for Christ’s words and deeds, and as an expression of joy, since, for a Christian, there can be no word more joyful than the glad tidings of our salvation.

        The third and most important part of the Liturgy is the Liturgy of the Faithful.  It begins with the Great Entrance and the chanting of the Cherubic Hymn.  At this time the Gifts -- which are still unsanctified -- are transferred from the Table of Preparation to the Throne or Altar Table, where they will be sanctified.  The Great Entrance symbolizes the triumphal Entry of our Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, where He would undergo His voluntary Passion.  As we begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the most sacred and solemn portion of the service, which testifies to us of Christ’s infinite love for the race of man, the words of the Cherubic Hymn call us to lay aside every earthly care and to imitate the cherubim in worthily glorifying the King of heaven, Who entered Jerusalem to suffer for our redemption.  Even more than in the usual Cherubic Hymn, the meaning of the Great Entrance is vividly expressed in the special Cherubic Hymn chanted on Great Saturday:  “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling, and take no thought for any earthly thing, for the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh to be slain and given as food for the faithful.”

        After the Great Entrance, we hear a litany urging us to a sober, prayerful state as we prepare to behold the mystery of the Consecration worthily, and we chant or recite the Creed, our Symbol of Faith, whereby we confess that we are Orthodox believers.  Then the consecration of the Gifts is performed.  Through the priestly blessing and by the power and operation of the Most Holy Spirit, the bread and wine are mystically transformed, becoming the true Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ.  During these awesome, dread moments, as the choir chants the hymn, “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we thank Thee, O Lord; and we pray unto Thee, O our God,” we must, with utmost contrition, send up entreaty to the Lord God for our salvation.  At the same time, we must contemplate with our inner eyes the Passion, death, and burial of the Saviour, which are perpetually made present at this point in the Liturgy for the faithful. 

        After this follows the Lord’s Prayer, when we beseech of the Lord the “daily bread” of the Eucharist.  Then the Holy Chalice is presented to us through the Royal Gates, portraying the rising of Christ from the tomb.  Finally, having returned the chalice to the Holy Table after communing the laity, the priest removes it a second time and, having elevated it before the eyes of the faithful, returns it to the Table of Preparation.  This elevation represents the glorious Ascension.

        And so, dear brothers and sisters, you see how the Divine Liturgy presents to us the whole earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Now I think you can understand better how perfectly our Holy Orthodox Church fulfills the command delivered by Christ to His disciples at the Mystical Supper when He said, Do this in remembrance of Me.[3]   This remembrance, this re-presentation of the life of Christ in the Divine Liturgy, is life-bestowing and absolutely necessary for us as Christians, enabling us to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.[4]  Through it, we enter into inner, mystical union with Christ.  At every Divine Liturgy, standing before the Holy Altar, even if we are unable for some reason to partake of the Eucharist, we can still participate in the great and fearsome act of prayerful recollection of Christ’s life, and especially His world-redeeming Passion.  If we do this with strict, intense attention to the words of the Liturgy and with conscious, living faith, we will most certainly be deemed worthy to partake richly of divine grace.  Christ will surely, in the Apostle’s words, come and dwell in our hearts by faith.[5]

        For this reason, Orthodox Christians, and not just because we are obliged by God’s commandment and the canons of the Holy Church, let us hasten to attend the life-giving service of services, the Divine Liturgy, whenever it is at all possible for us.  Let us stand with strictest attention, with fear and awe, recalling what we have heard today and contemplating these mysteries in the depths of our souls, that our hearts may be set afire with love for the Lord Jesus and filial gratitude for everything He has done for us.  Amen.

 

[1] John 5:35

[2] John 1:17

[3] Luke 22:19; I Cor. 11:24

[4] Eph. 3:18-19

[5] Eph. 3:17