Undoubtedly, the central aspect of Orthodox Christian life is participation in the Divine Liturgy. The most oft celebrated Liturgy in the Orthodox Church is the one attributed to St. John Chrysostom, and which bears his name. There are four other forms of Liturgy used in the Orthodox Church. Participation by Orthodox Christians in the Liturgy is active, not passive.
Orthodox Christians consider the Liturgy to be 'Heaven on Earth' and try to experience this reality in many ways. Bright and colourful vestments are worn by the Clergy, in order to symbolise and make real the beauty of Heaven. Clouds of incense fill the Sanctuary and spread throughout the church as the deacons cense the icons and the congregation, signifying the elevation of their prayers to God's throne (Revelation 8: 3-5). Hundreds of candles are lit by worshippers in front of the icons, to remind themselves of Christ's light and of the warmth of God's love. The faithful move freely in the church, feeling at home in God's House. They frequently make the sign of the cross when they pray, to remind themselves both of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and of their own cross in life. They usually stand or kneel rather than sit in prayer. They frequently make prostration before the icons and their neighbours, to express their deep sense of respect for God and people, seeking forgiveness for their sins. They try to attain perfect reconciliation with God their Father and pray for the salvation of the world around them. And they seek to discover the presence of God everywhere.
The Divine Liturgy can be considered as consisting of three main sections. The Proskomide Service (Preparation), the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Faithful. This explanation will be of most value if the reader has access to the complete text of the Divine Liturgy.
The Proskomide is the service of "bringing the offered Gifts." It is performed at a small side-altar to the left of the Holy Altar behind the Icon Screen where the gifts are prepared. It is also called Prothesis, the place and the act of placing and preparing the gifts. The Priest does the Proskomide while the morning prayer service (the Orthros) is being sung by the chanters. Before the Priest begins the Proskomide, he makes his preparation, standing before the Royal doors in a long black robe and praying to God for forgiveness and strength to fulfil worthily his duties and obligations as celebrant of the Divine Liturgy. Then he enters the sanctuary and puts on each of his vestments. Now he begins the service in which the offerings of bread and wine are prepared for the Divine Liturgy. The service consists of visible things used by the Priest, actions by the Priest, and Prayers by the Priest. When we think of Christ's birth, we think of the star over Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels, His Holy Mother, and Joseph, His earthly father. All of these are symbolised in the Proskomide. The Priest takes a loaf of bread called Prosphoron which means "offering". This has been specially prepared and has a seal impressed on the top. The center square of the seal has the initials of Jesus Christ and the Greek verb NIKA, which means "is victorious", and represents the Lord, the Lamb of God. It is this which will be consecrated as the Body of Christ. The large triangle to the left represents the Virgin Mary. The nine smaller triangles to the right represent the Orders of Angels, Prophets, Saints, and Martyrs. The lower part of the Cross is removed and particles are taken from it to represent the souls of the living and of those departed this life. The Priest takes the Spear ("Lonchi") which represents the spear used by the Roman soldier who pierced the side of our Lord as He hung upon the Cross. With this the Priest cuts around the Lamb (the center square) and places it on the Diskos (a gold plate supported by a base). While piercing the left side with the Spear, he says, "One of the soldiers pierced His side and immediately blood and water came forth". At the same time he pours wine and water into the Potirion (Cup). Then he cuts out the triangle representing the Virgin Mary as well as the nine smaller triangles representing the Heavenly Hosts. At this point he mentions the names of the living and departed, placing a particle on the Diskos for each one. Finally the Priest offers a prayer for himself, and places an additional particle there. Then he places over the Diskos the Asteriskos (Star). This object is formed of two strips of metal (either gold-plated or silver-plated), joined at the center and bent at the ends so that it will stand on the Diskos. The Asteriskos symbolises the Star of Bethlehem. Now the symbolism is complete: the newly born Christ surrounded by His Holy Mother, the ranks of the heavenly Hosts, and the earthly visitors who were privileged to see the Christ child, while over Him hangs the Star of Bethlehem. As the Priest places the Star over the Lamb, he recites the words, "And the star came and stood over the place where the child was." (Matt. 2:19). Then he censes the Gifts. The smoke from the incense symbolises prayer. As the smoke rises to Heaven, so the Prayers of the Priest and the faithful rise to Heaven. Next the Priest takes two small covers (Veils) shaped like crosses, and places one over the Diskos and the other over the Potirion. Then he takes a large rectangular cover called the Aer and places this over the two together. Meanwhile he recites Psalm 92 praising the wonders of the universe. The covers represent the layers of the firmament. Aer means "air", which in terms of our modern concept of the universe would be "space". The Proskomide ends with the prayer of benediction. The Gifts have been prepared and remain at the side altar until the proper time for their removal during the Liturgy of the Faithful.
The Liturgy of the Catechumens begins with the pronouncement:
"Blessed be The Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages."
As he recites these words, the Priest makes the sign of the Cross with the Gospel Book (Evanghelion). Then follow prayers in the form of petitions to which the choir responds with "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy); hymn in honour of the Theotokos, the Son of God, and the Holy Trinity; also the hymn (Troparion) for the feast day and for the dedication of the Church. Then follows the most dramatic part of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, the Lesser Entrance. It is called "Lesser" because it anticipates the "Great Entrance" which is to come later. The Priest, accompanied by altar boys bearing candles or lamps, takes the Gospel Book, moves to the right of the Holy Altar and around behind it in order to come out of the left side door of the Icon Screen. He pauses facing the Royal Doors, holds up the Gospel Book and says, "Sophia, orthoi!" ("Wisdom, Arise!") This enjoins the congregation to be attentive to the wisdom contained in Jesus' Gospels. The procession represents the coming of Christ to preach His Gospel message of salvation to the people. It dates back to the time when Christians were persecuted and had no place where they could openly display the Gospel Book. At this point in the service the Priest would go to the secret hiding place accompanied by his altar boys, remove the Book and bring it before the people to read from it. The candles carried by the altar boys symbolise the light of Christ's teaching. "I am the Light of the world", says the text on the Book which Christ is pictured holding on the icon to the right of the Royal Gate. The Lesser Entrance is followed by the readings. First comes the reading from the Apostle. This is in the form of an "Epistle" or letter. It is usually read by one of the chanters, since it can be read by a layman. Then follows the reading from the Gospel which is always read by the Priest, or by a Deacon, if there is one present. The readings are intended for instruction, and since the purpose of the sermon is to instruct and frequently to explain the Scripture readings, the traditional place for it is after the readings. In the days when catechumens were dismissed soon after, this was important. Today the sermon is usually at the end of the Liturgy.
It is hard to imagine anyone, however small his acquaintance with the Liturgy, who will not be affected by the change in mood and atmosphere which occurs when the choir begins to sing the Cherubic Hymn. This marks the transition from Christ's teaching mission to the soul-stirring events leading to His Great Sacrifice and death on the Cross. While the hymn is being sung, the Priest unfolds the Antimins (Antiminsion). This is a rectangular cloth on which are printed Christ in the Tomb with the Holy Trinity, Angels and Prophets looking down from above. Below is the Last Supper, the cock that crowed when St. Peter denied Christ (for the third time), the dice that the soldiers cast for Jesus' robe; above are the Cross and Resurrection. In the corners are the four Evangelists, and under the Cross is sewn a Holy relic. This is because the Antimins (the word means "instead of a table") is a form of portable altar. The Altar always represents the Tomb of Christ. The Antimins dates from early Christian times when Christians had no permanent places of worship. Then, as now, each Priest was given an Antimins blessed by his Bishop when he was ordained. Wherever the Antimins is unfolded, the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated. While the choir continues the Cherubic Hymn, in which the faithful liken themselves to the Cherubim who surround the Throne of God, the Priest recites a beautiful prayer asking Christ to forgive him for his human frailties, yet accept him as worthy to consecrate the offered Gifts on behalf of himself and the faithful who are present. He then recites the 50th Psalm, a psalm of repentance. He censes the Altar Table, the Icon Screen, the congregation, and the side altar where the offered Gifts were prepared during the Proskomide. After asking forgiveness of the faithful, he goes to the side altar, takes the Gifts and leaves the sanctuary in procession with the altar boys. The procession is called the Great Entrance.
The Great Entrance procession symbolises Christ's Great Sacrifice in behalf of the people. The elements of bread and wine on the Diskarion and in the Potirion represent the Sacrifice which is to be offered. The procession is reminiscent of Jesus' Entrance into Jerusalem and culminates with the Cross at Golgotha. As the thief on Jesus' right said,"Be mindful of me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom"; so the Priest in behalf of the faithful says, "Be mindful of us, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom". The Priest then re-enters the sanctuary through the Royal Doors, places the Gifts on the Antimins (a cloth depicting Christ in the Tomb) which lies there unfolded on the altar table. Then begins another series of petitions to which the choir responds. The Priest prays for peace, safety and remission of sins. He then asks for the spirit of unity that all together may confess their Faith in the form of the Nicene Creed (Pistevo).
We have now come to the core of the Divine Liturgy. All parts have been designed to lead us up to this most Sacred and eventful moment. We have been present at the Nativity when the Maker of Heaven and Earth entered the universe that He created. We have watched Him, in the Person of Jesus Christ, as He came to the people to preach His sermon of love to a troubled and hopeless world. He has taught, healed, and performed miracles. He has won followers. Through our participation in the Liturgy, we have followed Him and asked Him to watch over us and heal us and teach us as He did those who lived so many years ago. We have watched the drama unfold as He carried His Cross to Golgotha, the place of His Sacrifice. Here in the form of the Cross, Jesus restored man's relationship with God. And with His Resurrection, He has opened the way for all time for His followers to enter into the Heavenly Kingdom. But how are we to overcome the difficulties of the journey when He is no longer in our midst? Our Lord and Saviour has not only shown us the way, but He has also given us the spiritual Food to strengthen us on our journey. This spiritual Food is the Gift of the Last Supper. Now begins a dialogue between the Priest and Choir which sets the scene for the Last Supper. The Priest enjoins us to give all our attention so that we may offer the Holy Oblation in Peace. What is this Holy Oblation offered in peace? It is God's Grace, Love and Mercy which were bestowed upon us in the awesome Sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus died on the Cross to redeem us from the bondage of sin. His Sacrifice was so great that whatever sin we may commit, if we sincerely and penitently ask His forgiveness, we will be saved. This is the Grace that flows from the Cross. God loves His creations - the creatures that He has made - as parents love their children. As parents try to help their children, protect them from injury and harm, welcome them back after they have gone astray, so God loves us. It is the Communion of the Holy Spirit which we are about to receive. "Let as lift up our hearts!" says the Priest. "We lift them up unto the Lord." the people chant. "Let us give thanks unto the Lord." instructs the Priest. "It is meet and right." we reply. This is one of the most ancient parts of the Liturgy, dating from the very first century.
The choir takes up the triumphal Hymn: "Holy, Holy, Holy", while the Priest silently begins a prayer in which he recalls the events that took place on the night when Christ was betrayed; he recalls how Christ took bread and blessed it, and said to His disciples:
"Take, eat; this is my Body which is broken for you for the remission of sins" and then how He took the cup and blessed it saying: "Drink ye all of it. This is my Blood of the New Testament which is shed for you and far many for the remission of sins."
The words which Christ spoke (The Words of Institution) are spoken by the Priest out loud. The choir responds with "Amen". Then the Priest recites the Epiclesis, or Prayer invoking the Holy Spirit.
This is the most precious and sacred moment of the entire Divine Liturgy. All the people kneel, unless kneeling is not appropriate for the season, while the Priest asks the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Even though outwardly they may appear to be still bread and wine, they are now the Real Body and the Real Blood of Jesus. The Orthodox Church has never attempted to explain in philosophical or any other terms how this change takes place, but this is the Orthodox Church's belief without any qualifications, and this is her unchanging teaching. We must have a full under- standing and complete realisation of this fact; otherwise Holy Communion can never provide the spiritual strength and uplifting exaltation that it should. Our attitude as we kneel during the Epiclesis or Prayer of Invocation should represent the highest form of spiritual receptiveness and devotion of which we are capable. We have prepared for it by visualising the scene at Golgotha, Christ's death on the Cross. In dying on the Cross for us, He took our place. We in turn take the place of those who stood at the foot of the Cross. We try to after love, devotion, and humility. The eyes of our souls must try to visualise Jesus descending in that moment from Heaven and imparting His Body to the bread on the Diskos and His Blood to the wine in the Cup, thus once again offering Himself to the faithful as He did at the Last Supper with His Disciples. Whether we are prepared to receive Holy Communion or not, our hearts and souls should be filled with spiritual joy and exaltation and thankfulness as Jesus offers Himself to us with His undying love. This is what transpires in the Divine Liturgy, and this is what should be in our souls and minds as the choir sings "We praise Thee" and we kneel before our Saviour to ask Him for understanding and guidance and help in all our needs. The Epiclesis is followed by prayers remembering all those who have gone before us, especially the Holy Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, in whose honour the choir sings a beautiful hymn.
After another series of petitions we recite together the Lord's Prayer. The Holy Gifts are uncovered. "Holy things are for the Holy", says the Priest. The choir responds with "One is Holy, One is the Lord..." At this point warm water is added to the Cup because the Blood and water that flowed from the side of our Lord was warm living blood. The Priest breaks the Host into four parts, One part he places in the Cup, and after asking forgiveness of the faithful and reciting the appropriate prayers, he partakes of the Holy Communion from one of the parts. Then he puts the remaining three portions in the Cup. With the Communion Spoon, the red cloth, and the Potirion, he turns toward the people and says,
"With fear of God and faith and love, draw near."
At this time all the faithful who have prepared themselves for Holy Communion come forward and partake, When all have received the Priest says, "0 Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance." The choir responds with a hymn of thanksgiving.
On the fortieth day after the Resurrection, Jesus went to Bethany with His Disciples. There, after giving them His final instructions, He ascended into Heaven. When the Priest turns and faces the congregation with the Holy Vessels and says, "Now and ever and unto ages of ages", making the Sign of the Cross over the faithful, this symbolises Christ's Ascension into Heaven. After this, he recites a few petitions, a prayer before the icon of Christ, and the final dismissal prayer. The people of the congregation all pass by and receive the Antidoron, the blessed bread from the offering loaves which were not consecrated for Holy Communion. The word Antidoron means "instead of the Gifts"; that is, "instead of Holy Communion", It was originally intended only for those who did not receive Communion, but today it is offered to all.
from The Sacraments of the Orthodox
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.