by the Very Reverend Michel Najim & T.L. Frazier"UNDERSTANDING THE DIVINE LITURGY"(A Guide For Participating In The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom)
Like all prayer, the Liturgy begins with a doxology:
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages.”
Note that the priest doesn’t merely say, “Blessed is God,” but, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It isn’t simply “God” who is praised, but each divine Person. From the very beginning of the Liturgy, the Trinity shines forth and is proclaimed. Communication with God consists of doxology, thanksgiving, confession, and petition. The first is doxology because, when grateful servants approach their Master, it is fitting to concentrate on the Master Himself. Such is the nature of the doxology: it is a tribute of praise offered to the Holy Trinity. In the doxology we lay aside ourselves and all our interests and glorify the Holy Trinity for God’s own sake, for His power and His glory. Immediately upon approaching the Trinity, we recognize the force and grandeur of the glory and we are filled with wonder and awe. Our initial response is naturally praise.
The doxology has always held a central place in Christian spirituality. Origen in the mid-third century writes concerning the place of doxologies in prayer: “In the beginning and the preface of the prayer something having the force of praise should be said of God through Christ, who is praised with Him, and by the Holy Spirit, who is hymned with Him....And, finally, the prayer should be concluded with a doxology of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.”95 Thus the doxology has both first and last place in any communication with God.
Christ commenced His ministry by preaching “the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, `The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.’”96 Christ commanded us to “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”97 Since Christ commanded that this be the first thing that we seek, the Liturgy begins with the blessing of the kingdom. Indeed, before anything else, the Liturgy can only begin when we seek the reign of God in our hearts. “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”98
After the doxology come the petitions. This follows the doxology so that we may be confident that our requests will be granted, for we have just learned something of God's goodness and His love for us by confessing “the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These petitions are presented in the form of a litany.
THE GREAT EKTENIA (OR “THE LITANY OF PEACE”)
The litany, also called an “ektenia” in the Eastern Liturgy, originated in Antioch during the fourth century. The inclusion of litanies into the Liturgy may be connected to the practice of having processions around the city in times of disaster or distress. Each time the procession halted, the deacon leading the way would cry, “Lord, have mercy!” From Antioch, litanies spread to Constantinople and to the rest of the East. They were the public prayer of the Faithful led by the deacon to express devotion, petitions and thanksgiving.
The Great Ektenia at the beginning of the Liturgy starts with: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.”
Immediately after the doxology, and before we make confession or give thanks, we are exhorted to allow the peace of God to rule in our hearts.99 The priest (or deacon) bids the people to pray, leading them as their representative. As the representative of the people, the priest ought to be blameless and holy because, as the apostle James says, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”100
The response of people is, “Lord, have mercy,” or in Greek, Kyrie eleison. This is indeed the supplication of those who have no possible defense or justification; and so they petition the Judge, appealing to His love of humanity. This prayer implies both gratitude and confession. To beg God’s mercy is to ask for His rule in our lives, that is, His kingdom. It is that same kingdom which Christ promised to those who would follow Him. Expressions like, “Have mercy upon me, O Lord,” are common in both the Old101 and New102 Testaments, and it would seem that the liturgical use of, “Lord have mercy,” in some form probably goes back to apostolic times. Yet,
curiously, it is difficult to establish its existence before the fourth century. It was only in the fifth century that its use spread westward (in its Greek form of Kyrie eleison) into Rome, France and Spain. Yet Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) still had to defend the invocation in his day against Western bishops who protested its use as a “Greek importation.”
Then the priest (or deacon) prays: “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.”
When the priest prays for “the salvation of our souls,” he again signifies “the kingdom,” for the kingdom consists of those who are saved. And when the priest prays for “peace from above,” he points to the righteousness of God, without which peace is impossible. The world can not know this peace because it refuses to know the righteousness of God.
Saint Paul says that “the peace of God passes all understanding.”103 The peace of God is beyond all human concepts of peace. This peace isn’t merely an absence of violence; it is the peace which the Lord left to the apostles when he ascended to the Father. “Peace I leave with you,” He said. “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”104 He who is not at peace cannot pray aright. When we are at peace we can make petitions for others, not only for the Church and those in adversity, but for all of humanity. “Let us pray for the peace of the whole world,” says the priest in the third petition. Since as Christians we know that our God is the Lord of all, and that all things are in His care, we are under a special obligation. Thus we are commanded to pray to God in peace, and above all to ask for the peace from above.
Then the priest prays for the “holy house,” the local church or chapel which is a tabernacle of the Lord. The church signifies the presence of God in the midst of His people. The priest prays for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God: the three elements essential for salvation.
The priest then exhorts every one to pray for the clergy who oversee and feed the sheep, the people of God who are a chosen generation and a holy nation.105 And we do not ask only for the things of the spirit, but also for material needs: for health and an abundance of the fruits of the earth. God is the Creator and Provider of all things and we must always look to Him for our needs.
The Litany climaxes when the priest (or deacon) asks the congregation to commit themselves, one another, and their whole lives to Christ our God. Thus we should confidently commit ourselves into God’s hands, in the sure hope that He will accept our trust in Him. Since this commendation of our whole selves to God is so important, it is not made until we have first summoned to our aid the most holy Mother of God and the choir of all the saints. What we are really asking for is the unity of faith and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Only once we have summoned the entire Church to our aid do we commend ourselves and our individual lives to Christ our God. We do not commend ourselves alone to God, but we address God as one Body in Christ.
95 Origen of Alexandria, On Prayer, 23:1. 96 Mark 1:14-15.
97 Matthew 6:33.
98 Luke 12:32. 99 Cf. Colossians 3:15.
100 James 5:16.
101 E.g., Psalm 6:2; 9:13.
102 E.g., Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 20:30-31. 103 Philippians 4:7.
104 John 14:27.
105 1 Peter 2:9.
Page created: 24-12-2012.
Last update: 24-12-2012.