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)
What prayer could be more fitting after the preaching of the Gospel than a prayer for those who are learning the Gospel, who are preparing themselves to “put on Christ” in baptism? These unbaptized persons the Church calls catechumens. Since we are about to proceed to the Eucharistic sacrifice, at which the uninitiated have no right to be present, the priest and the deacon dismiss the catechumens from the congregation.
In the early Church, the practice was for the catechumens to leave and then receive instruction. First, however, the priest would pray for them, that their initiation would be completed by the grace of Baptism at the proper time. The main reason for the dismissal of the catechumens was the practice in the early Church of concealing sacred rites and beliefs from outsiders. This was to protect what was sacred from sacrilege and other forms of profanation.
Because the catechumens were still outside the Church, though already “believers,” they were considered untried and not yet made firm in the Faith. The Church was not yet willing to permit them to be present when the awesome Mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ was celebrated.
This practice was a part of what liturgists call the disciplina arcani, the practice of concealing the sacred. Today, for example, before the recitation of the Creed, the deacon cries out, “The doors! The doors!”, a relic of this disciplina arcani. The doors of the church would be guarded so that non-Christians, those “outside” the Church, would literally remain outside the church during the Eucharist. In the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions, the rubrics state that “deacons should also stand at the doors of the men and subdeacons at the doors of the women, so that no one goes out and no door is opened, even for any of the Faithful, during the sacrifice.”141
After the sixth century, there were few catechumens left in the Eastern Empire, though Saint Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century still mentions the dismissal of catechumens and others who couldn’t receive Communion. But as the centuries went on, the need for a formal dismissal dwindled and the rubrics came to be fulfilled in a perfunctory manner. Today the prayers for the catechumens are usually said silently by the priest, including the call to exit the Church.
The tendency today is to discard this part of the Liturgy as a relic which no longer serves a useful purpose. However, as the late Alexander Schmemann has pointed out, the issue is not one of abandoning something obsolete in order to “tidy” up the Liturgy, updating it to make it more relevant to the contemporary world. The issue is whether the prayers for the catechumens express an essential truth of Christianity. Father Schmemann had no doubt that these prayers did, and in fact served an important purpose today by reminding us of the Church’s mission to our contemporary neo-pagan world: “Is it accidental that in the past the Church attached such a significance to [the prayers] that the entire first part of the eucharistic gathering came to be called the `liturgy of the catechumens’?... Historically, of course, the prayers for the catechumens were introduced at a time when the Church not only contained the institution of the catechumenate but in actuality considered herself directed toward the world with the aim of converting it to Christ, when she considered the world as an object of mission. Then the historical setting changed, and it seemed that the world had become Christian. But do we not live again today in a world that has either turned away from Christianity or has never even heard of Christ? Is not mission again in the center of church consciousness? And is it not a sin against this basic calling when the Church, the ecclesial community, locks herself in her `inner’ life and considers herself called only `to attend to the spiritual needs’ of her members and thus for all intents and purposes denies that mission is a basic ministry and task of the Church in `this world’?”142
==========================141 The Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, 11. The rubric comes immediately after the Holy Kiss and before the Offertory. 142 Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist (Crestwood:St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 86-87. Emphasis in the original.
Page created: 24-12-2012.
Last update: 24-12-2012.