Notes from a teaching Divine Liturgy

These are the notes from the teaching Divine Liturgy we celebrated for our children and youth (of all ages!) on 10/22/17.  Enjoy the show!
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St. Mary’s (Pokrova), Allentown PA
Notes for the Teaching Liturgy
22 October 2017

Before the service.

After attending the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, emissaries of St. Volodymyr, the King of Kyivan-Rus’ reported: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. One thing we understood, that God was in our midst!” This is the experience that is available to all of us when we come to Divine Liturgy; but as with all things, this experience will be greater the more we prepare for it and the more we understand and open ourselves up to it. The time of preparation is over – now is the time to grow in our understanding of it and to open ourselves up to it.

The Divine Liturgy is completely safe; by this, I mean that it is the one thing you do during the week where you can really let your filters and defenses down, soak everything in, and really live. No one is judging you; you don’t have to weigh your words; you don’t have to worry whether you are doing the right thing. The Liturgy itself IS the right thing, and you are a part of it.

For the next hour or so you can open yourself up and be vulnerable; you can’t really do that at school; you may not even be able to do it with your friends. But if you do it here, you open yourself up NOT to the risk of hurt but to the love and mercy of God. The words, hymns, and actions of the Divine Liturgy are the way that God brings His love and mercy into you. Through them He will strengthen your heart, heal your pain, and help you realize just how good it is to be alive.

Today’s Liturgy is a Teaching Liturgy; I will be taking time at various points in the service in order to explain what is going on. Right now, I encourage you to strap in and prepare yourself for the most powerful way God has chosen to meet and help us, His children: the Divine Liturgy. Today is also special in that we are encouraging our children and youth to lead us in the readings and responses.

Before the Entrance

The Divine Liturgy did not always look exactly like it does now. For instance, there used to be a lot more movement. Instead of singing the first antiphons in church, we would have sung them on the way to church. The service itself would have begun as the Gospel was brought from the outside into the sanctuary. Now the ritual of bringing the Gospel out of the altar to the people reminds us of something very important: that Christ has come from heaven to be in our midst! This is what we are celebrating and confirming when we kiss the Gospel and exchange the words; “Christ is in our midst – He is and shall be; Khristos’ po se’rid nas – ye ee bu’de”.

After the “Holy God”, Before the Epistle

In conversations, especially in conversations with people wiser and more knowledgeable than us, we should spend more time listening than speaking. Our liturgical dialogue with God is the same. Up to this point, we have been doing most of the talking, sharing our litanies of concerns with Him and asking for His mercy. Now it is time for us to stop talking and just listen to His Word. The Epistle that we are about to hear comes from the letters of St. Paul. It describes our faith and how we are to live it. The Gospel that we hear afterwords includes words and episodes from the life of Jesus Christ Himself. These words are like food for our hungry souls. Before each reading, the deacon says; “Let us be attentive!” This is not the time for us to let our minds wander or for us to count the number of light bulbs in the chandelier but rather it is a time to ask what God is trying to say to us and to think of how we can improve our lives by putting His words into practice.

After the Gospel Reading

For today’s homily, I want to address a common question that teenagers and honest adults have: “why do we do this every week?” We sometimes forget that the central action of the Divine Liturgy is a ritualized “meal”, when we all eat the “Mystical Supper” together. Meals need to be repeated regularly. This isn’t just because our bodies need nourishment, if this were the case we could just shove something into our mouths when our bodies started getting hungry. That’s important, but meals are more than that. Every evening when families sit down together to eat, they are affirming some very important things. They aren’t just a collection of hungry people, satisfying their bodily needs – they are a family that gathers to share stories and remember who they are. In fact, it is when they eat together that the family is most itself. No matter how busy their schedules are, families have to set aside this time together in order to maintain their connection and shared identity. I am convinced by observation and research that families that build their schedules around an evening meal are more resilient and that the children of such families are given a psychological boost that goes far beyond the nutrients they have been given.

It can be a real drag to eat dinner together: we all have to set down our phones and pause our video games and youtube videos! But the benefits are clear and it is worth doing. Even if it is the same thing pretty much every time.

It’s the same for the Divine Liturgy. There are always other things that seem more fun to do on Sunday mornings: video games, videos, sports, how about just sleeping in and going to Waffle House for breakfast? But there is no better way to build resilience and a healthy identity – to know who you are – than to set all that stuff aside for a couple of hours and enjoy the meal that the Lord has set aside for us!

Just like it’s okay for you to rather be doing something else at dinner time, it’s okay that part of you would rather be doing something else on Sunday morning. Part of becoming really human is learning to do what is good and right even when you’d rather be doing something fun and easy.

Before the Great Entrance and the Cherubic Hymn

Faith is about to sing about how this is the time when we need to “set aside our earthly cares” so that we can open ourselves up to the love of our Lord. You know how crazy it is to see two people out on a date texting spending the whole time on their phones? That is what we are like when God is with us and we are filled with worry about all the crazy things going on in our lives. At least for now, let it go. Let God’s peace fill you. Your problems will still be there when this is over… and you’ll be able to meet them with strength.

Before the Creed: The Kiss of Peace

The Divine Liturgy would be a waste of time for us – an empty ritual – if we did not have love for one another and for God. The priest reminds us of this right before we say the Creed when he says; “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess.” In the early Church this would be the point in the service when everyone would greet one another with the “kiss of peace”. You may be familiar with this from visits to your friends’ worship services and you saw the vestigial remnant of it in our own Orthodox service last week when our bishop and priests exchanged the kiss of peace at this point in the altar.

For this Sunday, let’s actually take a moment and turn to our neighbor and offer the greeting and response (along with a kiss, handshake or loving nod); “Christ is in our midst; He is and shall be.”

After the Creed and before the Holy Anaphora

This is the high point of the Liturgy: the Mystical Supper. During the prayers of the anaphora, the priest will ask the Holy Spirit to come upon all of us and on the gifts being offered. Although you do not always hear the prayers, it is always something that we do together; in fact, the priest is not allowed to pray these prayers alone. When he asks that the Holy Spirit “make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ” all of us say “Amen”; when he asks that the Holy Spirit “make this wine the precious Blood of Your Christ”, all of us say “Amen”; and when the priest completes the prayer saying “changing them by Your Holy Spirit” we further confirm this change by saying “Amen. Amen. Amen.” We are cooperating with one another and with God Himself to make this change. 

So as to preserve the dignity of the Eucharistic Meal, we will no be pausing again until the end of the service. Now it is time for us to pray the anaphora and receive God.

Before the Dismissal

This has been a miraculous time. God has come into our midst through our prayer and come into our bodies through the Holy Eucharist. This is not just so that we can become better people (taking it “for the remission of sins”) but so that we can bring the joy, light, and mercy that God has given us out into a suffering and needy world so we can share it with all His children, our brothers and sisters. God bless and strengthen as you serve as His apostles to all His children outside these doors.