Ten Things Everyone Should Know about the Divine Liturgy: An Introduction to Orthodox Worship

Ten Things Everyone Should Know about the Divine Liturgy
An Introduction to Orthodox Worship

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and mind… (St. Matthew 22:38)
The most striking thing about Orthodox worship is that it is not about you; rather, it is about the one thing needful (St. Luke 10:42). For example, the priest and deacon spend most of their time facing away from the people. Visitors from other, more believer-centered traditions have commented about how off-putting this is. Our American culture plays on our pride, focusing all its efforts on turning us into egotistical consumers. Orthodoxy seeks to reclaim our humanity from this and all our sin, restoring our identity as homo adorans and children of the Most High (Psalm 81:6). The priest and deacons are not performers, singing and chanting for your entertainment, but pastors leading you in worship as you stand facing East with them and focus on our Merciful, Loving, and All-Powerful Lord. Are your feet tired from standing the entire service? Are you hungry from fasting all morning? Is your throat dry from singing? Offer them as sacrifices to the Lord who gave His Son for your salvation (St. John 3:16). The wonderful thing about the Orthodox process of theosis is that, while it’s not about you and your comfort, learning to put God at the center of your life will bring you more joy than the most-high tech “seeker-friendly” worship service.

2. …and [love] your neighbor as yourself… (St. Matthew 22:39)
When you are not singing Psalms that glorify God, you spend most of the Divine Liturgy participating to the litanies of prayer voiced by the deacon and priest. You cannot help but notice that many of these litanies are repeated, sometimes using the very same words! This repetition is intentional and serves two main purposes: first, the words teach you how to pray, with the repetition making proper prayer instinctive; second, the Lord listens to these prayers and acts according to His mercy. The time that you spend repeatedly asking the Lord to pray for others is not wasted any more than the time you take outside of worship to help a neighbor is wasted. The Orthodox worship is transforming believers from selfish and sinful animals into saintly stewards of creation as they struggle to transform a world that “groans in agony” back into the paradise that God made good (Romans 8:18-27). Prayer is real. So pray for those in need and then “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (St. Matthew 25:34).   Again, Orthodox worship is not about you, but the rewards to the believer who embraces Orthodox worship are substantial.

3. And the Lord said “come no further: take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)
When you walk into an Orthodox Church, you are walking into a sacred place. Moreover, during the Divine Liturgy, you are united with the eternal worship that continually surrounds the throne of God in heaven. Isaiah was brought into the midst of this worship and said; “I saw the Lord on His throne, high and lifted up, and his vestment filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim [i.e. a special kind of angel]…, proclaiming to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” and the house was filled with incense (Isaiah 6:1-5). There are many other visions of heavenly worship in the Scriptures, to include this one from the New Testament; “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar [in heaven]; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne.” (Revelation 8:3). So while it is true that with the tearing of the Temple veil in two at the Lord’s crucifixion the Temple in Jerusalem was replaced with the temple of the Christian heart (Hebrews 9:11; 12:18-29; 1 Corinthians 6:19), Orthodox worship continues to join believers on earth with the cloud of witnesses and angels in heaven. Ritual movements, incense, vestments, the “high holy place” of the altar, even the very words we say during the service witness to this mystical union. Our reaction to being in sanctified space in the presence of the Most High should be fear and trembling, a sense of awe, and an overwhelming appreciation of the wonder of God’s glory and condescension. Isaiah reacted to his experience, saying; “woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:6)

4. Give unto the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of His house. (Psalm 28:2)
The sanctity of Orthodox worship is reinforced by the architecture of the church. The most obvious example is the altar. In the Jewish Temple, only one priest was allowed to enter the “Holy of Holies”, and he only did it once a year after substantial preparation (Hebrews 9:7). Our veneration of the “Holy of Holies” is no less now than it was then. Only priests and servers that have been set aside for this purpose may enter the altar, and then only after prayer and for specific purposes. The altar is separated from the sanctified space of the nave by a wall of icons called the iconostasis. The central “Holy Doors” of the iconostasis are only opened when the revelation of God to His people is especially strong. This includes the presentation and reading of the Gospel and the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ with His people. In our parish, the Holy Doors remain open during almost the entire Sunday Divine Liturgy to signify that in Christ, nothing separates us from the Throne of Heaven. As St. Paul proclaimed to the Hebrews, “[through Christ] you are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling…” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

5. Walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:15-16)
One of the challenges of our times is that people do not take the time to do important things well. They rush through meals together, neglect their personal prayers, and generally over-schedule their lives. As a result, people increasingly find it difficult to concentrate, relax, and live the kind of joyful and contented lives humans are meant to live (St. John 10:10; 15:11). Something important has been lost and it needs to be reclaimed! Because you were made to be homo adorans and not homo economicus, prayer and worship are vital to restoring our spiritual and mental balance. In prayer and worship, there can be no hurry. You miss out on what God is offering you when you try to force your fallen sense of “hurry up so we can fit this in” onto a Divine Liturgy which exists outside time. Clear everything off for Sunday morning (to include children’s sports) and let the Sabbath be the kind of spiritual spa treatment that re-creates you and reminds you how good it is to be alive! It won’t be easy. You are used to checking messages, updates, and e-mails every couple of minutes, and you will miss the dopamine rush these things provide. But developing the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time will make you better at everything you do. It will also be difficult to re-organize your week so that Sunday reclaims its God-intended place in your life as a day of rest, but doing this will make you the steward of your time rather than making time (and your “to-do” list) the master of your life. Who wants to live as slave to a clock? As you walk into the church, turn off your phone, take a deep cleansing breath, cross yourself, and enjoy the timeless beauty of the glory of God.

6. I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth. (Psalm 33:1)
Christians are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  One of the ways this manifests itself in the life of Orthodox Christians is through their daily “Prayer Rule.” This “Prayer Rule” includes set prayers for the morning, the evening, and before and after Communion. For people who have spent their whole week in prayer, participating in the Divine Liturgy is like going to the Super Bowl with your home team after following them all season: fair-weather fans may enjoy the game, but real fans feel every moment more profoundly. Sunday is the “crown of the week”, and the Divine Liturgy is the jewel in that crown! It is also traditional for Orthodox Christians to attend the Resurrection Vigil on Saturday evening (we follow the Jewish Custom of marking the beginning of the liturgical day at sundown, so this is the first service of Sunday). In fact, in many parishes, no one would even think about coming to Communion on Sunday without having come to Vigil and Confession on Saturday evening! This is not required in our parish, but the Vigil is a beautiful service whose solemnity, poetry, and music will deepen your life in Christ. Make it – and a good “Prayer Rule” – part of your life and mark how your peace, joy, and love of worship increase!

7. Let everything [in worship] be done decently and in good order. (1 Corinthians 14:30)
You have given your life to Christ. You recognize the all-powerful magnificence of our Lord and God. You know that the church is sanctified space, the meeting place of heaven and earth. Are you surprised that you should act differently when you are there? It’s not a matter of rules, it’s a matter of respect. When you go to a feast at a powerful and respectable man’s house, you don’t act like you do when you are hanging out with your friends, do you? For instance, when you first arrive at his house for the party, don’t you go and exchange greetings with him when before you do anything else? It is the same with coming to church: when you first arrive, pause at the entrance, cross yourself, then go and venerate the icons at the front of the nave (usually of Christ, His mother, and the parish patron or feast). Thank the Lord at least as humbly and sincerely as you would the host of a dinner party. Here are some more ways that you should show your respect for God and the Church:

  • Arrive early so that you can venerate the icons, light candles, pray for loved ones in need, and prepare yourself for the work that is coming.
  • When you move from one side of the nave to the other, you are walking in front of the altar and throne of God (the “High Place”): cross yourself and offer a prayer of thanksgiving.
  • When you greet your friends in church, do it in the name of the Lord with a Christian greeting and a kiss rather than a simple handshake (“Glory to Jesus Christ” “Glory forever” is always appropriate).
  • When you greet a priest or bishop, acknowledge the mighty work his hands do on your behalf: put your right hand over your left, bow, and say “Father bless!” (or “Vladyka bless”, in the case of a bishop). He will respond by blessing you and putting his hand onto yours, after which you venerate it with a kiss.
  • For those who are able, standing is the respectful posture for worship. If you cannot stand for the entire service, the books are marked with the times when those who must may sit (and when only the truly infirm should not be standing).
  • With the exception of babies and toddlers, the only food and drink that should be brought into the church are the Body and Blood of Christ, the blessed bread, and the after-Communion wine. Candy and gum should never be brought into the church.
  • When you cross yourself and/or bow, take your time and do it well.
  • Talking and using your phone are for outside the church, before and after the service only; never for inside the church during a service.
  • Plan your day so that you can get to church early and stay for the entire service.
  • The respect our actions demonstrate should also be shown by the way we choose to dress. Clothing should be modest (i.e. not showy) and at least “casual dress.”

Again, this is not about putting on a show for God or anyone else, but about offering the very best we have and are to Him.

8. Whosoever eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (St. John 6:54)

The Good News is that God took on flesh, taught us, suffered, died, was resurrected and ascended, and established the Church so that we who are sinners might be saved and take up our roles as God’s children and the stewards of His creation. The Church is the Body of Christ, with Him as its head. Orthodox Christians take that seriously; they are “radical incarnationalists”. The Greeks and Jews of two thousand years ago rejected Jesus as God because they could not imagine God being a physical man; many Christians fall into the same mistake by rejecting the incarnation of Christ in the physical, institutional Church (rather than just the invisible union of all believers). In their folly, they reject the literal apostolic succession of our bishops (e.g. Titus 1:5-9), the power of priests to “loose and bind” the sins of men (St. John 20:21-23), the grace in blessed oil to heal (St. James 5:14-15), and Communion as the real Body and Blood of Christ capable of granting eternal life (e.g. St. John 6:53-54; 1 Corinthians 11:29). Everything the Orthodox do derives from the real presence of God in His Church. Both the altar and the sanctuary are sacred because God is physically present there (ibid; St. Matthew 18:20); the Mysteries (Sacraments, e.g. Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Communion, Anointing, Marriage, & Ordination) are real because they are how God most strongly works through His Church; and the Divine Liturgy changes lives because of the power inherent to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. St. Paul knew this power, which is why he warned the Christians at Corinth that “whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). It is because it recognizes the seriousness of Communion that the Church requires believers to become Orthodox (through Baptism and/or Chrismation), to fast (as normal during the week and from Saturday at midnight through to Communion), to go to Confession (not necessarily the evening before, but regularly), and to pray the pre-Communion prayers before taking Communion. The power of the Lord is a blessing to those who are reconciled to Him, but a burning fire to those who are not.

9. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. (Isaiah 6:6-7)
The Divine Liturgy of today is a continuation of the Eucharistic worship of the Apostles (Acts 1:42). At its heart is the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and the reception of these gifts by the faithful for their salvation (1 Corinthians 11). The service begins with the Liturgy of the Word, designed to teach us and prepare us for Communion. The Psalms and Litanies praise God for His glory and ask for His intercession in this world. The first big movement in the liturgical dance is the Little Entrance, when the priest and servers carry the Gospel out of the altar and then back in through Holy Doors. This, the Epistle and Gospel readings, and the homily that follow it allow us to participate in and benefit from Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. The next big movement is the Great Entrance, when the bread and wine that have been set aside and prepared are carried from the Table of Preparation out among the people, through the Holy Doors, and placed on the altar. This reminds us of Christ’s passion, when he was led “like a lamb to the slaughter” for the remission of our sins. The next major section is the Anaphora. It includes the “Words of Institution” (“Take eat…”) that the Lord Himself gave us on Holy Thursday and the calling down of the Holy Spirit to change the offerings of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a powerful moment that demands your strictest attention and piety. Soon thereafter, the Holy Doors are closed so that the priest can partake and prepare Communion for all the faithful. Once this is done, he brings the “Holy things for the Holy” out to the faithful who approach with “The fear of God, in faith (and love).” Receiving Communion is the highlight of every Christian’s life and he does so with all seriousness, humility, and thankfulness. Once the Liturgy is over, you (regardless of whether you are Orthodox or received Communion) should come forward to venerate the priest’s cross, greet the priest, receive some of the blessed bread, then go out to do the Lord’s work in the world.

10. According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue. Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
God has created you to become a “partaker of the divine nature” (above), to be “perfect as Your Father in heaven is perfect” (St. Matthew 5:48), and to have “life in abundance.” (St. John 10:10) The Church is the way that you are transformed from the chief of sinners into a saint. The Divine Liturgy of the Church is the primary mechanism of that transformation. It is an expression of our unity with the perfection of God and one another in Christ and the way that this mystical union is achieved. When we understand the way God works through His Church and her Mysteries, we understand how the Psalmist David was led to exclaim; “a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” (Psalm 83:10) There really is no better way to spend a Sunday morning – and an eternity – than being united to the uncreated Source of everything good.