The Divine Liturgy, Part Two: ready or not, here we go—the Rites of Preparation.
Rom. 2:10-16; Matt. 4:18-23.
The Second Sunday after Pentecost.
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11:40 AM 6/26/2011 — We continue with our discussion of the Divine Liturgy. Last week, as you will recall, we began with a very general explanation of the notion of Tradition in the Eastern Church and how it applies to the Divine Liturgy. And we had talked about a very important person in the history of the Liturgy named St. Germanus. He was patriarch of Constantinople before the schism, when the Byzantine Empire was still part of the Catholic Church, and the Patriarch and the Pope of Rome will still in communion with one another. Even so, the Liturgies of East and West were already very different; so St. Germanus wrote an explanation of the Divine Liturgy as he celebrated it in the great church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, so that those in the West would be able to understand the Liturgical traditions of the East better. And we learned that, as he goes through the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom line by line, he comes upon certain things the meanings and origins of which even he does not know—practices so old they probably date back to the times of the Apostles themselves. But he tells us that it’s important that we retain these traditional practices anyway, even though we may never know what they originally meant; and, in so doing, gives us the principle of sacred tradition which is so important in understanding the nature of the Divine Liturgy: The fact that something has been done a certain way for as long as anyone can remember is, all by itself, sufficient reason to continue to do it. Today we move away from these general considerations, and begin to talk about the Liturgy in detail.
Now, I’m sure that, over the years, you’ve had various priests come through this parish who have attempted to explain to you the Divine Liturgy; but, my experience is that, in explaining the Divine Liturgy to lay people, priests will often confine themselves to the public portion of the Liturgy without reference to those parts of the service that occur out of the sight of the people and before most people have even come into church. There are, in fact, three parts of the Divine Liturgy, all occuring at the beginning, which take place out of the sight of the poeople. Nonetheless, they are a part of the service, and the service is considered incomplete without them. They are the Prayers before the iconostas, the vesting and the proskomedia.
Now, all of the Liturgies of the various churches have some form of preparation rite connected to them. Sometimes they take a definite form, and sometimes they don’t, leaving the prayers to be recited up to the priest. What is peculiar about the rites of preparation in the Eastern Churches is that they form part of the Liturgy itself. In the Latin Rite, by contrast, the prescribed prayers are entirely private, that is, the priest may say them by himself and anywhere he pleases; they are not even included in some editions of the Roman Missal. In the Byzantine Rite the prayers are included in the Liturgikon and must be said by the priest in church before the inconostas. In other words, by the time you get the church, the Liturgy has already been going on; you don’t see it because that part of the service is done by the priest and the deacon (if there is one) before you have even arrived in church.
A portion of this part of the Liturgy is actually reproduced in your pew book. If you open to the beginning where it says “Prayers Before the Divine Liturgy,” you’ll see it reproduced for you. These prayers are actually taken from that part of the Liturgy which you don’t see. One of the first things you notice about these prayers is that they begin in the same way that every service in the Byzantine Tradition begins: with what we call the “Introductory Prayers:”
“Blessed is our God...”
“Glory to you...”
“O heavenly King...”
“Glory to the Father...”
“Most Holy Trinity...”
So, when someone asks you, “How come the Divine Liturgy is the only service we have that doesn’t begin with these familiar prayers, you can tell them that it does, but that this part of the Liturgy is not heard by the people. It happens in church, but the priests and deacons recite it among themselves, and usually before most people have come to the church.
Following these prayers comes the Troparia of Penitence; and this is approprate because of the august nature of the service itself. The Liturgy is, after all, the action of Christ at the last supper; and the priest, who stands in the place of Christ at the Holy Table, needs to be mindful of his sins and his need for forgiveness. All of us should approach the Divine Liturgy with a certain amount of fear, but also of hope, knowing that no one is really completely worthy to be in the presence of God. Like all tropars and kondaks translated from the Greek, they show an extraordinary economy of words. Troparia and Kontakia are essentially hymns which developed in the style of the Psalms in the early centuries of the Church. They are very much like abstract paintings, seeking to say in a few words what would ordinarily take many words to convey; in this sense they are really the epitome of poetry. The troparia of Penitence plead with God for forgiveness in the simplest of terms: they plead, they beg, they yearn for acceptance by God in the sense that a wayward child does of his father: “Have mercy...because we have trusted in You.... Be not angry with us.” A child, when he has offended his father, doesn’t seek justification like an adult does, nor does he plead in terms of justice; he simply desires forgiveness because “you are my father.” Nothing else needs to be said. And only a father is capable of such forgiveness.
Following the troparia of Penitence come the prayers before the icons of Christ and His Mother, which are not reproduced in your pew book. Now, we’ve discussed icons before, and we know that there is a fundamental difference between the Byzantines and the Westerners in the interpretation of sacred images. The Western Church regards them as merely representations of one whose presence is elsewhere, in heaven. For the Byzantine Christian, the icon is a veritable theophany, a dynamic manifestation of divine energy at work on earth. The person represented is, in some spiritual way, actually present in the icon; and when the priest prays before these icons, he considers himself in the presense of Christ and his Mother in a mystical way, and does not enter the sanctuary before these prayers are completed. It’s almost like what we all do when we visit someone else’s home: we don’t just walk in: we ring the bell and wait to be greeted by our host at the door. In the same way, the priest who is celebrating the Liturgy “pays his respects” to Christ and his Mother before entering the sanctuary. So, the priest, having finished the Troparia of Penitence, approaches each of the icons of Christ and his Mother in turn, reciting the prayers for each, and bowing to each.
This being done, the priest enters the sanctuary through the Northern door and approaches the Holy Table. There he kisses the Gospel Book and the hand cross which are always there. And from there he goes to the altar or table of vesting. All of the liturgies, both Eastern and Western, have rites and prayers which accompany the vesting of the priest. Only in the East is it considered part of the Liturgy itself.
For the first three centuries of the Church, there were no such things as vestments. Priests wore the same clothing as everyone else when they celebrated the Eucharist. The only written comment we have about clothing worm by the priest from this period says that the pirest’s clothes should be nicer than anyone elses. The first mention of special vestments for Liturgical use is found in the writings of St. Theodoret in about the year 330, where he mentions a speical gold robe given by Constantine to the Cathedral in Jerusalem to be worn by the bishop there. But, as you know, clothing styles change all the time; and, as the style of clothing worn by people on the street changed with every passing fashion, the clothes worn by the priest in church did not. So, the vestments of the priest with which we are familiar are actually based on clothing that was worn by most people in the third century. Over the centuries, the churches of both the east and the west developed their own distinctive customes regarding liturgical vestments, assigning special colors for certain occasions or seasons of the year, and attributing to each vestment certain symbolic conotations, which are reflected in the prayers that are said by the priest when he puts each one on.
Once they are vested, the priest and deacon go to the altar of preparation for the proskomedia. The proskomedia is one of the most important parts of the Liturgy. It is certainly one of the most symbolic; but it is also one of the most neglected. So, next week’s homily will be a little different: I’m going to delay doing the proskomedia and actually do it in church for you to see in place of the homily, and hopefully explaining it to you as we go along.
Father Michael Venditti