The Divine Liturgy, Part Nine: the Prokeimenon & Alleluia. Keeping the Lord's Day Doesn't Mean Just an Hour on Sunday.

1 Cor. 3:9-17; Matt. 14:22-34.

The Ninth sunday after Pentecost, known as the Ninth Sunday of Matthew.

A Prefestive Day of the Dormition.

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8:42 PM 8/14/2011 — Believe it or not, this is the ninth in our series of homilies on the Divine Liturgy—time flies when you’re having fun. And today we take a look at the Prokeimenon.
     The Prokeimon—or Prokeimenon in Greek—isn’t that difficult to understand. In fact, we’ve already covered most of what you would need to understand it. Like the Troparion and Kontakion, it also was originally something much longer. When the Roman Catholic Church reformed their Liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, they actually restored the Prokeimenon to it’s original form. In the old Latin Mass there was a part called the Gradual which was very much like the Prokeimenon that we sing today. In their new Liturgy, the whole thing has been restored; and those of you who attend Mass in the Roman Rite from time to time are very familiar with it. In between the two readings which precede the Gospel, someone—either a cantor or a reader of some sort—stands up and sings or says a refrain. The people then repeat it. Then the cantor or reader will sing or say a Psalm, with the people repeating the refrain in between each verse of the Psalm. Not surprisingly, in the Mass of the Roman Rite this is called the “Responsorial Psalm.” Sometimes you’ll hear it still referred to by its old title, the Gradual.
     In the Eastern Churches using the Byzantine Liturgy, the Gradual or Prokeimenon suffered the same fate as so many other parts of the Liturgy that we’ve discussed which involve Psalms: the Antiphons, the Troparia and Kontakia, the Stichera at Vespers, and so forth. To spare an impatient people from sitting in church for three hours on Sunday, these parts of the Divine Liturgy were chopped down with most of the Psalms involved being thrown out. The Prokeimenon is probably the most dramatic example of this. And you can see this by simply comparing the same part of the two Liturgies. Go to a Roman Church and you may have a Responsorial Psalm which can include up to six or seven verses, with a refrain being inserted in between each verse; then come to our church and the cantor will sing a refrain (supposedly with the people), then he’ll sing one verse of a Psalm, then we all repeat the refrain, and that’s it.
     Another difference you might notice between the Responsorial Psalm of the Roman Mass and the Prokeimenon of the Divine Liturgy is where it is placed in the service. In the Sunday Mass of the Roman Rite, there are three readings from Scripture: an Old Testament Reading, a reading from the Epistles of St. Paul (or from the Acts of the Apostles during Easter), and finally a Gospel. The Responsorial Psalm takes place between the Old Testament Reading and the Epistle. The Byzantine Liturgy had three readings at one time; but around the eighth or ninth centuries the Old Testament Reading was dropped.* We’re not quite sure why. It may have been just a desire to shorten the service; but it may also have been a feeling that it was superfluous, since the focus of the Liturgy—and the Eucharist itself—is Christ, not the prophets of the Old Testament. In any case, even though the Old Testament reading was dropped from the Byzantine Liturgy, the Prokeimenon which followed it was not. And this is probably when the Prokeimenon actually began to be called the Prokeimenon. The Greek word, “Prokeimenon,” means “placed before,” and refers to the fact that it is sung right before the Epistle.**
     Following the Epistle, and just before the Gospel, is the Alleluia; and its history is exactly the same as the Prokeimenon: it was originally a Psalm, with an Alleluia sung in between each of its verses. Ironically, the fortunes of the Alleluia in both East and West are reversed from that of the Prokeimenon. Whereas in the Prokeimenon it was the Roman Church that kept its original form and the Byzantine Church that shortened it, exactly the opposite is true of the Alleluia, which the Roman Church has shortened to one verse only, while the Byzantine Church maintains at least three verses, sometimes more on special feast days.
     Now, you may be thinking to yourselves, “Well, this is all fascinating to the technically minded; but what’s it all mean to me? Why am I improved by knowing all these esoteric facts of the history of the Divine Liturgy?” And we say such things to ourselves because we lack a spiritual outlook to our lives. A spiritual person is someone who can reflect upon the most mundane things and draw out of them a spiritual truth that can give insight to his life. And a spiritual person might reflect upon something like the Prokeimenon and the Alleluia and ask himself: What is behind this constant desire on the part of Christians over the centuries to shorten their worship of God? Is it because they have ceased to love God as much as they did before, and don’t want to spend as much time with him? Is it because they have lost some of their love for the Holy Eucharist, and now think that they have better things to do?
     Back in 1998, our late Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, wrote an Apostolic Letter about Sunday, the Lord’s Day.** It was widely ignored throughout most of the Catholic world. The bishops of this country didn’t even bother to tell anyone about it, let alone share it with their people. And that was most likely because they were afraid that most Catholics in this country, whether Eastern or Western, would probably disagree with it so violently that it would hurt the Church. It's a long document, filled with theology and history;—as Bl. John Paul's exhortations tend to be—but eventually the pope gets around to teaching us that Sunday belongs to God. It does not belong to family; it does not belong to grandma; it does not belong to football, soccer, picnics or the beach. It belongs to God. And to spend one hour or so in church then go and do your own thing does not constitute keeping the Lord’s day. You keep the Lord’s day by giving the day to the Lord. You do not work, you do not shop, you do not recreate, you do not mow the lawn, you do not travel; on the Lord’s day, you pray. That’s the ideal, anyway.
     Now, I’m not saying these things because I’m starting some crusade to get people to spend all day in Church on Sunday. As we’ve seen already in these summertime presentations on the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy has evolved and changed over the years;—more so in the West than in the East, which still maintains most of the apostolic traditions—but it has evolved and changed with the times to an extent. What is important is that we try—as the Eastern Churches have always tried to do—to remain faithful to the intentions of our Lord and his Apostles when they instituted these services and handed them down to us. The Fourth Commandment of God is to keep holy the Lord’s Day. When it’s such a nice weekend—or maybe a long weekend—and we decide to take the family for a little holiday and just skip services on Sunday, or when the Liturgy is going just a little too long to suit us, and we don’t walk too well anyway, so let me get out to parking lot early before it’s over, are we truly keeping the Lord’s day as the Lord himself intends? When we’ve missed a Sunday or two (or three), and then wander in one Sunday and just march triumphantly up to Holy Communion as if nothing’s wrong, are we keeping the Lord’s day, or are we making a mockery of the Lord’s day?
     Certainly there are other things we have to do on Sunday—that’s a reality of life; some of us even have to work. Realistically, we can’t spend all day in church. No one is asking us to do what our ancestors did in Eastern Europe and attend an all night vigil on Saturday until midnight, then come back Sunday morning for the Liturgy. It was our Lord himself who said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."† But, at the same time, what God said to Moses in the Book of Exodus—what our Lord said to his disciples on numerous occasions—we can certainly take to heart: God has given us everything, even life itself. Is one day a week so much to ask in return?

Father Michael Venditti

* The inclusion of Old Testament readings is, in fact, retained in the Byzantine Liturgy on certain occasions, principally during the celebration of the Vigil Liturgy on the Eve of the highest of Holy Days. On these occasions, there can be as many as six such readings prior to the Epistle.

** Note that the Mass of the Roman Rite moves the Responsorial Psalm to a position in between the Epistle and Gospel on days on which only two readings are taken, in which case it is immediately followed by the Alleluia. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Prokeimenon always precedes the Epistle regardless of the number of readings, even when there is no reading before it.

*** Apostlic Letter Dies Domini, May 31, 1998.

† Mark 2:27.