The Divine Liturgy, Part Ten: "I will not reveal Your mysteries to Your enemies."
1 Cor. 4:9-16; Matt. 17:14-23.
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Tenth Sunday of Matthew.
A Postfestive Day of the Dormition.
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11:00 AM 8/21/2011 — When we last left the Divine Liturgy we were talking about the Prokiemenon and Alleluia. Next would be the Gospel and homily, which we’re going to skip over since the summer is drawing to a close and we need to make a little more headway. So, we’re going to move on to a part of the Liturgy which doesn’t ordinarily take place, but which I want to cover anyway since there are some important points connected with it.
This part of the Liturgy is called the Dismissal of the Catechumens. A catechumen is someone who is not baptized, but who is preparing for baptism. Not all converts to our faith are catechumens because most converts to our faith are already baptized into some other Christian denomination, whether it be Protestant or Orthodox or whatever. A catechumen is someone who has never been baptized into any kind of church, and who is in the process of preparing for baptism. Ordinarily this preparation takes place during the Great Fast, so that the catechumen can be welcomed into the Church of Christ at Easter time. So, a Presbyterian or a Methodist or a Baptist or a United Church of Christ person or an Orthodox person who wanted to become a Byzantine Catholic would not become a catechumen, since he or she would have already been baptized. They would have to be prepared, of course; but when the time came for them to be received into the Church, they would simply make a profession. They would not be baptized again, since they would have already been baptized. But when someone wants to join the Church who has never been baptized, he becomes what’s called a catechumen.
Now, to understand the dismissal of the catechumens as it exists in the Divine Liturgy today, one has to understand something of the history of the early Church. For the first three hundred years of the Church’s existence, Christians were persecuted. For this reason, the members of the Church would gather in secret to celebrate the Divine Liturgy—in Rome, for example, they used to go into the underground cemeteries called catacombs to celebrate the Eucharist, as you know. The emperor—or whoever was persecuting the Church at the time—would sometimes plant spies among the Christians in an attempt to find out where these secret places were. Because of this, the early Christians had a strict rule: if you were not a full member of the Church, you were not allowed to attend the service. You weren’t even allowed to know where it was going to be. If you open up your pew book to page 77 you’ll find that prayer that we all recite together just before we receive Holy Communion: “O Lord, I believe and profess...”; there’s a part of that prayer where we say, “Accept me as a partaker of Your mystical supper, O Son of God; for I will not reveal Your mystery to Your enemies....” This is what that line means. It’s an oath of secrecy. Before being given Holy Communion, we are promising not to reveal anything about what happens at our service to anyone on the outside. That way we prevent the enemies of the Church from finding out where we are and what we’re doing so they can’t come and cut our heads off.
Now, the catechumens, who were preparing for baptism, could not be permitted to witness the Eucharist itself because of this necessity of secrecy; but they were preparing to be received into the Church, so they couldn’t be entirely excluded. So, they were permitted to attend the Liturgy up to and including the Gospel and the homily, after which they were required to leave. They were not permitted to remain for the whole Liturgy until after they were baptized.* In, fact, the first time they were permitted to witness the entire Divine Liturgy was the day they were baptized and received Holy Communion. The first half of the Divine Liturgy—from the beginning up to the homily—was and is sometimes referred to as the Liturgy of the Catechumens, with the rest of the Liturgy being sometimes referred to as the Liturgy of the Faithful. The Dismissal of the Catechumens is a very brief service that takes place right after the Gospel—or the homily, if there is one—and the Litany which follows, which consists of a short litany with “Lord, have mercies,” followed by a prayer for the enlightenment of the catechumens as they prepared for baptism. The reason you’re not familiar with this part of the Liturgy is because in the Ruthenian Church we do not do this ceremony unless there are catechumens present. Some Eastern Churches do it all the time regardless of whether there are catechumens.
The only difference between the Dismissal of the Catechumens as done in the early Church and what we do today is that, today, the catechumens are not required to leave. In fact, as early as the sixth century in Byzantium it became more and more common for the catechumens to remain in church for the whole service, since the absence of the persecutions made secrecy no longer necessary. Remember, also, that the empire had become Christian, so there were fewer and fewer converts to the Church; most Christians were being born into the Church and baptized as babies. Nevertheless, the ceremony for the Dismissal of the Catechumens remained a part of the Liturgy. In fact, it was around this same time—between the sixth and eighth centuries—that the dismissal began to take on a new meaning, namely, the expulsion of sinners: those who could not receive Holy Communion because they had committed mortal sins but had not yet confessed or completed their penance. In the early Church, confession was often not handled as privately as it is today. Those who had committed the three most serious sins—adultery, murder and apostasy (which is the sin of denying the faith)—were known to the people and had to do their penance publicly. And after the Gospel, during the Dismissal of the Catechumens, they had to stand up and walk out of the church in full view of everyone; that humiliation was part of their penance.
Now, the Dismissal of the Catechumens may seem to us to be an unnecessary relic of the past, especially in the Ruthenian Church where we only do it if there are, in fact, catechumens present. Once in a great while we may have a catechumen, as we did a few years ago; confession is handled completely in private now. But I think the Dismissal of the Catechumens offers us a rich point for meditation and reflection. The desire of the earliest Christians to safeguard the Blessed Eucharist from the enemies of the Church, their desire to make sure that Christ was received in Holy Communion only by those who were worthy and in the state of grace, should cause us to reflect on the care we take in our own lives regarding the Holy Eucharist that we so often approach to receive. Do we make sure, when we approach for Communion, that we are, in fact, in the state of grace, free from mortal sin? And when we do receive, are we fully conscious of Him whom we are receiving into our souls, and the implications that implies for how we should then live our lives?
Father Michael Venditti
* Though it looks like a depiction of a baptism, the icon is actually a scene from the Martyrdom of St. Demetrios, who was murdered while in a bathhouse. Consistent with the non-temporal approach used in much of the iconography of Byzantium, he is being wrapped in his burial shroud by the faithful even as the soldiers are approaching. Either interpretation would be appropriate for this homily.