The Orthodox Liturgy
Part 1: The Preparation

by Archimandrite Alexander Cutler

In the world of the Roman Empire, the Greek word liturgy meant ‘any public work’ or ‘work done for the common good’. Thus the freemen stood in the forum, voted, and took part in the liturgy or public work of the Roman state. The assembly of Christians, free and slave, who stood in the church building and prayed, was a work done for the spiritual welfare and well-being of all, and was called the Divine Liturgy. The prayers of the Orthodox Church’s Liturgy are believed to uphold the whole world.

The Church’s Liturgy is divided into three parts: the preparation, the Liturgy of the Word (or Liturgy of the Catechumens), and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (or the Liturgy of the Faithful). The preparation is that part of the Liturgy when the bread and wine are prepared for the Eucharistic service. The Liturgy of the Word is much like the Jewish synagogue service, which consists of prayers, psalms and hymns, scripture readings, and a sermon. Catechumens [those preparing to enter the Body of Christ, the Church] were allowed to attend the Liturgy of the Word. Fulfilling the Lord’s commandment, the Liturgy of the Eucharist imitates what Christ did at the Last (Mystical) Supper, and by the power of the Holy Spirit changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord. This Liturgy of the Faithful is closed to the catechumens. Only initiated Orthodox Christians are allowed to attend and receive the Eucharist.

Before the priest begins the preparatory part of the Liturgy, he goes before the Royal Doors and prays. In his prayer, he asks for God’s forgiveness, and His help to perform the Liturgy worthily and to offer the unbloody sacrifice. After bowing to the people for whom and in whose name he will serve, the priest enters the altar area (also called the sanctuary) praying the last half of Psalm 5: “I will enter Your house…” After bowing down and kissing the Holy Altar, he removes his outer garment and begins to vest, or put on the garments of the priesthood. Each vestment is put on with a prayer or a Psalm verse. Before he begins the preparation service, the priest washes his hands, praying the last part of Psalm 25: “I will wash my hands in innocence…”

In front of the priest on the table of oblation (or the table of offering) — in the Russian practice — are five round loaves of leavened bread called prosphora or offering bread. Before baking, each of the loaves is sealed or impressed with a mark on the top surface. The usual mark is a Cross with letters that proclaim that Jesus Christ conquers. Sometimes the breads may be marked with an image of the Mother of God or of other saints. The first and best of the breads, with the clearest mark of the Cross, will become the “lamb” or the offering bread chosen to consecrated the Body of Christ. It is called the “lamb” because Christ is the “Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). The second bread, which may have the image of Mary, will be used in her honor. The third loaf will be in honor of holy ones, the saints. The fourth loaf will be used to remember the living, and the fifth loaf to remember the departed. In the Byzantine practice, one large offering loaf (although more than one may also be used) is used in exactly the same way as the five smaller breads.

The priest begins the preparation service by cutting out a cube of bread for the “lamb”. All crust is removed from this cube, except for the crust on the top with the impression of the Cross. He then “sacrifices” the “lamb” with a special knife called a lance. He cuts from the center top to bottom and from the middle side to side, in the form of a Cross, quartering the cube but not cutting into the crust or seal on the top. He then puts the quartered cube of bread n the discos (or plate) and thrusts the lance into the right side of the “lamb”, immediately pouring wine and water into the chalice (or cup). This is what the priest says, and what we read in the Gospel: “And one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).

The priest then cuts out a triangle or particle in honor of Mary, the Theotokos. This particle is placed next to the “lamb” on its right side. In Psalm 45:9 we read: “…the queen stood on the right side clothed in gold of Ophir….” (In monasteries, another portion is cut out at this time, too, and saved for a service to the Mother of God that takes place in the monastery dining room after the Liturgy.) Then the priest cuts out nine particles in honor of the saints. In the Russian practice, the first particle is for the holy Prophet and Forerunner, St. John the Baptist. In Byzantine practice, the first particle is for the holy angels. The second particle is for the holy prophets. The third particle is for the holy Apostles. The fourth particle is for sainted bishops. The fifth particle is for the holy martyrs. The sixth particle is for monks and nuns who are saints. The seventh particle is for holy physicians who healed people for free. [These saints are called unmercenaries.] The eighth particle is for the patron saint of the parish or monastery, the saints who are “equal to the Apostles” because they converted a nation or people, and the saint or saints commemorated for the day. The ninth particle is for the saint whose Liturgy we are celebrating: St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great. All of these particles are placed on the left side of the “lamb” in rows of three.

In the space below the “lamb”, the priest placed particles for the living and the departed. Triangles are cut for the patriarch, metropolitan, or archbishop and for the presiding diocesan bishop. Another triangle is cut out for the civil authorities. Smaller particles are cut out for the names of each living person remembered. After the living have been remembered, the priest cuts out a triangle for the bishops, priests, monastics, and founders of the parish or monastery. Smaller particles are the placed on the plate to remember individuals who have fallen asleep in the Lord. Finally, the priest takes out a particle for himself and places it with the rest of the particles for the living. When all this is completed, we see the “lamb” – which will become the Body of Christ during the Eucharistic Liturgy – enthroned on the plate surrounded by particles representing the Mother of God and all the saints, and all the living and the departed. The “lamb” now takes on the image of the lamb enthroned and surrounded by the saints as described in the Apocalypse (or Book or Revelation), chapter 7:9-17.

The preparation service continues with the offering of incense and the covering of the bread and wine with veils or coverings. The priest prays, “We offer incense to You, Christ our God.” Incense is made of resins that come from special trees, which are mixed with fragrant oils. It is then placed on a hot coal, which burns the incense and makes a sweet-smelling smoke. Because incense is expensive, when we burn it, it is an offering made to God. The burning of the incense symbolizes our prayer rising up to God. St. Simeon of Thessalonika says that the temple filled with the smoke of incense reminds us that God is present; for in the Old Testament, when the Temple of Solomon was dedicated in Jerusalem, the presence of God filled the temple with so much “smoke” that the priests were forced to go outside!

After the incense is offered, the bread and win covered, then our gifts are also offered by the priest, who prays, “Bless this offering and accept it on Your heavenly altar. Remember those who offered it and those for whom it was offered.” Bread and wine are our particularly human offerings. Unlike wheat and grapes, fruits and vegetables, or birds and animals that are found naturally in the world around us, bread and wine must be made by man. The wheat must be ground into flour, then mixed with water and yeast, then baked to become bread. The grapes must be crushed, the juice extracted and fermented, and the wine bottled.

In the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, the preparation service took place in a separate, circular building on the northeast end of the temple. This building was called the skeuphylakion or ‘place where the sacred vessels [were] kept’. To this sacristy, the faithful brought their personal offerings of bread, wheat, wine, and oil. From these offerings, the deacons chose the best breads and wine to use for the Liturgy. The wheat was used to make flour for more bread, and the oil was burned in the temple’s lamps – illuminating the house of God. Anything left over was available to the clergy and distributed to the needy.

This service — which takes place today most often with the table of oblation in the northeastern corner of the sanctuary (behind the iconastas or wall of icons) or in a special and separate room also off the northeast side of the altar area — concludes with its own dismissal like other services. Usually the only people who see this service being performed are the deacons and the altar servers, who are in the sanctuary. In most parishes, the service takes place during the reading of the Third and Sixth Hours, right before the Liturgy begins. As soon as this service concludes, the priest or deacon(s) cense the altar area, the iconastas, the people (because they are all made in the image or icon of God), and the whole church. The bells are rung. All is now ready for the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word.

This series of articles, introducing children and their parents to the theology, symbolism, and historical development of the Liturgy will continue in the next two issues of OFL. Fr. Alexander Cutler, who “narrates” the Liturgy for children at altar server rallies and youth meetings and instructs adult Late Vocations candidates in liturgics, is the Abbot of the Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Theologian in Hiram, Ohio.

Some Things To Do

Attend a “teaching Liturgy” as a family at your own parish or a neighboring parish. (In our parish, Fr. Stephen performs the Liturgy of Preparation on a folding table in the center aisle of the nave a couple of times a year, so that all the children can see what goes on. The high point is always when Father prays and takes out a particle for each boy and girl present by name, so they can hear it. You can hear them saying, “I think I got my piece!” after receiving Communion.)
Visit a local living-history museum in your area (or while on summer vacation) to see how wheat is harvested and ground into flour “the old fashioned way” using a water- or ox-driven millstone. It’s hard work!
Take a morning field trip to a local bakery to see how bread is made commercially. (Our family has visited both a “specialty bread” bakery in our area and the enormous Schwebel’s Bread & Buns plant. Katie was awed by the tanker-trucks full of flour and the huge conveyor-belt ovens!)
Ask your parish priest for permission to watch as he prepares the prosphora for Liturgy, if he bakes it himself, or ask him to arrange for you to visit the ‘designated baker’ in your parish. Discuss how the baking of offering bread differs from commercial baking: prayers are said throughout the process; the loaves are imprinted with the Cross or an icon; the bowls, bread board, and other utensils used to prepare the bread are not used for anything else.
Visit a local winery several times over the summer so you can see the vines being tended, the harvest process, and the “squashing” of the grapes in preparation for fermentation.

After your visits, discuss the many steps required over a long time to make grapes into wine. (You may be able to find schedules for formal tours/seminars at area wineries on the internet, though most wineries are open daily to visitors for “drop in” visits. Mom and Dad may want to bring a sample bottle home, too!)
Go on a scavenger hunt through the Bible to find examples of the offerings made to God before the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and make a list. What do they have in common? (Check out Cain and Abel, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, the priests of the Temple, etc.)

by Nichola T. Krause

© 2000 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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