The Orthodox Liturgy
Part 2: The Liturgy of the Word

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.

The Liturgy of the Word begins with the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” With these words, those participating in the Liturgy enter into a different dimension of time — the dimension of the eternal “now” of God. We also enter into a gathering of the angelic ranks (invisible creation) and are joined to those united in and enlivened by the Body of Christ — living on earth, living in paradise, and yet to be born (visible creation). In the Liturgy, we will experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, and of its eternal banquet! (Later in the Liturgy of the Faithful, we will be reminded to “lay aside all earthly cares.” In the Eucharistic Liturgy, we will feast on the Body and Blood of Christ.)

The deacon, if one is serving, or the priest then prays the Great Litany of Peace. It is called the ‘Litany of Peace’ because the first three petitions all concern peace: “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” “For the peace from above…,” and “For the peace of the whole world….” The petitions of this litany address the basic and general needs of every community and its members. In the prayer of the litany, the priest asks, “O Master, impart the riches of Your mercy and Your compassion to us and to those who pray with us.”

In the first part of the Liturgy, we find the litanies and prayers followed by a Psalm, a Psalm and a hymn, Scripture verses and hymns, or Psalm verses and refrains. After the Great Litany and prayer, for example, Psalm 102 is sung. Some parishes sing a few verses of that Psalm, while some monasteries and some parishes will sing the whole Psalm. The Second Antiphon, which follows a little litany, is Psalm 145 and then the hymn, “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God…”. The third Antiphon is verses of the Beatitudes with hymns from the tone of the week or feast day sung toward the end of the Beatitudes between the verses of the Beatitudes.

During festal Liturgies and certain daily Liturgies, the First Antiphon may not be Psalm 102, but selected Psalm verses with a refrain such as, “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.” Depending on the calendar and what the Church is celebrating, the Second antiphon might be selected Psalm verses with the refrain, “Through the prayers of the saints, O Savior save us,” or, for example, from the Ascension, “O Son of God, Who ascended in glory, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!” The Third Antiphon might be Psalm verses with the troparion of a feast or of Sunday, or the refrain of Sunday, “O Son of God, Who rose from the dead, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!” or on weekdays, “O Son of God, Who is wondrous in His saints, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!”

Because of the way the “hymns” after these first three litanies are supposed to be sung, they are called antiphon. To sing antiphonically means that two choirs or cantors chant the lines of the Psalms alternately. If, for example, the choir or cantor on the south side of the church chants the first line, then the choir or cantor on the north side chants the second line. Thus, they chant the verses back and forth until they have finished. The practice of singing antiphonically during the services is a practice of the early Church known from the 4th century onwards. The Psalms especially lend themselves to antiphonal singing. The Psalms are Hebrew poetry whose characteristic is that the lines of the verses respond to one another. In other words, what the first line says, the second line often repeats or further develops using different words — for example, “I will visit their sins with the rod, and their iniquities with the scourge” (Psalm 88:33).

At the conclusion of the Antiphons, the Gospel Book is brought from the altar area into the main body of the temple. This is called the Little Entrance. Unless there is a deacon, the priest carries the holy Gospel. The Gospel is preceded by a candle that symbolizes Christ, the Light of the World. The candle also denotes the sanctity of the Gospel. In the early centuries of the Church, this was the procession of the Bishop and his clergy into the temple to begin the Liturgy. After the deacon called all to attention, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” Then the clergy called all to prayer, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ…” As the clergy processed through the temple and into the altar area, the hymns (theme songs — troparion and kontakion) of the day and feast were sung. After a prayer at the Holy Table and the blessing of the Bishop and all the priests went to sit on either side of the Bishop in a raised area of the apse (the rounded, eastern wall of the altar area)., called the “high place” for the Scripture readings.

Today, after the choir sings the hymns of the day, they then sing the “Holy God.” There is a legend that this hymn was introduced into the Liturgy following a tornado in Constantinople. A young boy was picked up by a funnel cloud and disappeared, and was later found some distance away. The people asked what he had heard and seen when he was “taken up to heaven.” The boy replied that he had heard the angels singing: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!” Following this hymn, the priest goes to the high place to give his blessing for the beginning of the Scripture readings. These readings are usually from the New Testament, although during Vesperal Liturgies — Liturgies immediately preceded by Vespers — there are also Old Testament readings.

As an introduction to the first reading, a Psalm verse (Prokimenon) is sung as a refrain, with other Psalm verses. The reader then reads a designated portion from an Epistle (letter by an Apostle) or the Acts of the Apostles (a short history of the Church in Jerusalem after Christ’s Resurrection). Before the Gospel is read, it is preceded by the refrain “Alleluia” sung three times along with selected Psalm verses. During the Alleluia, the altar, icons, temple, and people are incensed in preparation for hearing the holy Gospel and to remind us of God’s presence through His Word — Jesus Christ — in the Gospel. The deacon, if one is present, or a priest then reads the appointed Gospel of the day. The Gospel is the Word of God given to us as food and nourishment for our souls. This is followed by a sermon or time of instruction on what we have just heard in the Scriptures or on some other theme.

Although some jurisdictions in America begin the “Cherubim Hymn” right after the Gospel or sermon, the Liturgy actually continues with a litany that is very much like the Great Litany, and whose petitions are answered by a threefold “Lord, have mercy.” This litany allows the local community to add names and special petitions that address the specific needs of individuals in the community, as well as for the particular needs of the community as a whole. Then there is a litany for those departed this life — members of our family and community, who have “fallen asleep” in the Lord.

The Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Synagogue, or the Liturgy of the Catechumens ends following the Litany of the Catechumens. This litany prays for those who are being instructed in the Faith and who are preparing fro Baptism and admission into the Church. At the end of this litany, those who are not yet baptized members of the Church are dismissed. Only the faithful, who have been initiated into the Church through Baptism, Chrismation, and ultimately the Holy Eucharist, are allowed to remain for the Liturgy of the Faithful. Two little litanies with prayers for the faithful, begin the Liturgy of the Faithful and bring us to the “Cherubim Hymn”.

Some parishes omit the Litany of the Catechumens and its dismissal, especially if they have no one currently preparing for entrance into the holy Orthodox Church of Christ (a condition which is hopefully a rarity). Today, throughout the world in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, there are many people who are catechumens preparing for Baptism. They need our prayers, and the prayers of this litany. If nothing else, this litany reminds us again and again that we are to be a missionary and evangelizing Church — that is, a Church bringing the good news of the Gospel to those who have not come to believe in Christ and who are not members of His Body, the Holy Orthodox Church.

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

© 2001 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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