The Divine Services Liturgy - 5
Last week, in our continuing discussions of the rubrics and meaning of the Divine Liturgy, we came to the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Catechumens.
We come now to one of the most beautiful and poignant hymns of the liturgy, the Cherubic Hymn. The Royal Doors are opened and the choir sings: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy hymn unto the Life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care, that we may receive the King of all, Who cometh invisibly upborne in triumph by the angelic hosts. Alleluia.” Let us look for a moment at what is being said here…
Our calling, as faithful Orthodox Christians participating in the Divine Liturgy, is to mystically represent the Cherubim – those ranks of angels that surround the throne of God in ceaseless praise. Just as they chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Trinity, so are we expected to, and privileged to, chant our praises and gratitude to God. This is a most wonderful and amazing thing! We, who are pitiable and sinful earthbound creatures, are transported in the Divine Liturgy to the likeness of the Cherubim. God comes into our midst in the Divine Liturgy. The altar is soon to become the throne of God and we are being invited and called to stand before the throne of God and chant praises to Him, just like the Cherubim in heaven. What an awesome mystery! What an awesome privilege we have, brothers and sisters in Christ!
The hymn goes on to remind us and urge us to lay aside all earthly care. This is so important… and this is also such a privilege. We are being called into the unfolding presence of God – this is no time to entertain our thoughts of the distractions and worries of this world. What a joy it is to take the next hour to lay aside all earthly cares so that we might receive the King of all. Our modern lives are so burdened with cares and worries and concerns: money worries, family problems, issues at work, and all the various temptations and thoughts that assail us. We are being called here to leave these aside for now. Dear brother and sisters, take advantage of this invitation to rest in the Lord, to concentrate in prayer and attention to the wonderful events about to take place.
I would like to share with you some of the private prayers said by the priest at this moment – they are profoundly beautiful and help us to understand more fully the meaning of what is taking place. He stands before the holy altar and prays: “Look upon me Thy sinful and unprofitable servant, and purge my soul and heart of a wicked conscience, and, by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this Thy Holy Table, and to perform the sacred Mystery of Thy holy and immaculate Body and precious Blood. For unto Thee do I draw nigh, bowing my neck, and I pray Thee: Turn not Thy countenance away from me, neither cast me out from among Thy children, but vouchsafe that these gifts be offered unto Thee by me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant: for Thou art He that offereth and is offered, that accepteth and is distributed, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thine unoriginate Father, and Thy most holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen”
It is a humbling and frightful thing for a sinful man to dare to stand before the holy altar and to perform the sacred Mystery of the holy and immaculate Body and precious Blood of Christ. It is important that the parishoners pray for their priest – I ask you for your prayers and beg your forgiveness for all of my shortcomings.
While the priest is saying this prayer, the deacon performs a censing… the aromatic smoke of the censor drifts upward, as should our prayers and thoughts. The priest then lifts up his arms and recites the Cherubic hymn three times with bows. He then venerates the holy altar table and turns to bow to all those present, asking them for forgiveness – remembering the commandment of our Lord that we must first be reconciled with our brother before we dare offer our gifts upon the altar.
While the Cherubic hymn continues to be sung, the priest goes to the table of preparation, where the diskos and chalice rest and finishes up any remaining commemorations of the living and dead. He censes the Holy Gifts and then, taking up the diskos and chalice, comes out the altar proceeded by the candle-bearers in what is called the Great Entrance.
We commemorate the hierarchs of our church, the local ruling bishop, the clergy, the monastics, the founders of the church and the Orthodox Christians who are present. The faithful stand with bowed heads and pray that the Lord remember them and all those close to them in His Kingdom. After the priest says the words “and all of you Orthodox Christians, may the Lord God remember in His Kingdom,” the people should reply softly, “And may the Lord God remember thy priesthood in His Kingdom, always, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.”
The priest then turns and enters the altar through the Royal Doors, places the precious Gifts on the Holy Table, on the opened antimins, and covers them with a cloth called the ‘aer’. As the choir finishes the Cherubic Hymn, the Royal Doors and curtain are closed.
The Great Entry symbolizes the solemn passing of Jesus Christ to His voluntary suffering and death by crucifixion. The priest places the holy chalice and the bread representing the Body of Christ on the Holy Table as if in the grave. The Royal Doors are closed as if they were the doors of the Lord’s tomb. The curtain is drawn as if it were the guard stationed before the Sepulcher.
The deacon then comes out before the Royal Doors and begins the Litany of Supplication in which we pray that the ‘Precious Gifts set forth’ might be pleasing to the Lord. We pray that we might pass our lives in peace and without sin, that God would send to us a Guardian Angel to be our faithful guide and to guard our souls and bodies. We ask God to forgive us our sins and offences, and that He would grant us all things good and beneficial for our souls. We ask that we may be granted a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, peaceful, and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.
During this litany, the priest prays privately: “O Lord God Almighty, Who alone art holy, Who dost accept a sacrifice of praise from them that call upon Thee with their whole heart. Accept also the supplication of us sinners, and bring it to Thy holy altar, enabling us to offer unto Thee both gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Thy sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto Thee, and that the good Spirit of Thy grace may rest upon us and upon these Gifts here offered, and upon all Thy people.”
Nikolai Gogol, in his Meditations on the Divine Liturgy writes: ‘The priest then calls all to mutual love with the words: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess…’ The choir continues and concludes the exclamation with the words: ‘The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one is essence and undivided.’
For if we do not love one another, it is impossible to love Him Who is all pure love, complete and perfect. The priest in the altar bows thrice and says silently: ‘I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my foundation and my refuge.’ He then kisses the holy diskos covered with the aer and the holy chalice and the edge of the holy altar table.’
Fr Seraphim Slobodskoy wisely points out that ‘in order to be present worthily at the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, the following are absolutely required: peace of soul, mutual love, and the Orthodox Faith, which unites all believers.’
Peace, love, and faith… these are the prerequisites for our participation in the Great Mystery that is the Divine Liturgy. It is for this reason that we move toward the sacred moments of the Consecration of the Holy Gifts with a blessing of peace, the expression of love, and the fortification of faith.
Next week we will examine that most holy and sacred moment of the Consecration of the Holy Gifts offered upon the altar. Until then, may God grant us the grace of peace, love, and faith to guard and guide us in all we do.