O God, You have visited our lowliness in mercy and compassion. You have set us, Your lowly, sinful and unworthy servants, to serve at Your holy altar before Your holy glory.
(Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 12)
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham.
Luke 1: 67-73
The first discernable difference between the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom does not occur until after the Gospel reading. The “Prayer of the Faithful” is offered inaudibly by the celebrant. The first two sentences paint a paradox of the human being. First, we live in a state of “lowliness”, in a fallen, and broken world. However, despite our brokenness and sinful state, God has visited us and continually visits us in His mercy and compassion.
The second part of this paradox is that God has called us, even though we are “lowly, sinful and unworthy” to serve at the Holy Altar in the presence of His glory. He still wants us before Him. He still calls us to serve Him. He still loves us.
When I read phrases like “You have set us. . .to serve at Your holy altar,” many times I interpret them to refer not only to the clergy who are at the altar, meaning standing right at the altar. Because in the context of worship, everyone is supposed to be involved in serving. The priest may be the celebrant or director of the worship, but he is not the only one who is serving. The people play an integral part in worship in the Orthodox Church as they offer the responses to the petitions that are offered by the clergy. They complete the prayers by offering “Amen.” Without the people, there can be no Divine Liturgy, because the Eucharist can only be celebrated in the context of community. While only the celebrating clergy stand directly in front of the Holy Table, all of the people stand before the Holy Altar, we present ourselves to Christ who is present on the table.
God has called each of us to something. There is no one who has not been called by God. There is no one who has not been gifted at least one way in which they can glorify and serve God. And there isn’t one person who is worthy of God’s call. That is because this call is a gift, a blessing, to each of us. It is not an entitlement. This runs counterculture to our world. We encourage (and sometimes force) our kids to work hard in school, so that they can get a good job and makes lots of money, i.e., have a good life. We don’t posture this generally is encouraging them to discover God’s call for them and to use it to serve Him. I’m a parent and I’m guilty of this. The message many times to my son is “work hard, so you can go to college and get a good job.” When it should be, “God has given you some unique gifts, use your time in school to help discover them, and then once you’ve discovered them and learned how to use them, go out into the world and serve God by serving others.” God’s gifts and God’s call to each of us is not based on our worthiness but on His mercy and compassion towards us.
A critical part of our service, however, regardless of how we serve in our chosen vocation, is to serve that the holy altar, to come and offer prayers in worship, to offer encouragement to others outside of worship and to take our place in a church community as a steward so that the community can lead others to Christ and can offer philanthropy to those who are in need.
Not every line of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil corresponds verbatim to a verse of Scripture. In the interest of always bringing Scripture into these reflections, when there isn’t a direct correlation to a Scripture passage, I choose a verse or verses that relate to the topic. Such is the case with this reflection.
Zechariah was a priest of God, serving in the temple. He was married to Elizabeth. They were both very devout and pious in their faith. However, they were not able to have children. Back then, people thought that not having children was a sign that one had lost the favor of God. This is not our current understanding. Everything that is good comes from God. And God grants different gifts to different people. Some are gifted with children, and some are gifted with other things. There are others who do not desire children, and this choice is to be respected. In Luke 1, we read that Zacharias was on duty in the temple one day when he was visited by the Archangel Gabriel. The Archangel told him that he and Elizabeth would have a child in their old age and this child would be the Forerunner of Christ. Zechariah did not believe the angel, and the angel told him that not only was he going to have a son, but that he would be mute until that happened because he did not believe.
When his son was born, on the eighth day after the birth, the time came to give the child a name, and Zechariah wrote on a tablet that the child’s name would be John. Immediately, his tongue was loosened, and he praised God. What is significant about this is that the Jewish people lived in expectation of a Messiah, a deliverer. They had clung to this belief for thousands of years. Prophets had foretold the coming of the Messiah. Then it seemed that the prophets had gone silent, that perhaps God had forgotten His people. And here Zechariah was blessing God and encouraging the people that despite their lowly situation (an absence of prophets and subservience to first Babylonian and now Roman overlords) that God had not forgotten them. In fact, they were still His chosen people, He still was calling them. He still wanted THEM.
And this is a good message for us today—even when it seems like God is absent, whether from our world or from own lives, He isn’t. Even when we mess up our lives through sin, God still calls us, God still wants us, ALL of us, even the “worst” of us, even the most lost of us.
As we begin this study of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, let us do so with the notion that despite our lowliness, God has called us, in His mercy and compassion, to serve at the Holy Altar in worship, and away from the altar in service to others.