Celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. James

Celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. James


The Orthodox Christian Network has established the Digital Disciple Scholars Program on the campus of Hellenic College/Holy Cross School of Theology.  The purpose is to begin training our ministry leaders to use multi-media resources to spread the Gospel.  Students will be trained to promote current issues related to the Orthodox Faith, Christian Persecution, cover Orthodox News, and events on campus.  Our long-term plan is to bring Orthodox media ministry classes and field placement internships to campus.


Celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. James


In the half-light of a warm mellow autumn evening, we gather in clusters in front of the chapel. It is 23rd of October, the feast day of St. James. The buzz of anticipation is palpable, for those who know the Liturgy of St. James, the brother of the Lord, have a mystical gleam in their eyes. Half dying with curiosity I decide to wait it out and let the atmosphere wash over me. The sky begins to darken; some of us have waited a good half hour and are getting restless. From his pedestal, his Eminence the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the founder of our School and a pillar of harmony and spiritual strength stands in a gesture of continual blessing.

Rarely celebrated by the pro-Chalcedonian Orthodox, St. James’s liturgy is of Apostolic origin though preserved in a form that dates back to the 4th century and takes its shape in the Church of Jerusalem, later spreading to other local churches in the Middle East and Syria (Jacobite) Orthodox Church where it is celebrated to this day.

“The way we celebrate it tonight retains some of the practices typical of early liturgy such as the entrance of all the people with the clergy marking the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word (this has morphed into the “small entrance” in today’s Liturgy of St. Chrysostom and Basil)” explains Father Philip Zymaris, who serves the liturgy this evening with Fr. Nick Belcher.

Vasileios Lioutas leads the chanters this evening, originally from Thessaloniki, Greece; he is a doctor in the Boston area and the official chanter at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Boston. The chapel is filled with students, guests and faithful parish members from the neighborhood. Instead of facing ahead towards the iconostasis we are looking to the middle of the nave where the “amvon” or “pulpit” is placed. The scripture will be read from here in order to emphasize the presence of Christ in our midst in the form of his word. Chanting fervently Fr. Zymaris shakes us out of the stupor of the mid-terms, his day has probably been as long as ours if not longer but this does not deter his spirit. We are now singing in unison and our voices rise, filling the chapel as we awaken to the mystery of becoming one body in Christ. How often Father Dragas would recite St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans “We though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom 12.5), here mysteriously united. This liturgy is no different from others in that we are blessed to re-experience this incredible melding into one body with Christ in the midst of sacred chanting as the words lead us upwards and beyond so we may surrender fully to the visual and aural dimensions of this phenomenon.

In an attempt to imitate the liturgy of 4th century Jerusalem and Syrian churches certain features and furnishings are incorporated. Peculiar to this family of Liturgies, Fr. Zymaris explains is the location of the synthronon (throne of Bishop flanked by chairs for the presbyters) in the nave facing east in sharp contrast to Constantinople practice that has a synthronon in the far east end of the church on the apse of the sanctuary facing west. This is where the clergy sit during the Liturgy of the Word as they listen to the scripture readings.

“The altar table would have been closer to the people, visually and aurally accessible so that the presence of Christ as sacrament in the midst of the people is emphasized.  The so-called “Great Entrance” which begins the second part of the liturgy, the so-called Liturgy of the Faithful, normally would be a true entrance (not a “u-turn” as we do today) of the deacons bringing the gifts in silently from a separate building called the skevophylakion.  Tonight, because we had no deacons, the two serving priests were compelled to do this entrance”, elaborates Fr. Zymaris.

This liturgy is “truly the work of the people”, the rich long Anaphora, a notable aspect of this liturgy, is performed in such a way that people can fully participate in it. Theophani, the decorator of St. James icon ponders my query as to her experience of this ancient liturgy, “What could I possibly say to even come close to describe the experience I had with my fellow peers during the Saint James liturgy? I don’t think there is really anything I can say except to quote what was reported by the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir at around 987 AD, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth … We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”  The services here, at Hellenic College Holy Cross, are indeed some of the most breathtaking services I have experienced. As a senior looking back, I can see how truly blessed I am to be part of such a community and how touched I am to have been able to adorn with flowers, not only the chapel all these years but the precious icon of Saint James.”

As the liturgy draws to an end Father Zymaris hands us the body of Christ and we drink the blood of Christ from the Chalice held by Father Belcher. Fr. Zymaris explains this as keeping with tradition, “communion is distributed much the same way it would have been in most of the Eastern liturgical families up until the 9th century: no spoons are used for the laity; they commune the body and blood separately exactly as the clergy do to this day, receiving the body in their hand and then receiving the blood from the chalice.  Finally, in the same way that all the people and the clergy entered the church, at the conclusion clergy and laity exit together after the simple dismissal: “You are dismissed in peace!”

In peace we left, for if anything is precious about studying and living at a seminary such as Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology it is living in prayer and integrating it into our lives, even as we struggle onwards we are held and guided by great teachers who have walked this path before us. And as Father Chris reminds us we are never alone for Christ, the greatest teacher of all is always with us.


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About author

Anberin Pasha

Anberin Pasha, OCN's Digital Disciple Producer and Program Coordinator is a Graduate student in the Master's of Divinity Program at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts.