Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord! Psalm 106:48
Good morning Prayer Team!
Every line of the Divine Liturgy that is offered by the celebrant has a response from the people. The first line of the Divine Liturgy was an invitation into the Kingdom and the response was “Amen.” In between the first line and the last line, there were many responses of “Lord have mercy,” and “Grant this O Lord,” as we have offered petitions, as well as many hymns of praise and supplication. As the service comes to an end, the final statement by the people is “Amen,” which again means “let it be so.” Let the prayers we have offered in this service be answered in God’s way, in God’s time. Let this miracle of the Divine Liturgy which we have offered indeed guide us through our lives into everlasting life.
As I mentioned in the opening reflection, the Divine Liturgy is like the ultimate parable. To the untrained eye or the hardened soul, it is just a play starring a priest, a choir, chanters and altar boys. But to the one with the soft heart and faithful soul, the Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of Heaven made present in the here and now.
I am neither a scholar nor a theologian. I do not have an advanced degree in Liturgics. I’m just a simple parish priest who loves to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The purpose of this writing on the Divine Liturgy was to give you something to think about when you attend this service.
Before the Divine Liturgy begins, when the priest prepares the Holy Gifts at the service of the Proskomide, the first prayer he offers is a hymn from the feast of the Nativity. My last thought on the Divine Liturgy also comes from the feast of the Nativity. In Luke 2:20, we read “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” After seeing Christ with their own eyes and becoming the first human beings to behold our Savior, the Shepherds returned to lives that were humdrum at best. Their encounter with Christ hadn’t changed their social status. It hadn’t changed their state of poverty or their lack of popularity. It changed THEM. It changed their hearts.
And this is what the Divine Liturgy can do for us. After we leave the Divine Liturgy, we will return to the same jobs, the same families, the same challenges and the same stresses. The Divine Liturgy doesn’t change any of these things. But the Divine Liturgy changes US. When we attend often, when we are active in worship, and when we apply the things we pray for to our everyday lives, the Divine Liturgy changes people. It can change you. It can change me.
I’m reminded of the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17: 11-19. Jesus encountered ten lepers who asked to be healed. He told them to go and show themselves to the priests. He didn’t heal them in one quick moment. They trusted in His words enough to make their way to the priests and as they were going, they realized that they had been healed. The Divine Liturgy, I believe, works in the same way, over the course of our lives. We are not perfected in faith in one quick moment. We are not perfected at one Divine Liturgy. But over the course of our lives, the Divine Liturgy can, if celebrated properly before, during and after the service, can perfect us in faith. It is a wonderful aid on the journey to salvation.
As we exit the church, we come to the priest to receive a blessing, as well as a piece of “antithoron.” (In the Slavic Tradition, the faithful venerate a blessing cross held by the priest.) The “antithoron” or blessed bread is offered to the people. Traditionally it was given to those who did not partake of the Holy Gifts, hence the word “anti (instead of) thoron (the Gifts)”. It is also a sign of fellowship between people, we share fellowship by “breaking bread” together.
I remember as a child, we were taught to receive the antithoron and then walk to the door of the church, and that right before exiting, we were turn around, face the altar one more time and make the sign of the cross. We make the sign of the cross as we face the altar in honor of the Holy Communion, Christ Himself, that resides in the Tabernacle on the back of the altar table. This final gesture reminds us to remember what Christ did for us, what He does and what He will do. It reminds me of the words exchanged by the clergy when they offer the “kiss of peace”: “Christ is in our midst. He was, He is, and He ever shall be.” As we exit the church and re-enter the world, we return with joy and with renewed purpose, remember that Christ is with us always, “to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Jesus says, in Matthew 5:14-16, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The Divine Liturgy makes our light burn brighter. If our lights are burning strongly, they burn even stronger. And if our lights are going out, the Divine Liturgy rekindles them. The Divine Liturgy enables us to take our light back out into the world, stronger and stronger each time, so that we can share the Light of Christ, through our words and our actions and that through His grace, more can come to know Him through us.
Speaking personally, my life feels more in balance when I go to church on Sunday, and on the rare occasion that I don’t, I find that I am truly missing something. I don’t choose to miss the Divine Liturgy because of any sense of superstition or obligation. Rather, I don’t like to miss out on the joy of the Liturgy. As my parish becomes larger and my responsibilities become greater, there has always been a temptation to eliminate a few of the weekday Divine Liturgies. However, I find if anything, I am adding more of them. Because I realize how much I want and need to be at the Liturgy.
In the early church, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated on an almost-daily basis. In modern times, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated each Sunday and on pre-scribed feast-days. In a given year, I have the privilege of celebrating the Divine Liturgy close to one hundred times, sometimes more. I try to celebrate each as if it was my first and my last, as a hierarch of the church once encouraged me.
I encourage you to attend the Divine Liturgy as often as possible, but not to merely attend, to come to worship, to work, to pray, to sing, to learn and to commune. It is my fervent hope that each of you will allow yourselves to be moved by Christ in this Divine Service. And it is my hope that you will discover the joy and ecstasy of the Liturgy by reflecting more carefully on its timeless words. If nothing else, I hope this study on the Divine Liturgy has given you pause to think more deeply about what we hear in the services and to realize that the Divine Liturgy is not something to be taken lightly, or attended casually, or infrequently, but something of infinite value. It is, in fact, the most precious thing we have in this life. For where can we, the sinful human being, look upon, touch and become one with Christ Himself? There are two answers. In heaven. And in God’s heaven brought to earth, the Divine Liturgy.
Our God, the God who saves, You teach us justly to thank You for the good things which You have done and still do for us. You are our God who has accepted these Gifts. Cleanse us from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and teach us how to live in holiness by Your fear, so that receiving the portion of Your holy Gifts with a clear conscience we may be united with the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. Having received them worthily, may we have Christ dwelling in our hearts, and may we become the temple of Your Holy Spirit. Yes, our God, let none of us be guilty before these, Your awesome and heavenly Mysteries, nor be infirm in body and soul by partaking of them unworthily. But enable us, even up to our last breath, to receive a portion of Your holy Gifts worthily, as provision for eternal life and as an acceptable defense at the awesome judgment seat of Your Christ. So that we also, together with all the saints who through the ages have pleased You, may become partakers of Your eternal good things, which You, Lord, have prepared for those who love You. (From the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great)
May the Holy Trinity protect all of you. (The final blessing of the Divine Liturgy)
May the blessing and mercy of the Lord be with you. (The blessing at Antithoron)
To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:11)
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