UNDERSTANDING OUR PARTICIPATION IN THE DIVINE LITURGY
The Divine Liturgy (Mass) or Eucharist has consisted of certain components from the beginning. To understand these basic elements, and how to participate in them, leads to the fullest participation in the Liturgy by the faithful as the Church desires. Understanding these basic elements also helps us to realize when bad developments take place in the celebration of the Liturgy, and that such contrary developments need to be corrected. The basic components of the Liturgy are: a Sacrifice of Praise, prayer, listening to the Word of God, intercession, giving my gift to God, thanksgiving and participation in Holy Communion. These are explained below.
A Sacrifice of Praise
The Sacrifice of Praise consists of the faithful singing Psalms and Hymns in praise of God. St. Paul tells us: “But be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and chanting in your hearts to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19).” The Epistle to the Hebrews tell us; “Through him (Christ) then let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name (Hebrews 13:15).” The Sacrifice of Praise is an action of the lips of each person, therefore it is not a passive state. This means that it is not listening to a choir sing. Listening is meditation, which is good and helpful, but it is not the offering of praise. There are many hymns and psalms in our Liturgy which form this Sacrifice of Praise, of these the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy Lord of Sabaoth…) is the most important. The Sacrifice of Praise is understood as replacing the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. Prayer There are three basic types of prayers in the Divine Liturgy. The first is when the priest prays on behalf of all. During these prayers everyone should listen with attention, and pray in their heart. At the end of the
prayer everyone says, “Amen,” signifying their consent and agreement to the prayer. The second type of prayer is when all congregants pray aloud in unison. This is done for the Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Prayers before Communion. The third is the Litany when the deacon says the intention, and the prayer is when all present answer, “Lord, have mercy.” This will be explained more fully below. When called upon to pray aloud all should do so, and not just listen, which is the appropriate action for some other parts of the liturgy, but not the prayers.
Listening to the Word of God
Jesus spoke in the Synagogue of Nazareth after the reading from the Prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30). Likewise St. Peter on Pentecost Sunday explained the descent of the Holy Spirit by quoting from the Prophet Joel (Joel 3:1-5), and then explaining the passage, and relating it to the current event of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Acts 2:14-41). There are
other examples was well in the Bible of a sermon following the reading of the Scripture, especially the Prophets. The main idea is that reading from the Word of God and explaining it in the sermon, and both are part of the Eucharistic celebration. The two actions should never be separated: the reading and the explanation. They belong together like the top and bottom of your hand. The Word of God is a good preparation for receiving Communion. Christ told the Apostles at the Last Supper, “You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you (John 15:3).” Saint Paul tells us, “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections
and thoughts of the heart.” The purifying power of the Word of God helps to prepare us to receive Christ in Holy Communion.
When the Word is read and the sermon is given the faithful are asked to listen meditatively, to ponder what is being read and preached. They are to take the Word into their hearts, and cherish it, and let it judge their life. It is an active listening, looking for the transformation of the heart. It is not a collection of information, but a search for truth guided by the Holy Spirit, who reminds us of what Jesus said (John 16:13). The one who reads the Word of God, and the one who preaches, are fulfilling the prophetic ministry of Christ and his Church. The main job of the prophet is
not to tell the future, this is secondary, but to speak the Word of the Lord. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). This means He does not change his mind. When the Gospel is read, Jesus Himself is speaking to the congregation.
Saint Paul tells us in 1 Timothy, “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior (1Timothy 2:1-3).” We are asked to pray for the whole world because we are the Father’s adopted children (John 1:12). He listens to us because we are so precious to Him. In the Old Testament the priests had the duty to pray for others and to offer sacrifices for them. Saint Peter tells us, “But you are a ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises’ of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1Peter 2:9).” We all share in the priesthood of Christ meaning that we can pray for others, and offer sacrifices for others. When we pray for ourselves and others in the three litanies of the Liturgy –the Litany of Peace at the beginning, the Ecumenic Litany after the Sermon, and the Litany before the Our Father – we are fulfilling the priestly ministry of the Church.
The reason why there is a litany after the sermon can be found in the Gospel of John, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you (John 15:7).” Having just heard the Word of God and taken it into our hearts, we can turn with confidence to God to make our petitions. Remember that in a litany what the deacon says is not
the prayer, but the intention; the prayer is when you answer, “Lord, have mercy.” So it behooves each person present to make this response.
Giving My Gift
The giving of a gift has been a sign of love, respect and thanks for time immemorial. When we attend the Divine Liturgy we are asked to make a donation, as God’s children, to show our love, respect and thanks to Him for our life and all of our blessings. Each person must give as they are able, not according to what their neighbor is doing. Remember what Our Lord said about the poor widow who donated two pennies to the Temple, she gave all that she had, and therefore gave more than the people who were donating silver and gold (Mark 12:41-44). Everyone should offer something when they come to the Liturgy to show their thanks to God. People who are truly destitute could help clean the church, or pick up bulletins left in the pews, so as to give some of their time and energy to God. We must remember that what we give, is given to God and His Church, not to the priest who is only a steward of these gifts.
The procession with the Bread and Wine is the completion of the offering of our gifts to God. From what has been given in the collection, bread and wine are purchased. These are brought to the altar representing all of our gifts. That is why the collection takes place after the sermon or earlier in the liturgy, not later, for the Great Entrance completes our donations to God.
Thank offerings were a special type of sacrifice in the Old Testament (Leviticus 8:11-21). An animal and bread were offered in thanksgiving to God, and afterwards part of the offering was shared by the priests and donors in a meal. This prefigures the Eucharistic (Eucharist is Greek for thanking) Liturgy in which we offer things to God, and He in turn feeds us with the Body and Blood of Christ.
Thanksgiving is a basic attitude of worship and prayer even used by Christ Himself (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21 & John 11:41). In it we acknowledge all the blessings that we have received from God. Part of our thanksgiving to God is the donations that we make during the Divine Liturgy. By them we acknowledge that all that we have is a blessing and gift from God. The greatest Prayer of Thanksgiving during the Liturgy is the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer. In it we acknowledge the gift of salvation, and praise and thank God for it. The priest prays on our behalf, and we pray in our hearts, and make all of the appropriate responses to the prayer.
Participation in Holy Communion
Christ shares his life with us for He is the Source of life. In Holy Communion we receive Jesus Christ – his human body, and soul, and his divine nature – in short,all that He is. He created us and came to restore us to life after sin introduced death into the world. By receiving Communion we receive life, and draw closer to its Author. This is part of the great mercy of God. We can never be deserving of Communion, it is a free Gift from God. We can prepare ourselves however, by prayer, fasting and confession of sins so that the Gift is not wasted, but falls on fertile ground. In Communion we see the greatness of God who takes our humble gifts, and gives them back to us as the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Divine Liturgy is meant for everyone to participate in actively. It was never meant as a spectator sport; or as a kind of treasure house of religious goods only to be looked at. In it we encounter God. God is always there in the Liturgy, the question is: Are we welcoming Him? Are we prepared to receive Him?