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   TALK ON

 THE INTERPRETATION AND

MEANING OF THE DIVINE LITURGY

Part 1         19th April 2007

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All the wonderful events that God has brought about to bring man back to Paradise after the fall and to make him once again a member of his household is called the Divine Economy or Divine Dispensation. This salvation in Christ is what we live and experience in the Divine Liturgy and give thanks to God: The fearful Mysteries that we serve at every gathering of the faithful and of which salvation is offered bountifully is called “Thanksgiving” because they consist of remembrances of many benevolences and reveal to us the crowning point of the Divine Providence. The Mystery of the Divine Economy was revealed with the disobedience and fall of man. The philanthropic Lord immediately saw the fall and the immensity of the injury and made haste to cure it so that the injury would not become infested and transformed into an incurable wound. God at no time stopped providing for mankind. With works of wonder and prophetic sayings, He prepared man for communion in the fulness of life and love. Many events and prophecies of the Old Testament are indirectly mentioned in the Divine Liturgy. The first of these is the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek. (Gen. 14:18) Melchizedek is a image and type of Christ the true High-priest and his offering was a resemblance of the offering of Christ. The sacrifice of Isaac is also a pre-figuration of Christ’s sacrifice and the Eucharistic offering. Many other Old Testament offerings prefigure the Sacrifice of Christ, but one event above all clearly prefigures this offering and that is the Judaic Pascha (Passover). The Feast of the Passover was a continual remembrance of the Jewish peoples’ salvation from the hands of the Egyptians and also a continual thanksgiving to God for His benevolences. All these events prepared the coming of the fulfilment of time, by which was revealed the truth which is Christ. At the same time is revealed the true dimensions of the Mystery of the Divine Economy: because Christ is the summit of the Mystery of Divine Economy and every event in His life is for mankind a divine blessing: and all the events of Christ’s life, from his birth, his teaching, his saving Passion, Crucifixion, Death, Burial and Resurrection are re-lived in the Divine Liturgy. Before we begin our interpretation of the Divine Liturgy we should also look at the architecture of our Christian Churches because they were not built randomly just to accommodate the gathering of Christians, every nook and cranny has its symbolic meaning, which when understood, help us to make sense of the Priest’s and Deacon’s movements during the Divine Liturgy. At the basis of these symbolisms lies the teaching of the church on the redeeming sacrifice of Christ and its ultimate aim which constitutes the very essence of Christianity- the future transfiguration of man and the whole world. In its entirety the Church is the image of the future renewed world where God filleth all in all.

The Old Testament law was a shadow of the image of the good things to come, in other words, a shadow of the service we now have, and the service we now have is a shadow of the things to come, that is, a shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem made not of matter nor with men’s hands, but by God himself. On the basis of this interpretation, each part of the Church draws its meaning from its general position and function in the course of the Divine service. The Church is the image of both the immaterial and the sensory worlds.
It is generally divided into three parts.
1) The Holy Sanctuary which is found behind the Iconostasis (Icon screen) and is the place where the Priests serve the Divine Liturgy.
2) The Nave which is the main part of the church and where the congregation stand and
3) the Narthex which is found at the western entrance of the Church. In older times this was where people who were not yet baptized would stand and also those who were not allowed to receive Holy Communion. Today most churches don’t have a Narthex and instead have a pre-chamber for lighting candles.
According to St. Symeon of Thessalonica, the Church represents what is on earth, what is in heaven, and what is above the heavens. He explains more precisely that: “The narthex corresponds to earth, the nave corresponds to heaven, and the holy Sanctuary corresponds to what is above heaven. In connection with these interpretations, the Iconostasis (Icon Screen) also has a symbolic meaning: The holy Fathers liken it to the boundary between two worlds: the Divine and the human, the permanent and the transitory. Although it is a screen dividing the Divine world from the human world, the Iconostasis at the same time unites the two worlds into one whole in an image that reflects a state of the universe where all separation is overcome, where there is achieved a reconciliation between God and the creature. Standing on the boundary line between the Divine and the human are the Icons of Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints who show us the way to this reconciliation.
In front of the Iconostasis we usually see two large brass candle holders one on either side of the Royal doors. In the Book of Exodus, (13:21) we read that the Lord went before the Children of Israel by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light. God guided his people by means of a this pillar and when the pillar moved, they followed it until eventually it led them to the Promised Land. These two brass candle holders or pillars of light, remind us of the pillar of light God used to guide his Chosen people to the Promised Land and also remind us that even today, God leads us to our Promised Land which is heaven, through the Gospels and the Sacraments.

The Amvon (Pulpit) usually found directly opposite the Bishop’s throne is a raised platform from where the Deacon reads the Gospel and has a wonderful symbolism. In St. Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came as it began to dawn to the sepulchre, “And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is Risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. (St Matthew 28:1-6) The Amvon represents the Stone which was rolled away from the tomb and the Deacon represents the angel preaching the Good news. The word Gospel as also the Greek counterpart Evangelio means Good Message or Good Announcement.
Another symbolism found in the nave is the great dome with the Icon of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty). The dome represents heaven which means that where we stand is earth. Christ looking down upon us has three representations: firstly it reminds us that he is the Creator of the universe, secondly that he is our Saviour and only through him can we find salvation and our place in heaven. This is corroborated by the columns that support the dome which form a cross and it is through his death on the Cross and His Resurrection that the door of Paradise was re-opened to man. And thirdly that Christ is the Judge, who with his second coming, shall judge every man according to his own deeds. This interpretation is in unison with the meaning of the Divine Liturgy because as we shall see later, the Divine Liturgy transcends our earthly time and becomes the banquet that the faithful shall enjoy at the Second Coming of Christ.
In the Sanctuary we have many more symbolisms.
In the centre we see the Holy Altar and represents the slab or the spot in the tomb where Christ was laid. On it lies the true and heavenly Bread, the Mystical and Bloodless sacrifice. The Altar is also the throne of God which is borne by the Cherubim. It is the holiest and greatest of all the places in the Church. There are many more symbolisms for the Holy Altar as well as for the vestment coverings but we can leave these for some other time when we can have a general talk about these and all the vestments used by the Priest and Deacon.

To the left of the Altar we find the Holy Prothesis. It is a small apse in the wall which corresponds to the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born and laid in a manger. St. Symeon of Thessalonica writes that as Bethlehem is not far from Jerusalem where the Lord’s tomb is, here also, the Prothesis is near to the Holy Altar which represents the Lord’s tomb. The preparation for the Divine Liturgy begins with the Priest preparing the bread and wine at the Prothesis before being carried during the Divine Liturgy to the Altar. The Prothesis also represents the cave in which Christ was buried.
In the Sanctuary behind the Altar there is a large apse which is often painted with the Icon of the Mother of God as “She who is wider than the heavens”.
The Icon reveals the Blessed Virgin as the throne of God and the temple of the Godhead. She is more spacious and wider than the heavens, for whereas the great expanse of the heavens cannot circumscribe the Lord; He is now circumscribed by the Virgin’s womb. It is from this expression that the Icon derives its name of ‘Platytera ton Ouranon’ [She who is wider than the heavens]. It is not by mere chance that The Icon of the Mother of God is portrayed in this apse. As we mentioned before, the Dome with the Icon of Christ represents heaven. The apse in the Sanctuary is between heaven and earth with the top of the apse touching the ceiling and the lower part touching the ground. This teaches us that the Mother of God is, as we hear in the Akathist hymn, “The Heavenly Ladder by which God descended to earth. In other words, She is the ladder that joins heaven with earth. In the centre of the Apse in day of old, there used to be the Bishop’s throne. Now the throne has been moved into the nave of the Church, but spiritually it is still there and represents Christ’s throne when he shall come again in glory. On each side are seats which represent the thrones of the 12 Apostle’s who shall judge the 12 tribes of Israel.
So now that we have seen the architectural symbolisms of the Church we could also explain the symbolic meanings to the holy vessels that are used during the service but to save time we can incorporate them into the interpretation of the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy consists of three parts: The Preparation and office of Oblation, The Liturgy of the Catechumen and the Liturgy of the faithful. The Preparation and office of Oblation is said before the onset of the Liturgy and is said silently by the Priest. The people never get to see or hear what is said and done but as it is an important part of the Liturgy, this is where we will begin.
A Priest serves the Divine Liturgy on behalf of the Bishop so before beginning he must have the Bishop’s blessing. The Bishop cannot be in all the Churches at the same time, but the Priest will go to Bishops throne where he will make three prostrations as though the Bishop is present. He will then stand before the Royal Doors and begin a short service called Kairos (Time). This we can call the forerunner or herald of the Liturgy and reminds us that the fullness of time has come and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It prepares us for the acceptance of Christ the King and our participation in the supper of his kingdom. In other words it announces the Second Coming of Christ because the Divine Liturgy transcends our earthly time. With the Resurrection of our Lord we no longer live in death but in life and within time we live in eternity. This is the victory of Christ that we celebrate with the Divine Liturgy, because the Divine Liturgy is one continuous Pascha: It is forever Pascha. That is why the day above all days for celebrating the divine Mystery is the day of the Resurrection of our Lord, the Sunday: the day which symbolises the surpassing of time, because it is the first day of creation and at the same time the eighth day of the Kingdom: the day which has no beginning or end. So now having said the short service of the announcement, the Priest enters the Sanctuary and kisses the Gospel book and the holy Altar and vests himself with his priestly vestments. Each vestment has a symbolic meaning and as he blesses and puts each one on he says a short verse that refers to that symbolism. Being fully vested he will go the piscina (wash basin) and wash his hands. A Priest should approach the holy Altar with a pure heart cleansed of every kind of sin. The washing of the hands is symbolic of a clear conscience in spirit and in mind. He will then go to the Prothesis and prepare the Holy Vessels, placing them in the right order to begin the Office of Oblation.

There are two basic vessels: the Paten and the Chalice and two utensils: the spear and the spoon. Each has a practical use but also a symbolic meaning or even many meanings. Thus the Paten is used to carry the sacrificial lamb to the Altar but it also symbolises the manger where Christ was laid in the cave of Bethlehem and also the place where he was laid after his saving death on the Cross. According to St. Germanos of Constantinople, it also represents the hands of Joseph and Nicodemus who buried Christ and also represents heaven containing Christ the spiritual sun seen visibly in the bread.

The Chalice represents the very cup that Christ used at that first Mystical Supper. The cup that after he had blessed gave to his disciples saying “Drink ye all of it; this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”

The Spear is used to cut away the lamb from the rest of the bread but also represents the spear the soldier used to pierce the side of Christ when He was on the Cross and having pieced his side, there forthwith came out blood and water.(John 19:34)

The Spoon is used to commune the people of the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord, but this also has a symbolic meaning. When God called the Prophet Isaiah to be his Prophet, he was reluctant to accept such a high posting because he felt his lips were unclean to speak on behalf of God. He then had a vision of the Lord in heaven sitting upon a throne with the Seraphims flying above and around him and they cried out to each other Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Sabaoth, the whole earth is full of thy glory. Then one of the Seraphim flew unto him having a live coal in his hand which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar and he laid it upon Isaiah’s mouth saying “Lo this hath touched thy lips and thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin purged. (Isaiah 6:3-7) The Spoon is the tongs and the Holy Mysteries are the coal, which for those who are worthy takes away their iniquity and purges them of their sin. For those who are unworthy is becomes like fiery coal that burns them.
So now having prepared the vessels and the utensils, the Priest is almost ready to begin the oblation. It remains for him to select the prosphoron (bread) and the wine that will be used for the offering. With the Divine Liturgy God offers man his life. But because He doesn’t want the divine gift to appear as Grace on his part only, he therefore accepts a kind of offering from man so that His Grace appears as a reward. Thus the Divine Liturgy is both man’s offering to God and God’s offering to man. The Office of oblation is the part of the Divine Liturgy which is man’s offering to God. The faithful bring offerings of bread and sweet wine and from these the Priest will select the best to offer to God. But why bread and wine? Why did Christ himself use bread for his Body and wine for His Blood? Everything on earth belongs to God: He is the creator of all things, What then can we offer him that we can call ours. In truth the only thing we can offer him is our love and our life and bread and wine represent an offering of our whole life. They are two basic foods peculiar only to man. The Jewish offerings were also offerings of the earth and of livestock, but they were not foods that belonged only to man, but also to animals. Bread and wine are exclusively foods for man. God gives as the wheat and the water, but we take the wheat, clean it and grind it into flour, then with the water we knead it into a dough and then bake it to become bread. The prosphoron we use in the Divine Liturgy is even more peculiar because it is prepared separately from common bread. When making a prosphoron, we have in mind that it will to be used for the offering, so we prepare ourselves for this sacred work and make it with prayer and love. The wine again is mans peculiar offering because God gives us the vine and the grapes but it is man who looks after the vineyard making sure to prune it and dust it to protect it from the scorching sun, it is man who will harvest the fruit and crush the grapes to produce the wine. We have put labour, prayer, love and our life into our offering.
So having selected the prosphoron and the wine the priest will first say this hymn from the pre-feast of Christmas:
Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life has blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin. For her womb has been shown forth as a spiritual paradise, in which is the divine plant, from which if we eat thereof, we shall live and not die as Adam. Christ shall be born raising the image that fell of old.”
This he says because every thing Christ did for us is re-lived in the Divine Liturgy. Our Salvation began with the Incarnation and Bethlehem is the place where God appeared in the flesh.
Taking the holy spear and placing it on the Prosphoron (bread) he shall raise them to his forehead saying:
Thou hast redeemed us by Thy Precious Blood from the curse of the law: being nailed to the Cross and pierced with the spear, Thou art become for men the fount of immortal life: our Saviour, glory to Thee.” (Troparion for Great Friday)
The first hymn the Priest said revealed Christ’s Nativity. The Second reveals his Crucifixion for as Christ said “for this cause came I unto this hour.”
(John 12:27) In other words he was born to suffer the passion and the crucifixion. The lifting of the bread represents his lifting up on the Cross. His Sacrifice on the Cross has redeemed us from the curse of the law and we are made free men with the gift of the Holy Spirit which followed.
The Priest then officially begins the Office of oblation saying:
Blessed is our God, always now and forever world without end.
Then holding with his left hand the prosphoron and with his right the holy spear, shall with the spear, make the sign of the Cross three times over the prosphoron saying each time:
In remembrance of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
During that very first celebration of the Mystical Supper, Christ took the bread and after giving thanks, broke it and gave to his apostles saying:

This is my Body which is given for you,” then offering the cup he said “This is the cup of the New Testament in my Blood, which is shed for you.” Thus Christ at this supper performed a remembrance of his sacrifice on the Cross before his Passion and Crucifixion and gave the commandment for us to also do this in remembrance of him. But which of his actions are we called to remember? That he raised the dead, that he gave sight to the blind, that he fed thousands with a few loaves, thus showing himself to be God Almighty? By no mean. Rather, we must remember those events which seem to denote nothing but weakness: his Cross, his Passion,, his Death - these are the happenings which he asks us to commemorate. This is verified by St. Paul who writing to the Corinthians concerning this mystery added after the Lord’s words “Do this in remembrance of me” “For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” (1 Cor. 11:26) The miracles serve as demonstrations and Christ performed them so that men might have faith in him as the true Saviour, but it is his passion that is the very cause of our salvation and without it mankind could not be redeemed. So remembering his passion, the Priest makes a incision into the right side of the seal where is the IC, and while he cuts it, he calls to mind what the Prophet Isaiah prophesized concerning the Lord’s Passion:
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.”
The Jews for the Passover sacrifice used a lamb, because the lamb is a harmless gentle animal. St. John in his Gospel also makes mention of Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Then making a cut on the left side where is the XC, he shall say:
And as a lamb without blemish before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth.”

Christ is silent before the High priests, he is silent before Pilate. Jesus gave him no answer. Christ’s silence at the Passion underlines the fact that Christ willingly accepted to be crucified as he himself said “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself.
The Priest then cuts the upper part of the Seal saying:
In his humiliation, his judgement was taken away.”

With his incarnation Christ made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:7-8) From his throne on high Christ walked the road of humility until he reached the Cross. His humility was so great in relation to his height as God. It is a great humility that Christ became a servant, something that can not be put to words, but to suffer death is so much more. And what sort of death because not all deaths are the same? He suffered the most humiliating of all deaths because crucifixion was considered a curse and the most humiliating form of death. As St. Paul says: “being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13)
Then cutting the lower part of the seal the Priest shall say:
Who shall declare his generation?”
The Prophet means by generation - who shall declare his existence, because who can explain the existence of the Only-Begotten Son. What language can narrate how the Son was begotten of the Father before all ages. We know and believe that the Son was born of the Father, but how is beyond our understanding.
Then the Priest thrusting the spear horizontally into the side of the prosphoron so as to cut it shall lift out the lamb from it saying:
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the lamb is placed on the paten.
This reminds us of Christ’s words when he said: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.”
(John 12:32-33) His sacrifice was offered for all mankind. St. John Chrysostom says: “Why was Christ’s sacrifice not made within the temple, but rather outside the city walls in a high place? And he replies to this question: So that you might learn that his sacrifice was for all men. So that you might learn that his offering was for all the earth.
In the Acts of the Apostles you might remember that when the Apostle Philip approached the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch who had the charge of Queen Candace’s treasure, he was reading aloud from the Book of Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading and he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? The passage he was reading was the prophesy the priest just said: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.” And the eunuch asked Philip, of whom does the prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man? And Philip starting from the same scripture, preached unto him Jesus.
(Acts of the Apostles 8:32-35) The Priest with these same prophetic sayings does the same thing: he begins preaching the good news of the Eucharistic sacrifice and presence of Christ.
The Priest having placed the lamb upside down on the Paten shall now cut it crosswise leaving the seal intact saying:
The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world, is sacrificed for the life and salvation of the world.”
And
When Thou wast crucified, O Christ, the tyranny of the enemy was destroyed, and his power was trampled underfoot. For it was not an angel nor a man that saved us, but Thou Thyself, O Lord: glory to Thee.”
We have already mentioned that Christ is the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world. These are the words of St. John the Baptist when he saw Christ coming to him to be baptized.
(John 1:29) The words “is sacrificed for the life and salvation of the world” is taken from Christ’s own words when he said: “the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (St John 6:51) The second verse reassures us that with Christ’s crucifixion, the devil’s tyranny was crushed and destroyed, his power was trampled underfoot. No more is there the religion of demons: creation has been sanctified with the Divine Blood, the temples of idols have been destroyed and the knowledge of God has taken root. The consubstantial holy Trinity is worshiped, the uncreated Godhead, the one true God, the creator and Lord of all. And this our salvation came about not because of an angel or a man, but because Christ himself saved us through his Passion and death on the Cross.
Then the Priest turning the lamb the right way up shall pierce with the spear the right side, immediately below the IC saying:
One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true.” (John 19:34-35)

And saying this, the Priest pours wine and water into the Chalice.
With these words, the Priest recalls the Roman soldier who with a spear pierced Christ’s side. The Holy Fathers write that the blood and water that came forth, are an image of the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. These two Sacraments that flow from Christ’s side create the Church. From these two Mysteries the Church was born. Thus Christ created the Church from his side exactly as he created Eve from the side of Adam. And as he created Eve while Adam was asleep, so too the Church was created as Christ the New Adam was sleeping in death. From his side he gives life to mankind.
The Priest then blesses over the chalice saying:
Blessed is the union of Thy holy things, always, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.”

In other words, he blesses the Church that has been born from Christ’s side.
Here we will stop for this week and continue with the second part of the Office of Oblation next week.