For us today, the Divine Liturgy is a weekly staple of our Christian lives. We drive to church on a Sunday, walk into a great building with flickering candles and hand-painted icons, gold leaf and carved wood, embroidered vestments, burning incense and chanting filling every corner of the church.
In the early Church, attending services was not a weekly event. For the ancient Christians, the Divine Liturgy was seen as such a sacred cornerstone of the Faith that it was held every day. The main focus of this article is to highlight three important parts in the Divine Liturgy that they heard every day and we hear each week:
Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ
This hymn is the entrance hymn used in most Sunday and weekday Holy Liturgies of the Church Calendar (different hymns are used on the major feast days). It is called an entrance hymn because it is chanted as the priest, holding the Holy Gospel in an elevated position, enters the Sanctuary to complete the Little Entrance.
Nowadays, the Little Entrance is more of a symbolic procession, as it begins where it ends (in the Sanctuary). However, up until the 7th century, the Holy Liturgy itself would begin with the entry of the Bishop and people into the Church. This hymn, largely made up of verse 6 of Psalm 94 (Come, let us worship and fall down before him) was chanted triumphantly as the clergy and laity entered into the Church. Psalm 94 is the third of three psalms used as antiphonal hymns at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy (this is why they are known as the three antiphons) which the Fathers have interpreted as prophetically referring to the saving works of Jesus Christ, primarily His sacrifice on the Cross and His Resurrection. As a chorus to this entrance hymn, on Sundays we chant “Save us Son of God who rose from the dead”.
St Nicholas Cabasilas explains in his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: “The sacrifice commemorates the death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord, since the precious gifts are changed into the very body of the Saviour. Those acts which precede the sacrifice recall the events which took place before his death, his coming, his first appearance and his perfect manifestation.” In referencing this particular hymn, he interprets that it “is like an encounter before the Lord who draws near and appears; that is why it is chanted while the Book of Gospels is brought in and shown, since it represents Christ. It is particularly clear that the prophet sang this hymn with the coming of Christ in mind, so full is it of joy and gladness; he is overflowing with this joy himself and invites others to share in it with him.”
We praise You, we bless You , we give thanks to You Lord, and we entreat You, our Lord
This Hymn is chanted during the Anaphora at the climax of the Holy Liturgy, in anticipation, during and in response to the consecration of the Holy Gifts into the Divine Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In most Parishes as the Hymn is chanted, the Priest says the prayers of the Epiclesis (calling down from above), an earnest plea to God the Father to send down the Holy Spirit to change the gifts we offer into the Divine Gifts of Christ’s own Body and Blood.
According to St Germanos, this is a hymn to the Holy Trinity: “Thus becoming eyewitnesses of the mysteries of God, partakers of eternal life, and sharers in divine nature, let us glorify the great, immeasurable and unsearchable mystery of the dispensation of Christ God, and glorifying Him let us cry, “We praise you” – the God and Father, “We bless you” – the Son and Word, “We give thanks to you” – the Holy Spirit, “O Lord…our God” – the Trinity in unity, of the same essence and undivided”.
Archimandrite Vasileios of the Monastery of Iveron notes with reverence that: “During the moment of the epiclesis, our offering made to God in every way and for everything, attracts the grace and constitutes the supplication, entreaty and prayer to the Father to send down the Holy Spirit”.
At this moment, we are united to one another and to God. It is the true Pentecost because the Holy Spirit makes known to us the Divine Flesh of our Risen Lord. We are in complete awe of God’s Love and can only respond with an almost inexpressible sense of gratitude. St Nicholas Cabasilas tries to express this common gratitude, wondering whether “the perfect communion with God which it (Christ’s Body and Blood) effects, ought to be called worship, or adoption of sons, or both. It makes us more akin to Christ than birth makes us akin to our parents.. It is not, like our parents, the cause of life, but life itself.”
Indeed, at every Divine Liturgy and foremost during the moment of epiclesis, “we learn how to give thanks”.
We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, which has saved us.
It is not by chance that this hymn, which is dedicated to the Holy Spirit and is derived from the vespers service of Pentecost Sunday, is chanted after Holy Communion on most Sunday and weekday Divine Liturgies of the Church year. St Gregory Palamas illuminates us in his twenty-fourth homily On the Appearance of the Divine Spirit during the Day of Pentecost.
He points out that the visible appearance of the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues “like fire”, indicates its oneness of nature with Christ, the Word of God, “for nothing is closer in relation to the Word than the tongue.” He continues by explaining, “the term ‘it sat’, does not only reveal the kingly character of the Holy Spirit but also its undividedness because even though it is divided in appearance according to its different powers and energies, the whole of the Holy Spirit is present and acts, being shared without division and wholly partaken of, according to the example of a ray of sunlight.”
We all feel the warmth and benefit from the illumination of a ray of sunlight, however the sun is not divided. This is a very important theological and dogmatic truth. It is through the energy (i.e. action) of the Holy Spirit that the gifts of wine and bread become the body and blood of Christ. When we partake of Holy Communion we are not just partaking of a small part of Christ, but of His whole divine body. The divine power of the Holy Spirit is the same as that of God the Father and God the Son, it is the energy of the Holy Trinity. As Metropolitan Ierotheos states in his book On the Feasts of Our Lord, “Man’s salvation is partaking of the uncreated energies of the Holy Trinity.”