The Divine Liturgy

‘Then we all rise together and pray’

In his description of the Liturgy, with which we ended the previous part of this commentary, St Justin follows his description of the readings and the sermon with these words, ‘Then we all rise together and pray’. This prayer is still part of the Liturgy today, where it takes the form of a series of intercessions for the whole community. It is called the Litany of Fervent Supplication, or the Great Intercession, and was originally the main litany of the Liturgy. Unlike the opening Litany of Peace, the majority of its petitions are specific to the community that is celebrating the Liturgy and there is scope for adding the names of individuals, both living and departed. We also pray for those who work in the church and for the singers. The opening petition, ‘Let us all say, with all our soul and with all our mind, let us say’, and the three times repeated ‘Lord, have mercy’ give an idea of its importance. It is therefore much to be regretted that this litany, with all that follows up to the Cherubic Hymn, is effectively omitted in many Greek-speaking churches.

The Fervent Litany is followed by the Litany for the Catechumens, that is those who are preparing for Baptism. Today many people do not see the point of this litany, since few churches have adults under instruction. On the other hand, this litany reminds us that many, if not most, of the people among whom live have never heard the Gospel, the Good News of salvation. This litany should remind us that we have work to do, that we have Good News to proclaim, that there should always be catechumens in our churches being prepared for Baptism. All the ceremonies of Baptism suppose that the candidate is an adult. [96]

The Church in the old days practised what is known as ‘The Discipline of the Secret’ and only those who had been baptised were allowed to be present during the Eucharist itself, the words of which were known only to them. St John Chrysostom will sometimes say things like ‘those who have been baptised will understand what I mean’ when he is preaching about the Eucharist. The baptised were, and still are, those who had been initiated into the mystery of Christianity. They are ‘initiates’, in Greek Mystai, and we still sometimes refer to the Liturgy as Mystagogy.. The Discipline of the Secret is no longer in force, but after the antimension has been opened there is still a symbolic dismissal of the Catechumens. This should remind us that the Eucharist, the ‘Mystical Supper’, is not something every day, but something supremely holy, that it is for those who have been ‘initiated’ by Baptism into the Mystery of the Faith.

During the Litany for the Catechumens the Priest places the Gospel book to one side of the holy Table and opens the Antimension. This is a cloth on which there is drawn an icon of the dead Christ at the foot of the cross. Frequently other people connected with this moment in the story of the Passion, the Mother of God, the Beloved Disciple, St Mary Magdalen, St Joseph of Arimatheia and St Nicodemos are also shown.



Antimensia are issued by the Patriarchs and heads of autocephalous Churches. At the dedication of a church the Altar, or Holy Table, [400 words] is consecrated by being anointed with the holy Myron. The bishop consecrates new antimensia by using them to wipes up the Myron. The bishop then signs them, adding the date and the name of the church where they were consecrated. He issues them to the various churches in his diocese and also to individual priests who may have to celebrate in places where there is no Orthodox altar with its own antimension


coloured Antimension

with symbols of the evangelists

The Liturgy must always be celebrated on an antimension, which is the sign that Liturgy is that of the whole Church, that the priest is in communion with the bishop and is authorised to celebrate in the name of the Church. In the very early days of the Church the Liturgy was often celebrated on the tombs of the Martyrs and it became the custom, which is still observed today in the Orthodox Church, to place relics in every consecrated altar. The antimension may also have small relics of the saints sewn into it. The word ‘antimension’ means ‘in place of the table’, because an antimension was originally used when no consecrated ‘holy table’ was available.


The second part of the Liturgy, sometimes called ‘The Liturgy of the Faithful’, or ‘Believers’, begins with two prayers ‘For the Believers’. The first is for the clergy and the second for the whole congregation. This is first prayer in the Liturgy to mention Holy Communion, ‘Give also to those who pray with us the grace of progress in right living, in faith and spiritual understanding. Grant that they may always worship you with fear and love, may partake of your holy mysteries without guilt or condemnation, and be counted worthy of your heavenly kingdom’. The main object of the Liturgy is that we should fulfil Christ’s command, ‘Take, eat’, ‘Drink from this all of you’.



Before the Liturgy proper can begin, the bread and wine must be brought to the altar. In the Great Church of Agia Sophia the bread and wine were prepared in a separate building and, because of what they will later become, they were brought to the Patriarch in the church in a solemn procession, known today as the Great Entrance. This is why when the Bishop celebrates he does not take part in the procession, but waits, standing in the Holy Door, to receive the gifts as they are brought to him by the assistant clergy. As the clergy prepare for the Great Entrance the singers chant, ‘We, who in a mystery represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice‑holy hymn to the life‑giving Trinity, let us now lay aside every care of this life. For we are about to receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia!’ This solemn chant is called the Cherouvikon, or Hymn of the Cherubim, and indicates that the Liturgy is, at it were, changing into a higher gear. In the Old Testament the Prophet Isaias entered the Temple and saw a vision of God in glory on his high throne accompanied the fiery Seraphim singing the thrice-holy hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. At this moment we too stand before God’s glory and are caught up into the worship of the angelic Powers. For a short while we are to put aside all our worries and problems and give ourselves wholly to the adoration of God, our Creator and Redeemer. The Psalmist tells us, ‘Cast your care upon the LORD, and he will support you’. In the Gospel Jesus says to Martha, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worrying and fretting about many things. Only one thing is needed’. At this moment of the Liturgy we are to be Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his words, rather than Martha.


Patriarch Pavle of Serbia receiving the gifts at the great entrance

The bread and wine that are being brought to the altar will become the Body and Blood of the King of glory, the King whose Kingdom is not of this world, as he said to Pilate, and so the clergy, as they pass through the congregation, pray that the Lord God will ‘remember you all in his Kingdom’. These words remind us of the prayer of the Thief on the cross, ‘Remember me, Lord, when you come in your Kingdom’. The Cross stands at the heart of the Liturgy. Golgotha stands at the entrance to the Kingdom.


Concelebrants at the great entrance

The bread and wine have been placed on the altar and everything is almost ready for the great Prayer of Thanksgiving and the Mystical Supper of holy Communion, but there are still two acts of preparation to perform. The first is to symbolise our reconciliation with our fellows and the second is to proclaim our faith.



In his first Letter St John writes, ‘Anyone who says “I love God” but hates his brother, is a liar, since whoever does not love the brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he has not seen. And we have this commandment from him, that whoever loves God, must also love his brother.’ It is no good imagining that we can keep the first great commandment, to love God, if we do not keep the second, to love our fellow human beings. Jesus himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, links bringing offerings to God with brotherly love when he says, ‘If you bring your gift to the altar, and you remember there that your brother has something against you, leave your gift right there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift’.


Bishop and presbyters exchange the kiss of peace

This is why since very early times the Liturgy has included a Kiss of Peace. In the present Orthodox Liturgy only the celebrating clergy actually exchange the kiss, with the words, ‘Christ is in our midst’, and the reply. ‘He is and shall be’. Many western Churches have restored this giving of the peace to the whole congregation, though it is usually reduced to a simple handshake. There are some Orthodox who think it would be a good idea to reintroduce the Kiss of Peace in our congregations too. Whether this is done or not, the invitation, ‘Let us love one another’ is addressed to the everyone in the church and so we are clearly reminded of the need for mutual love and reconciliation before the most solemn part of the Liturgy begins. In addition the Orthodox Liturgy links the kiss of peace with the profession of faith, the Creed. We are invited to ‘love one another, so that with one mind we may confess…’, and we answer ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided’. Simply to say the words of the Creed together is not enough, we must say them with ‘one mind’, as loving members of the one body of Christ. Only then shall we be ready to take part in the great Mystery of the Faith, the Mystical Supper of the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour.