Liturgy: Action of Faith, Work of Art

Following is the introductory text to the small volume The Divine Liturgy: Dismissal Hymns of the Resurrection and Saints through the year, published by the (then) Greek Archdiocese of North and South America’s National Youth Office/Office of Public Relations, some time between the years 1964-70. The text was prepared by the late Protopresbyter Theodore P. Theodorides.

The text is a product of its time, as the register of liturgical English will attest, as will the technical terms used, which in some cases have become outdated in common American Orthodox parlance. Seemingly strange is how the author devoted relatively substantial energy to the explication of rite for the Presanctified Gifts (especially since it is not properly a liturgy), but it clearly stems from a time when awareness of and participation in this service was being encouraged. There are some deficient explanations, some somewhat understandable given the limited space in a pocket-sized edition—among them, for example, is the author’s dating of 1 Corinthians (mid-50s) to within ten or even five years of Christ’s institution of Holy Communion (early 30s). Additionally, the emphasis on Hellenism towards the end limits the scope of this publication. Looking at the translation of the liturgical text itself (not included here) would reveal further deficiencies, given where we are now in that process.

Still, these give no reason to avoid reading this piece; there are some good things here. There are moments of brilliance and eloquence, betraying the author’s deep sense of love and appreciation for liturgy and the seriousness with which this piece was approached. It must be read through the lens of where (Greek) Orthodoxy was in the Americas in the 1960s-70s. My main intention for sharing this is to allow the reader to take in what is good, and to view this snapshot from the history of American Orthodox liturgical development. Spellings, emphases, and notes are from the original text.


DEFINITION: Liturgy means an act for the people. The word consists of leiton or laiton, i.e., public (laos, laity) and ergon, work. Before Christ it meant a public service, educational, political or religious. Aristotle speaks of “liturgies to the gods”.

In the Old Testament it denotes “All prayer or worship, which the people offered through the priests of the Mosaic Law.”

Since New Testament times it has signified the Divine Eucharist, with the Sacred Preparation preceding it, and Holy Communion following.

SYNTHESIS: The Greek Orthodox Liturgy is a Mysterion (Sacrament), i.e., a sacred mystical action between God and man. 1) It is a REMEMBRANCE of the Life, the Cross, the Burial and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Do ye this in remembrance of me.” 2) It is SACRIFICE: “This is my Body, which for you is broken . . . This is my Blood, which is shed for you and for many others.” 3) It is a COMMUNION: “Take, eat . . . Drink of it ye all.”

PERFORMANCE: This sacred action is done in a rising climax. It begins with prayers, hymns, readings from the Apostles and from the Gospels, sermon, preparation and Entrance with the Holy Gifts, and proceeds to the Offering of them, the Consecration, the Metousiosis (called Transubstantiation by other Churches, though the meaning differs), the Petition of Forgiveness, and Holy Communion. It ends with thanksgiving to God for His Great Gift and with a benediction upon the people.

FORMS: There are five Orthodox Liturgies. The first is named after St. James of Jerusalem and is performed once a year on his commemoration day, October 23rd. The Second is that of St. Mark, observed in Alexandria, Egypt, also once a year. The third is St. Basil’s, used on Christmas and Epiphany Eve, on the first five Sundays of Easter Lent, on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday, and on January 1st. The fourth is St. Chrysostom’s, which we usually witness on Sundays and Saints’ days. And the last is the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is held every Wednesday and Friday of Easter Lent, and on Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Easter Week.

The Presanctified Liturgy is perhaps the most ancient in form and content. It may well be called the most “apostolic” in its inner order and spirit. First performed 200 years after Christ, it was sanctioned by a local Church Council of the 4th century as a “time-honored practice.” The 6th Ecumenical Synod recognized it as pan-orthodox and fixed its observance from A.D. 680 on.

This Liturgy preserves very early features, e.g., 1) the reading of Psalms, 2) a candle and censer litany around the Holy Altar, 3) the proclamation “Christ’s light illumines all,” which is a foretaste of the Unwaning Light of Easter, and perhaps is an echo of the liturgies held in the Catacombs, 4) the solemn silence during the Great Entrance, 5) prayers of classic clarity and of superb beauty. The Cherouvicon is sublime poetry, replete with mysticism.

The Presanctified Liturgy was an evening service, attended after a full day’s fast. Part of it was for the Initiates and part for those preparing for Baptism. Both of them joined the Faithful (those already baptised), in singing that beautiful Vesper hymn, “Gladsome Light,” which Basil the Great mentions as venerable already, that is, dating from Apostolic times. It has been rendered into English and is sung by Anglicans and other Protestants.

We need to know this Liturgy better. It is the best introduction to the other two, namely Basil’s and Chrysostom’s, and it affects the Orthodox soul most deeply. The Roman Catholic Church holds it only once a year, on Holy Friday. Other Churches not at all. The Orthodox Church alone keeps it as a precious treasure.

THE LIVING TRADITION: The central portion of the Liturgy, i.e., the Holy Eucharist, has its beginning from the MYSTIC TABLE, or Last Supper. The Apostles took it over and observed it regularly. St. Paul is the first to mention it and to describe it (1 Cor. 11:23-26), within ten years, possibly only five, after the Lord instituted it. For twenty to thirty years before the Gospels were written, Sacred Tradition was the basis, the authority and the method for its observance, and this was uniform everywhere during the first century.

The celebration of the Eucharist was confined at first to the churches meeting in private homes. It was not public, and often had to be done in secret. But all the faithful participated in it, meeting at one set place, and praying with one heart. The offerings of bread and wine were made by each member, clergyman or layman. The Eucharist itself was the task of the Apostle present, or of the Bishop only, until later on, with the Bishop’s permission and order, the Presbyter (Elder) could hold it. About 200 years after Christ the term Iereus (Priest, itself from presbyter) came back into use, with a new meaning however, not the same as in Hebrew or Greek before Christ.

For three generations, until the Books of the New Testament were compiled and approved, the living Tradition of the Divine Eucharist had instructed, consecrated and given to the world Apostles, Martyrs and thousands of unknown Saints. Up to the year 312 after Christ, when Constantine the Great put an end to persecutions of the Christians, the mystical and sacramental action of the Divine Eucharist was the Life and the Salvation of Christendom.

THE DEVELOPMENT: To the core of the Liturgy were gradually added words and wordings, some from the Old Testament, some from the New, and still others from Sacred Tradition, which was the living practice of the Churches. Not, however, as chance might offer them, but after trial and testing, done on the basis of authenticity, either according to Scripture, or in the opinion and judgment of inspired Church Fathers. For example, the Great Benediction after the Symbol of Faith, “May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” is that of the Apostle Paul at the close of his letters, particularly 1 Cor. 13:13. The phrase “Holy things to the holy” comes from a Church Father, but is based on Holy Writ. Similarly the clause “One is Holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ . . .”, which, by the way, only the Orthodox Church uses in her Liturgy.

As time went on prayers and supplications were added, secretly read, or intoned, (Ecteneis, Synaptai, Invocations, Blessings). Their universal appeal, their orthodox theology, their “humanness,” the clearness of their language, the poetic style and spiritual height of them, attract every soul, simple or cultured, Greek or otherwise. Orthodox liturgical prayers are regarded as masterpieces of religious literature. Here are illustrations from Chrysostom’s Liturgy:

a) Thou hast given us the gift of these prayers in unity and concord; Thou has promised to grant the requests of even two or three agreeing in Thy Name.

(This has been taken over into the Anglican services.)

b) Bestow, O God, to those praying with us, progress in life and in the faith, and in spiritual understanding.

c) Gifts and sacrifices of the spirit, for our own failings and for the people’s unwitting errors.

And from St. Basil’s:

d) With a contrite heart and a spirit of humility may we offer to Thee our gift, this, our worship as logical beings.

e) Thou hast made us Thine, a precious people, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation.

f) Keep their married unity in peace and accord; nurture their infants; tutor the young people; put Thine arm around the aged.

g) “We also offer Thee this rational and bloodless worship for the whole world,” says Chrysostom;

h) “Become Thou all things to all men, for Thou knowest each one and the petition of his soul,” prays Basil.

It is not the age of these prayers that gives them worth, though time hallows all good things, but rather a unity of Christian spirits which they effect, the contact of soul with soul among the Orthodox across the centuries. It is the union with Christ and the oneness among us, which only the Divine Liturgy can make real, through language worthy of the Church, and through her mystical ritual. Yea, also by our own attendance at the Liturgy and by our praying within it; that is, by our participation in it, “with one voice and one heart”.

ANALYSIS OF THE LITURGY: Our participation requires that we have a clear idea of the Liturgy’s parts. Its inner pattern is like that of a classical Greek drama, and the Liturgy is the supreme Drama of all Dramas! Here is an analysis of it in the order of its performance:

Litany of Peace, Secret Prayers, Antiphons
Processional Canticle
The Day’s Chants
Thrice Holy Hymn
Apostle Reading, Gospel, Sermon

Supplication (within Sanctuary)
Prayers for Initiates and Faithful
Cherouvicon Secret Prayer and Censing
Cherouvicon Anthem
Supplication for the Gifts offered
Prayer before the Offertory
Conclusion: “By the mercies . . .”

“Peace unto all; love we one another”
The kiss of Peace
Recitation of the Creed
Dialogue of the Eucharist
The triple Great Blessing
Hymn of Heavenly Victory
Prayers of the Mystic Table
HOLY OFFERTORY: “Thy Gifts do we offer Thee”
Invocation of the Holy Spirit
Offertory Hymn
Prayer for the Saints and for the Church
Hymn to the Holy Mother
Prayer for the world, the living and the deceased
Blessing: “And the mercies shall be . . .”

Supplication: “For the Gifts sanctified . . .”
Prayer for our worthiness to receive Communion
Inclining of the heads and blessing
ELEVATION: “Holy things to the holy”
Fraction, adding of particle to Chalice
Communion hymn and prayers of Confession
Call to Communion: “With fear of God . . .”
Benediction and chant: “We have seen the Light”
Secret Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving intoned: “Arise . . . Let us give due thanks”
Return of the Chalice to the Prothesis
Prayer at the Gate
“Be the Lord’s Name blessed”
Final Benediction

CONCLUSION: This analysis is not the only one. It may be done in 7 parts, or in 9. The above 5 are the basic ones in the two Liturgies of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. Just as we need to know the plot of a drama ahead of time, if we wish to follow it intelligently, so must we study the Divine Liturgy by ourselves beforehand, that we may participate in it with our understanding and with our whole heart.

The ORTHODOX LITURGY2 is an Action of Faith and a Work of Art. The teachings of the Savior, the doctrines defined by the Apostles and by the Church Fathers, united with the Hellenic spirit, have presented us Greek Orthodox Christians with this masterpiece. The long life of the Byzantine State, a realm that was Christian and Hellenic at the same time, has saved the Liturgy and was saved by it. For fifteen centuries we, as a Church, have worshipped through this Liturgy, and this worship has preserved our conscience, our language, our ideals and our very souls. It constitutes the greatest contribution of Byzantine culture to the whole world. For us descendants of the Greeks and of the Byzantines, it is “the True Light, the Heavenly Spirit, the Living Faith,” which shall abide for aye, through AEONS of AEONS, AMEN.


  1. Metousiosis does not mean change of substance, but of essence. We note this because our Church has her own Orthodox meaning and wording for the Consecration of the Gifts.
  2. Liturgy vs. Mass: It is not proper to call our Liturgy by any other term such as “Mass,” a word derived from the Latin “Ite, missa est,” meaning “Depart, it has been offered,” or according to others “It is the Dismissal.” We have our own beautiful word LITURGY, which other Churches use too. Why not we?