The Meaning of our Divine Services, part two: Divine Liturgy, “Blessing & The Great Litany”
The Liturgy of the Catechumens begins with the announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven and ends before the Passion [. . .] We find the death of Christ twice: first in the Proskomedia (with the entombment after the Great Entrance), and secondly after the Consecration [. . .] The Liturgy of the Catechumens, which is Christ’s ministry on earth, thus falls between His death during the Proskomedia and His entombment after the Great Entrance.
+Mother Maria, “The Experience of the Liturgy” in An Introduction to the Divine Liturgy
This Liturgy of the Catechumens is the second of the three-part Divine Liturgy. Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires and South America (=2005) describes it as the point where “the faithful are prepared for the Mystery.” This preparation takes place by emphasizing the teachings of Christ during His earthly ministry, which are available not only to the faithful but to those who are preparing to be received into the Church (Gr. katechoumenos ‘one being taught orally’), hence: “Liturgy of the Catechumens.” Although only the second of three parts, we begin our study with the Liturgy of the Catechumens because it is the first part most people experience, the proskomedia taking place exclusively within the Altar.
The service begins with the deacon asking the priest, who represents the Bishop’s authority, to bless. Note that in the Church, everything follows a correct order: just as nine ranks of angels serve the Lord, so too do the lower orders of clergy serve the bishop. Deacon literally means “servant” and his orarion (the distinctive stole he wears either on his shoulder or crossed about his chest) represents the wings of the angels. The priest responds not with his own blessing, but with the exclamation that the Heavenly Kingdom is blessed. In so doing, he follows in the footsteps of Christ, who proclaimed the Kingdom at hand (Mark 1:15) and St. Paul who expounded on the Kingdom (Acts 28:23). The priest’s exclamation signals that during the Liturgy, we experience the very same Kingdom Christ proclaimed. The Royal Doors are open, signaling that the veil separating the earthly from the spiritual has been pulled back and we now have access to the Kingdom of Heaven through our mediator, Christ. While exclaiming “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages,” the priest makes the sign of the cross with the Gospel over the Altar Table, signifying that this is the part of the Divine Liturgy where the Word will be proclaimed and, in the homily, expounded. For this reason, the Liturgy of the Catechumens is sometimes called the Liturgy of the Word. The people respond with “Amen,” which means “so let it be,” “verily,” and “truly” in Hebrew. By so responding, all consent to the unfolding of the Kingdom.
The deacon, standing before the Royal Doors, is outside the Altar with the faithful. He begins the petitions that we all pray, supplicating our Lord in Heaven to have mercy on us who have been, since the Fall, exiled from Paradise where Adam and Eve freely walked with God in spiritual concord. These petitions are called the “Great Litany” or “Great Ectenia.” Litany derives from the Greek litanos, which means ‘entreating’; ectenia means ‘extended’ or ‘protracted,’ meaning that these petitions are a protracted list of supplications. Because the Great Litany begins with petitions for peace (Gr. irini), this litany is also known as the irenicon, or ‘peace-making message’ or ‘proposition for peace.’ The deacon is leading the people in prayer, intoning the supplications that all are praying in the heart. It is important to emphasize here that the mystical action of prayer takes place silently within the hearts of all present. The deacon’s supplications are not meant to replace this necessary spiritual and interior movement, but rather to provide direction.
The first three supplications are for the peace that is necessary before we can enter the Kingdom: “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). St. Paul begins most of his epistles by evoking this peace from above: “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:2). It is for this reason the priest begs forgiveness from the clergy and people before beginning the service. In like manner should we ask forgiveness of our brother and sister before Liturgy begins.
In peace let us pray to the Lord: Always remembering that prayer is more than the words we speak – it is the internal action of our spirit inclining toward the Lord – we must be careful to cultivate an inner peace when we pray. To this purpose, St. John Cassian (=435) recommends that the faithful come to church services well before they begin, so that the layers of the world, its thoughts and its cares, can be shed and the proper spirit of peace may be the beginning, and not the end, of prayer.
For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord: There is a greater peace than that achieved by shedding the cares of the world. There is the peace of the grace of God, bestowed on us by our Creator and Savior: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27). In the second of the three litanies asking for peace, we ask for this peace and that our souls be saved.
For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord: Having asked for peace and salvation for our souls, we immediately supplicate the Lord for peace for all, the health (literally, the ‘good stability,’ eustatheias, from the stem stathmos, meaning ‘the weight-bearing pillar of a structure’) of Christ’s Church, and that all may be united in Christ, which is the purpose of His Body, the Church. Our salvation is not a solitary enterprise; it takes place in the context of our participation in the Church Militant (that of the faithful here on earth) and the Church Triumphant (that of the saints and bodiless powers). That the spiritual life is shared is the deep theological truth behind the supplicatory prayer to the Mother of God: “Most Holy Theotokos save us.” We ask that we be saved together because, in being united together through Christ, our salvation is bound up with one another; therefore, after asking for peace and salvation for one’s self, it is natural and right to immediately ask the same for the world. Of course, the chief means by which God provides for the salvation of the world is through participation in His Church. Therefore, we follow our prayer for the world with a prayer for His holy churches. It is important to understand this litany correctly. By “churches” we do not mean the many and varied confessions of faiths and doctrines that proliferate; neither do we mean the brick and mortar buildings. Rather, we mean the local churches of the One Church, the Orthodox Church. Within our One, Holy, Apostolic Church there are 15 autocephalous churches and another seven autonomous churches. In this supplication, we pray for their good keeping and welfare. We conclude this petition with the request that we all be united in the Lord, remembering that this is the purpose of the Church: to provide for our salvation and deliverance from the world by grafting us onto Christ, the Living and True Vine (John 15:1-8).
For this holy house, and for those who with faith, reverence, and fear of God enter herein, let us pray to the Lord: After praying for the self-governing Orthodox Churches, it is then natural that we pray for our home parish, consisting of the faithful who are uniting themselves to Christ. We pray for the temple, literally “holy house,” which is a consecrated place of worship – a sacred space set aside wherein people experience the Divine Mysteries. Once the Altar Table of a Church is consecrated, it is to be an Altar until the Second Coming of Christ. There is no “retiring” or “closing” an Orthodox temple, or “house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). We honor the holiness of God, experienced in the Divine Mysteries, by entering the church with faith and in reverence and fear of God: “let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). We place our faith in God that He will compensate for our insufficiencies and weaknesses with His grace. We approach in reverence, never having idle conversation (remembering how Christ threw out the money changers from the Temple [Mark 11:15–33, Matt. 21:12–27, Luke 19:45-20:8, & John 2:12–25]) or inappropriate transactions in church, especially in the nave (or body) of the church. And we draw near in fear of God, ever mindful of the dread and awe-inspiring reality of God and the account we must make before His Throne during the Last Judgment.
So, in the Great Litany, the first three petitions are for peace and the fourth petition is for the temple wherein peace is to be acquired and for the faithful who are seeking it.
Next: Part Three, “The Great Litany Continued”