I am often asked how to participate in a Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Here are eight points to help enhance your experience of worship in one of our parish communities.
1. Prepare through Prayer and Fasting
Before attending services, enter into the heart of worship by praying and fasting. This should be a part of our practice of discipleship throughout the week, but it is especially important from Saturday evening until liturgy on Sunday morning. These practices need not be elaborate or extreme. There are in fact several traditional prayers that can be prayed beginning the evening before, especially in preparation to receive Holy Communion.
Prayer of St. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD)
Lord, Jesus Christ my God, forgive the faults and sins which I, Your unworthy servant have committed from my youth to this day and hour, whether knowingly or in ignorance, whether by words, deeds, intentions or thoughts and whether by habit or through any of my senses. By the prayers of Your pure and Virgin Mother, make me worthy without condemnation to receive Your precious, immortal and life-giving Mysteries for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. May the Eucharist sanctify, enlighten, strengthen and heal my soul and body and thus destroy my evil thoughts, intentions and prejudices. For Yours, Christ our God, is the Kingdom, the power, the glory, the honor and worship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and ever. Amen.
Prayer of St. John of Damascus (676-749 AD)
Master and Lord, Jesus Christ our God, You alone have authority to forgive my sins, whether committed knowingly or in ignorance, and make me worthy to receive without condemnation Your divine, glorious, pure and life-giving Mysteries, not for my punishment, but for my purification and sanctification, now and in Your future Kingdom. For You, Christ our God are compassionate and love mankind and to You we give glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and forever and ever. Amen.
There is also a more elaborate Canon in Preparation for Holy Communion which is usually prayed on Saturday evening. Here is a link to this Canon.
These prayers are very valuable even if you do not plan to approach the Chalice for Holy Communion, since they help us to prepare spiritually to receive Our Lord.
A vital part of the Byzantine prayer life is the Great Vespers service on Saturday evening. It is here that many wonderful prayers are offered, especially from the Psalms, which open the door to the heart of the Lord's Day (which goes from Sundown Saturday evening to Sunday Sunday evening). Here in this service, we here the readings from the Law and the Prophets, in keeping the the Church's roots in Synagogue worship. Saturday evening is the threshold of Sunday - the 8th Day in the New Creation: the Day of the Light of the World who is Christ!
Another important form of preparation is Holy Confession. This act of praise of the Church for God's mercy should be done especially if one is conscious of any serious sin (cf. 1 John 5:16-17) before approaching the "Cup of Salvation." We recall the words of St. Paul on approaching the Holy Eucharist:
"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep." 1 Corinthians 11:23-30
In the very least, one should approach the Lord's Day as one would approach the glorious New Advent of the Lord at His Second Coming: with a heart examined and full of repentance for sin and joy at His Glorious return!
Regarding fasting, the spiritual principle is that we deny ourselves earthly food in anticipation of Heavenly Food. This food is both the food of the Word and the "Word made flesh made Bread" for our salvation. Saturday evening should be a time when one enters the Spirit of the Lord's Day by preparing to receive the Word of God proclaimed in the Gospel and the Epistles, the Law and the Prophets. One suggestion for preparation might include some form of fasting from worldly entertainments, such as movies. This runs counter to much of the practices in our culture, where Saturday night is a night dedicated to entertainment. And such things are, for the most part, certainly not inherently immoral. But the Lord's Day should be a day for worship, family leisure and the works of mercy. It is the Heavenly Day when we turn away from earthly cares and concerns and to the Lord and the love of neighbor. This love of God and neighbor, the two great commandments, should be the defining characteristic of the Lord's Day, when "consumers" are changed into "communicants." It is also one of the reasons why Christians have traditionally sought to keep the day holy by abstaining from all unnecessary consumer activities which forces others to pursue earthly labors and cares. This is the day of Heavenly Rest of the Resurrection. This is a day for the Family of God (the Church) and our own families, as well as those who are in need. It is a day when the mercy that flows from the mountain of God in worship extend through our own simple acts of love and mercy to all around us, especially to those in need (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
The fasting from material food can simply be a fasting from all but what is necessary from midnight until the liturgy on Sunday. At a minimum this should be a fast from food up until one hour before receiving Holy Communion. These norms are not points of "law" intended to create fear or scruple, but rather the straightforward disciplines of a disciple of Christ as part of the common life of the Church. But all prayer and fasting should be done at least out of a desire to grow in our love for Christ.
2. Come Properly Vested
Just as the clergy wear special outer garments or vestments to signify the holiness of God, the Sanctuary and the People of God, so too should the people come properly "vested" to offer the "sacrifice of praise" to God. The outer garments of a disciple should reflect the respect he or she feels for the action of worship in the services. Now some may say, "It does not matter to the Lord what we wear, but only that we come to Church to worship." To this I will only say: when Israel constructed the Tabernacle and the Temple, it sought to use the best materials - gold, silver, wood, cloth - they could find. They wanted the exterior of the Temple to reflect the glory of WHO was present and WHAT took place within its walls. Should we not desire the same for the "tabernacle of our bodies"? We should offer to God the best we can in everything we do, which includes our appearance, our disposition and, most importantly our presence.
3. Enter His Courts with Praise
When you enter a Byzantine Church, seek to enter with a spirit of reverence for the Presence of God in the midst of His People. A church is the House of God, the Gate of Heaven and a place of prayer. As it is written, "My House will be called a house of prayer for all the nations." It is thus customary for Byzantine Christians to enter a Church in reverent silence, and to make the sign of the Cross as they enter proceeding to the Tetrapod (the table up front) to bless ourselves with the sign of the Cross three times while venerating the icons of Our Lord and the saints placed on the table (usually between the second and the third signing). One can then light a candle in prayer by this icon on the Tetrapod (if a candle stand is available) and then to greet the icons of Christ, the Theotokos and the Saints on the Iconostasis (the icon wall) in a similar manner. Whatever is done in our bodies should reflect and/or train the interior disposition of our hearts, since we use our bodies to serve the worship of God and to express our love and veneration for the "great cloud of witnesses" - our elder brothers and sisters (the saints) in heaven who surround us.
4. Make the Sign of Our Salvation
The Cross is the sign of salvation since upon it Christ died for our sins. Christians since the time of the apostles have "signed themselves" with the Cross out of love for Christ. At first it was simply a sign on the forehead with the thumb, which reminded Christians of their Holy Baptism and anointing with sacred chrism on their forehead. Later on this developed into the signing of the whole body, signifying our consecration - body, soul and spirit - to Jesus Christ through faith. This act of prayer added to it the words of Holy Baptism, "In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" recalling the washing of regeneration and our birth "from above" in water and the Holy Spirit. The last words of the prayer to the Holy Spirit ended on the heart, signifying the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in our spiritual hearts, helping us to grow in the divine life of spiritual adoption by grace (cf. John 14:23). Salvation comes from Christ alone through the power of His Cross and justification comes through His Resurrection (cf. Romans 4:25). We bow signifying the condescension of God who "emptied Himself" by becoming flesh and dying on the cross (cf. Philippians 2:1-13) and we raise ourselves up signifying the joy of resurrection in Him. This double movement is also a reminder of our Holy Baptism when we were buried and risen with Christ in the baptismal pool (Colossians 2:12), which is transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Jordan River.
We make this sign when entering the Church, whenever the Name of the Holy Trinity is sung, when the priest blesses is, at the ancient Trisagion Prayer (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal have mercy on us!), when the Gospel Book passes us by in procession at the Little Entrance, and when the Holy Gifts process before us on the way from Bethlehem (the Prothesis Table) to Jerusalem (the Holy Altar Table) at the Great Entrance. We also sign ourselves with the Cross when we approach the Chalice for Holy Communion and when we leave the Church. Again this "sign" of the Cross is not some sort of magical talisman against harm. Nothing truly Christian can be regarded this way, least of all the Cross which renders powerless sin and death! Rather it is:
- A reminder of our Baptism in Christ
- An act of prayer to the Holy Trinity
- A profession of faith in the Gospel
5. Sing Unto the Lord!
You will notice that all of our worship is sung. The liturgy is a a "sacrifice of praise" for the whole People of God! St. Augustine once wrote 'He who sings prays twice!" the liturgy is not simply the domain of the clergy...everyone is to be involved. Most of our melodies become familiar to people after attending once our twice. The important thing is to try to participate as much as you can. "When in Rome..." as the old saying goes can easily apply to New Rome: "When in Byzantium..." In the liturgy, heaven comes to earth and raises earth to heaven. We should experience the worship of the angelic choirs who are unceasing in the praise to God the Holy Trinity in the heavenly realms. This practice of singing worship is very ancient in the Church, even predating Christianity and going back to First Temple Judaism. If you desire to share your gifts, feel free to join the choir towards the front.
6. Draw Near to the Lord
It is sometimes tempting to allow the chairs to constrain our worship. Most Byzantine Churches do not have chairs in the middle of the Church, but only an open space where people can stand, bow and move about. Chairs are sometimes placed on the outside perimeter for those who are old, infirm or simply tired! (Pews, in fact, developed only after the Protestant Reformation when the sermon took center stage in Sunday worship.)
There are specific points in the liturgy when it is appropriate to draw nearer to the altar. The first is during the proclamation of the Gospel, when the people should gather around the Gospel book, especially the young. The second point, which is only relevant for the full Divine Liturgy, is at the prayers of Consecration. Typica Services led by deacons do not include the prayers of consecration, since the Holy Gifts are presanctified by a priest in a previous liturgy and a deacon cannot consecrate.
7. Approach the Chalice with Faith and with Love
It is the constant practice of the Church that Holy Communion is both the sign and cause of our union as a Church. It is for this reason, that only Catholic (Eastern or Western) and Orthodox Christians (with permission of their pastor) who are not conscious of unrepented serious sin, may receive. Such a discipline of the Church is a painful reminder of our lack of full, visible unity as Christians. But this pain should spur us on to endeavor, through prayer, discussion and charity, to achieve the unity of all His disciples prayed for by Christ (cf. John 17:6-19). Those who do not want to or cannot receive may come forward and venerate the Chalice by simply kissing it.
When approaching the Chalice, fold your arms on your chest. (Please - no hands in pockets!) Come forward to the priest or deacon, say your first or baptismal name, and then lean your head back opening wide your mouth. the priest or deacon will drop the Communion in your mouth saying:
"The servant/handmaid of God, (name), receives the sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and for life everlasting. Amen."
Do not say "Amen" after closing your mouth, since the minister says the whole prayer. Also, be sure not to stick out your tongue (as in the Latin practice) or close your mouth on the spoon. You can then return to your place and offer prayers or sing along with the communion hymn.
8. Venerate the Cross and Partake in the Agape
After the close of liturgy, the people usually come forward and venerate the icon on the Tetrapod and then kiss the handcross the priest (or the icon, in the case of the deacon) who says one of the greetings of the season, such as "Christ is in our midst!" (Response: "He is and ever shall be.") or "Christ is Risen!" (response: indeed He is risen!"). After a full Divine Liturgy, a portion of the prosphora bread that was not used for consecration is distributed to the faithful as a sign of the early agape meal of the early Christians. It is also intended as a way to strengthen us after the Eucharistic fast. If you have brought a guest, you can "break the bread" of friendship with them afterwards. Anyone who attends the liturgy can receive this bread, which is often blessed.
It is also customary to have a fellowship time afterwards over food and coffee. So please stay!
I'm sure that many more things could be said here by way of advice, but I hope that these points are useful in helping you to celebrate with us in the Byzantine Tradition!
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Fr. Deacon Daniel Dozier