The Divine Liturgy: the Work of the People and God

5 October 2020

When ordinary Christians say that they go to church for the Divine Liturgy, they generally mean that they go to church to follow the sacrament. But the Divine Liturgy isn’t a spectacle that we simply follow, nor a concert of hymns and readings that we listen to. It’s a divine work, which is celebrated by God’s priest together with His people. The very word ‘liturgy’ means ‘the work of the people’ (Greek ‘leitos’, which derives from laos = people)*.

It follows, then, that ‘I go to church for the Divine Liturgy’ means: ‘I go to church and I participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. I go to church in order to work at a divine task’. And this task is to glorify God and thank Him for the gift of His infinite love.

The actions in the Divine Liturgy make it clear that the people of God participate in its celebration. The offering of the gifts which are to be sanctified, the hymn-singing, the common supplications, the participation of the faithful at the Lord’s table, all this is a work of the Body of the Church, of the Body of Christ. For our holy Church, it is inconceivable that the Divine Liturgy be celebrated without the presence of at least one believer or without at least one member taking communion.

Let’s see, then, the ways in which the faithful participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. In the first place, they take part in the preparation and offering of the gifts. The wheaten offering, the pure wine, the natural candles, the oil, that is, everything required for the celebration of the bloodless service is a gift of the faithful.

The blessed custom of baking the bread for the offering is one which we should continue today. Especially when we’re preparing to celebrate a Divine Liturgy for the repose of the soul of a loved one, we should take care of the baking of the bread ourselves. In this way, the bread which is offered becomes a concrete way of taking part in the celebration of the service.

The second way in which the faithful actively participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is through hymn-singing and common prayers. In bygone days, all the troparia and hymns which are today sung by the choir were sung by the congregation as a whole.

The most ancient description of the divine liturgy, which has been preserved for us by Saint Justin Martyr, records: ‘The presiding celebrant addresses prayers and thanks to Him and the people concur, saying Amen’. Amen is a Hebrew word and means ‘Let it be so’. With this word, the faithful confirm the words of the priest. Generally speaking, we can say that, through their answers to the declamation, the faithful complete the prayers of the celebrant. This is why they say ‘Grant this, Lord’, ‘To you, Lord’, and ‘Lord, have mercy’.

All together the faithful constitute the holy Body of Christ which hymns and praises the Lord with one mouth, loves Him with one heart and hopes in Him with one hope and joy.

The third and main sign that demonstrates that the faithful participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is the common offering, together with the priest, of the bloodless ritual and sharing at the Lord’s table.

Saint John Chrysostom provides us with an exhaustive analysis of the equality of the faithful with the Lord’s priest before the great and holy sacraments. He writes: ‘There are times when the priest differs not at all from the faithful, such as, for example, at the time of holy communion. We all partake of the same sacrament, in the same way. Not as it was in the Old Testament, where the priest ate one thing and the rest another and it was forbidden for the people to take part in the priest’s portion. This isn’t the case now, in the age of the New Testament. Now there’s one Body and one Chalice before everyone.

By the same token, we can see that the people make a great contribution to the prayers, because they pray in common with the priest on behalf of all those who act in accordance with the will of the devil and for those who have a penance. All together they say the prayer in common, a prayer full of mercy. And we all kneel on the ground and then all stand upright again. And, again, when we’re about to receive and return peace, we all exchange the kiss of love. And when the most wondrous sacrament is being celebrated, that is the Divine Eucharist, the priest prays to the people and the people pray to the priest. Because the phrase “And with your spirit”, means precisely this.

The thanksgiving to the Lord is also rendered in common, because the priest doesn’t give thanks alone, but together with all the people. When the priest has started, everyone agrees that this occurs worthily and for a just reason: “It is meet and right”. Thereafter the priest begins the Eucharist.

I’ve said all this so that all the faithful may note and understand that we’re all one body and we differ from each other only as much as one member of the body differs from another’.

Saint John concludes that the ‘priests and faithful should consider our holy Church to be the common home of all of us and, as such, is where we should live. ‘We should dwell in the Church as in one house, as one body. For holy baptism is one, the table is one, the source is one, the creation one and the Father one’.

During the Divine Liturgy, the bloodless sacrifice is offered to the Lord by priest and laity with one mouth and one heart, in the church. Saint John observes that, as the celebrant, he doesn’t partake more abundantly at the holy table and the congregation to a lesser extent, but that everyone partakes equally. ‘Of course, if I, as the celebrant, come to holy communion first, that’s of no importance, because, in a family, as well, the oldest of the children reaches out first at a meal. But that’s all there is to it; everything’s equal among us. The life which continues and saves our soul (that is the holy Body and most pure Blood of Christ) is given to us all with the same honor. It’s not the case that I partake of one lamb and you of another. We all partake of the same Lamb’.

All the prayers in the Divine Liturgy make it clear that the holy anaphora is the work of all the faithful. The priest addresses God in the name of the faithful and everyone prays together: ‘Again we offer you this spiritual worship without shedding of blood and we ask, pray and implore you: send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here set forth’.

And the people sing and implore:

‘We praise you, we bless you, we give thanks to you, Lord, and we pray to you, our God’.

Through the sacrament of ordination, the celebrant has received the Grace of the Holy Spirit and has become the mouthpiece of the people, and speaks to our common Father. We all praise and thank the Lord together.

* The etymology is complicated but well-attested. The English word ‘laity’ is also derived from the Greek ‘laos’, so we could, in fact, be referring to the sacrament as the ‘Divine Laiturgy’ (which, oddly enough, would be closer to the pronunciation in Ancient Greek) [WJL].