Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church

About The Divine Liturgy

by Fr. Roman Bobesiuk
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Taken from The Metropolitan Cantor Institute.

Of all the services of the Christian Church, there is one in which we come most closely into the presence of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is the service at which we commemorate our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead, at the conclusion of which we share in his Body and Blood. Among Catholics of the Latin Rite, this is called the Mass; among Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians, it is called the Divine Liturgy.

The Divine Liturgy as Sacrifice

It is natural for human beings to offer sacrifice – that is, to make an offering of some good thing to another person. A sacrifice may be a sign of honor and respect; it might be made in thanks to the other, or to seal a breach in a relationship. It is usually intended to somehow bind together the one making the sacrifice, and the one to whom the sacrifice is made. The value of the sacrifice depends on what it is that is sacrificed, and its meaning to the two parties; and on the intent and worthiness of the one making the sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, we see such offerings from the time of our first parents – for example, in the story of the sacrifice of Abel, whose offering to God was accepted, and of Cain, whose offering was not. In the Old Testament, fathers offered sacrifices for their families, and priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people. God ordained certain sacrifices to be made in reparation for sin, and as thanksgiving offerings. Such sacrifices could consist of crops, incense, or animals, and were often accompanied by prayers that God would accept these sacrifices. Sacrifice formed a basic part of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai – that he would be their God, and they would be his people, keeping his commandments.

As God prepared to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt, he ordered that each family should sacrifice a lamb, and spread its blood on the doorposts of their home, so that the destroying angel sent against the firstborn of Egypt would “pass over” them; the family would then consume the lamb as “food for the journey.” Each year thereafter, the people of Israel were to repeat this meal, recalling their deliverance as if they themselves were present to see it accomplished. Thus, the Passover was both an event in the past, and one kept continually present – a sacrifice, and a meal that renews a covenant.

In the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to be born as a man, to teach, to suffer death on the Cross, and to rise again from the dead. The prophets of the Old Testament had spoken of a new sacrifice that would wipe away the people’s sins, and the words of John the Baptist, “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, made it clear that Jesus Christ (that is, the Messiah) was to be this new sacrifice. In his death on the Cross, Christ made a new covenant with the human race, in order to save them from their sins; in rising from the dead, he destroyed death and re-opened Heaven to those who had fallen.

In his last supper with the disciples, Christ offered bread and wine in the context of a Passover supper, and declared them to be his body and blood – “the blood of the covenant”, telling the disciples to do this “in remembrance of me.” For the Byzantine churches, the Divine Liturgy is precisely this remembrance.

As the Fathers remind us, the Eucharist or Divine Liturgy is a true sacrifice: we take God’s gifts, formed by human labor into bread and wine, and offer them to God, along with our prayers and thanksgiving. In doing so, we not only obey the command of the Lord Jesus, but our sacrifice is united to the one sacrifice he made on the cross, as the bread and wine become his body and blood by the power of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are then given back to us, to be received as Holy Communion, for our sanctification.

Thus, the Divine Liturgy is the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, made present in our midst, and concluding with a meal that renews our baptismal covenant with God.

Themes of the Divine Liturgy

The central theme of the Divine Liturgy is thanksgiving – in Greek, Eucharist. We acknowledge all that God has done for us in gratitude. And in order to give thanks, we must first remember. (The Greek word for remembering is “anamnesis.”)

In the Old Testament, the act of remembering is continually emphasized. We are urged to remember all that God has done for us, as a people and as individuals; it is when we forget God and his goodness to us that we violate the covenant, and fall into sin. At the same time, God is asked to remember those same works, and do them once more in our day; and that he remember each and every one of us, for should he forget, we would return to the nothingness from which we were made.

In the New Testament, too, the disciples were told to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice “in remembrance of” our Lord Jesus Christ – and it was in the breaking of bread that the disciples at Emmaus recognized the Lord.

So in the Divine Liturgy, we remember all that God has done for us, recalling it solemnly through the words of the priest in the great Eucharistic prayer called the Anaphora, and offer him all that we have. Together with this sacrifice, we offer the one true, worthy sacrifice: the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – that is, the Paschal Mystery of God’s love for us – that we remember and offer.

The Divine Liturgy in the life of the Church

In the Byzantine Rite, the Divine Liturgy is essentially festive – that is, it is an occasion for joy. For this reason, it is not celebrated on days of fasting and penance (the so-called “a-liturgical days”).

The Divine Liturgy is normally celebrated on Sundays and feast days, as well as on Saturdays (according to tradition, we do not fast on either Saturday or Sunday). The Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on ordinary weekdays, Monday through Friday, except on the a-liturgical days.

In the Divine Liturgy, the local church is most clearly seen as gathered together in an orderly fashion, led by a priest who is empowered by ordination to offer sacrifice and prayers on behalf of the faithful. Word and actions emphasize the unity of the faithful. For this reason, it is traditional in the Byzantine Churches that there should only be one celebration of the Divine Liturgy in a particular church on a given day – “one altar, one liturgy.”

The bishop is the original celebrant of the Divine Liturgy, and it is still the case that a priest celebrates the service only by his permission. When the bishop participates in the service, wearing his episcopal vestments, certain hymns are added to the service or performed in a more solemn fashion; this is referred to as a hierarchical liturgy (“hierarch” means “high priest”, and is another word for “bishop”).

The liturgical books set various times for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated, but it is almost always held at mid-morning. The morning is the time of hope, and the recognition in the light of day of all that God has done for us and given to us.

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