Previous //  Contents  // Next
     (A Guide For Participating In The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom)
by the Very Reverend Michel Najim & T.L. Frazier

1. The meaning of the Liturgy


When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, he was given a very explicit set of instructions on how they were to worship the God who freed them. These instructions were revealed by God on Mount Sinai and are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. From this beginning arose the complex liturgical Temple worship of ancient Israel.

In the New Testament, we find that Jesus’ disciples, who were all Jewish, at first continued to worship in the Temple and afterwards gathered at a private home to celebrate the particularly Christian “breaking of bread,” the Holy Eucharist.1 Christian life at that time is described in the Book of Acts as continuing “steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers (tais proseuchais).”2 Christians would “break bread” on the first day of the week, the day the Lord had risen from the dead.3

Christians came to see their worship as the legitimate maturation of the worship given to Moses, supplanting the cult of the Temple in Jerusalem. Inasmuch as Christ had established a better covenant between God and the fallen world, He obtained for us “a more excellent liturgy”: “For if [Jesus] were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law (i.e., the Jewish priests in Jerusalem); who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, `See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’4

But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry (leitourgias, or “liturgy” in English), inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.”5 Like the worship given to Moses, which as we read above was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” Christians also saw their liturgical worship as mirroring the worship of the heavenly hosts. As Saint Germanus, the eighth century Patriarch of Constantinople, would later put it, “The church is an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about.”6

The word “liturgy” is a contraction of two Greek words, the word laْkos meaning “common,” as in “belonging to the people,” and the word ergon, meaning “work.” Thus “liturgy” refers to the work of the common people in praising God. In this work, the bishop or priest presides as an image, or icon, of Jesus Christ, conducting the worship along with the Faithful. In the words of Saint Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch who was martyred around A.D. 110, “Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation also be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic (Greek: the "whole") Church.”7 The word “liturgy” is routinely used in the New Testament,8 and is used as well in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (made in Alexandria, Egypt in the third century B.C.).9

The Eucharistic Liturgy is the “work of the people” par excellence, and is usually called the “Divine Liturgy” in the Orthodox Church. The word “eucharist” in Greek means “thanksgiving.” Thus, in the Liturgy, we not only commemorate our Lord’s Last Supper, we also offer our own humble gratitude in a supreme act of thanksgiving. It is not proper for the priest to conduct the Divine Liturgy alone, as there are no “private liturgies” in the Orthodox tradition. Indeed, such would be impossible because of the communal nature of the Liturgy -- the priest prays for the people and in turn the people pray for the priest, offering sacred hymns with the angels in behalf of all humanity. In the Liturgy, the Faithful are made partners with Jesus Christ, our High Priest, and with one another. It is a service of love, “a fragrant sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God”10 in which all the people of God are invited to participate fully, eternally eating and drinking at the Holy Table of the Lord.

The Eucharist is a true communion with the Lord, the elements of bread and wine being transformed into the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, sanctifying the people and granting forgiveness of sins. It is a full participation in the glorified body of the Savior, a spiritual sacrifice offered in the spiritual house,11 and a promise of an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. It is He who commands us to offer bread and wine;12 it is He who gives us in return the Living Bread and the Chalice of eternal life.13 The Divine Liturgy is ultimately an “eschatological” event, meaning the age to come breaks in upon this present age and into our everyday lives. And having broken into our lives in the here and now, it lifts us to a point altogether outside of time.

In the Liturgy, all that Christ did and suffered are represented symbolically. Contemplating what Christ did on ourbehalf helps to prepare us to approach the Holy Altar. It is important to be prepared when receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, for the Father does not permit those to be sanctified who are not properly disposed to receive the divine grace. Ultimately, all of Church life is nothing but a preparation to receive the Bread of Life14 at the heavenly banquet, participating in the eternal, divine life of God.

To obtain the effects of the divine Mysteries, as the Sacraments are called in the Orthodox Church, we must approach them in a state of grace. We must approach the Eucharist venerating Him who had such great compassion for us and who saved us by His own life.15 We must entrust our very lives to Him, knowing His love for us, dedicating ourselves and one another to Him, and enkindling in our hearts the flame of love. Thus prepared, we may enter into the fire of the solemn Mysteries with confidence, trusting in the infinite goodness of the Lord. But to arrive at this point, we must banish all wandering thoughts and distractions, focusing instead on the Holy Table and the “wedding feast of the Lamb.”16 Only when our hearts are set on Christ alone can we worthily receive holy Communion.

In this way, by adding sanctification to sanctification, that is, by adding the Eucharist to prayer and meditation, we receive the fullness of Christ, and grace for grace.17 In this act of eucharistic Communion, “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”18 This is the sole purpose of the Divine Liturgy: to bring the people of God through the cup of blessing19 into one Communion, one Church, and to deify them. Because of this, the Orthodox Church doesn’t allow those not in communion with her to partake of the Eucharist. Those who are not of the same Faith by definition cannot be made “one” in the eucharistic Communion of the One Church.


1    Acts 2:46; 3:1.
2    It is unclear whether “the prayers” referred to here are the prayers said when celebrating the Eucharist or the Jewish prayer said when the Christians “went up together into the Temple at the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1).
3    Acts 20:7.
4    Exodus 25:40.
5    Hebrews 8:4-6.
6    Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy, 1.
7    Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8:2.
8   E.g., Luke 1:23; Acts 13:2; Philippians 2:17; Hebrews 8:2, 6; 9:21; 10:11.
9    E.g., Exodus 28:35, 43; 29:30; 37:19; Numbers 8:22; 16:9; 18:2, 4; 2 Chronicles 31:2; etc.
10  Philippians 4:18.
11  1 Peter 2:5.
12  John 6:54, 56.
13 John 6:57.
14  John 6:48.
15  Romans 5:10.
16  Revelation 19:9.
17  John 1:16.
18  2 Corinthians 3:18.
19  1 Corinthians 10:16.

Previous //  Contents  // Next

Page created: 24-12-2012.

Last update: 24-12-2012.