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

2.  Vespers and Other Preparations for the Divine Liturgy


The biblical reckoning of a day is from sundown to sundown, not from midnight to midnight as we think of it today. This understanding of a day can be seen in the Creation itself: “And the evening and the morning were the first day.”20 Orthodoxy has continued this ancient biblical orientation, as reflected by its evening Vesper service which is considered the first service of the new day. The Vesper service on Saturday evening focuses on Christ and His resurrection, anticipating the Sunday morning Liturgy. It prepares us for the Divine Liturgy through psalms, hymns and prayers, all of which have as their theme the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

One of these Vesper hymns, “O Gladsome Light,” sees in the evening setting of the sun -- which looks as though it is descending into the earth -- a picture of our Lord’s descent into the grave, and in the sun’s rising at dawn a picture of the resurrection. This hymn has been used by the Church since the second century, and was likely inspired by the prophecy in Malachi 4:2: “But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.” This verse was widely interpreted in the ancient Church as a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ.

However, preparation for the Sunday Liturgy is by no means limited to the Vesper service. After Vespers, we continue to prepare our hearts and minds with prayers of contrition and penitence. We are to follow the example of King David, who repeatedly cried out in the Psalms, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy.”

What is required is reconciliation, both with God and with our neighbors. No longer living for ourselves,21 our lives must become a ministry of reconciliation. When we implore God’s forgiveness for our sins, we must remember that He forgives us our trespasses only insofar as we forgive those who trespass against us. Thus we must cast aside all the resentments we may harbor toward those who have wronged us. We must also recognize the wrongs we have committed against others and seek their forgiveness. When we have done this, we need to guard our hearts from further evil thoughts, being especially sober and vigilant in mind and body until the hour of the Liturgy.

The best weapon against evil thoughts is continuous prayer. As the Apostle exhorts us, we need to “pray without ceasing.”22 The “Prayer of the Heart,” also called “The Jesus Prayer,” has a long history in the Orthodox tradition as a vehicle leading to continuous prayer. It is helpful the night before the Liturgy to pass into sleep with the Jesus Prayer on our lips: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Slowly repeating this prayer, which asks for mercy and reconciliation with God, is an excellent way to attain inner quiet.

There are also other prayers which can be said on Saturday evening in preparation for the Liturgy. We can read the prayer of “Little Compline,” which implores God to grant repose of both body and soul, preserving them from the impulses of the passions (disordered appetites). Immediately after praying the Creed, the canon of preparation for holy Communion can also be read.

Not only prayer, but fasting is necessary as well. As anyone familiar with the Bible is aware of, fasting is more than a mere dietary exercise. It is a personal struggle against the evil within us, a direct confrontation with our passions. Fasting before Communion forces us to answer the most fundamental question: Who is our Lord, the flesh or Christ? By thus challenging our passions, we learn to master them and are then able to “commend ourselves . . . and our whole life to Christ our God.” It ought to be noted that it was after He fasted in the wilderness that Christ Himself rejected Satan.23  Like prayers, psalms and spiritual reading, fasting has as its aim turning us toward God. Thus the Orthodox Church insists that its members abstain from all food and drink on Sunday morning prior to receiving the Eucharist.

It is uncertain whether fasting was required before receiving the Eucharist in the ancient Church. Originally the Eucharist was associated with a communal meal known as the “agape (Greek for “love”) feast.”24 These meals were usually held in the afternoon and may have originally been inspired by the final Passover which our Lord celebrated. Such agape feasts were celebrated during apostolic times, and many believe that the prayers at such meals were derived from the Jewish b’rakhah (thanksgiving, blessing). During the second century, the agape became separated from the Eucharist and the meal eventually became a simple charitable fund raiser for the poor. In time the agape feasts largely disappeared because of the abuses they engendered. Even during the first decades of the Church, the apostle Paul had to rebuke the Christians at Corinth because their agape feasts had become the occasion of factions, gluttony and drunkenness.25 Canon 28 of the Council of Laodicea (364) forbade agape feasts to be celebrated in churches and, later, the Council in Trullo (692) affirmed this decision for the whole Church in canon 74. As the agape feast became more and more disassociated from the Eucharist, the discipline of fasting came to be seen as a better way of preparing for Communion. Like Anna who fasted and prayed day and night awaiting for the coming of the Lord into the Temple,26 Christians are to fast in anticipation of meeting the Lord in the church during Communion.

Frequent reception of the Eucharist is good and the goal toward which every Christian ought to strive. Our Lord said, “Take, eat;” and it defeats the main purpose of the Eucharist if the people don’t “take” and “eat.” Lamenting the decline in Communion which started in the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom complained, “In vain do we stand before the altar; there is no one to partake.”27

It should also be emphasized that it is not necessary to receive the Mystery of Penance before each reception of the Eucharist. On the other hand, one must not receive the Eucharist in a state of serious sin. A balance needs to be achieved between being over-scrupulous and of thoughtlessly partaking of Communion. Therefore, all who frequently partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ should do so under the guidance of the parish priest or some other competent confessor.


20  Genesis 1:5.
21  2 Corinthians 5:15.
1 Thessalonians 5:17.
23  Cf. Matthew 4:1-11.
Cf. Jude 12.
1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 33-34.
Luke 2:37.
27  John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians, 3:4. Cited by Josef Jungmann in The Early Liturgy (Notre Dame:University of Notre
Dame Press, 1959), 197.


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Page created: 24-12-2012.

Last update: 24-12-2012.