The Divine Liturgy comprises the center of Orthodox worship. It is our Church’s greatest mystery, the mystery of Christ’s presence among us. For this reason it always remains the unique hope of man’s true life.
Saint Nicholas Cabasilas, a great mystical theologian and chief theoretician of the liturgical spiritual life masterfully leads us into the spiritual area of the Divine Liturgy. He is the most important representative of 14th century Orthodox humanism.
Born in Thessalonica around 1322, he was brought up in a Christian manner by his pious mother, who after becoming widowed (1363) became a nun. He was taught the circular letters by his erudite uncle Neilos Cabasilas. Later on he became Metropolitan of Thessalonica (1361-1363), and was cultivated spiritually in the hesychastic circles of his birthplace. These circles were directed by Isidore, a disciple of Saint Gregory the Sinaïte. Isidore later on became ecumenical Patriarch (1347-1349).
For about seven years (1335-1342) he studied philosophy, theology, oratory, law, mathematics and astronomy in Constantinople.
He ended up back in his homeland during the years of the revolution and the prevalence of the Zealots (1342-1349). He took an active role in the political fermentations. He also went back to Thessalonica from 1363-1364 for family matters. He spent the remainder and greater part of his life in the capital. There, aside from his occupation with common things, among other things he acted as an advisor to Emperor John VI Cantacouzinos (1347-1355). At this time he gave himself to further studies and writing. In the end, in any case, he retired from worldly things as it seems and became a monk, probably a clergyman also. He reposed peacefully after 1391, most likely in the Magganon Monastery.
To the last and mature period of the sacred Cabasilas’ life belong his two main spiritual works, “On the Divine Liturgy” and “Concerning Life in Christ,” which are among the brightest texts of Christian literature. A composition of select excerpts of the first is presented in the following pages.
The saint’s divinely inspired words open our spiritual eyes, making us capable of approaching the Divine Liturgy with our soul’s sense and becoming essential participators in it, not passive observers of it. Thus we could respond with knowledge to the gladsome invitation which our mother Church repeats at her every Eucharistic gathering: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Interpretation of the Divine Liturgy
The work of the divine liturgy is the changing of the gifts which the believers offer-of the bread and of the wine-into the body and blood of Christ. Its purpose is the believers’ sanctification, who with divine communion reap the remission of their sins, the inheritance of the kingdom of the heavens and every spiritual good.
The prayers, the chants, the scriptural readings and all those things that are performed and said during the liturgy aid this work and purpose. In these it is as if we are seeing the whole life of Christ depicted in a painting, from beginning to end. Because the sanctification of the gifts, the sacrifice itself, in other words, proclaims His death, resurrection and ascension. Since these gifts are changed into the Lord’s body itself, into that which was crucified, resurrected and ascended. Whatever precedes the sacrifice, reveals the events that happened before the Lord’s death, that is His coming into the world, His public appearance, His miracles and teaching. The things that follow the sacrifice, symbolize the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles, people returning to God and their communion with Him.
The believers who attend church and partake in all these things with a concentrated mind, become firmer in faith, more fervent in their piety and love for God. So with such dispositions they are granted to approach even the fire of the Mysteries with every safety and familiarity too.
This synoptically is the meaning of divine liturgy. Let us examine it now as much as we can in more detail, beginning with the things which are performed at the holy Prothesis.
The precious gifts
The bread and the wine that the believers offer for the liturgy, and which symbolize the Lord’s body and blood, are not placed at the Altar Table for the sacrifice from the beginning. Rather they are first placed on the Holy Prothesis and are dedicated to God as precious gifts—this, henceforth, is also their name.
We offer God bread and wine because they comprise an exclusively human food, with which our life is maintained and manifested. For this reason also it is believed that, when one offers food, it is like offering life itself. So because God offers us eternal life with the divine Mysteries, it was natural that our own gift should be life to some degree, so that our offering would not be unsuited to what God gives back, but that it have something related. Furthermore, the Lord commanded that we offer Him bread and wine, and He gives us back “heavenly bread” and “the cup of life.” He wanted us to offer Him temporal life, and He would offer us back eternal life. So that thus His grace could show as a payment and His immeasurable mercy as an act of justice.
Remembrance of the crucifictional sacrifice
Once the priest takes the bread in his hands, from which the sacred portion which will be changed into the body of Christ, shall come, he says: “In remembrance of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.” These words refer to the whole liturgy and respond to the command which Christ left when He handed the mystery of the divine Eucharist over: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
But what was this remembrance? How shall we remember the Lord in the Liturgy and what will we narrate about Him? Maybe those things that prove He was the almighty God? That, in other words, He resurrected the dead, granted light to the blind, commanded the winds to cease, fed thousands of people with a few breads? No, Christ did not ask us to remember these things, but rather those things that revealed the weakness, that is the crucifixion, the passion, the death. Because the sufferings (passion) were more necessary than the miracles. The sufferings of our Christ cause salvation and resurrection, whereas His miracles prove only that He is the true Savior.
So once the priest says: “In remembrance of the Lord…,” he adds those things that declared the crucifixion and the death. With the knife He cuts the bread into portions, saying the prophecy: “As a sheep he was led to the slaughter. And as a lamb spotless, which remains speechless before his sheerer, thus he also does not open his mouth. He was condemned to a humiliating death and they refused him just judgment. And who will speak to us of his descent? Because his life was wiped off the face of the earth” (Isaiah 53:7-8.) And after he places the sacred
portion which he cut (the Lamb) upon the Holy Paten he adds the words: “The Lamb of God is sacrificed, who carries the sin of the world” (see John 1:29). Then he traces the sign of the cross on the Lamb, thus showing the manner in which the sacrifice occurred: with the cross. Afterwards, with a spear-shaped knife he pierces the lamb on the right side and says: “One of the soldiers pierced His side with the lance.” And pouring wine and water in the holy chalice, he adds: “and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19:34.)
Commemoration of the names
The priest continues the Proskomide. And now he takes out small pieces (portions) of the remaining breads. Then as sacred gifts he places them on the holy Paten, saying for each one: “In glory of the All Holy Mother of God” or “in intercession of such and such a Saint” or “Unto remission of sins of such living or of such reposed people.”
What do these things mean? Thanksgiving to God and beseeching. Because with our gifts either we render back to our benefactor the benefaction that he did for us or we flatter someone in order for him to benefactor us. Thus here also: the Church, with the gifts that she offers God, thanks Him, because in the persons of her Saints the remission of sins and the kingdom of the Heaven was given. She beseeches Him for these goods to be also given to those children who are still living and their end is uncertain, as also to those people who have died, but with not so good and certain hopes. So for this reason he remembers by name first the Saints, then the living and finally the reposed. For the Saints he gives thanks, whereas for the others he beseeches.
Covering of the precious gifts
Whatever was said and occurred on the Lamb, to symbolize the Lord’s death are simple descriptions and symbols. The Lamb remained bread, just that now it became a gift dedicated to God, and it symbolizes Christ’s body after His first age. For this reason the priest reenacts the miracles that happened to the newly born Lord in the manger. He places the so-called Asterisk on the bread and says: “And behold, the star came and stood over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9.) Then he covers the Paten and the Chalice with luxurious covers and censes, because initially Christ’s power was covered, until that time when He began working miracles, and God the Father gave His witness from Heaven.
So once the Proskomide is completed, the liturgist comes to the Altar. He stands before the holy Altar Table and begins the Liturgy.
THE DIVINE LITURGY
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” With this doxology the priest begins the Liturgy. Because the grateful slaves also do this when they appear before their master. First, in other words, they praise him, and then they ask him about their matters.
Petitions of peace
What is the priest’s first petition? “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls.” Saying peace, he does not only means peace between us, when, in other words, we don’t have animosity against anyone, but also peace towards our own selves, when, in other words, our heart does not accuse us of anything. Of course, we always need the virtue of peace, but especially at the time of prayer, because without it no one can pray correctly and can enjoy some good from his prayer.
We subsequently beseech for the Church, for the state and the rulers, for whoever is in danger, for all people in general. We do not pray only for what interests the soul, but also for the necessary material goods—”for favorable winds, abundance of the fruits of the earth.” Because God is the cause and provider of everything, we must turn our gaze to Him alone.
To all the priest’s petitions the believers repeat one phrase alone, “Lord, have mercy.” For us to seek God’s mercy is tantamount to seeking His Kingdom. For this reason also the believers suffice to this petition, because it includes everything.
Afterward, the chants begin which contain the prophets’ divinely inspired words. The antiphons—thus they are called—sanctify us and prepare us for the mystery. Simultaneously, however, they remind us of the first years of Christ’s presence on the earth, when He did not yet show for most people, and for this reason the prophetic words were necessary. Later on, when He Himself appeared, the prophets were no longer necessary, since the Baptist John showed Him to be present.
The small entrance
When the third antiphon is chanted, the entrance of the Gospel occurs with the entourage of lanterns. The Deacon or if there is no Deacon, the priest, holds the Gospel. So while he is about to enter into the Altar, he stands at a small distance from the Royal Gate. Then he asks God for holy angels to accompany him, for them to become participators of his in the sacred service and the doxology. He subsequently lifts the Gospel up high, shows it to the believers and, after entering into the Altar, places it on the holy Altar Table.
The elevation of the Gospel symbolizes the showing of the Lord, when He began appearing to the multitudes. Because the Gospel denotes Christ Himself. So now that Christ is being revealed, no one pays attention to the words of the prophets. So for this reason, after the small Entrance, we chant whatever relates to the new life which Christ brought. We hymn Christ Himself for all that He did for us. We also praise the All-Holy Virgin Mary or others saints, analogous to the feast or saint the Church is honoring each time.
The thrice Holy hymn
Finally we hymn the Trinitarian God Himself, chanting: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” The “holy, holy, holy” comprises the hymn of the Angels (Isaiah 6:3). The “God,” “Mighty” and “Immortal” are words of the prophet David: “my soul thirsted for God, the mighty, the living” (Psalm 41:3).
We chant the Thrice-Holy hymn after the Gospel entrance to proclaim that with Christ’s coming, Angels and humans were united and henceforth comprise one Church.
Immediately after, the priest commands everyone to not stand lethargically, but to have their minds attached to those things that will follow. This is what the “Let us attend” means. With the “Wisdom!” he reminds the believers of the wisdom with which they must participate in the Liturgy. These are the good thoughts that those have who are rich in faith and foreign to everything human. It is truly necessary for us to attend the Liturgy with suitable thoughts, if we want, of course, not to spend our time in vain. However, since something like this is not easy, our own attention and an external reminder are necessary, so that we can re-concentrate our minds, which constantly forget and are swayed into vain errors.
Also the exclamation “Let us stand” contains an exhortation. It wants us to stand before God, with piety and much zeal. The first sign of this zeal is the standing position of our body.
After these exclamations, the Epistle and Gospel readings are read. They declare the revealing of the Lord, as was happening slowly after His first appearance to people. In the small Entrance the Gospel was closed and symbolized the duration of the first thirty years of the Lord, when He Himself was still silent. Now, however, when the readings are read, we have His fuller revelation, with all the things He Himself publicly taught and with all that He commanded the apostles to preach.
In a little while the liturgist will henceforth continue to the sacrifice. The gifts that will be sacrificed must be placed on the holy Altar Table. For this reason he now comes into the Prothesis, takes the precious gifts, holds them to the height of his head and comes out of the Altar. Proceeding with much propriety and with a slow step, he brings them around the Church, among the multitude, accompanied by lanterns and incense. Finally, he enters the Altar and lays them on the holy Altar Table.
As the priest passes by, the believers chant and worship with every respect, asking him to commemorate them at the time when he will offer the precious gifts to God. Because they know that there does not exist a more effective beseeching than this dreadful sacrifice, which freely cleansed all the sins of the world*.
The Great Entrance symbolizes Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, where He had to be sacrificed. Sitting then on an animal, He was entering the holy City, accompanied and hymned by the multitude.
The Symbol of Faith
The priest now calls the believers to pray “for the precious gifts laid before us.” “Let us beseech God that the precious gifts, which are before us, be sanctified so that our original purpose may thus be fulfilled.”
Afterwards, once he adds other petitions, he urges everyone to have peace with each other (“Peace be to all”) and love (“Let us love one another…”) Because love for God follows the love between us and our perfect and living faith in Him. For this reason, immediately afterwards, we confess the true God: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and indivisible.”
The liturgist adds, “The doors, the doors, in wisdom let us attend.” With this he wants to say: “Open wide all the doors, that is, your mouths and ears, to the true wisdom, in other words, to all the high things you have learned and believe about God. Be constantly saying and hearing these things, and furthermore with zeal and attention.”
Then the believers recite the Symbol of Faith (“I believe in one God…”) out loud.
The Holy Anaphora
“Let us stand well. Let us stand with fear. Let us attend. Let us offer the holy anaphora in peace,” the priest urges. In other words: “Let us stand firmly in all we confessed in the Creed, without being shaken by the heretics. Let us stand with fear, because there is a great danger of us being deceived. Thus when we firmly remain in faith, then let us offer our gifts to God with peace.”
At that point the believers must have in their minds the Lord’s words: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,… first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (see Matt. 5:23-24).
So once the priest elevates the believers’ souls and the trains of thought from the earthly things to heavenly things, he begins the Eucharistic prayer. Thus he imitates the first Priest, Christ, who thanked God the Father before handing over the mystery of the divine Eucharist.
He also glorifies Him now and hymns Him together with the Angels. He expresses gratitude to Him for all the benefactions He has done for us from the beginning of creation. He thanks Him especially for His Only begotten Son’s coming into the world and for handing over of the mystery of the divine Eucharist. He furthermore narrates what is related to the Mystical Supper, repeating the Lord’s words themselves: “Take, eat…. Drink of it all of you,” (Matthew 26:26-27).
After the priest says, “So remembering this saving commandment and everything which has happened for us, that is, the crucifixion, the burial, the three-day resurrection, the ascension to Heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, the second and glorious coming again,” he concludes with the exclamation: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all and for all…we hymn You, we bless You, we thank You, O Lord, and we beseech You, our God.”
With these words it is as if he is telling the heavenly Father, “We are offering You, our God and Father, that same offering which your Only Begotten Son Himself offered to You. In offering it, we thank You, because He also, in offering it, thanked You. We are not adding anything of our own to this offering of gifts. Because these gifts are not our own work, but Your own creations. Neither is this manner of worship our own invention, but You taught it to us and You urged us to worship You in this manner. For this reason, all that we are offering You is completely Your own.”
At that same moment the priest falls down and fervently begs God. He beseeches that the gifts he has before him may receive His all holy and almighty Spirit and be changed; on the one hand, the bread into the holy Body of Christ itself, on the other hand, the wine into His immaculate Blood itself.
After these prayers, the divine sacred service was completed! The gifts were sanctified! The sacrifice took place! The great victim and slaughter which was sacrificed for the sake of the world, is found before our eyes, on the Holy Altar Table! Because the bread is no longer a type of the Master’s body. It is the all holy Body of the Lord itself, which accepted all those insults…the slaps, the spitting, the wounds, the gall, the crucifixion. The wine is the Blood itself, which sprang forth when the body was being slaughtered. This is the Body, this is the Blood, which took on composition from the Holy Spirit, which was born from the Virgin Mary, which was buried, resurrected on the third day, ascended to Heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father.
Now, we believe that it is thus because the Lord Himself said, “This is My Body…this is My Blood” (Mark 14:22,24.) Also because He Himself commanded the apostles and the whole church: “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19.) He would not have ordered them to repeat this mystery if He did not intend to give them the strength to perform it. And what is this strength? The Holy Spirit. It is this Holy Spirit which performs the mysteries with the priest’s hand and tongue. The liturgist is the servant of the grace of the Holy Spirit, without offering anything of his own self. For this reason it is not important if perhaps he himself is full of sins. Something like this does not falsify the offering of gifts, which are always pleasing to God, just as medicine constructed by a person unrelated to medical science does not lose its therapeutic effect, so long as it was constructed according to the doctor’s directions.
So once the sacrifice is completed, the priest, seeing the pledge of divine philanthropy, the Lamb of God, before him, thanks and begs. He thanks God for all the saints, because in their person the Church found that which she is seeking, the Kingdom of Heaven. Particularly—”especially”—he thanks for the most blessed Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, because she exceeds every holiness. The priest beseeches for all the believers—those reposed and those living—because they have not yet reached perfection and have need of prayer.
In a bit the liturgist will himself commune and will invite the believers to the divine Mysteries also. However, because divine communion is not allowed to everyone without exception, the priest, lifting up the life-giving Body and showing it, exclaims, “The holy things are for the holy ones.” It is as if he is saying, “Here is the Bread of life! You see it, so run to commune of it. Not everyone, however, but whoever is holy. Because holy things are allowed only for holy people.”
“Holy people here does not mean only those who have reached the perfection of
virtue, but also those who are struggling to reach it, even if they are still lacking.
For this reason Christians, if they are not falling into mortal sins, which separate them from Christ and deaden them spiritually, do not have any obstacle to commune.*
To the priest’s exclamation, “The holy things are for the holy ones,” the believers loudly respond: “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.” Because no one has holiness on his own, nor is it an achievement of human virtue, but everyone draws it from Christ. Just as, if many mirrors are placed beneath the sun, all of them radiate, and you think that you are seeing many suns, when in reality it is one sun shining from all the mirrors, so also the only Holy one, Christ, as He is poured out with the communion into the believers, shows in many souls and presents many people as saints. He is the one and unique Saint, however.
So once the liturgist calls the believers in this manner to the sacred Supper, he himself and the other clergyman who are in the Holy Vema first commune. First, however, he pours warm water into the holy Chalice, something which denotes the Holy Spirit’s descent to the Church. This warm water, because it is water but also has fire in it due to the boiling, reveals the Holy Spirit, which the Lord likened to “living water” (John 7:38) and which descended on the apostles in the form of fire on the day of Pentecost.
The priest subsequently turns to the congregation and, showing the Holy things, invites those who wish to commune to approach “with fear of God and with faith.” In other words, that they not scorn the humble appearance of the Lord’s Body and Blood, but to approach having knowledge of the value of the Mysteries and believing that they cause eternal life to those who commune.
Christ’s Body and Blood is true food and true drink. When one communes of them, they are not altered into the human body, as happens with customary foods, but the human body is altered into them, just as when iron comes into contact with fire, it also becomes fire. It does not make the fire iron.
The divine communion we accept, of course, with the mouth, but it first enters into the soul and there our union with Christ is realized, as the apostle Paul also says, “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Cor. 6:17). Man on his own, without union with Christ, is the old man, the man who has nothing in common with God.
What things, however, does Christ seek from us in order to sanctify us with the divine Mysteries? The cleansing of soul, faith and love for God, a fiery longing and desire on our parts for divine Communion. These draw sanctification, and thus we must commune. Because there are many people who approach the mysteries and not only do they not receive any benefit at all, but they leave indebted with innumerable sins.
After the believers commune, they pray that the sanctification which they received may remain within them, and that they not betray the grace nor lose the gift.
The priest now calls them to thank God with zeal for the divine Communion. For this reason he says, “Let us stand worthily, let us thank the Lord.” Not lying down or sitting, in other words, but elevating the soul and body toward Him. With the scriptural words the believers glorify God, Who is the cause and granter of all good things: “May the name of the Lord be blessed, from now and unto the ages” (Psalm 112:2). After they chant this hymn three times, the priest comes out of the Altar, stands before the multitude and addresses the last prayer: “Christ our true God…” He asks the Lord to save us with His mercy, because from our own selves we have nothing worthy of salvation to show. For this reason also, he commemorates many saints, and especially His all Holy Mother, as intercessors.
Finally, the liturgist distributes the antidoron. This has been sanctified, as it is coming from the initial bread that we offer to God for the performance of the divine Eucharist. The believers piously take the antidoron, kissing the priest’s right hand. Because this hand has just touched the all-holy Body of Christ. It received sanctification from that and imparts it now to those who kiss it.
Here the Divine Liturgy reaches its end and the mystery of divine Eucharist is completed. Because the gifts that we offered God were sanctified, and they sanctified the priest, and they imparted sanctification to the remaining pleroma of the Church.
For all these things, to Christ our true God is due every glory, honor and worship, together with His unbegotten Father and His All-holy Spirit, now and always and to the unending eternity. Amen.
Translated by Fr. Nicholas Palis from the Greek Book “Voice of the Fathers”
Volume 3, pp. 41-62, The Sacred Paracletos Monastery, Oropos, Attica, 2003;
Edited by Irene Maginas.