Elements of the Liturgy
Christian liturgy consists of words, actions, and the chant that accompanies them. (Every Christian liturgical tradition has its own liturgical chant, even if other music sometimes replaces it.) This page describes the basic types of words and actions that make up the liturgical services in the Byzantine tradition, as well as the roles of those who take part in the liturgy. For information about liturgical chant, see the pages on Prostopinije and Other Chant Systems.
The words of the liturgy
Of the texts used in the Byzantine Liturgy, the most familiar are those used each time a given service is celebrated:
- The priest's blessings that begin and end each service, and the people's response, "Amen!" (Hebrew for So be it!).
- The litanies led by the deacon, in which he calls the people to pray for specific needs, as well as the directives given to the people by the deacon or priest.
- The prayers, properly speaking, which the people, or the priest speaking in their name, direct to Almighty God, or in certain cases to the saints.
- Hymns of praise, adoration, repentence and thanksgiving, whether sung to God or about Him. Hymns may also be directed to the saints of God, asking for their intercession, or may be sung in their honor.
Much of the church's worship is drawn from the Book of Psalms. These hymns, written by King David and others, and collected in ancient times, contain sentiments appropriate to every human situation, and are thus suitable to be used as the Hymnbook of the Church. Psalms, or excepts of psalms, are sung at virtually every service.
The Psalms, however, inspired by God as they are, were composed and written down before the incarnation of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, by human authors who awaited the revelation which was still to come. For this reason, the Church found it fitting to accompany the psalms with short hymns called stichera, which provide an explicitly Christian "counterpoint" to the psalm verses. Stichera are usually sung in alternation with psalm verses, and can point out the deeper meanings in the psalms, or adapt them to the particular service or feast being celebrated.
Along with the Psalms, we listen to the other books of Scripture in our services. The books of Sacred Scripture are read for instruction and edification; as Saint Jerome said, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." The Church prescribes specific readings for each celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as well as at other services throughout the year.
But just as the psalms are accompanied by stichera, the Scripture readings are accompanied by short hymns which introduce the Scripture readings for a particular service or feast, and prepare us to listen attentively. These introductions consist of the Prokeimenon which introduces readings from the Old Testament and the apostolic writings of the New Testament, and the Alleluia which introduces the reading of the Holy Gospel. The prokeimenon and its verses, and the verses sung after the Alleluia, are almost always taken from the Book of Psalms.
Early Christian liturgy consisted largely of the above elements. But over time, as the Church's liturgical year developed, new feasts entered the calendar, and theological controversies were settled, increading the depth and richness of the Church's teaching as a consequence. Gifted hymnographers (writers of hymns) added their own contributions to the liturgy, in order to explain the Church's doctrines, and glorify God and his saints. In the Byzantine tradition, these hymns grew in number, amassing a vast body of liturgical poetry from which the Church could add "new things" to its services.
The most important of these new liturgical hymns was the troparion, a short hymn usually intended to encapsulate the essence of a particular feast or celebration.
Later, a longer, very stylized kind of poem called the kontakion grew in popularity. (The kontakion we have in the liturgy today is a very abbreviated form of the original poem.)
Finally, the troparia which were sung in alternation with the Scriptural canticles at Matins developed into an elaborate structure, called a Canon. Even though most of the canticles are no longer sung outside of the Great Fast, canons remains an important part of Matins, and are also sung at certain other services.
The actions of the liturgyThe words of the liturgy are accompanied by actions, which allow the whole person to participate in Divine worship:
- We make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves, to commemorate the life-giving death of our Savior, Jesus Christ. This sign is made with the first and second fingers extended, representing the Divine and human natures of the incarnate Word, and with the other two fingers and the thumb brought together, to represent the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
- The priest blesses the people with the Sign of the Cross, with the Gospel Book or hand cross, showing that it is not in his own name that he blesses us, but it is the Divine blessing that he invokes.
- We bow before God, make prostrations to the ground, bow our heads or kneel, as a sign of repentence and humility.
- The priest, deacon and servers, and sometimes the people as well, move through the body of the church in procession.
- The priest or deacon may incense the church, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Table, the icons and the people; the rising sweet-smelling smoke is not only an ancient symbol of purification, but represents our prayers as they ascend to the throne of God.
Roles in the liturgy
No Christian, by virtue of an office or liturgical role, has any claim to greatness before God; all that we do in the liturgy is delegated by our Mother the Church. But by the same token, not all who take part in the liturgy do so in the same way.
- The bishop is a successor to the apostles; it is his responsibity to teach, to govern, and to ensure that the Church's liturgy, like her teaching and laws, is carefully observed.
- The priest is our representative before God, offering sacrifice and praying on our behalf; at the same time, he is the representative of Jesus Christ, empowered to bless, to forgive sins, and to make present the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ.
- The deacon is responsible for order in the liturgical assembly. In the litanies, he announces the things for which we pray; he calls for our attention at various points in the services, and directs the people at prayer in a variety of ways. He may preach and read the Gospel, but does not bless the people.
- The reader chants the appointed sections of the Old Testament and Apostolic readings, and may also lead certain services in the absence of a priest. (See Reader Services.)
- The people add their prayers to those of the priest, sealing his prayer with their "Amen". They pray for their own needs as well as for those announced by the deacon, affirming these petitions with responses such as "Lord, have mercy", and "Grant this, O Lord." They lend their voices in the singing of hymns, and offer their own sacrifices in union with the one acceptable sacrifice, offered by Christ as our High Priest, and made present by the priest in the Eucharist. They listen attentively to the Scripture readings and sermon or homily, applying these teachings to their own lives and to the sanctification of the world around them.
- The cantor or cantors lead the singing of the people, setting a comfortable pitch, and starting the singing to show which melody is to be used.
- A choir of singers may also support the singing at liturgical services, especially when rarely-used or difficult music is used. The choir may be divided in two, for those parts of the services in which hymns are sung in alternation.
In some eparchies, those priestly prayers which are made on behalf of the people are now taken aloud, allowing the people's "Amen" to be made with full recognition of what went before. Similarly, the wider presence of deacons in the church has allowed for a restoration of the deacon's role as well. This has sometimes resulted in controversial changes, such as shortening the singing of those hymns which became longer in order to "cover up" the priest's prayers. To the extent that all is done in good order, however, these changes provide a prayer which respects both the letter and the spirit of our liturgical traditions.
for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated.
(Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 1996).
An excellent introduction to Byzantine liturgy. This is the second volume of a widely-used Byzantine Catholic catechism.