One dictionary definition of liturgy includes the following: “a rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship . . . a customary repertoire of ideas, phrases, or observances.” Another gives the following: “the customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to its particular traditions.” Most often we associate the word with religious worship, but it also has a larger meaning, referring to the order used for a particular endeavor, a set of actions, or preparations. Both of these contexts need to be remembered when we talk about Orthodox liturgy. For an Orthodox Christian, his most important act of service to God is worship, and, while the Orthodox Church has many services of prayer (vespers, compline, orthros, the hours, etc.), its primary service of worship is called the Divine Liturgy. However, Orthodoxy also understands that all of life is to be an act of offering ourselves to God, and consequently, there should be a way of living, a liturgy or order of life, so to speak, that is most profitable for enabling one to truly follow Christ.
First consider the Divine Liturgy. The Orthodox Church sees Divine Liturgy is seen as transcending time and space. In a “great mystery” She sees all believers as being united in worship in the Kingdom of God along with departed Saints and the angelic realm. Everything in the Liturgy is both symbol and reality, making the unseen reality manifest. The Divine Liturgy’s roots begin in Jewish worship. This can be seen in the first half of the Liturgy that is termed the “Liturgy of the Word” or “Liturgy of the Catechumens” and it includes prayer petitions, psalm verses, hymns, reading of scriptures, and the homily. The second half of the Divine Liturgy, called the “Liturgy of the Faithful.” It can be said to parallel the sacrifices in the temple worship in that it follows the pattern given by Christ at the Last Supper (as the perfect Sacrifice) and the first Eucharistic celebrations by Early Christians. Orthodox Christians participating in the Liturgy believe that the Eucharist is the central part of the service, and they believe the bread and wine truly become, again in a Great Mystery, the Body and Blood of Christ, as He stated at the Last Supper.
There are three forms of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church:
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – used on most days of the year;
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great – used on 10 days of the liturgical year (the 5 Sundays of Great Lent, Saint Basil’s feast day (January 1), the eves of the Nativity and Theophany, on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday); and
The Divine Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem – celebrated once a year in Jerusalem (and a few other churches) on the feast day of St. James, the brother of the Lord and first bishop of Jerusalem, to whom this Liturgy is traditionally attributed.
Additionally, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, attributed to St. Gregory the Dialogist, is used in parochial practice on Wednesdays and Fridays during Great Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week. It is essentially the office of vespers with a communion service added, the Holy Gifts having been consecrated and reserved the previous Sunday.
The volume of writing on the Divine Liturgy is immense and the interested inquirer has much to investigate if he chooses to do so. As always, the Church would say the best way to learn is to “come and see.”
Next consider the Orthodox way of life, a “liturgical pattern” of living that indeed helps one to draw nearer to the Holy Trinity. Every person has his own daily, weekly, monthly, and annual pattern or liturgy. Is it one that enables him to embrace the Way, the Truth, and the Life as Christ calls Himself? For pious Orthodox Christians, that life involves daily prayers, sometimes daily services, weekly services, and annually commemorations and services.
Each day an Orthodox Christian should have a regular pattern of prayers (a prayer rule), at least morning and evening. The Church actually has eight services a day (all of which are rarely if ever done in parochial practice, but most often done in monasteries and often bunched together rather than scattered throughout the day). These are:
Vespers (at sunset – remembering creation and fall)
Compline (following dinner and before retiring – penitential)
Midnight Office (12:00 am, “in the middle of the night”)
Orthros (ending just after sunrise many times called Matins – as the day
dawns, and containing the largest amount of teaching and hymnography)
First Hour (about 6:00-7:00 am)
Third Hour (about 9:00 am – remembering the coming of the Holy Spirit)
Sixth Hour (about 12:00 pm – remembering the crucifixion of our Lord)
Ninth Hour (about 3:00 pm – remembering the death of our Lord on the Cross)
Beyond the daily experience of God through one’s prayers and activities, each week as a pattern which helps an Orthodox Christian to remember and consider the most important events in history and those who have and are assisting us in our working out our own salvation. Each day of the week has a remembrance attached:
Sundays are dedicated to a remembrance of the Resurrection. Sometimes Sundays are called
the Eighth Day, calling one to see Christ’s Resurrection as leading him into Eternity, the
“Eighth Day of Creation;”
Mondays are dedicated to the angelic realm;
Tuesdays are dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner;
Wednesdays are a remembrance of the betrayal of Judas, and thus a remembrance of the Cross;
Thursdays are dedicated to the Apostles, and St. Nicholas;
Fridays are a remembrance of the Crucifixion, and thus again a remembrance of the Cross;
Saturdays are remembrance of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord.
Concurrent with the daily remembrances is the annual calendar of feasts and fasts. Each day has a number of saints and many times events which we commemorate. The saints are commemorated as those who by their lives and sanctity are models of Christian living which one would do well to emulate in life. They have revealed much about how Christians are actually called to live in the fallen world. For instance, St. John the Theologian, the patron of St. John Orthodox Church, has two specific feast days – September 26 (the day of his falling asleep in the Lord) and May 8 (the date of one of the miracles attributed to him). The greatest of the annual commemorations is that of the Resurrection, or as Orthodox Christians call it, Pascha! It is a “moveable feast,” meaning that the date varies from year to year. Fixed feasts are those which occur on the same calendar day each year.
There are Twelve Great Feasts throughout the church year, not counting Pascha, which is above and beyond all other feast days. These are feasts which celebrate major historical events in the lives of Jesus Christ or the Most Blessed Theotokos, his mother. Of these, three are moveable feasts related to the date Pascha:
Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (many times called Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Pascha) (St. John Triumphal Entry Festal Icon)
Ascension (forty days after Pascha) (St. John Ascension Festal Icon)
Pentecost (fifty days after Pascha) (St. John Pentecost Festal Icon)
The other Great Feasts are on the Fixed Cycle:
The Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8) (St. John Nativity of the Theotokos Festal Icon)
The Elevation of the Holy Cross (September 14) (St. John Elevation of the Holy Cross Festal Icon)
The Presentation of the Theotokos (November 21) (St. John Presentation of the Theotokos Festal Icon)
The Nativity of the Lord (December 25) (St. John Nativity of the Lord Festal Icon)
The Theophany (many times called Epiphany) of the Lord (January 6) (St. John Theophany Festal Icon)
The Meeting (Presentation) of the Lord (February 2) (St. John Meeting of the Lord Festal Icon)
The Annunciation (March 25) (St. John Annunciation Festal Icon)
The Transfiguration (August 6) (St. John Transfiguration Festal Icon)
The Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos (August 15) (St. John Dormition Festal Icon)
Coupled with the special celebrations of the Great Feasts and the daily commemorations of the saints are days and seasons of fasting. More detail about fasting is elsewhere on the website, but the regular days of fasting are Wednesdays (the betrayal) and Fridays (the Crucifixion). The four great seasons of fasting are:
Great Lent (technically the 40 days in preparation for Pascha through the Friday before Palm Sunday; in common practice it refers to the entire period including this 40 day, Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and all of Holy Week leading up to Pascha):
Nativity Fast (40 days in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord)
Apostles’ Fast (variable time from the second Monday after Pentecost until the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29)
Dormition Fast (2 weeks from 1 August through 14 August in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, August 15).
Obviously, this brief item on “liturgy” only touches on some aspects of the fullness that the liturgical tradition of the Church has given to us. In the end, each person should recognize that he or she has already fashioned a liturgy of life for themselves. The question that must then be asked is, “Does that liturgy take me closer to God?” Consider it, for the answer is one that will must be lived with for eternity.