Wisdom from the Fathers

ON THE DIVINE LITURGY
By Bishop Theophilos of Campania
 
Part 1 - The Liturgy of Prothesis
 
 
 
The Divine Liturgy is a recalling (anamnesis) of the whole mystery of the life of Christ, from His Incarnation by the Holy Spirit and birth by the Virgin Mary, to His Passion, death on the Cross, His Resurrection from the dead on the third day, His ascension into Heaven and His sitting at the right hand of the Father. All these events are represented in material and visible signs in the Divine Liturgy which are easily recognizable and received by the senses of the children of the Church, so that they may be led to the things which are immaterial and heavenly. Since, however, it is not easy to use as many material things as there are deeds and works of Christ, the Church combines into one experience many different symbols and forms, which are easily understandable by the faithful living at a particular time in the span of human existence and in a specific place.
 
The Liturgy is a work of the people. That is to say that all the faithful play an active part in the Liturgy; it is not just the work of the clergy. The Liturgy is not something which is merely observed, but which we live in a very tangible way. It is a sacrifice, an offering, an act of thanksgiving; the most perfect form of worship and prayer that the Church can offer to the one true God, through Jesus Christ, His only-Begotten Son, the Word of God who took upon Himself the flesh of humanity and dwelt among us.
 
The Divine Liturgy begins first with an act of offering in which the prosphora (the bread for the Eucharist) is brought to the Church by the faithful and offered to the priest. The prosphora represents the Virgin Mary when she was brought to the temple of the Lord by her parents, Joachim and Anna. Imitating Zacharias, the priest takes the bread from the ones who offered it and takes it into the "Holy of Holies" and places it reverently on the Holy Table, whre it remains until he is ready to begin the Liturgy of Prothesis.
 
The priest then prepares himself for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, saying specific prayers, vesting himself in the appropriate liturgical garments, and otherwise getting himself ready for the proskomedia. This time of preparation represents the years which the Virgin spent in the Temple.
 
Once the priest has completed the preparatory works and he is ready to begin the prokomedia, he lifts the bread from the Holy Table and quietly and reverentially takes it to the Altar of Prothesis. This act symbolizes the journey from Bethlehem which the Virgin Mary took with Joseph because of the census. It was there that the Virgin, being with child (for the prosphora, being marked with the name of Jesus Christ, represents Christ), gave birth to Christ in the cave. "Then the child was laid in manger," which is symbolized by the diskos, or paten. "And the star came and stood over the place where the young child lay." The asterisk represents the star which led the Magi to the place where the child Jesus was. The Aer and other covers represent the swaddling clothes in which the Infant Jesus was wrapped and also foreshadow the burial shroud which will eventually hold the crucified body of the Lord. The thurible and the incense symbolize the gifts of the Magi.
 
The Prophet Isaiah says, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulders, and His name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6). Herein is represented the Cross, by means of which Christ conquered the enemy, destroyed death, and rules over all forever.
 
Christ Himself said, "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:28) With these words, the Church unites into the Liturgy all the life-giving and life-changing works that Christ did for those who would listen to and receive His words and follow His example. Christ truly gave His life for all but not all would receive and accept Him and He knew this. That is what He meant when He said He was giving His life "for many."
 
In preparing the bread, the priest cuts a square portion from it, which becomes the "Lamb", saying as he does so "As a lamb led to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth." He then pierces the right side of the Lamb with a spear, in the same way one of the soldiers pierced the side of Christ as He hung upon the Cross.
 
It was from the side of Christ that blood and water came forth after it was pierced, and John the Apostle was present and saw it. Using the vessel from which the vinegar and gall were taken and offered to Jesus while He hung upon the Cross, St. John the Apostle used it to catch some of the Blood and water which poured forth from His side (which some say are preserved to this day). Therefore, the Church today uses the chalice as a type of that vessel, into which is poured first wine and then water. But after the transubstantiation, the chalice becomes a type of the cup with which Christ offered His blood to His disciples at the Last Supper.
 
Thus, according to these two mysteries of the birth and death of Christ, the Prothesis becomes a type both of the cave in which Jesus was born and of Golgotha for the crucifixion. Likewise, as was mentioned earlier, the covers signify the swaddling clothes and also the new linen and the soudarion (shroud) for the crucifixion and burial.
 
Because Christ implored His Father, saying that wherever He is there should His servants be also, the various ranks of saints are placed round about Him. First of all, the Virgin is represented on His  right-hand side; then a portion is set aside for the Forerunner, for the Apostles, the Prophets, the Martyrs, the Teachers and the nine orders of the angels in heaven who stand around Him. This is because our hierarchy is an imitation of the heavenly one, as St. Dionysius the Areopagite) says. Then, below these portions, we place the portions for the living and the dead, whomever we wish to commemorate.
 
In arranbging the portions on the diskos, we are encouraged to remember that Christ will come gain as judge of the living and the dead. Accordingly, when looking at the diskos and the bread arranged upon it, we see an image of Christ sitting on His throne, before which all stand and give an account of their lives, of all they have done and all which they have failed to do according to His command.
 
The prothesis ends with the priest censing the Holy Gifts and the whole Altar and thanks God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was so pleased. Then he ascribes to God's love for mankind that glory which the angels ascribed at the birth of Christ, the "Glory to God in the highest..." He does this inaudibly ("mystically"), since the angels revealed this privately only to the shepherds. He also shuts the lower doors, leaving the upper veil open, in order to show that the world below and the crowd of people did not know then, in the beginning, the birth of Christ, which was known only to those who had acquired the intimate knowledge of God: namely, the angels, the propehets and the patriarchs, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi.
 
After he censes the Holy Gifts, the priest censes the entire temple, beginning with the Holy of Holies, the Sanctuary, and moving throughout the whole temple. The rite of incensation represents the purification of the temple, of our prayers ascending to the eternal and omnipotent God, and of His blessing of sanctification upon those who believe in Him and do His will faithfully.
 
 
 
 



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