When a person who is unfamiliar with the Eastern churches enters a Melkite Church or any other Orthodox Church they are confronted with what at first appears to be an unfamiliar, exotic and mysterious scene. They see a sacred place which conveys a sense of beauty, reverence, awe and mystery. It is an environment which captures the attention of the senses. There is the sight of the many icons depicting Christ, the Theotokos, the Saints, and representations of various scenes from the scriptures. They see items such as the unfamiliar iconostasis screen, the royal doors, the holy table, lighted lamps, the liturgical fans, candles, etc. If a service or liturgy is in progress they may hear melodious chanting. They may smell the fragrance of clouds of incense. They may see priests and deacons wearing elaborate and colourful vestments. They may witness solemn processions of the Gospel book in the Little Entrance or the Holy Gifts in the Great Entrance. They may see worshippers respectfully prostrating or venerating icons. They may see people presenting for communion, receiving the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine.
What is occurring in the Divine Liturgy is no different in its essential reality to a Mass performed in Roman Catholic churches. However it is performed according to a different rite, the features of which convey somewhat different emphases. The same sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharist is performed but the Melkite ceremony emphasises similarities to the Jerusalem temple worship. The sanctuary symbolises, and in fact becomes, the Holy of Holies. The ceremony conjures up the Day of Atonement ritual is as well as also representing the Mystical Supper of Jesus. The ceremony also vividly expresses the heavenly worship before the throne of God.
One of the features of the Byzantine tradition is its very strong experiential focus. The spiritual practices and liturgy of the Eastern Churches reflect this approach. We are powerfully reminded of this reality by the words of St Gregory Palamas: “to think about God a thousand times, without experiencing God, is to know nothing.” The liturgical practices are designed to reach our hearts and help us towards experiencing God’s grace. Particularly noteworthy in the liturgy are the recurring calls for God’s mercy. This includes but goes beyond, merely asking for forgiveness of our sins. It is actually a cry for God to heal us and receive us into his very being. This is clearly reflected in the Arabic language by the connection between the word for mercy (rahma) and the word for womb (rahim).
The whole ambience of the church and its liturgies convey beauty, reflecting the supreme beauty which is God. The elaborate and dignified liturgical gestures evoke a sense of reverence and awe. All of these features help to give us an appropriate experience, shaping our attitudes and directing us to worthily partake in worship. Whilst many of these components are natural human psychological elements, they help to prepare us to switch off from our mundane world and its concerns and focus on God and be more open to his actions and grace.
The liturgy engages our senses, bodies and minds so that we can more readily distance ourselves from our day to day worries and stresses and turn to God. Whilst God’s grace transcends the purely human and psychological it is also true that we need to prepare our self with all the natural aids available to us in order to be receptive to the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Having been refreshed and strengthened by God’s grace, our task then is to go back into the world and reflect the presence of Christ in our actions and in our relationships with other people.
The liturgy is Christ with us. It reconnects us to the divine work of Salvation. According to St Basil the Great our salvation consists of the raising of man from his fallen state and returning him to intimacy with God. The Eucharist is therefore a Thanksgiving.
The Divine Liturgy is foreshadowed in the Old Testament in various ways. The presence of Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem who offered bread and wine is an image of Christ, the Great High Priest. Another foreshadowing is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. A powerful prefiguring is the vision of Isaiah (6:1-7) where the Lord is shown with the Seraphim surrounded by incense amidst the praise of the Thrice Holy Hymn. A supreme prefiguring was the Passover, representing the Exodus of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt. St John Chrysostom made the striking statement: “We eat Christ as our Passover.”
In the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom there is the ritual enactment of Christ’s life on earth; his passion, death and resurrection; his gift of himself in the Eucharist; and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Epiclesis.
The Little Entrance of the Gospel book symbolises the Incarnation of Christ and his teachings which are given in the readings.
The Great Entrance commences with Cherubic Hymn which exhorts us “who mystically represent the Cherubim” to “lay aside all earthly cares” so “that we may welcome the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.”
The procession transferring the precious gifts of bread and wine may be seen as symbolising Christ going up to Golgotha to be sacrificed. The solemn procession can also help us to appreciate the reality of Christ’s entry into the Holy of Holies. The precious gifts represent humanity in the world who through Christ are being returned to God and the Great Entrance also symbolises this return and the dedication of ourselves to God.
The liturgy makes present God’s Kingdom which is to come, as expressed in the Anaphora:
“You have left nothing undone until you brought us to heaven and graciously gave us your future Kingdom.” In the liturgy the Ages are brought together and Heaven and Earth are made one.
The liturgy makes recurring references to the Holy Trinity, most notably in the Trisagion: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One Have Mercy on Us”
The liturgy also commemorates the presence of the Theotokos, as she is indeed the throne of God since her womb became the holy table. The Angelic Hosts are remembered, as are the Saints.
Commenting upon the Eucharistic bread, St Simeon the New Theologian stated: “to those who have not risen above the senses, this bread appears according to the senses to be merely bread but to the spiritual understanding it is light which cannot be contained or approached.” This highlights our need to approach communion with a pure soul in order to experience God’s grace. In that way we hope that the words of St John of Damascus will apply: “the fire of our love will be ignited by the Divine coal and burn our sins and illumine our hearts and through participation in the Divine fire we shall catch on fire and be deified.”
In the mystery of the Eucharistic communion the body and blood of Christ is received. It is his supreme expression of love for human beings, giving us union with him in forming one body.
St John Chrysostom reportedly heard Christ saying to him: “I am interwoven with you. I do not want there to be anything between us. I want us to be one.”
St Cyril of Alexandria has stated “the holy bread is like a veil hiding the divinity within it.”
The gifts of bread and wine are offered and in the Epiclesis the Holy Spirit descends to renew creation. We receive a foretaste of the resurrection in the Eucharist. St Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Eucharist as healing and life-giving. In his words, it was “the medicine of immortality.”
— Deacon John Gill