It is claimed that the word Liturgy means the work (ergon) of the laos, the people of God. But its true sense is that of a public service. And the name of the Divine Liturgy makes it clear that here is our public service to God. Whereas in the thinking of the West, liturgy can refer to the faithful execution and study of all the rites in general, par excellence in the Eastern Churches using the Byzantine rite, the Liturgy is immediately recognised as the term for the Holy Eucharist. Perhaps it is ironic that a word for the Liturgy of Greek origin, Eucharist, referring to the sacrifice of thanksgiving, is relatively less usual in the East, while the term Liturgy in the West does not have such a potent connotation with the Mass. Yet Mass also has a meaning of a loving duty discharged. We can see what we both mean in what St Paul says:
I beseech you therefore, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. Romans 12.1
By reasonable worship, St Paul means an entire self-offering within the Reason of God: in other words, the Logos, the Word of God, Who was breathed into the world by the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Mother of God at Nazareth. There is a related expression in the Roman Mass, when the priest holds his hands over the holy gifts and prays that the offering will be blessed, acknowledged, and approved: he says, “make it spiritual and acceptable”. Here the word spiritual translates rationabilis, reasonable, as in St Paul’s word logike about our worship of complete self-oblation within the life of Christ the Word, and by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.
In the Divine Liturgy which you are about to see unfold, therefore, you will not so much see our action, as that of the Trinity taking its effect on us. The structure of the rite is about moving and journey, not only through this world but in and out of the world that is to come, and that is the Kingdom that is already upon us and within us (Luke 17.21). Did not St Paul also conclude, “It is not I who live, but Christ Who lives within me”? (Galatians 2.20) So we are drawn into His life within the Trinity. You have already heard the first of the many blessings on us of the Trinity; and every prayer ends with a doxology to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You will have heard the commands to stand aright and be attentive – standing because that is the attitude of our resurrection, which to us is not something of the future for it is the life that already inhabits us now. Christ is risen, we all are risen. And in a few moments, our resurrection will lead to our ascension, as we recognise and genuinely see ourselves as those who in the world mystically represent the Cherubim, laying aside the cares of this life, so that we may receive the King of all coming to us on the Altar, escorted by the Angels.
And then, when we have reached the threshold where we are about to tread into the courts of heaven itself, even though we are here in this world, the priest will tell us not just to stand, but to stand well, and offer what St Paul said: our reasonable, spiritual worship, of our entire self-offering. But not on our own in isolation, since we are in Christ the Word, Christ our God, Who is the oblation of oblations, filling the universe; that, being all in all, we are assumed into His offering of Himself and everything He fills in this forthcoming Holy Oblation.
In a sense we must never leave the heaven to which we have ascended in the Divine Liturgy. Our faith must hold this in its eyes, to overcome and overrule whatever sin or shortcoming comes next, because nothing can ever take away the reality that in this moment we were in the Kingdom of Heaven - no less than we believe, just as we pray according to the Lord’s instruction, that the same Kingdom of Heaven comes on earth in this Daily Bread.
One of the beautiful prayers that a priest or deacon sometimes says as he is about to receive the Holy Communion begins, “Behold I approach our immortal King and God”. It always moves me to think of the shepherds at Bethlehem, or the arrival of the Magi to present their gifts. Yet here I have nothing to offer, since, even though the priest has asked to be allowed to offer the Oblation, it is Christ our God who offers and is offered; Christ who receives and is given. So we remain caught up in the two directions of Christ’s own movement: always offering and offered, giving and received between earth and heaven, devoted to being in both. Here we have no abiding City, it is said (Hebrews 13.14), but we do not feel restless as we journey on in this world, as if we were aimless and uncertain of our Promised Land. For it has already come to us, and admitted us as its citizens. Our way of living is not to reject the world for which Christ came and died to give it life, but for each member of the Church to place it in its true setting – the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus “the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ.” (Revelation 11.15)
When you receive Holy Communion, you will receive it standing -standing, because we are in the resurrection and this is our ascension in union with the Lord into the Trinity. You will receive in both kinds from a mixed chalice, by means of a spoon. Everyone will have their own spoon, so there is no reason to fear. The bread is leavened bread, just the same as when the Lord spoke of himself as the living Bread, His flesh given for the life of the world.
Having received, as we say, “the divine, holy, immortal, heavenly and lifegiving, awesome Mysteries of Christ”, you will see why it is that we have no hesitation in speaking confidently in the terms of religion and faith about Christ as our God, because the priest will ask you at this exalted moment of Communion once more to commend yourself, in union with that sacrifice acceptable to God, your endless, reasonable, spiritual worship of your whole being, saying, “Let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” And a final time, this time in complete union with Him, you will reply, “To You, O Lord.” For this is what the Divine Liturgy comes to: Him. You will sing with us, “We have seen the true light. We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith. And we worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us.”
On this footing, at one with Christ, standing in His resurrection and ascension, representing the cherubim, and treading the court of God’s presence with the Mother of God and all the saints, we shall receive the blessing of God from His Cross and see that truly “He is good, and He loves mankind”.