Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 5.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 9 October 2010

English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR

Lesson 5


Having prepared ourselves, we are now ready to enter into God’s temple.  But let us now pay attention—there should be nothing mechanical in our actions, everything we do must be deliberate and intentional, filled with reason and meaning.  Let us return to the beginning: we are now ready to enter into God’s temple.  First, it is God’s.  We have been invited by the Creator of all—not just the Earth, and the stars, and the galaxies, but of the very space, and matter, and time, and amazing things of whose existence we cannot even guess—to enter into His innermost Holy of Holies, to enter into communion with Him, and to quite literally enter into His Body even as He enters into our bodies.  Second, it is a temple.  It is a space and time sanctified, set aside, for the service of God—and only and exclusively for this purpose.[1]

“I will enter thy house, I will worship toward thy holy temple…” (Ps. 5:7)

The clergy come to church a certain time before the Divine Liturgy is to begin in order to prepare everything that is necessary.  As we mentioned earlier, this preparation is called prothesis or proskomedia—“a setting forth” or “an offering.”  Most commonly in the Russian Church, this preparation takes place out of the view of the lay faithful.  We will discuss this service in a bit more detail shortly.  At this point, let us just note that when most lay people enter the church, there is already a service going on in the altar.

Upon entering the church it is customary to thrice make the sign of the cross with prayer.  The words of the prayer can be found in almost any prayer book, but here is one shortened example: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. [bow][2] Thou hast created me; Lord, have mercy on me. [bow]  I have sinned immeasurably; Lord, have mercy and forgive me, a sinner. [bow]”  A church is not a grocery store where one can quickly run in to pick up some bread or bottled water.  A church is the house of God, thus we must pause, pray, or just ponder the holiness we are about to enter.  Some of the first things we may notice as we enter into the narthex are the candles and commemoration booklets.


Even if people know nothing at all about Orthodoxy, they seem to know that they are supposed to “light candles.”  But what meaning do the candles have?  Let us note two points.  First, burning candles represent our burning faith and flaming prayer.  Even if some find neither in their hearts, it is, nonetheless, not enough to just “light a candle.”  A burning candle by itself means absolutely nothing if it is not accompanied by our prayers and faith in God Who hears and answers them.

Second, the tradition of lighting candles in the church comes from the times when burning candles, along with oil lamps, provided the only sources of light.  Additionally, in the first several decades of Christianity, services were often conducted with “the doors … locked for the fear of the Jews,”[3] or in dark catacombs for the fear of the Romans, or at night.  Christians lit oil lamps and candles in order to see the faces of the saints on the icons and to provide some light during the service.  Nowadays, the sale of candles is one source of income for a church.  The modern faithful who buy candles, just as the early Christians, through this small offering keep the lights on in their churches.  Some also follow a good and pious custom of donating olive oil to the church to be used in the oil lamps.


As we said earlier, the clergy come to church a certain time before the Liturgy is to begin in order to prepare everything that is needed.  This preparation takes place during the service of prothesis.  During this service, the deacon prepares bread,[4] wine, and water.  Then the priest takes one loaf and prepares the Lamb which is to become the Body of Christ, while reciting Old Testament passages that prophesy the suffering and death of Christ.  The deacon pours some wine into the chalice and adds a small amount of water in remembrance of blood and water flowing from the side of Christ’s Body.[5], [6] The Lamb, representing Christ, is placed on a flat round dish called the diskos.  Other particles representing the Mother of God and the saints are cut from other loaves[7] and placed around the Lamb, thus symbolically composing the heavenly Church gathered around its Head—the Lord Jesus Christ.  Finally, particles of bread are cut to represent us, Orthodox Christians, the Church on earth, and are also placed on the diskos.  Thus, the entire Church—Christ, the Theotokos, the saints, and the living and departed faithful—is symbolically represented on the diskos.[8] During the course of the Divine Liturgy, this bread will be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and become the true Body of Christ.

The commemoration booklets that we send to the altar before the service contain the names[9] which are read in the course of the service of prothesis, and bread particles representing the named people are taken out and placed on the diskos.  The particles are taken out of loaves which are called prosphoras.[10] These loaves are offered by the faithful for the service of prothesis.  In the Russian tradition, two loaves are offered by each family—one for the living and one for the departed.[11] Thus, through the offering of the sacramental bread and through commemorations, the faithful participate in the preparation for the Divine Liturgy.

Whose names should be listed in the commemoration booklet?  First, they should only be names of Orthodox Christians—living and departed.  As we discussed, the particles for these names are taken out of sacramental bread and placed on the diskos to represent the Orthodox Church.  People who belong to other denominations, other religions, who were once baptized Orthodox but since then have rejected Orthodoxy, or who are non-believers do not belong to the Orthodox Church, are not commemorated during the service of prothesis, and their names should not be written in the church commemoration booklets.  This does not mean that the Church does not pray for those people—it does during many other services.  But in the service of prothesis, the Church acknowledges the free will of people who choose not to be in the Church and does not force them onto the diskos, as it were, even symbolically.

Second, the names in your commemoration booklet should be the names of the people whom you remember in your daily prayers.  In your daily prayers you may pray for more people than those whose names you submit for commemoration in church, since at home you may pray for anyone—Orthodox and not.  But you should not have more names in your church commemoration booklet than the people for whom you regularly pray at home.  If you do not want to pray for someone—do not write the name into your church commemoration booklet.

Finally, it should go without saying that the commemoration booklets and prosphoras should be sent to the altar before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.  For obvious reasons, the service of prothesis should be completed by the time the Divine Liturgy begins.  Due to the tardiness of many parishioners, however, it is now not uncommon to see commemoration booklets sent to the altar well after the beginning of the Liturgy.  This forces the priest to shuttle back and forth between the two services, unable to give his full attention to either.[12] As widespread as this practice is, it is improper and must be rooted out.  If you are chronically tardy, the best thing to do is to make arrangements with the clergy for your commemoration booklet to be taken to the altar at the appropriate time even if you have not made it to church yet.

The Third and Sixth Hours

Immediately before the Liturgy, two smaller services are read in the church—they are the third and sixth hours.  The third hour consists of the 16th, 24th, and 50th psalms[13] with additional prayers.  The theme that unites these psalms is the prayer for righteousness and help in the fight against sin.  At the same time, the faithful are encouraged to contemplate Pilate’s condemnation of Christ and also the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles—the events that happened in the third hour.[14]

The sixth hour contains the 53rd, 54th, and 90th psalms[15]—all of which speak about a righteous man being persecuted by enemies.  The reading of this hour should remind us of “how at the sixth hour of the day our Saviour, bearing His Cross, was led away for crucifixion and how mercilessly He was nailed cruelly with four spikes to the Cross…”[16]

Questions for discussion:

  1. How do lay people participate in the service of prothesis?
  2. Should a person who was once Orthodox but then rejected Orthodoxy be commemorated in church at the service of prothesis?
  3. Should a person who never goes to church but has not rejected Orthodoxy be commemorated in church at the service of prothesis?

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[1] While honoring church buildings for their sacred use, we must remember that they are “mere walls” (Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died 14)—we are the true temples of God (2 Cor. 6:16): “Our bodies are the temple of God.  If anyone defiles the temple of God by lust or sin, he will himself be destroyed for acting impiously toward the true temple” (Origen, Against Celsus 19).

[2] On Sundays and certain feast days, the bow is done by bending at the waist until one can reach the ground with the hand.  On weekdays and especially during fasts, the bow is a prostration and done by placing both knees and both hands on the floor and bending forward as if to touch the ground with one’s forehead.

[3] John 20:19

[4] For a detailed discussion on the nature and meaning of sacramental bread refer to Sveshnikov, Sergei. Break the Holy Bread, Master: A Theology of Communion Bread. 2009.

[5] John 19:34

[6] Mixing wine with water was a common practice in the ancient world—see, for example, Pliny the Elder, Natural History 14:6:54; Plutarch, Sumposiacs 3:9; Homer, Odyssey 1 et passim; and also 2 Macc. 15:39.

[7] In the Russian tradition, five loaves are used: one for the Lamb, one for the Theotokos, one for the orders of saints, one for the living, and one for the departed.  There is a modern Greek practice of using only one loaf.  While this practice certainly has its symbolic beauty, it is relatively recent, and the older tradition is to use many loaves—see Nomocanon of John Scholasticus rule 213, and also Συμεών Αρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, Τα απαντά. Αθήνα, 1882, pp. 118-9.

[8] For a detailed step-by-step description of the service of prothesis refer to the Service Book.

[9] These must be the full names of Orthodox Christians given to them in baptism—no diminutives, nicknames, and no surnames.

[10] From Greek προσφορά—“offering.”

[11] This tradition corresponds to the service of prothesis, during which one prosphora is used for commemorating the living and a separate one is used for commemorating the departed.

[12] See Таушев, Архиепископ Аверкий. Литургика. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2000, pp. 241-2.

[13] These numbers are in the LXX enumeration; the Masoretic enumeration is 17, 25, and 51.

[14] John 19:14; 18:28

[15] 54, 55, and 91 in Masoretic enumeration

[16] “Instructional Information.” Service Book: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, p. 23-4.


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