Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 6.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 16 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 6


The most common Liturgy used in the Russian Church is the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (349-407).  But other Liturgies also exist, and some are used more or less frequently.  One of the most ancient Liturgies in use today is the Liturgy of the Holy Apostle James († 62).  The Russian Church also uses the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea in Cappadocia (330-379) and the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts attributed to Saint Gregory Dialogus (ca. 540-604).[1]

Most Churches that experienced Byzantine influence in their liturgical worship, and this includes the Russian Church, celebrate the Liturgy of Saint Basil ten times a year: on the five Sundays of Great Lent, on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday, on the Eves or the Feasts of the Nativity and Theophany—depending on the days of the week on which these feasts fall, and on the feast day of Saint Basil— 1 January according to the Church calendar.[2] The Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts is commonly celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays during Great Lent.[3] And the Liturgy of Saint James is celebrated on the feast day of the saint, but practically never in parish churches.

Many volumes of detailed studies have been written on the origins and histories of each Liturgy, but it suffices to say that it is more likely than not that none of the discussed Liturgies was actually “written” by any of the saints to whom it is ascribed.[4] Almost certainly, when we say “The Liturgy of the Holy Apostle James” or “The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom” what we actually mean is “The Liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem” and “The Liturgy of the Church of Constantinople.”  In the case of the Liturgy of Saint James, it was likely recorded in writing after the repose of the Apostle based on the unwritten liturgical tradition established by him.  Moreover, “the words, probably, in the most important parts [of the Liturgy of Saint James, and] the general tenor in all portions … [descended to us] unchanged from the apostolic author.”[5]

The liturgical traditions of the Churches in Caesarea and Constantinople[6] already existed by the time that Saint Basil and Saint John were born and were based on the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem.[7] Both saints—Basil and John—are credited with, perhaps, unifying, somewhat modifying,[8] and strengthening existing traditions through writing them down, but certainly not with composing their own Liturgies “from scratch.”  Thus, it is most appropriate to think of the Liturgy as a living tradition of the Church, which nourishes the entire community and is preserved, supported, and maintained by the entire community, including the Apostles and the Fathers who expressed the very foundations of the apostolic faith through the sacred words of the Liturgy.  In this course, we will focus mostly on the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom as the most common in the Russian Church, and refer to some parts of the Liturgy of Saint Basil where appropriate.

“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen!”

Both the Liturgy of Saint Basil and that of Saint John now begin with a very solemn exclamation by the presiding priest: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!”  Those who pay attention to church services may note that this is a rather rare exclamation.  Most services begin with the words “Blessed is our God, now and always, and unto the ages of ages!”  This latter exclamation is common throughout the Old Testament[9] and is also reflected in the beginning of public worship in modern Judaism.[10] In the modern Russian practice, very few services—only three, to be exact—begin with the blessing of the kingdom of the Trinity.[11] This exclamation denotes both the goal of the sacrament as the gathering of the faithful into the kingdom, and the sacrament’s being of the kingdom—as a window or a portal through which the kingdom comes into our lives.[12]

To this priestly blessing, the faithful respond with “Amen!”  Concerning this, Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “The Church is thus the assembly, the gathering of those to whom the ultimate destination of all life has been revealed and who have accepted it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man.”[13]

“Let us stand aright!”

This acceptance of God’s destiny for mankind and our prayerful agreement with the words of the priest or deacon is expressed not only through a verbal form, which is connected to our mind and soul, but also through the actions of our bodies.  First, in the Russian tradition, we stand during the Liturgy.[14] In some way it is due to a feeling of deep reverence before God’s temple, service, and Sacraments.  In the Orthodox mindset, one stands before God, not sits before Him.  On the other hand, the service is not a time for rest and meditation, but for co-laboring with God in the task of our salvation.  An outward symbol of our readiness to work is standing on our feet, not sitting.  As we discussed in previous lessons, Liturgy is “common work,” and we stand ready to participate in this work.  Standing up allows us to compose our bodies and through this help compose our minds and souls.

Standing also creates prayerful unity between the faithful and the clergy who stand during the service.  The way we act outwardly affects the way we feel inwardly; and if the clergy “perform” the service while the faithful sit, it may cause a disconnect between the prayers of the clergy and the prayers of the faithful.  Imagine a priest sitting before the Holy Table or a deacon sitting down while urging the faithful with the words: “Let us pray to the Lord!”—that would be rather odd.  No, the priest and the deacon stand before God.  But they do not represent themselves only; they represent the entire Christian community who stands (literally!) behind them.

The Sign of the Cross

Another outward expression of prayer is the sign of the Cross.  This is one of the most ancient customs that Christians keep.  The holy Apostles boasted in the Cross[15] and worked miracles by the sign of the Cross.[16] Tertullian, writing around the year 211, said: “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at the table, when we light the lamps, when on the couch, when on a seat, and in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace the sign [of the Cross] upon our foreheads.”[17] Saint Anthony of Egypt (ca. 251-356) taught about the power of the sign of the Cross:

When, therefore, they [the demons] come by night to you and wish to tell the future, or say, ‘we are the angels,’ give no heed, for they lie. Yea even if they praise your discipline and call you blessed, hear them not, and have no dealings with them; but rather sign yourselves and your houses, and pray, and you shall see them vanish. For they are cowards, and greatly fear the sign of the Lord’s Cross, since of a truth in it the Saviour stripped them, and made an example of them .[18], [19]

And in the same manner we, modern Christians, seal ourselves with the sign of the Cross at all times, and also as our outward expression of the prayer offered by the whole Church in the service of the Divine Liturgy.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why do we stand during the Liturgy?
  2. What should we do if we have an injury or if we are weak due to age or illness?
  3. Why do we cross ourselves?

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[1] Many other Liturgies also exist within other Churches—Western and Oriental, but we shall limit the scope of our lesson only to those commonly used in the Russian Church.

[2] The Church calendar follows the Julian calendar instituted by Julius Caesar in 46-45 BC.  The modern Western civil or Gregorian calendar date for this feast is 14 January.

[3] The Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts can be celebrated on any weekday during Lent, but Wednesdays and Fridays are the most common days when it is celebrated due to the strictness of the fast—see Typikon, “On Great Lent” (ch. 49).  It is also celebrated on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week—see ibid.

[4] See Neale, Rev. John Mason. A History of the Holy Eastern Church. Vol. 1. London, 1850.  Especially see the summary on p. 319.  Other scholarly opinions also exist.

[5] Ibid., 319

[6] The Church of Constantinople followed the tradition of the Church in Antioch.

[7] Neale, Rev. John Mason. A History of the Holy Eastern Church. Vol. 1. London, 1850, p. 317.

[8] There is some evidence that both Saint Basil and Saint John intentionally shortened the existing older Liturgy—see Таушев, архиеп. Аверкий. Литургика. Holy Trinity Monastery: Jordanville, 2000, p. 309, with reference to Saint Proclus of Constantinople (5th cent.).

[9] For example, Gen. 9:26, 14:20 referring to God, and Job 5:17, Psalm 1:1, 32:1 et passim referring to man.

[10] Скабалланович, Михаил. Толковый типикон. Сретенский монастырь: Москва: 2004, стр. 16.

[11] This may not have always been the case.  A 12th-century Greek manuscript, for example, has the exclamation “Blessed is the kingdom…” at the beginning of matins, vespers, and hours, as well as the Liturgy—see Παπαδόπουλος-Κεραμέως, Α.  Ανάλεκτα ιεροσολιμιτικής σταχιολογίας. Πετροπ., 1894, 2:43.

[12] Thus, it seems significant that in addition to the sacramentum sacramentorum, the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of marriage also begin with the blessing of the kingdom of the Trinity.  While some see this fact as merely pointing to the connection of baptism and wedding to the Liturgy (Таушев, архиеп. Аверкий. Литургика. Holy Trinity Monastery: Jordanville, 2000, p. 245), it must be noted that this very connection exists because “the essence of the Eastern Orthodox view is that marriage is the taking of a created and natural union … into the sphere of the Kingdom…” (Zion, William Basil.  Eros and Transformation: Sexuality and Marriage: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective.  University Press of America: Lanham, 1992, p. 110).  Thus, both baptism and marriage occupy their rightful place within the Liturgical tradition of the Church not due to their historical connection to it, but primarily due to their own sacramental significance.

[13] Schmemann, Alexander. For The Life Of The World. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, 1973, p. 64.

[14] This is certainly not a “Russian tradition” but one common to traditional Orthodoxy in general.  Sadly, in recent decades it is being replaced in the United States with the Western custom of sitting down.

[15] Gal. 6:14

[16] See the life of the holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian in the compilation by Saint Dimitrii of Rostov under 26 September.

[17] De corona 3

[18] Vita S. Antoni 35

[19] Of course, we do not understand the sign of the Cross as some magical device which repels evil spirits with a mere gesture of a hand.  The same Anthony the Great taught that “a good life and faith in God is a great weapon. At any rate they [demons] fear the fasting, the sleeplessness, the prayers, the meekness, the quietness, the contempt of money and vainglory, the humility, the love of the poor, the alms, the freedom from anger of the ascetics, and, chief of all, their piety towards Christ. Wherefore they do all things that they may not have any that trample on them, knowing the grace given to the faithful against them by the Saviour…” (Vita S. Antoni 30)


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