Understanding the Liturgy: The Liturgy of the Catechumens

Understanding the Liturgy: The Liturgy of the Catechumens


The teaching part of the Liturgy was called the Liturgy of the Catechumens, because those can­didates for baptism (catechumens) were allowed to attend it. It concluded with the kiss of peace, which not only was a sign of reconcilia­tion among all, but also gave the faithful “Godparents” a chance to say goodbye to the catechumens whom they sponsored. It is also called (by modern liturgical theologians) the Liturgy of the Word, because in it the word of God is proclaimed.

In old times, it preceded the offertory because the uninitiated eyes of the catechumens were not deemed worthy to behold the holy mysteries. In modern liturgical practice, it starts after the con­clusion of the Offertory or Prothesis.

In our previous article we spoke about covering the altar with the Prospherin and the sym­bolism involved in this. Having done this the priest silently says the “Absolution to the Son,” kisses the altar, then going to the south side of the altar (to his right), he bows down (giving thanks to God for the grace of the priest­hood which was bestowed unto him). Then, rising, he proceeds to the north side of the altar. There, the senior among the acolytes (deacons serving the altar) bows before him then raises his head towards the priest, who blesses him by placing his hand on his forehead. They both leave the sanctuary, the rest of the acolytes having preceded them. The priest then says the “Absolution of the servants.”

While the priest is on his way out of the sanctuary, the deacons start intoning or hum­ming, “o-w Ç w ÿ o-w Ç w ÿ ,” while the congrega­tion bows their heads. In order to know the meaning of this, we have to go back to the Old Testament rituals. The book of Sirach tells us that,

While the priest went up to the holy al­tar to offer the oblation of the Lord before the congregation of Israel, and, finishing his service on the altar, to honour the offering of the Most High King, the sons of Aaron shouted ÿ and made a great noise to be heard for a remembrance before God. Then, all the people together made haste and fell down to the earth upon their faces to adore the Lord God. ÿ Then, coming down [from the altar], he [the priest] lifted up his hands over all the children of Israel to give glory to God with his lips. [12]

It is in emulation of this that the deacons, wait­ing for the priest to come down from the altar, hum this tune to honour the offering of the obla­tion of the New Testament. The people bow down for the same reason. When the priest has come down, all the acolytes as well as the other priests, bow down facing east. He then, standing behind them, and facing the East, he says the “Absolution of the Servants.” He faces the altar while saying the absolution out of reverence to the oblations placed on it.

At the conclusion of the “Absolution of the Servants,” the priest proceeds to the south side of the altar. One of the acolytes brings the Censer to him. He puts incense into the censer and starts to offer incense around the altar.

Now, in order to understand the meaning of this, we have to go back to the Old Testament ordinances, once again. God ordered Aaron and his children to offer incense twice a day, once in the morning (Ex. 30:7) and once in the evening (Ex. 30:8). Our Church observes this ordinance in the morning and evening Offering of Incense service. But God also ordered another offer­ing of incense, during the high priestly sacrifice of Yum Kippur (the day of atonement). This sacrifice, the most solemn of all the Old Testa­ment sacrifices was done only once a year. Only the high priest could offer it, because he was the only one allowed to enter the Holy of Holies (the second tabernacle) to make this offer­ing. He went in “not without blood to offer for his own sins and for the people’s ignorance” (Heb. 9:7). After offering the sacrifice Aaron was instructed to “take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil. And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Lev. 16:12_13). Saint Paul tells us that this Old Testament sacrifice was only a shadow and a figure of Christ’s perfect sacrifice, Who “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12). The priest’s entrance into the sanctuary (behind the veil) to offer incense is in emulation of the Old Testament ordinance. We do this because as we said before, these sacrifices were types and figures of Christ’s eter­nal sacrifice. And if it behoved Aaron to offer incense over the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, how much more it behoves the priests of the New Testament to offer incense over Christ’s perfect sacrifice, whose memorial is on the altar?

While the priest is offering incense on the altar, the congregation sings the beautiful hymn, Tai Shori. This hymn is usually sung in an ab­breviated form, but there is a longer hymn that is rarely used nowadays. We shall give the English text of the hymn, with the parts belong­ing to the longer form in Italics.

This censer of pure gold,

bearing the sweet incense,

in the hands of Aaron the priest,

offering incense upon the altar,

before the mercy seat,

is the holy Virgin Mary;

Who brought forth Jesus Christ;

the Son and Logos.

The Holy Spirit came upon her,

purified her, sanctified her,

and filled her with grace.

Through her intercessions,

O Lord, grant us the forgiveness of our sins.

Here is the evidence of the Old Testament origin for this incense.

Another ritual that I sometimes notice and which supports this also, is when one of the acolytes brings the censer out with him while the priest says the Absolution, and later gives it to the priest, who enters with it into the Sanctuary. This may be done in order to emu­late exactly what Aaron did in the Old Testa­ment, when he had to take the censer and bring it within the veil, then offer incense.

Now, someone may ask, since the Old Testa­ment “bloody” sacrifices are over with, why do we retain this ordinance of offering incense? The answer is in the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi (Mal. 1:11_12). In this prophesy, the Lord foretells that the Gentiles will,

(a) Offer incense unto His name

(b) Offer a pure offering

(c) Glorify His name, which the Jews have profaned.

That the pure offering in (b), is the Eucharistic offering, is beyond a doubt from the various writ­ings of the Fathers. [13] It is also obvious from studying the ancient Coptic liturgy of Saint Mark, which quotes this prophesy in the anaphora,

We offer this reasonable and bloodless sacrifice, which all nations from the rising to the setting of the sun, from the north and the south offer to Thee, O Lord; For great is Thy name among the nations (gentiles), and in all places are incense, sacrifice and oblation offered to Thine Holy Name. [14]

The fulfilment of part (b) of the prophesy of Malachi (offering a pure offering,) has been accomplished in the Offertory (see above).

The glorification of the Lord by the nations (gentiles) is accomplished when the congrega­tion, prompted by the deacon’s exhortation, “Praise the Lord all ye nations ÿ ” respond with the beautiful Doxology of the Gentiles, “Doxa Patri Ke Eio ÿ ,” the Doxology that is always sung in Greek, the language of the Gentiles.

The only remaining part of this prophesy is the offering of incense by the nations (gentiles), which is fulfilled by the morning and evening Offering of Incense, as well as the incense of­fered during the Eucharist.

Another question that may be raised is, “Why do we offer incense upon the oblations before they become the Body and Blood of Christ?” To this Father Schmemman answers, “It is in an­ticipation of their becoming the Body and Blood of Christ.” [15]

After offering incense in the Sanctuary, the priest offers incense in the chancel (area oc­cupied by the chanters), then he goes around the church offering incense. First, he goes to the north side (where the men are seated), then, coming back towards the sanctuary, he goes to the south side (where the women are seated), then again into the sanctuary. While he is doing this, one of the readers goes to the lectern and reads the Pauline Epistle. The censing of the nave during the reading of the Pauline Epistle symbolizes the spread of the Gospel, through the preaching of St. Paul, all over the world.

After concluding the Pauline incense, the priest returns to the sanctuary, where he silently says this prayer:

O God of knowledge, Giver of wisdom, Who brings to light the hidden things of darkness, and gives the word to them that preach the Gospel with great power; Who of Thy Goodness has called upon Paul, who was for sometime a persecutor, to be a chosen vessel; And was pleased in him that he should become a chosen Apostle and preacher of the gospel, O Christ our God; We ask Thee also now, O Thou, the Good Lover of mankind, gracious­ly grant us and all Thy people, a mind free from wandering, and a clear understanding, that we may learn and understand how profita­ble are Thine holy teachings, which are read to us now after him. And as he followed Thine example, O Thou, Prince of life, so make us to be like him in deed and in faith, that we may glorify Thine Holy Name and ever glory in Thy Cross. And unto Thee we send up glory, honour and worship, with Thy Good Father and the Holy Spirit, the Life_Giver, Who is of One Essence with Thee, now, and at all times, and unto the age of all ages. Amen.

A chapter from the Catholic Epistles is then read. These are the Epistles written by the other Apostles (James, Peter, John and Jude). These are called catholic because, unlike St. Paul’s Epistles which are directed to a particular church or to one of his disciples, these are directed to the whole Church. (The word catholic means universal).

During reading of the catholic Epistle, the priest says the following prayer inaudibly:

O Lord God, Who hast revealed unto us through Thine holy Apostles the mystery of the Gospel of the glory of Thy Christ, and hast given unto them according to the power of the infinite gift of Thy grace, that they should proclaim among all nations the glad news of the unsearchable riches of Thy mercy, we ask Thee, O our Lord, make us worthy to have a share and an in­heritance with them. Graciously, grant unto us always to walk in their foot­steps, and to imitate their struggle, and to have communion with them in the sweat which they had for godliness’ sake. Keep Thou Thine holy Church, which Thou founded through them, and bless the lambs of Thy flock, and make to increase this vine, which Thy right hand has planted in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom are due unto Thee glory, and honour, and dominion, and worship, with Him and the Holy Spirit, the Life_Giver, Who is of One Essence with Thee, now, and at all times, and unto the age of all ages. Amen.

This is followed by the Acts of the Apostles, and the chronicles of the martyrs, the Synaxarion.

During the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, the priest offers incense around the Altar, then in the chancel but does not circle the whole church. This signifies the spread of the Gospel through the preaching of the other Apostles, who unlike St. Paul, remained closer to Jerusalem.

The Trisagion:

The “Agius”, is one of the oldest hymns in the Church. From ancient times it has been sung before the reading of the Gospel. [16] We know that it was always sung in Greek (even in Latin churches), because the New Testament was preached in the Greek Language. [17]

There is an old tradition in the Church about how this hymn originated, and it goes like this: When the holy Joseph and Nicodemus were burying the body of our Lord, doubts entered their minds concerning His Divinity. Suddenly, a choir of angels appeared to them singing defiantly, “Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal.” The two righteous men, realizing their error, joined in the singing, and then as if to confess their sin and to ask for mercy and for­giveness, they added to the angelic hymn the phrase, “O Thou Who was crucified for us have mercy on us.” The Church later adopted this hymn, adding a verse concerning the Virgin birth of our Lord and another concerning His resurrection and ascension. [18]

We have evidence to support this in our liturgi­cal hymnody. The angelic origin of this hymn is recorded for us in the “Doxology of the Heavenly,” sung during the Offering of In­cense,

And the twenty four Priests,

In the church of the first_born,

Praise Him incessantly,

Proclaiming and saying,

Holy, O God:

The sick, O Lord, heal them.

Holy, O Mighty:

Those who slept, repose them.

Holy, O Immortal:

O Lord, bless Thine inheritance,

And may Thy mercy and Thy peace

Be a fortress unto Thy people.

The part attributed to the holy Joseph and Nicodemus is preserved for us in the beautiful burial hymn of Holy Friday called “Golgotha”

The two righteous men,

Joseph and Nicodemus,

came and took the Body of Christ.

They anointed Him with spices,

shrouded Him, and placed Him in a tomb.

They praised Him, saying,

“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,

Who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.”

The prayer for the Gospel:

The reading of the Gospel is the climax of the Liturgy of the Word. It is the most important reading. For this reason a special prayer is said in order to prepare us for hearing the proclamation of the good news (the Gospel).

The prayer starts by the words of our Lord Jesus to His disciples: “Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see ÿ ” The Church is here reminding us that we too are privileged because we can see Christ offered for us on the altar, and hear His voice proclaimed in the Gospel, the things which the kings and prophets of the Old Testament desired to see and hear but could not. Following this is a peti­tion that we may be granted to be worthy not only to hear but also to act according to the holy Gospels. We ask this through the prayers of the saints.

We end the prayer by remembering those who asked us to remember them, the departed, the sick, and so on.

The Psalm before the Gospel:

The psalms are filled with prophesies about our Lord’s life, passion, resurrection, His ascension and His Parousia (second coming). It was thus fitting that selections of the psalms should be read as an introduction to the Gospel reading. When the Lord Jesus met the two disciples of Emmaus, “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the scrip­tures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Later on, they recalled how their heart was burning within them while He talked with them and opened to them the scriptures (Luke 24:32). Only after understanding the scripture, could they recognize the Lord in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31). In the same manner, the reading of the Psalm opens our minds to understand the Gospel. Hearing the Gospel, in turn, inflames our heart with the desire to receive the Lord in the breaking of the bread (Communion).

The sermon:

The sermon is as old as the Eucharist itself. Jus­tin Martyr mentions that after the reading of the “memoirs of the Apostles” (Gospels) is con­cluded, “The president [bishop presiding at the Eucharist] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” [19]

The Litany:

During the reading of the Gospel, the priest says inaudibly two prayers. The first of these is called the “Prayer after the Gospel.” This prayer, is said aloud only during the weekdays of Holy Lent and the three days of the fast of Nineveh. It is a petition that God may receive our prayers, supplications, repentance and con­fessions and to make us worthy to hear the gospel and observe its commandments bringing forth fruit, a hundred fold, sixty fold and thirty fold. The priest then remembers the sick, those who are travelling, the plants, the fruits of the earth, the weather ÿ etc. Then he says a prayer for the King and ends with a prayer for the catechumens. Marquess [20] says that there is no doubt that this prayer was always said aloud in the beginning. Certainly a prayer concerning the Catechumens would have been said aloud before the dismissal of the catechumens.

The second prayer said silently by the priest is called the “Prayer of the Veil.” The rubric directs that it be said inaudibly by the priest, standing bowed down beside the door of the Sanctuary,

O God, Who in Thine unspeakable love toward mankind, sent Thine Only_Begotten Son into the world, that He might bring the lost sheep home unto Thee, we ask Thee, O our Lord, thrust us not behind Thee when we offer this awesome and bloodless sacrifice. For we put no trust in our righteousness but in Thy mercy, where­by Thou hast given life to our race. We pray and entreat Thy Goodness, O Lover of mankind, that this mystery which Thou hast appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us, or unto any of Thy people, but unto the wash­ing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence, and unto the glory and honour of Thine Holy Name, O Father and Son and Holy Spirit, now, and at all times, and unto the age of all ages. Amen.

The Three Long Prayers:

The prayers for the peace, the Fathers, and the congregation are very old, belonging originally to the liturgy of St. Mark. They appear as early as the fourth century in the liturgy of St. Basil, where they follow the sermon. [21] No doubt that together with the preceding prayer after the Gospel, they constituted the “Common Prayer” that Justin Martyr testifies to by these words, “Then [after the conclusion of the ser­mon] we all [both catechumens and faithful] rise together and pray ÿ ” He gives the details of this “Common prayer” as this,

We offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the com­mandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. [22]

The Creed:

The Creed was introduced into the Liturgy of the Eucharist after the first three Ecumenical Coun­cils. We have this testimony about its recital:

The Creed which is proclaimed by the people at the time of the sacrifice was produced by the discussion of the three hundred and eighteen holy fathers at the Council of Nicea. Its rule of the true faith excels in so many mysteries of the teaching of the faith ÿ and for that reason it is proclaimed in a common confession by the people in all churches. [23]