Understanding the Liturgy: The Liturgy of the Faithful

Understanding the Liturgy: The Liturgy of the Faithful


The Liturgy of the Faithful follows the same steps the Lord followed in the Last Supper. By reviewing the Synoptic Gospels’ account of the Last Supper, as well as the account given by Saint Paul in 1Cor:15, we find out that the Lord:

1. Gave Thanks,

2. Blessed,

3. Broke,

4. Gave to the Disciples.

Following the same plan, the Liturgy of the faith­ful can be divided into four parts:

1. Prayers of Thanks_giving,

2. Prayers of Blessing,

3. Prayers of breaking the bread,

4. Communion.

The first two parts, that is those concerned with thanksgiving and blessing are together called the “Anaphora” or the “Cannon” of the Liturgy. This is separated from the prayers of breaking the bread by a series of prayers called the inter­cessions. Although the biblical account of the Last Supper does not mention any intercessions as such, it is obvious that these were added to the Liturgy of the Faithful very early on, as evidenced by Saint Paul’s request that interces­sions should be made, “…for all men … that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” (1Tim 2:1_2).

The Anaphora:

The Anaphora begins with the great prayer of thanksgiving, from which the Eucharist derives its name (Eucharist means thanksgiving). This prayer of Thanks_giving can be divided into two parts.

The First Eucharistic Prayer , which starts im­mediately following the priest’s dialogue with the people, “The Lord be with you all …”, is a hymn of thanksgiving concerning God’s won­derful acts of the creation of the universe and all the creatures both visible and invisible. It ends with the Sanctus, or the hymn of the Seraphim (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts . . .).

The Second Eucharistic Prayer, is a hymn of thanksgiving concerning God’s wonderful acts of salvation, following man’s fall from grace. It ends with the remembrance of the Lord’s awesome Parousia (second coming), to judge the living and the dead, and reward everyone according to his deeds.

The Lord be with you all:

o Kyrios meta panton imon” This very old salutation brings to mind the angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin, “Ho Kyrios meta soo” (The Lord is with you). Saint Augustin tells us that the priest salutes the people by these words because, “Our well_being requires that the Lord be always with us, since without Him we are nothing.” [54]

The people respond, “And with your spirit”. St. John Chrysostom explains this exchange of greetings between the priest and the people by this, “The priest prays for the people, and the people also pray for the priest, for the words “and with your spirit” are nothing but this.” [55]

The people respond to the priest with love as they say: With you, O priest, and with the sacredotal spirit you possess! They say that the spirit and not the soul is in the priest, since it is the Spirit which the priest has received through the imposition of hands. By this imposition, the priest receives the Spirit through which he be­comes capable of carrying out the Mysteries. [56]

Lift up your hearts:

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem tells us that,

The priest cries, “Lift up your hearts!”, for truly is it necessary at that most awesome hour to have one’s heart on high towards God, and not below, occupied with earth and the things of earth. In effect, then, the priest commands everyone at that very hour to banish worldly thoughts … and to have their hearts in heaven. … Then, assenting to this by your confession, you answer, “we have lifted them up to the Lord.” Let no one present be so disposed that while his lips say “We have lifted them up to the Lord,” in his mind, his attention is engaged with worldly thoughts. At all times we should be mindful of God, but at least, if this is not possible due to human frailty, we must strive for it at that hour. [57]

This act of raising our hearts is not our doing but it is the Lord’s doing, who, “Raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places.” (Eph 2:6). Saint Augustin reminds us of this and advises that we should not attribute lifting up our hearts to the Lord to our own strength, our own merits or our own efforts, “since it is God’s gift to have one’s heart lifted up . . .” [58] It is for this reason that some prefer to respond, “They are with the Lord.”

Let us give thanks to the Lord:

Now that our hearts are raised up high to the Lord, the priest tells us that it is time to start the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means giving thanks, so the priest invites us to start this thanks_giving. We have to note an important contrast here; for, up to this point the priest has been admonishing us, but now he is asking for our participation.

Christ is present in the per­son of his minister not to pray alone to the Father, with us listening in, but rather he is in­viting us to be united with him in prayer, as well as with one another. [59]

The people respond, “It is meet and right.” and by saying so, they are giving their approval to start the Eucharist or thanksgiving. Saint John Chrysostom explains this partnership of people and priest in offering thanks to God by saying,

The offering of the thanksgiving (Eucharistia) is in common, for the priest does not give thanks alone, but all the people as well, for having received their assent, only after they agree that it is fitting and right to do so, does he begin the thanks_giving. [60]

The priest now reiterates that it is meet (fitting) and right to give thanks to the Lord, then he starts the first Eucharistic Prayer.

O Thou Who art:

If you look closely at the text of your liturgy book, you will read, “O Thou Who art” fol­lowed by a “comma”. You may think that this is a mistake in punctuation, but it is not! “O Thou Who art,” is a statement, separate from what follows. It is an attribute of God. God is the one “Who Is”, Whose being is not derived from someone else. He is “Absolute Being,” and our own being, together with all the creations’ being is relative, being derived from God’s “Absolute Being”.

When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and commanded him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses inquired of God about His name, for he figured that the Israelites would ask about God’s name. “And God said unto Moses, ‘I AM THAT I AM’, and He said, ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.’” (Ex 3:14).

The word I AM (YHWH in Hebrew, some­times translated Jehovah) became a proper name of God in the old Testament, a name the Hebrews revered so much that no one dared to use the expression “I am”, because only God could utter these words which signify His name.

When our Lord came to save the world, he used this word freely: I AM the light of the world; I AM the true vine; I AM the bread that came down from heaven. He thought that the Jews would understand that He is the ONE WHO IS (YHWH), but they didn’t. The situation came to a critical moment at the time of the arrest of Jesus in Gesthemane. Jesus asked the men that came to arrest Him, “Whom seek ye?” They answered Him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said unto them, “I AM”. The Bible tells us that “as soon as He said unto them I AM, they went backward and fell to the ground.” (John 18:4_6). They were shocked to hear a man use the name of God.

Now, when the priest, on behalf of the whole Church starts the thanks_giving (Eucharist), he wants to address God by His name, “I AM,” so, he says, “O Thou Who art,”.

Master, Lord, God of Truth:

God is the Master (Mal 1:6), and the Lord (Gen 2:4). He is the God of Truth (Ps 31:5).

Being before the ages and reigning forever:

God existed before the ages (Ps 55:19), and reigns forever (Ps 146:10), He has no begin­ning and no end. God is timeless, He is before time! The Book of Genesis tells us, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth …” (Gen 1:1). The beginning here refers to the beginning of time, for when God started to create, time began. It is obvious that God ex­isted before the creation, and since the creation marks the beginning of time, then God surely existed before time (or before the ages).

God reigns over all his creation forever, for His Kingdom shall have no end. (Ps 45:6)

Who dwells in the highest and looks upon the lowly (Ps 113:5,6):

God dwells in the highest (Lk 2:14), in the heaven of heavens (Deut 10:4), in the unap­proachable light (1Tim 6:16), but His “eyes” be­hold all the lowly creatures that He had created. God is a Spirit (John 4:24), He has no “eyes” but the scripture sometimes uses human expres­sions in order to simplify for us the Divine mys­teries, so, when we say that God beholds the lowly we mean that God cares for all His crea­tion, lowly as they are, compared to His in­describable greatness.

Who has created . . . :

God has created the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is therein (Ps 146:6). By reciting this verse from the Psalms, the Church acknowledges in thanks_giving the Creator of all things.

The Father of our Lord, God and Saviour :

God is the Father of our Saviour Jesus Christ. But our Saviour is also our Lord and God for He is of One Essence with the Father. Thomas, one of the Saviour’s disciples, had doubts about this, but the compassionate Saviour invited him to touch Him, all traces of doubt departed from him and immediately he declared, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28). We too are invited to touch the Saviour, when we receive His Body and His Blood in Communion, but even before we do, we proclaim Him as our Lord, God and Saviour, for, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

By Whom Thou hast created . . . :

It is through the Son, the ever_existing Logos, that all the creation was made, for Saint John tells us, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3)

All things, seen and unseen . . . :

In giving thanks to God for His creation, we acknowledge all that He had created, things we see and things we cannot see, the visible world and the invisible world of the spirits, the minis­tering spirits that serve Him without ceasing.

Who sits upon the throne of His Glory and Who is worshipped by all the holy powers:

When Saint John, the beloved disciple was taken in the spirit, he saw heaven, and the like­ness of God sitting on His throne. He also saw in the midst of the throne, the Lord Jesus, in the likeness of a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. Saint John saw many angels, ten thousand times ten thousand standing round­about the throne. He also saw the four incor­poreal beasts, and the twenty four priests, and they all worshipped Him Who sat upon the throne. Saint John also heard “Every creature which is in heaven and on earth, and such as are in the sea . .” participating in this celes­tial liturgy (Rev 4, 5).

You who are seated stand:

Consumed by the imagery of God on His heavenly throne, with thousands of thousands and ten thousand times ten thousands of heavenly creatures standing before Him, offer­ing Him worship, the Deacon exhorts the people, that should someone be sitting, he should now stand in awe of God’s glory. The Deacon says this in anticipation of the priest’s next sentence, Before Whom stand the angels ….

The priest then starts to enumerate all the ranks of the heavenly powers Whom God had created, and who worship Him day and night without ceasing. There are nine heavenly orders. The angels have been mentioned in the Bible on numerous occasions. There are seven archan­gels according to tradition, they are alluded to in Rev 4:5, 15:1. Theprincipalities, the thrones, the dominions and the powers, are mentioned by Saint Paul, “For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him and for Him.” (Col 1:16) The authorities were men­tioned by Saint Peter, “Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers being made subject to Him.” (1Pe 3:22)

Look towards the East:

The Deacon now exhorts us to look towards the East. The East is where the Garden of Eden was, our home, from which we were banished. Looking to the East signifies our desire to return to that blessed state in which we were created by God, before the fall. The East is also where the sun appears, and since Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, we look towards the East when­ever we pray.

It is also the place from whence our Lord Christ shall come in His second coming (Mat 24:27). It is for these reasons that the early Christians always prayed facing the East. By looking towards the East, we are keeping the memory of Paradise, our original home, and we are await­ing the coming of our Lord.

. . . the Cherubim and the Seraphim . . . :

The priest continues, with two more of the heavenly orders, the Cherubim, full of eyes and the Seraphim, with six wings. The word Cherubim is the plural of Cherub. The Cherubim are described in Ez 1 and 10, and also in Rev 4. They are full of eyes within and without. Eyes symbolize knowledge, so, when they are described as full of eyes, this signifies their unsurpassable knowledge.

The Seraphim are described in Isa 6:1_7. They have six wings, which signifies that they are so swift in carrying out God’s orders. (Isa 6:6_7)

The first Eucharistic Prayer is ended by the hymn of the Seraphim (see below). Saint Cyril of Jerusalem summarizes for us this part of the Liturgy by saying,

After that we call to mind the heavens, the earth and the sea …, the whole rational and irrational creation, both visible and invisible, Angels and Archangels, Virtues, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Thrones, and the many faced Cherubim … We call to minds also the Seraphim, whom Isaiah, in the Holy Spirit, saw encircling the throne of God, with two wings veiling their faces, and with two their feet, while flying with two. [61]

The Seraphic hymn (the Sanctus):

The people now sing this beautiful hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of Thine holy glory.” This is the Hymn that Isaiah the prophet heard the Seraphim sing without ceasing. (Isa 6:3) “We recite this doxology which comes to us from the Seraphim that we may be sharers of the hym­nody of the heavenly hosts.” [62]

The second Eucharistic Prayer:

Holy, Holy, Holy, truly O Lord, our God! Thus exclaims the priest, repeating the “Sanctus”, then he starts the second Eucharistic Prayer; a hymn of thanks_giving to God for our salvation.

Who formed us, created us . . . :

The priest starts this by recounting the account of man’ creation. The Book of Genesis tells us that, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom He had formed” (Gen 2:7_8).

Then he brings to memory the account of man’s fall by the deception of the serpent (the devil), and how this led to man’s loss of immor­tality, as well as his original home in the garden (Paradise of Joy) God never intended for man to die, for He formed him incorruptible (Sir 2:23). Man, exer­cising his free will that was granted to him by God, disobeyed God’s command and thus fell from eternal life and lost his immortality.

And were exiled from the Paradise of Joy:

So far, all the expressions used to describe the creation and the fall are biblical, but now, the language changes, for instead of using the biblical expression, “driven out” (Gen 3:24), the Liturgy uses a theological term instead, “exiled”. The reason for this is that, “driven out” has a sense of finality, while “exile” is a temporary status. An exiled person always has the hope of returning to his home.

Thou hast not abandoned us to the end:

This part of the Liturgy recalls God’s mercy shown to fallen man even before the reconcilia­tion. God visited mankind by sending to them His Holy Spirit, Who spoke through the prophets.

And, in the last days . . . :

In the fullness of time, God visited us by send­ing His Logos; His Only_Begotten Son to redeem us. The whole passage is a re_wording of Hebrews 1:1_2. “God, Who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in the past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son.” God manifested Himself to us through His Only_Begotten Son, Who is “The brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person” (Heb 1:3).

. . . Who of the Holy Spirit and of the holy Virgin Mary—:

If you feel that this is an incomplete sentence, you are right! It is half a sentence, the other half appears later, “—Was incarnate and became man.” The reason for splitting the sentence is that the rubric says that the people interject the priest in mid-sentence with “Amen”!

One of the most wonderful characteristics of the Coptic Liturgy is the dynamic interchange between the priest, the deacon, and the congregation.

The incarnation of the Logos of the Holy Spirit and of the holy Virgin was the first chapter in the story of salvation.

And taught us the ways of salvation:

Although salvation was offered to us freely by God, yet it is up to each one of us to work for his or her salvation. The free will, which led man to his fall from grace, has to be exercised in synergy with the grace of God in effecting man’s own salvation. God, in His wisdom has offered us several ways that lead into salvation. One way may be suitable for the one but not for the other and vice versa.

One person may find the way to salvation through celibacy, another through matrimony, another through martyrdom, and yet another through ordination.

The birth . . . through water and the Spirit:

Whatever way one may pursue to work out his/her salvation, there are certain Sacraments that the Lord has granted us to help us attain our goal of the salvation of our souls. The first is baptism, the birth from on high through water and the Spirit. “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

He made us unto Himself a congregation:

In the Old Testament, a condition for becoming a member of the congregation of the Lord was circumcision. But circumcision was a figure of Baptism. Now Baptism became our guarantee of admission into the congregation of the Lord. By granting us the grace of baptism, we be­came members of the congregation of the Lord. Through Baptism, we can enjoy all the privileges of the elect of God, our names become written in the Book of Life, and if we remain faithful until the end, we will enter the kingdom of God.

And sanctified us by Thine Holy Spirit:

Christ granted His followers the “promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), the Holy Spirit that came upon the Apostles as cloven tongues of fire. We received the same Spirit after baptism, in the Sacrament of Chrismation. Through this we become “sanctified”. The word “sanctify” has two meanings, the first is to hallow or make holy, and this the Holy Spirit effects in us, for having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we become a holy nation. (1Pet 2:9) The other meaning is to consecrate, or assign something or somebody for the Lord, and this too happens to us when we are Chrismated and receive the Holy Spirit. All of our organs are consecrated to become organs of the Lord. (1Cor 6:15)

He loved His own who are in the world:

Christ loved His own who were in the world … unto the end (John 13:2). He loved us even unto death, for He gave Himself unto death for our sakes. Jesus taught that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus practised what He taught, so He did just that, He laid His life for His own who were in the world, whom He loved.

… Unto death which reigned over us:

Death reigned over mankind because of Adam’s offense, (Rom 5:12_21) for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Not only did sin cause physi­cal death to those who lived in the Old Testa­ment, but it caused their souls to be held and sold in Hades.

When Adam accepted the counsel of the Devil and disobeyed God, he sold his soul to the Devil, becoming a slave to him. As children born into a house of slavery belong to the master of the house, all the children of Adam were born into slavery to the Devil. Even the righteous souls were kept bound in Hades (Hell) until the descent of Christ into Hades.

The descent into Hades:

The Church teaches that after our Saviour gave up the ghost, His human soul united to His Godhead descended into Hell, the prison where the souls of Adam and all his children were kept in the bondage of the adversary. There, the Lord freed Adam and those of his children who were counted righteous under the Mosaic Law and brought them with Him to Paradise.

There are many biblical allusions to this, for Saint Peter tells us that “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, … being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit, by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1Pet 3:18_19). Saint Paul also tells us, “Wherefore he saith, when He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men. Now, that He ascended, what is it that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph 4:8_9)

The resurrection drama, enacted on Easter eve is a reminder to us of Christ’s descent into Hades. Here, the deacons take the part of the angels going before the face of Christ, crying out to the gate_keepers of Hell, “Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be lifted up, O ye eter­nal gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in” (Ps 23:7_8). [63] The Doxology of Easter also testifies to this dogma.

By His power He abolished death,

And made life to shine on us,

He Who descended to,

The lower parts of the earth.

The gate_keepers of Hades,

Saw Him and were afraid,

He abolished the pangs of death,

And He was not held by it.

He has broken the gates of brass,

And cut asunder the bars of Iron,

and brought out His elect,

With joy and rejoicing.

He rose from the dead . . . :

Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven are cornerstones of our faith. When Christ ascended into heaven, he ascended in the body, thus lifting us up with Him to sit together with Him in the heavenly places (see Eph 2:6).

The day of judgment:

Both Old and New Testaments tell us of the Day of the Lord—the day of judgment—when, resurrected in our new bodies, we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ, who will reward everyone according to their deeds. What a dreadful day!—the day when the books are opened, and another book is opened. The books that are opened are those containing our sins; unrepented, unconfessed, unforgiven. The other book is the Book of Life containing a list of those appointed for life in eternal happiness with Christ (See Rev 20:12_15).

Reminded of that awesome day of judgment, the congregation raises up a fervent supplica­tion, crying, “According to Thy mercy, O Lord, and not according to our sins.”

This part of the Liturgy is summarized for us by Germanus of Constantinople.

Then again the priest declares to God the Father, the mysteries of the incarnation of Christ, His ineffable and glorious birth from the Holy Virgin, … His crucifixion, His death, and the liberation by Him of the souls in bondage, His holy third_day Resurrection from the dead, His Ascension into the heavens, His Enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and His second coming again in the future for us. [64]