I’m pleased to present more of the sermons of St. Seraphim (Zvezdinski) on the Divine Liturgy, which I have been working to translate from Russian. They speak for themselves, I pray your zeal for the worship of God in the Divine Liturgy will increase through the words of this beautiful New Martyr.
Today, my friends, I desire to discourse with you regarding who for the first time served the Divine Liturgy, and where for the first time it was served. In the heavenlies there is the bright Sun of righteousness – everlasting, not created by anyone, self-illuminating, and ever pouring forth eternal light. This Sun is the Father. From this Sun radiates the most luminous Divine Ray, Who together with the Sun is eternal and beginningless, and the creator and sustainer of all things. This Ray is the Son of God. It is this Ray, this Ray of light most glorious, that lit a miraculous lamp on earth. This lamp He has fueled not with oil but with His ever-filling Divine and Pure Blood.
This lamp, my dear ones, is the Divine Liturgy. This lamp has been lit by the very Son of God, the beginningless Ray from the beginningless Sun – the Father. The Son lit this lamp during the last days of His earthly life; it burst into flames for the first time in the upper room of Zion – in the hour of the fulfillment of the Mystical Supper. Such are who and where for the first time celebrated the Divine Liturgy.
The holy Evangelist and holy Fathers describe the first Liturgy [ … ]1 He Who was both sacrifice and minister of this first Liturgy – the Savior – washed the feet of His disciples and sat with them. Further, it says, Christ took bread. No, it was not only bread that He took in His most-pure hands, not bread but you, a sinful soul. It is you He took in His immaculate and most-holy hands. Having taken the bread, He raised His eyes, lifting them to heaven, to the Father; He gave praise to the Father and showed Him the sinful soul He held, as if to say, “I take this soul and purchase it, not with gold or diamonds, for I purchase it with My blood and with the sufferings of the Cross. Further it is said, Christ blessed the bread, and He did so doubtlessly expecting His death on the Cross. He made the sign of the Cross on the bread. Having given thanks, the Lord then broke the bread.
No, it was not bread that He broke, for He crushed His flesh; after this Christ gave the bread to His disciples, proclaiming these words which are repeated every time the Liturgy is served – “Take, eat” and “Drink of it all of you.” Having said these words Christ the Savior added this gentle loving council, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” This New Covenant established by Christ the Savior has brought great joy to the lives of people. Tasting of the Body and Blood of Christ, people partake of the Divine nature2 because first and foremost the Lord has entered into the house of their souls. Human souls become the temple of God, O, what eternal and sublime joy this is!
The first followers of Christ did not forget His commandment – “Do this in remembrance of Me.” And behold for nineteen centuries the bloodless sacrifice has been offered on this earth.
In the flow of nineteen centuries there has not been one day in which the Divine Liturgy was not offered; and it will not cease as long as the world exists, as long as this earth exists.
No kind of enemy power is able to extinguish this lamp of the Divine Liturgy which is lit by the very Divine Ray Himself. Satan has stirred up storms, he has raised up the most cruel abuse, and has incited raging waves of suffering – all of this so to extinguish the lamp of the Divine Liturgy! Yet he has not succeeded, nor will he ever succeed.
With the coming of the Antichrist a renewed persecution of the Divine Liturgy will begin; once again it will have to be hidden beneath the earth, as in the time of the first Christians. But even during the time of the Antichrist the Divine Liturgy will be served; even on the last day of the world – when angels shall gather all people to the Judgment Seat, both those living and those raised from the graves – the Divine Liturgy will be served, but it will be served in Heaven on that day.
My dear ones, guard this Divine lamp, love the Divine Liturgy, strive to satiate yourself in this fountain of life. Consider the day lost when you are unable to hear the Liturgy. The Church calls everyone to this feast of God; even those who are home due to need, mothers of families, the Church strives to remind everyone through the ringing of bells towards the singing of “It is Truly Meet,” that at that moment the dread Mystery of the Divine Liturgy is being offered.
Let us continue our discussion on the Divine Liturgy.
From our temple today, my dear ones, let us travel back to the distant pagan times of Antioch and the first centuries of Christianity. Christians are being persecuted, they are being arrested and locked up in terrible prisons, after which they are led away to the arenas and given over to be devoured by wild beasts; they are smeared with tar and lit on fire, so that they are revealed as living torches.
At this time in Antioch, it happened that persecutors seized the priest Lucian3 together with his flock. He was condemned (and while in prison) his flock said with sorrow to St. Lucian, “Our dear Father, how will we partake of the Holy Mysteries?” Lucian lay motionless on a hard board, his legs were shackled so that he could not stand up. “Do you have bread and wine?” He asked. “Yes, some kind people have brought some,” they answered. “Only, how will you serve the Liturgy, for we have no altar?” “Bring here the bread and wine and place them on my chest, let it be a living altar for the Most-Pure Mysteries of the Lord,” proclaimed the imprisoned priest. And so they brought the bread and wine and St. Lucian served the Divine Liturgy on his own chest. He together with all the assembled Christians partook of the Holy Mysteries.
In such a manner did the early Christians serve the Liturgy! They did not have fixed prayers or rituals. During these times of persecution, they served the Liturgy under ground, in the catacombs. In the evening they would start the service and finish as the sun began to rise! They did not finish because they grew tired of prayer but rather because it was dangerous to live as a Christian. In various places of the pagan world the Liturgy was offered, but not in every place every day. For example, in one place it would be offered four times a week, as St. Basil the Great says about his flock. In very early times, Christians gathered together everyday but most of all on the day of the Resurrection, which is called the day of sun and bread – in remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection it is called “Sun of Righteousness,” and it is called bread in remembrance of Holy Communion.
The service would start with readings from the Holy Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and then prayers began. They did not say or read prayers form a prayer book but rather from the heart; prayer was fervent and impromptu. Their hearts, warm with the grace of the Holy Spirit, gave forth wondrous hymns and songs. Almost none of these prayers and teachings are preserved; only in fragments from later times do we find indications that some of our prayers in the Liturgy repeat the songs of the early Christians.
And so it is today, our exclamation, “Let us love one another …” is but cold words. For the early Christians it was full of deep meaning, then they felt, in their underground churches, that they in truth loved one another and that they were very close to each other. As a sign of this love and brotherhood, those present would exchange a kiss, men with men and women with women. The priestly ministers also gave the holy kiss to each other. And so, at this moment the of the Liturgy the sounds of hymns were intertwined with another sound – the holy kiss. This tradition remains today in only a weak form, the priestly ministers kiss each other on the shoulder and the deacon kisses the cross on his stole. In the same way today when we exclaim, “Let us lift up our hearts,” only the choir coldly responds, “we lift them up to the Lord.” But it was not so in the time of the early Christians, for they all, with all their heart, proclaimed these words; for they truly abode in the Lord with all their soul. They did not notice the passing of time, nor did they feel tired. Only the dawn, because caution was needed, forced these Christians, who had gathered in the evening, to disperse to their homes. So long did they pray!
This is spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles. The length of their prayer is evident from the account of the miraculous saving from death of the young man who fell out of the window during the sermon of St. Paul.4 So fervent was the prayer of these Christians that they did not even notice how time passed. Only after long prayer did the Communion of the faithful take place. In ancient times, Christians received Communion daily, both men and women. Later they began to commune less frequently, but no less than once a week. Believers would come up to the altar to receive the Holy Mysteries, since at that point no iconostasis separated the sanctuary from the nave. First the men would commune and then the women. For those too ill or those in official service the deacon would afterwards bring them Holy Communion at home. So pure were the lives of the early Christians that they were able to be prepared every day to receive Holy Communion.
This is how the Liturgy was in ancient times. If today, someone asks you, my friends, what is the Divine Liturgy? Answer – it is the Testament of our Savior. He Himself has said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” He has left for us as a testament the service of the Liturgy – to taste of His Life-creating Body and Blood. Answer that the Liturgy is the diamond, that priceless gift from Christ. The Liturgy is the river, strengthening and refreshing, flowing from the side of Christ. The Liturgy is the golden bridge on which only it is possible to come to eternal life. Lovers of the Liturgy – this priceless diamond, this river that brings to life – remember this testament of Christ; walk upon this golden bridge which will save you from falling into hell. Beloved ones, do not listen to those who run away from the Liturgy and those who flee from the Chalice. These are unfortunate, lost, and pitiable people. They are unable to see the brilliance of the diamond, they are fainting from thirst and have wandered far away from the river of Christ, they fall into the chasm while trying to run away from the bridge. But you, always cry out, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
1Break in original text.
2Cf. 2 Peter 1:4
3Feast Day, Oct. 15th
4Cf. Acts 20:9-11
To read the previous sermons in this series, click here – Sermons of St. Seraphim (Zvezdinski)