Below the reader will find my continued work in translating the sermons of New Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvezdinski) on the Divine Liturgy. May these sermons deepen in us a love and awe for the holy and divinely revealed worship of the Church. The preceding sermons may be found here.
Today I will only speak a little bit about the Divine Liturgy. The last time, I told you that it is called the Divine lamp, the life-giving river, and the priceless diamond. At first, this river was not enclosed by banks and the diamond was unset. The Divine Liturgy did not have established and uniform prayers, nor a set rite.
According to tradition, from apostolic times the Liturgy was called that of St. James, the brother of the Lord, or St. Mark, or St. Peter; yet these were not required rites for everyone. Up into the fourth century, the order of liturgical celebration and hymns was set by each bishop for his flock. You are already well acquainted with the strength of soul and the fervor of prayer of the ancient Christians. Their prayers lasted all night and they did not know exhaustion during the time of prayer. Yet, with time such fiery prayer cooled and all-night prayer became burdensome for believers. Some began to be absent from the Liturgy. Condescending to their weakness, St. Basil the Great established a shortened rite of the Liturgy, that is when compared to the ancient rites. This rite of St. Basil we now celebrate only ten times a year. St. John Chrysostom further reduced the hymns and established an even shorter liturgical rite. The diamond received a precious setting, the river was directed into wonderful and flourishing banks, and the lamp received a bright frame.
The manner in which St. Basil the Great established the rite of the Divine Liturgy is witnessed to by saints Probus and Amphilochus.1 According to the words of St Amphilochius, St. Basil prepared a very long time for this holy work. He long besought Christ the Savior to reveal His holy will to him and to bless him in the preparation of the liturgical rite. His prayers were heard. The Lord revealed to St. Basil that he may undertake the work. Six days he spent in prayer and fasting and at the end of these prayerful preparations he stood before the holy altar and with fervent hymns sang the Liturgy; these hymns and rites were then recorded. Since this time the Liturgy has not changed. The sixth Ecumenical Council decreed that nothing should be added or removed from these prayers that have been established by these two great Fathers of the Church.
Why was it necessary to establish a consistent rite for the Liturgy? So that the lamp would not be extinguished, so that the river would flow on a straight path, and so that the diamond would not be damaged. An established rite was necessary to guard against the introduction of some false and heretical practice into the ceremony of the Liturgy. Even more so, in the fourth century, substantial heresy was manifesting in the Christian Church. Therefore, saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom directed the river into a safe channel. May they help you, beloved ones, to remember and love the Divine Liturgy, about which Fr. John of Kronstadt, that foremost servant of the Liturgy, testifies, “Prostrate yourself and give thanks to the Lord Who has granted you to be at the dread and Holy Liturgy.”
Today, my friends, I will be speaking to you about the holy temple.
Every temple is built according to a particular plan, even our own church was built according to this ancient plan. A church consists of three sections: the narthex, the central part (nave), and the altar area (sanctuary). In ancient times the narthex served as the area of prayer for catechumens – those preparing to receive holy baptism – and “the kneelers,”2 such was the name given to Christians who, due to serious sins, lost the right to stand with all the faithful. They were called “kneelers” because they would kneel before those who entered the church and ask, “please pray for us for we have greatly sinned.”
In ancient times the central part (the nave) was not separated from the altar area by a partition, which is called an iconostasis. The iconostasis only appeared in the time of St. Basil the Great. The reason why he built the iconostasis is related in his life. St. Basil received baptism while already an adult and the holy river Jordan served as a font for him, the place where our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized. Before St. Basil was baptized, lightning flashed forth and from it a dove flew out and descended to the water, stirring it. In remembrance of this miracle, an artisan fashioned a sliver dove which was hung over the altar where St. Basil served as a hierarch. He always prayed fervently and because of this the Lord always worked a miracle for him – at the moment of the offering of the holy gifts at the Divine Liturgy, the dove’s wings would flutter as if alive. Once as St. Basil prayed the words, “And make this bread …” he noticed that the dove remained motionless. Confused, the saint fell on his knees and begged God to reveal to him the source of disfavor. In those times, deacons stood by the altar to shoo off insects, of which there are many in the southern regions. St. Basil noticed that one of the deacons was staring out into the nave, he was gazing on the face of a pretty girl. Kindled with zeal for the glory of God, the fervent Basil drove the deacon off and removed him from the service, after which the Lord once again manifested the miracle. From that time St. Basil introduced the iconostasis so that servers of the altar would not be distracted during the time of prayer. At first, the iconostasis was a light curtain, and then it became a small partition, and eventually over time became what we have today.
The worshipping faithful gather in the central part of the temple, the nave. In the sanctuary, two holy things are found: the altar table3 and the table of oblation. The altar table is placed in the sanctuary with special and sacred rites. During the consecration, it is carefully washed several times and then it is covered in the “Katasarkion”4 – a pure white linen cloth that is fastened in a crosswise manner with a cord. After this, the altar is covered with a bright cover, typically brocade, and then the other holy articles are placed on it.
Everything I have outlined has a deep meaning. According to the interpretation of the holy fathers, the three-part structure of the temple reflects, on the one hand, the Divine Trinity, and on the other hand, the narthex represents the earth, the nave the visible heaven, and the sanctuary the heaven of heavens. The altar table represents the Throne of God. Throughout the holy Church, we are reminded of the Holy Triune-God; everywhere the Lord manifests Himself as the Consubstantial Trinity.
Our souls also speak to us of this. Our mind witnesses to the Divine mind, Who created the world – God the Father. Our heart witnesses to Divine love – the Son of God, Who is Consubstantial with the Father. Our will is in the image of the Divine will – God the Holy Spirit.
If we contemplate the coverings of the holy altar table, then even here we find many images. The altar table is washed so that it would be a place for the presence of the Lord. A person is also washed in water at baptism and according to the testimony of the holy apostles is a temple of God. The white altar covering reminds us of the baptismal garment, and the crosswise tying of the cord speaks of the cross that is received at baptism. The bright covering speaks of the radiant glory of God that even the flaming Seraphim, who are before the Throne of God, are unable to endure; with two wings they cover their faces and with two they cover their feet so as not to be scorched (by the glory). Therefore, with what awe should we come before the throne of God?
The nave represents the visible heaven and we the faithful must be like the stars in the sky, illumining our souls with prayer.
The relics of martyrs are set in the altar table in remembrance of how the first Christians prayed in the catacombs; moreover for them, at times, the very graves of the martyrs served as altar tables. The holy altar table should be consecrated by a bishop, but now when a bishop is not always able to travel to the consecration of a temple, he at least consecrates the antimension. Antemension by translation means “instead of the table.” The antimension is made from a rectangular piece of cloth, either silk or fine linen, and a piece of a holy relic is sewed onto it. On the cloth is depicted an icon of the preparation of our Lord’s body for burial, together with the four evangelists. Upon it is also an inscription indicating the place to which the antimension was given and the bishop who gave it. The antimension is kept folded inside another special cloth covering on the altar table. During the Divine Liturgy it is unfolded and upon it are placed the holy diskos and chalice. It is not possible to serve the Divine Liturgy without an antimension; with it one may serve the Liturgy in even an ordinary room, even in a tent, and on a simple table instead of the altar table. Besides the antimension, a holy Gospel book, a cross, and a tabernacle containing the reserve holy gifts are placed on the altar table as well. Thus, on the altar table is present not only the invisible but also the visible presence of the Lord, which is manifest in the holy Gospel and holy gifts.
The table of oblation stands to the left of the altar table and the service of Proskomedia is served on it. In ancient times the bread that was brought by the faithful for the service of the Lord’s Supper was placed on it.
This is but a short outline of the temple, in which we gather for the divine services. Every aspect and everything in it speaks to us of the presence of God. With what reverence then must we stand here before the throne of God? Before it, the angels stand with awe and we are likened to them as we sing hymns of glorification in the temple.
How pitiful, how unfortunate are those people who do not love the temple of God; those who exchange the glory of God for the rags of this world; those who because of worldly cares are robbed of the desire to be in church.
My friends, love the temple for it is the place of God’s continual presence. Hurry to come to church, most of all on feast days. Strive to be likened to the angels who unceasingly sing God’s praises.
1Possibly St. Amphilochius of Iconium whose feast is November 23rd.
2Or “the fallen.” In Russian Припадающим
3The Russian word “Престол” may also be translated in English as “throne.”
4Also, “Srachitsa.” In Russian “Срачица.”