Below the reader will find my translation of sermon 10 on the Divine Liturgy by St. Seraphim (Zvezdenski). All titles and endnotes are my own. Previous sermons may be found here. I pray that you find great encouragement in the wise and profound sermons by St. Seraphim and that your love of worshipping God in the Divine Liturgy only grows.
The second part of the Divine Liturgy bears the name, “The Liturgy of the Catechumens.” It is named thus because catechumens – those preparing to receive holy baptism – are permitted to be present while it is served. Besides catechumens, Jews and pagans [unbelievers] could be present at this portion also, if they desired to hear the service. In ancient times this whole section of the Liturgy took place in the middle of the church [the nave]. In those days, there were not yet set prayers because from the mouths of the faithful worshippers sprang forth fiery hymns and brief prayerful sighs, from which later our [current] songs and litanies were composed.
The deacon, having prepared himself for the joyful proclamation of Christ’s Nativity, exits the altar [into the nave] through the north door and comes before the holy doors.1 Here he makes three bows while praying, quietly, “O Lord, open my lips …” after which he lifts his orarion in his right hand – like an angel’s wing because he represents an angel at that moment – and proclaims with a loud voice, “Master, bless!” The priest answers from the altar, “Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages!” To this, the people respond, “Amen!” Amen, which means – you have spoken truly and rightly. Before this exclamation, the priest takes up in his hands the Holy Gospel and with it makes the sign of the cross over the Holy Altar. This action has deep significance, the Holy Gospel is a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The Cross is the instrument of our salvation. In making the sign of the cross with the Gospel, the priest is proclaiming that our Lord Jesus Christ, by way of the Cross and His sufferings, has saved us; He has opened up to us the blessing of the Kingdom, which is commemorated in this priestly exclamation.
Behold the profound meaning here! The priest commemorates the sufferings of the Savior on the Cross, Whose birth the sacred ministers had only just determined to proclaim. The priest proclaims the Kingdom of the Son of God, in the Name of the Trinity, “Blessed is the Kingdom …” At the very start of the Divine Liturgy the Kingdom is proclaimed. It is not an earthly kingdom nor is it a kingdom established through force and oppression. No, a Kingdom of peace is proclaimed, “Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!” An earthly kingdom is a passing kingdom but the Kingdom that the priest proclaims will abide unto the ages of ages. It is this Kingdom that the angels proclaimed to the world when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest …” At this point in the Liturgy, the sacred ministers represent the angels, and the deacon stands before the people as the angels stood before the shepherds.
The tidings of Christ’s birth brought joy to all the world, and the early Christians responded with fervent hymns to the priest’s exclamation announcing the advent of the blessed Kingdom. For us today, the great litany follows the exclamation. In ancient times it was not said at this point in the Liturgy, this is why there is no priestly prayer that accompanies this litany as is the usual custom. Rather at this point, in ancient times jubilant songs poured forth [from the faithful]. After the great litany, the antiphons are sung, which means “responding voices.” These hymns are called thus because they are sung alternately between two choirs as if calling one to the other. Currently, the antiphons are often sung in a very shortened form and by only one choir. This is very incorrect and in ancient times it was not this way. We need to revive the ancient practice of singing the antiphons antiphonally.2
We call to remembrance the prophets and forefathers of Christ the Savior in the singing of the antiphons.3 During the first part of the Liturgy4 the angels flocked to worship the birth of Christ; now the prophets are hastening to worship Him. Now thundering Elijah and Elisha enter into the temple, together with the fiery Isaiah! These Old Testament evangelists and proclaimers of Emmanuel so clearly depicted His sufferings, it is as if they beheld the sufferings of Christ with their own eyes. And with them enters the king, poet, and prophet David the Psalmist, and with him also the wise Solomon, to glorify Christ. David especially spoke many times about Christ – His birth, sufferings, and death he described with remarkable exactness and clarity. It seems as if everything took place before the very eyes of the prophet, even though he lived many years before the appearance of the Savior.
Each antiphon is accompanied by a quiet priestly prayer. The little litany is said at the end of the first and second antiphons, which starts with the words, “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord.” The Kingdom of peace that the angels announced is being called into the midst of our human existence. “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace.” Four expressions of grace are supplicated here. We ourselves can do nothing without grace, and here we make our appeal to the very fountain of Grace – God, seeking His grace-filled help. “Help us” means to encompass and cover us with His protective grace.
All around is temptation; all around is the intrigue of the enemy. I am perishing! Encompass me, help me, save me – this is our entreaty! Like Peter cried in the midst of the stormy waves, “Save me for I am perishing,”5 so we beg not only for protection and covering but also to be saved, if we have already begun to sink in the storms of misfortune. Save us, snatch us, extricate us from the abyss of calamity.
“Have mercy,” this is the third type of help. If we were unable to hide ourselves behind the shield of Thy help; if we did not hold fast in the midst of the storms of temptation, and did not take hold of Thy hand, but rather fell into temptations – please forgive us, have mercy on us, and be compassionate to us in our infirmities. But today we have such little grace-filled help in the moment of temptation … no! From henceforth keep us because only beneath Thy protection are we able to commend ourselves, each other, and everyone and all our life to Thee. This is the very tender meaning of these petitions.
1Typically Orthodox churches are built with the altar facing east. Thus, on the iconostasis, the north door is the door to the left of the holy doors.
2Alternately between two choirs
3In current Slavic practice the antiphons are portions of Psalms 102 (103), 145 (146), and the Beatitudes.
4i.e. Proskomedia. See previous sermons.
5Cf. Matthew 14:30.