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The Symbolic Meaning of the Liturgy


By Archbishop Seraphim (Sviazhscky)

The Liturgy is the most important Divine service in our Orthodox Church, because during it is accomplished the great Mystery of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, which was established by our Lord Jesus Christ at the Mystical Supper; its essence being that through the action of the Grace of the Holy Spirit our offerings of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus.

The whole life of the Saviour, from His Nativity to His Glorious Ascension, transpires at the Liturgy.

The first part of the Liturgy is called the Proskomedia. This word is Greek and means "offering," because in the first centuries of Christianity, people did not bake pros-phora, but rather brought bread and wine.

The Proskomedia symbolically represents the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Table of Oblation represents the cave where the Infant Jesus was born.

At the Proskomedia five prosphora are used: the first is called the Lamb, from which are cut out four triangular particles; the second prosphoron is called the Mother of God; the third is called the prosphoron of the nine, because from it are cut out nine particles as a sign of the nine ranks of divine service; from the fourth prosphoron particles are taken out for the living, and from the fifth prosphoron a particle for the departed.

The taking out of the Lamb from the prosphoron signifies the Nativity of the Infant Jesus from the Mother of God. The priest places the Lamb on the paten, or diskos, which represents the manger where the Mother of God laid the Infant Jesus. Then the priest places the star-cover on the diskos, which represents the star that showed the way to the wise men.

The priest then covers the diskos with the veil, which symbolizes the swaddling clothes in which the Infant Christ was wrapped.

When the Proskomedia is finished, the priest censes the as yet unsanctified gifts. The censing and the censor represent the gifts brought by the wise men to the Holy Family. After the birth of the Infant Jesus, the Holy Family had to flee into Egypt, where they stayed until the death of Herod. When Herod died, the Holy Family returned to Palestine and settled in Nazareth where the child Jesus lived in obedience to the Mother of God and the elderly Joseph. When the Lord Jesus Christ was thirty years old, He went to John the Baptist and was baptized in the Jordan and afterwards went up the mountain where He prayed and fasted forty days and forty nights, after which He went out to preach and fulfill His mission of saving mankind.

Christ's going out to preach is represented by the Small Entrance, when the priest takes the Book of the Gospels from the Holy Table and gives it to the deacon. They go around the Holy Table and exit through the northern doors of the sanctuary to the ambo and stand before the Royal Doors. The priest blesses the Entrance and the deacon makes the sign of the Cross with the Holy Gospel and says, "Wisdom, attend." They enter the sanctuary and put the Holy Gospel in its place on the Holy Table.

After the going out to preach comes the preaching at the Liturgy the Epistle and Gospel are read.

The Saviour's preaching continues for three and a half years, up until His triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at the Liturgy is represented by the Great Entrance, when the clergy take from the table of oblation the chalice and diskos, with the still unsanctified gifts, exit through the northern doors from the sanctuary onto the ambo, take them into the sanctuary and place them on the Holy Table. After the triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, on Great Thursday at the Mystical Supper, the Saviour instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, when He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and, giving it to His disciples, said, Take, eat: this is My Body, which is broken for you for the remission of sins. Then taking the chalice, He blessed it and giving it to His disciples, said, Drink ye all of it; for this is My Blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

And He commanded His disciples: This do in remembrance of Me. And the Orthodox Church performs this Sacrament of the Eucharist and will continue to perform it till the end of the ages.

After the Mystical Supper, the Lord with His disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Saviour prayed until His sweat became as drops of blood. Here He was betrayed by Judas, was bound and was first taken to the judgment seat of the high priests, and then to Pilate, who condemned the Lord to death on the Cross. The Lord was crucified, suffered on the Cross, died on the Cross and was buried in a cave. This was closed with a stone which was sealed and guarded.

At the Liturgy this is represented as follows: the Royal Doors are closed, the curtain is pulled shut, and a lit candle is placed before the Royal Doors.

At this time, in the altar, the clergy partake of Holy Communion. On the third day the Saviour rose. An angel came down from heaven and rolled away the stone from the Sepulchre. At the Liturgy this is represented thus: the candle is taken away, the curtain is pulled aside and the Royal Doors are opened. The clergy, with the chalice, come out onto the ambo with the words, "With the fear of God and faith draw near." This signifies the Lord's first appearance after His Resurrection. At this time the faithful partake of Holy Communion.

After the faithful receive Communion, the priest returns the chalice to the Holy Table where he submerges all the particles left on the diskos with the words, "Cleanse, O Lord, the sins of those remembered here, with Thy honorable Blood, by the prayers of Thy saints."

The priest once again brings out the chalice and blesses the people: "Always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages." This represents the last appearance of the Saviour before His Ascension.

Then the priest voices the Dismissal, concluding the Liturgy.

+ Archbishop Seraphim

Of Caracas and Venezuela

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