The Divine Liturgy is the primary corporate or shared experience for Orthodox Christians. The Liturgy is viewed as the Sacrament of Sacraments (N. Arseniev, Mysticism and the Eastern Church, chapter 4). In this celebration the goal of the Christian Life is realized: union with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through the reception of His Body and Blood.
Within the Liturgy the Kingdom of God is present in the midst of the faithful; or rather they ascend spiritually in worship to the Throne of the Most-High, and the Divine Mysteries are received, “for the forgiveness of sins, for enlightenment, for the healing of soul and body, and for purification and sanctification” (Preparatory Prayers).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th Century) in his Fourth Catechetical Lecture (Sermon), states that as worshippers approach the Chalice, and partake of Christ, “His Body and Blood are diffused through our members; thus, it is that, according to the blessed St. Peter we become, “partakers of the Divine Nature:”” (Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, SVS Press, p. 68).
Similarly, in a Pre-Communion Prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom (4th – 5th Centuries) one reads: “…Let the fiery coal of Thy most pure Body and Thy most precious Blood bring me sanctification, enlightenment and strengthening of my lowly soul and body…I pray Thee, O Master, for Thou alone art holy, sanctify my soul and body, my mind and heart, my muscles and bones. Renew me entirely…”
Because of the Liturgy’s divine and transforming character, its proper celebration requires preparation on the part of the faithful. Sacred tradition, following the teaching of the Apostle Paul, requires proper discernment from one approaching the Chalice, as both a precaution, and as the means by which a proper foundation for growth can be laid: “Not unto judgment, nor unto condemnation be my partaking of Thy Holy Mysteries…” (Prayer of St. John Chrysostom; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32). In the language of The Parable of the Sower, one cannot expect to enjoy the fruits of Liturgy, as it were, without a deliberate effort to till the soil of the heart, making it fertile, making it fit for the reception of Divine Grace.
Practically speaking there is no mystery to this preparation. Tradition simply likens the tilling of the soil of the heart to the Church’s spiritual and ascetic disciplines. These include such fundamentals as fasting, daily prayer, regular Confession, prayerful reading of Scripture, a desire to repent (i.e., “change” in light of revealed Truth), participation in services such as Vespers or Vigil that anticipate the Eucharist, and an effort to live throughout the week according to the precepts of the Gospel.
The Liturgy itself even contains its own preparation for the reception of Holy Communion. It comprises the first half of the service, commonly referred to as the Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Catechumens. In his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, St. Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century) highlights the importance of everything that precedes the Anaphora (the Lifting Up and Consecration of the Gifts) as a preparation for receiving Holy Communion.
“As a preparation for, and contribution to (the Eucharist), we have prayers, psalms and readings from Holy Scripture; in short, all the sacred acts…which are said and done before and after the consecration of the elements (bread and wine)...
“…Since in order to obtain the effects of the Divine Mysteries we must approach them in a state of grace and properly prepared, it was necessary that these preparations should find a place in the order of the Sacred Rite … They purify us and make us able fittingly to receive and preserve holiness, and to remain possessed of it…” (A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, SVS Press, pp. 25-26).
St. Nicholas’s words remind us of the importance of being present in Church on Sunday, for the opening exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom…”
Additionally, as Orthodox Christians prepare for the Eucharist, it helps greatly to anticipate the Liturgy as a community event. It is not simply prayer, but is a shared experience, a work of God’s people in which everyone takes part: those present physically, as well as the Saints, “who have gone to their rest before us.” Thus – on the part of the faithful – the Liturgy is an offering of love, strengthened by a common desire to be taught by Christ, to be led by the Spirit, to render praise in the company of others, and to be reconciled to one’s fellow man.
The Liturgy, by its very nature as a corporate act, places responsibility on the faithful for other members during the service itself. This responsibility is carried out partially through one’s advance preparations for the Eucharist, as well as through one’s attentive and timely participation in the service. Spiritually speaking, the stronger a Christian is personally, and the more focused he is during Liturgy, this enhances greatly the common offering to God within the Eucharist. A person fulfills his “obligation of love” for the neighbor – to a degree – by setting a righteous example during the service, and by becoming a powerful link in the communion of prayer exercised throughout the Church.
Responsibilities during the Eucharist extend additionally to the entire world and to everyone in it. Within the Liturgy the faithful pray not merely for themselves, their loved ones and the surrounding communities, but for everything, and “for all mankind…” “Thine Own of Thine Own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all…” With this in mind as well, Orthodox Christians are asked to remain focused and alert in the Church’s common prayer, thereby fulfilling their “obligation of love” for the neighbor and for all of creation, as powerfully as is humanly possible.
Most Orthodox Christians know from experience that there is nothing more inspirational, more joyful, than a Church full of people truly engaged in their service to the Lord, and in their prayers for their fellow man. One only has to think of this shared experience on Pascha Night. The hope would be that each and every time a member or visitor comes to the Orthodox Church that this joy will be their experience: an experience that is the result of Grace and Divine Love on the part of the Creator, and the result – on our part – of love and forethought,