Elements of the Liturgy

Christian liturgy consists of words and actions, along with the chant that accompanies them and the theology behind them.


Throughout the liturgical services, there are many points at which the priest or deacon will "cry out" in some fashion. These exclamations include blessings (by the priest or bishop), directives (given by the deacon, or in his absence by the priest), and the people's responses.


To bless God is to praise him; to bless people is to call down God's favor upon them; to bless a thing is to dedicate it to a holy purpose.

Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and forever.

The office of Matins abounds in these expressions of praise:

Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating and undivided Trinity, always, now and ever and forever.

Glory to you who show us the light!

At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful are blessed:

The blessing of the Lord be upon you through his grace and loving kindness, always, now and ever and forever.

And the liturgical books have special blessings for all sorts of objects:

This orchard is blessed by the sprinkling of this holy water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


At various points in the services, the priest will direct the people with an exclamation:

Let us stand and listen to the holy Gospel.

Let us lift up our hearts.

But usually this task is given to the deacon:

Let us be attentive!

Wisdom! (to call attention to a reading or symbolic act)

Bow your heads to the Lord!

The deacon also gives directions to the priest:

Reverend Father, give the blessing!


The people have their own exclamations: in particular, "Amen!" (a Hebrew word which indicates their agreement with what has just been said) and "Lord, have mercy!" (a request for God's blessing, grace, and assistance). These exclamations usually form a dialog or conversation with the priest. For example, at the Divine Liturgy, when the priest sings, "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God", the people exclaim, "It is proper and just!"


A liturgical prayer is an extended address to God, usually made by the priest on behalf of the people. Following Jewish models, it usually consists of an invocation of God, a statement of what he has done for us, and a request for some particular grace or assistance, to all of which the people respond, "Amen." The earliest liturgical manuscripts we possess are collections of these priestly or presbyteral prayers, and in ancient times the ordination of a priest often included the handing-over to him of a scroll containing the prayers he was to use, according to the local tradition. A small number of prayers are said aloud by the entire congregation - for example, the Lord's Prayer, the Prayer Before Communion, and the Prayer of Saint Ephrem.

The Byzantine Rite makes use of a particular liturgical pattern called a litany: the deacon announces particular petitions for the people's prayer; after each petition the people respond with "Lord, have mercy!" (once or three times) or "Grant this, O Lord!" The litany concludes with a priestly prayer that sums up the litany, and the people respond, "Amen." These litanies have particular names (Litany of Peace, Litany of Supplication, and so on) and are found in most services.


While a prayer is usually a request directed to God, and spoken by one person on behalf of the community, a liturgical hymn is more likely to be a song of praise to God or one of the saints, and sung by the entire congregation or a choir. These hymns are often extremely ancient, and associated with particular services:

Like litanies and prayers, hymns are core parts of the "structure" of Byzantine services. (We sometimes use the word "hymn" to refer to other sung texts, such as stichera and troparia, or even spiritual songs sung outside the liturgy.)


Much of the church's worship is drawn from the Book of Psalms.   These hymns, written by King David and others, and collected in ancient times, contain sentiments appropriate to every human situation, and are thus suitable to be used as the Hymnbook of the Church.  Psalms, or excerpts of psalms, are sung at virtually every service.

Psalms can be chanted or sung by a single reader, or by the whole congregation, sometimes divided into two parts that sing alternating verses. At the end of each psalm or group of psalms, we usually sing the "small doxology" or hymn of praise: "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen."


Sometimes a fixed refrain is added after each verse of a psalm. In the Old Testament, some psalms already come in this form, with refrains like "for His mercy endures forever!" or "Alleluia!
(a Hebrew word meaning "Praise God!"). In the Byzantine tradition, these short refrains were called troparia; here are some examples:

Through the prayers of your saints, O Savior, save us!

O Son of God, risen from the dead, save us who sing to you: Alleluia!

Save your people, O Lord, and bless your inheritance!

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us!

An antiphon consists of a set of psalm verses, with each one followed by the fixed refrain, then the small doxology ("Glory to the Father... Now and ever..."), and the refrain once more; this was usually followed by a short litany and a prayer. An "office" of three such antiphons was an ancient feature of the Byzantine Rite. Today, these antiphons are sung in the Divine Liturgy.


In the Byzantine Rite, psalms are sometimes sung with short hymns called stichera, which provide an explicitly Christian "counterpoint" to the psalm verses. Stichera are usually sung in alternation with psalm verses, and can point out the deeper meanings in the psalms, or adapt them to the particular service or feast being celebrated.


Along with the Psalms, we listen to the other books of Scripture in our services.   The books of Sacred Scripture are read for instruction and edification;  as Saint Jerome said, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ."   The Church prescribes specific readings for each celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as well as at other services throughout the year.

But just as the psalms are accompanied by stichera, the Scripture readings are accompanied by short hymns which introduce the Scripture readings for a  particular service or feast,  and prepare us to listen attentively.  These introductions consist of the Prokeimenon which introduces readings from the Old Testament and the apostolic writings of the New Testament, and the Alleluia which introduces the reading of the Holy Gospel.  The prokeimenon and its verses, and  the verses sung after the Alleluia, are almost always taken from the Book of Psalms.

In monasteries, a small number of other sorts of readings, such as the lives of the saints, may also be read in connection with the liturgy.


Early Christian liturgy consisted largely of the above elements.  But over time, as the Church's liturgical year developed, new feasts entered the calendar, and theological controversies were settled, increasing the depth and richness of the Church's teaching as a consequence.  Gifted hymnographers (writers of hymns) added their own contributions to the liturgy, in order to explain the Church's doctrines, and glorify God and his saints.  In the Byzantine tradition, these hymns grew in number, amassing a vast body of liturgical poetry from which the Church could add "new things" to its services.

The most important of these new liturgical hymns was  the troparion, a short hymn usually intended to encapsulate the essence of a particular feast or celebration. It came out of the very short hymns sung with antiphons, and came to stand on its own in the services. The most important troparion is the one assigned to each day in the liturgical calendar.


Later, in the sixth and seventh centuries, a long, very stylized kind of poem called the kontakion grew in popularity.  The kontakion is a sort of "sermon in poetic form"; the most famous of these is the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God. Eventually, these fell out of use, but the first two verses of important kontakia (called just the "kontakion" and "ikos") continued to be sung.


Later, the short hymns or troparia which were sung in alternation with the Scriptural canticles at Matins developed into an elaborate poetic form, called a Canon.  Even though most of the canticles are no longer sung outside of  the Great Fast, canons remains an important part of Matins, and are also sung at certain other services. Each canon consists of up to nine "odes", with the last ode always dedicated to the Mother of God. The refrain and first verse of this ode (called "magnification" and "irmos") are sung at the Divine Liturgy on feast days.

The actions of the liturgy

The words of the liturgy are accompanied by actions, which also engage the senses and allow the whole person to participate in Divine worship. See The Body in Worship.

Roles in the liturgy

The words and actions of the liturgy are assigned to particular persons. See Roles in the Liturgy.

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