If you’re like me, when travelling to a foreign place, finding a Ukrainian Church and attending Divine Liturgy can feel a bit like an oasis in a desert—even if the service is in a foreign language. The rituals are familiar, the icons well known, the melodies comforting. This familiarity is part of our cultural heritage. The Divine Liturgy as we know it dates back to the 9th c, but its meaning and origins reach back to the 3rd c. It is phenomenal to imagine the generations of lives throughout history that have honoured, protected and maintained this way of approaching God, bequeathing it to us so that we, today in 2022, could be enriched and pass on this treasure to future generations.
When, through its laws and slaughter of hierarchy and faithful, the Soviet Regime believed they had destroyed our Church, Blessed Joseph Slipyj proclaimed that all the Soviet tactics of brutal annihilation would not erase our Faith Tradition because it would flourish in the diaspora. Now, while our Lenten meditation is to deepen our understanding of the Divine Liturgy, as a diaspora we have a renewed imperative to cherish and keep our inherited Tradition of Worship, to share its peace and beauty with all the world, and to preserve it for those to come.
We see the Divine Liturgy start when Father opens the Royal Doors of the Ikonostas and exclaims: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.” We agree with an easy “Amen”. Yet, what is this Kingdom?
Every time we take part in the Divine Liturgy, we approach this very thing that we pray for in the Our Father. We can explain the Kingdom of God in all the simplicity and complexity of a single word: relationship. Whether we come to church alone, or merely from habit, we enter a relationship. We enter the presence of God because we have come together in the name of Christ whose humanity has shown us the Divine. Each one of us comprises the Body of Christ. We are related. We are one. We belong to a reality that transcends space and time. We all belong in peace and love at this celebration of life in the Triune God: Father-Son-Spirit sweeping us—you and me—into mindful being. This is the start of the Divine Liturgy that immediately requires our engagement. But the initial section of the service has already taken place behind the Ikonostas. Historically the Proskomydia, or Liturgy of Preparation, was also public, but although we do not see it performed today, it illuminates our participation in the cosmic events of the Incarnation and Resurrection: the mysteries that reveal God with us now—in every form of goodness and love. Amen!
When Father enters the church, he prays before the Ikonostas, and enters the sanctuary. There he kisses the Gospel and altar and then, reciting specific lines of scripture, he puts on the liturgical vestments. He washes his hands signifying that he approaches the altar with a pure heart. The Proskomydia, or preparation of bread, water and wine, is
done at the small table at the Eastern wall near the altar. The East, where the sun rises, symbolizes life, creativity, resurrection. The incarnation and resurrection are symbolically represented in every item and action of this ritual. The table is the cave of Christ’s birth. The prosphora recalls those 5 loaves that fed multitudes (Matt 14: 13-21). The prosphoron (bread for communion) is a small round loaf with two segments baked together: human and divine as one. The yeast bread: risen life. The top segment is stamped with: ICXC HIKA (Jesus Christ conquers). The priest cuts out
this cube which will be used for Communion. It is called the “Ahnets” or Lamb. With a small altar knife (spear), the priest makes a cross in the bread saying: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is offered as a sacrifice, for the life of the world and for its salvation.” Piercing the right side of the Ahnets, he says: “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. He who saw this has borne witness about it, and his witness is true” (John 19:34). He pours the wine and water into the chalice.
Throughout the Proskomydia, the priest follows a precise order of prayers while cutting out sections of prosphora. Each cube of bread represents a member of the Body of Christ, the Church, the Kingdom, and is placed on the diskos. In the centre is Christ. Surrounding Him are the Mother of God, the prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostles, Saints, Martyrs, Church Mothers and Fathers, the hierarchy, civil authorities, and members of our church, dead and living. When we leave names for Father to specifically mention at Divine Liturgy, they are named in prayer and stand together with the vast family of God that are present with us at Liturgy. The diskos is covered with a cloth and a star shaped cover: the star of Bethlehem.
Having prepared the bread and wine, the priest incenses them, praying: “O God, You sent the Heavenly Bread, the food of the entire world, our Lord and God Jesus Christ, the Savior, Redeemer, and Benefactor, who blesses and sanctifies us: Bless this Offering and accept it on Your Heavenly Altar. O You who are Good and Love humanity, remember those who offered it, and those for whom it is offered, and keep us blameless in the service of Your Divine Mysteries.”
Now, having spoken in prayer and represented in actions the unfathomable wonder of God becoming human, dying and living in us, the priest goes to the altar, opens the Royal Doors and proclaims: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.”
You and I together with creation respond in unison: Yes. Truly. It is so. AMEN.