The Divine Liturgy
As the Gospels and the writings of the Apostle Paul taught, the Last Supper, that is, the “night when He [Jesus] was betrayed” (I Cor. 11:23), He instituted the Holy Eucharist, the sacrifice of the New Testament. The Lord wanted to perpetuate His sacrifice on the cross a “memorial” of His life, death, and resurrection” until He comes again (I Cor. 11:25-26). This memorial is known variously as the Breaking of the Bread, the Offering, or the Eucharist. As St. Augustine of Hippo said, the Holy Eucharist becomes a “mystery of piety, a sign of unity, and a bond of charity” (PL, 35, 1613). Historically, the word “Eucharist” means eucharistia –thanksgiving, in Greek. But by the early years of the First Century St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 107) taught that what is done at the Liturgy, the Holy Eucharist is what is commonly known by the faithful. He said, “Make an effort to meet more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and thus offer to Him praise” (cf. Letter to the Ephesians, ch.13).
Later theologians of the Church speak of the Eucharist as a sacrament of the Church.
The common Greek word “liturgy” means any public function in the interest of people. But when applied by the community of faith taking the witness from The Septuagint –the ancient Greek Bible– the word “liturgy” means a sacrifice as a religious public service given to us through the Lord’s “priestly function” (Hebrews 8:6). It is THE privileged point of encounter with the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). What the bishop or the priest does is to pray the Liturgy on behalf of the people who are entrusted to his care. So, each Sunday the priest is enjoined to pray (to offer, to serve) the Liturgy for the people of the parish. The public ministry of the priest, hence, is the offering to God as a Eucharistic sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Letter of St. Clement of Rome, c. AD 96).
The regular, communal prayer of the Melkite Church is the Sunday and holy day Divine Liturgy. For most of the year, the Church prays the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
For several weeks of the year, however, the Church prays the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea; Basil was the bishop there from AD 370 – 379. The prayers of the Liturgy of St. Basil is much longer than those of the Chrysostom’s Liturgy which has a rich patrimony of theology and spirituality that will inform and form our spiritual life. St. Basil’s Liturgy is prayed ten times a year:
- The vigils of Christmas and Theophany
- The feast of St. Basil, January 1
- The first five Sundays of Lent
- Holy Thursday
- Holy Saturday.
On one or two days of the year, the Liturgy of St. James is prayed, typically on his feast day (October 23rd) and perhaps on the Sunday after the Nativity. It is derived from the Liturgy of the Church in Jerusalem. Generally speaking you will hear this Liturgy prayed by the Melkites and rarely among Slavs, due to the historical links between the Melkites and the Church in Jerusalem. In Eusebius’ Church History James was James, son of Zebedee, the brother of the Lord, and elected named the bishop of Jerusalem by the apostles.