With a new subject and scriptural index, as well as a short abstract on Nikolai Gogol as a religious personality, this reedited commentary on the Divine Liturgy—the primary public worship service of the Orthodox Church—is as practical as it is mystical. Gogol, one of the most prominent Russian writers of the 19th century, draws from the early Church Fathers and his own experience to explain the sublime mystery of the Orthodox divine services. In doing so, he also provides a fascinating look into his own religious character and profound liturgical spirituality.
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About the Author
Nikolai Gogol was one of the leading figures in 19th-century Russian literature and the founder of critical realism. He is best known for his satirical masterpiece Dead Souls and humorous plays and short stories such as “The Government Inspector” and “The Overcoat.”
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Meditations on the Divine Liturgy
Of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church
By Nikolai Gogol, L. Alexieff, Archimandrite Lazarus
Holy Trinity PublicationsCopyright © 2014 Holy Trinity Monastery
All rights reserved.
The Office of Preparation
* * *
The priest who intends to celebrate the Liturgy should be abstinent in body and spirit from the previous evening, should be at peace with all, and should avoid holding a grudge towards anyone. From the evening on, after reading the prescribed prayers, he should dwell with his mind in the altar, (sanctuary) thinking of the morrow's duties so that even his very thoughts may be duly consecrated and filled with sweet fragrance. When the time comes, he goes to the church with the deacon; together they bow before the holy doors and then kiss the icons of the Saviour and of the Mother of God, after which they bow to all present, by this bow asking forgiveness of everyone. Then they go into the altar, reciting to themselves the Psalm:
I shall go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee. Ps 5:7 (DLJC p. 13)
Approaching the holy table itself, they turn towards the East and make three prostrations, and kiss the holy table and the Book of the Gospels lying on it as if it were the Lord Himself sitting on the throne. Then they put on their sacred vestments in order to be distinguished not only from others but even from themselves, so that there may be nothing in their appearance to remind people of men engaged in the everyday affairs of the world. At the same time, this should put them in mind of the grandeur of the service which is about to begin.
From Apostolic times, special vestments were in use, although the persecuted Church was not in a position to give them the beauty we are accustomed to. But from the very beginning there were strict rules that the priest must not serve in his ordinary clothing, and that none of the clergy should walk in the street in the vestments worn during church services. While they are putting on these bright vestments, the servants of the Church are obliged to clothe themselves also in the robes of the Spirit. For this reason, as each article is put on, verses from the Psalms are recited which disclose the deep meaning of the vestments, so that the thoughts of the clergy may not wander while they are doing something so simple and ordinary as dressing. Rather, even while vesting they collect themselves for their high service and like Aaron, splendidly clad both externally and in spirit, they step before the dread altar of the Most High.
Priest and deacon, taking their vestments in their hands, make three bows towards the East and repeat silently:
O God, cleanse me a sinner, and have mercy on me. (DLJC p. 15)
The deacon takes his sticharion and orarion and asks the priest to bless them. Upon receiving the blessing, he goes aside and vests. First, he puts on the sticharion, which is of a bright color, signifying the radiant attire of the angels and calling to mind the unsullied purity of heart that ought to be inseparable from the priestly office. The deacon and priest, after putting on their sticharia say:
My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He hath clothed me in the garment of salvation, and with the vesture of gladness hath He covered me; He hath placed a crown upon me as on a bridegroom, and He hath adorned me as a bride with comeliness. Isa 61:10 (DLJC p. 15)
Then the deacon kisses his orarion, a long narrow band, and hangs it over his left shoulder. The orarion is the symbol of the office of deacon: with it the deacon gives the sign for the commencement of every part of the church service — for the worshippers to pray, the choir to sing, the priest to begin his duties, and for the deacon himself to have the swiftness of the angels and their readiness to serve. The office of deacon corresponds to that of the angels in heaven. According to the interpretation of St John Chrysostom, this narrow band on the deacon's shoulder fluttering to and fro like a wing symbolizes the flying of the angels. Next, the deacon puts on cuffs, which are fastened firmly about the wrists so as to allow the hands greater freedom of movement and dexterity during the sacred office. While putting them on, he meditates on the all-creative and omnipresent power of God. For the right cuff, he recites:
Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorified in strength; Thy right hand, O Lord, hath shattered enemies, and in the multitude of Thy glory hast Thou ground down the adversaries. Exod 15:6–7 (DLJC p. 15)
As he puts on the left cuff, he reflects that he is the work of God's hands, and asks his Creator to direct him with His guidance from above, saying:
Thy hands have made me and fashioned me; give me understanding and I will learn Thy commandments. Ps 119:73 (DLJC p. 16)
The priest vests in a similar manner. First, he blesses his sticharion and puts it on while reciting the same words the deacon recited. Then, instead of a simple, plain orarion on one shoulder, he puts on a double orarion that covers both shoulders and goes round the neck, joining in front and reaching to the hem of his clothes, indicating by this union the twofold nature of his office, that of priest and deacon. As the name epitrachelion (that is, "on the neck") implies, it signifies the outpouring of grace from above on the priest; hence, he recites these sublime words from Scripture:
Blessed is God Who poureth out His grace upon His priests, like unto the oil of myrrh upon the head, which runneth down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, which runneth down to the fringe of his raiment. Ps 133:2 (DLJC p. 19)
Using the same words as the deacon, he puts on the cuffs, and then the belt over his sticharion and epitrachelion, so that during the holy office he will not be inconvenienced by the looseness of the vestments. Moreover, this girding attests to his readiness for service, for a man girds himself when he sets out on a journey or undertakes an important task. So, too, the priest girds himself when he sets about his heavenly ministry, and regarding his belt as the strength of divine power that strengthens him, he recites:
Blessed is God Who girded me with power, and hath made my path blameless, Who maketh my feet like the feet of a hart, and setteth me upon high places. [That is, the house of the Lord.] Ps 18:32–33 (DLJC p. 19)
If he belongs to the higher clergy, he hangs at his left side the oblong epigonation, which denotes the Sword of the Spirit, the all-conquering power of the Divine Word, proclaiming the unceasing struggle that man faces in this world to declare the victory that Christ gained over death so that man's immortal spirit might struggle courageously against its corruption. That is why the epigonation has the appearance of a mighty weapon and is hung on the thigh where man's strength lies. Meanwhile, this prayer is being recited:
Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O Mighty One, in Thy comeliness and Thy beauty, and bend Thy bow, and proceed prosperously, and be king, because of truth and meekness and righteousness, and Thy right hand shall guide Thee wondrously, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Ps 45:3–5 (DLJC p. 19)
Finally, the priest completes his vesting by putting on the phelonion, the uppermost vestment, covering all the others and symbolizing the all-embracing justice of God, and says:
Thy priests, O Lord, shall be clothed with righteousness, and Thy saints with rejoicing shall rejoice, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Ps 132:9 (DLJC p. 20)
Thus invested with the divine instruments, the priest is now another man. Whatever he may be as an individual, however unworthy of his vocation, everyone present in the church looks upon him as God's instrument, through whom the Holy Spirit works. The priest and deacon then wash their hands, saying from the Psalm:
I will wash my hands in innocence and I will compass Thine altar, O Lord. Ps 26:6 (DLJC p. 21)
Then they make three bows to the waist with the words:
O God, cleanse me a sinner and have mercy on me. (DLJC p. 23)
They are now cleansed and enlightened, like their shining vestments. They no longer remind us of ordinary people, but resemble radiant visions rather than men.
The deacon reminds the priest to begin the divine service with the words: Bless, master (DLJC p. 23), and the priest begins with the words:
Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages, (DLJC p. 23)
and goes to the table of oblation at the side. This entire part of the service consists of the preparation of what is needed for the service, that is, the removal from the prosphoron that portion which at first must represent the body of Christ and later be changed into It. The table at the side, to the left of the altar, called the prothesis (that is, "table of offering or preparation," because on it the loaves are prepared), represents the place in the early Church where everything that the early Christians brought for the service and for their common meal was kept.
Because the whole proskomedia is nothing more than a preparation for the Liturgy itself, the Church has connected it with the commemoration of the early life of Christ, which was a preparation for His public ministry. All this is carried out in the altar behind closed doors and drawn curtain, unseen by the congregation, just as Christ's early life was hidden from the masses. But for the worshippers during this time, the Hours are read, a collection of Psalms and prayers that the early Christians read at the four most important times of the day: the First Hour, when the day begins, according to the Church's reckoning; the Third Hour, when the Holy Spirit descended; the Sixth Hour, when the Saviour of the world was nailed to the cross; and the Ninth Hour, when He yielded up His spirit. Because present-day Christians, owing to lack of time and constant distractions, cannot read these prayers at the appointed times, they are read one after the other at this time..
The priest goes to the table of oblation and takes up one of the prosphora in order to remove that part which will afterwards become the Body of Christ — the center with the seal bearing the name of Jesus Christ. This removal of bread from bread represents the separation of Christ's flesh from the flesh of the Virgin — the birth of the Fleshless One in the flesh. And reflecting that this is the birth of the One Who offered Himself as a sacrifice for the whole world, the priest inevitably connects the thought of the sacrifice itself with the offering and regards the bread as the "Lamb" offered in sacrifice; the spear, with which he will cut it out, as the sacrificial knife — a reminder of the spear with which the Saviour's body was pierced on the cross.
At this point the priest does not accompany his acts with the Saviour's words or with the words of the eyewitnesses, the contemporaries who lived through all these events. He does not transport himself in mind back to the time when the historical offering of this sacrifice took place, for all this is presented in the latter part of the Liturgy. For the moment, he is in the even more distant past looking ahead to what is to come (that is, to the coming of the Messiah).
Like the people who sat in darkness and saw a great light, he looks towards the light beaming ahead of him. As Isaiah foresaw with the eagle eye of prophetic vision what was to come after his time, just so the priest through this proskomedia looks prophetically to the sacrificial act ahead of him. Uniting himself with the prophet, he accompanies each ritual act with the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who foresaw out of ages of darkness the wondrous Birth, Sacrifice, and Death and proclaimed it with unbelievable clarity. The priest thrusts the spear into the right side of the seal and says:
He is led as a sheep to the slaughter. Isa 53:7 (DLJC p. 23)
And then thrusting it into the left side he says:
And as a blameless lamb before his shearer is dumb, so He openeth not his mouth. Isa 53:7 (DLJC p. 25)
Then thrusting the spear into the upper part of the seal he says:
In His lowliness His judgment was taken away. Isa 53:8 (DLJC p. 25)
Finally, thrusting it into the lower part, he pronounces the words of the prophet who was absorbed in contemplation of the wondrous origin or lineage of the condemned Lamb:
And who shall declare his generation? Isa 53:8 (DLJC p. 25)
With the spear he lifts out the portion of bread cut out of the center and says:
For His life is taken away from the earth. Isa 53: 8 (DLJC p. 25)
Turning this portion of the seal downwards, he now cuts it cross-wise as a sign of His death on the cross and says:
Sacrificed is the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world, for the life and salvation of the world. John 1:29; 1 John 2:2 (DLJC p. 27)
Then the priest thrusts the spear into the right side as a reminder of the offering of the sacrifice, of how the soldier at the cross pierced our Saviour's side, and says:
One of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and forthwith there came out blood and water. And he who saw it bare record, and his record is true. John 19:34-35 (DLJC p. 27)
At the same time, these words are the sign for the deacon to pour wine and water into the holy chalice. The deacon reverently observes all that the priest does, and prompts him to begin each ritual act by saying: Let us pray to the Lord (DLJC p. 25). Finally, he pours wine and water into the chalice, after mixing them and asking the priest's blessing. The wine and bread are prepared in this way so they may be changed later during the sublime action of the Liturgy that lies ahead.
Then, following the ritual of the early Church and the holy Christians of the first century — who, whenever they thought of Christ, always remembered all those who had been nearest to His heart through the fulfillment of His commandments and by the holiness of their lives — the priest takes the other prosphora in order to cut out of them portions in their memory and place them on the diskos, or paten, beside the "Lamb," or holy bread that represents the Lord Himself, since they themselves had a burning desire to be everywhere with their Lord.
Taking into his hand the second prosphoron, he cuts out of it a portion in honor and memory of our most blessed Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, and places it on the right of the "Lamb," pronouncing the prophetic verse from the Psalm:
At Thy right hand stood the Queen, arrayed in a vesture of in woven gold, adorned in varied colors. Ps 44:10 (DLJC p. 31)
Then he takes the third prosphoron in memory of the saints and with the spear removes nine portions in three rows of three each. The first is in memory of John the Baptist; the second, of the prophets; the third, of the apostles; this concludes the first row and the first group of saints. Then he cuts out a fourth portion for the holy fathers and prelates, a fifth for the martyrs, and a sixth for the holy and God-bearing fathers and mothers; this concludes the second row and the second group of saints. The seventh is in memory of wonder- working unmercenaries or doctors who took no fees; the eighth, of the ancestors of our Lord, Joachim and Anna, and of the saint whose day it is; the ninth of St John Chrysostom or St Basil the Great, depending on which liturgy is being celebrated; thus concluding the third row and the third group of saints. All these nine portions are placed on the diskos to the left of the holy bread or "Lamb" (the priest's right). So Christ appears amongst His nearest and dearest; He Who dwells in His saints is seen visibly among them — God among the gods, a Man among men.
From the fourth prosphoron, the priest removes portions for all the living: for all rulers, for Orthodox patriarchs and bishops, for the Holy Synod, for the reigning emperor and all his house, and for all Orthodox Christians. He then takes out particles for all persons whom he desires to mention by name or whom he has been requested to commemorate.
Finally, the priest takes the last prosphoron and removes from it particles in memory of the departed, praying at the same time for the remission of their sins, commencing with the patriarchs, the emperors, the founders of the church in which he is celebrating, the bishop who ordained him if he is among the departed, and continuing on to the humblest of the faithful. He mentions those whom he has been requested to commemorate, and those whom he himself wishes to remember. At the end, he prays for the forgiveness of his own sins and removes a particle on behalf of himself. All these particles in memory of the persons mentioned are placed on the diskos below the "Lamb." So around this holy bread, this "Lamb" symbolizing Christ Himself, is collected His entire Church — triumphant in heaven and militant here on earth. The Son of Man appears amongst men, for whose sake He was incarnate and became man. Then the priest takes the sponge and carefully collects with it all the crumbs on the diskos, so that no fragment of the holy bread should be lost. The particles removed for those who offered the breads and for those for whom they were offered are, at the end of the liturgy, placed into the chalice, with the prayer:
By Thy precious Blood O Lord, wash away the sins of those here commemorated, through the intercessions of Thy saints. (DLJC p. 187)
Excerpted from Meditations on the Divine Liturgy by Nikolai Gogol, L. Alexieff, Archimandrite Lazarus. Copyright © 2014 Holy Trinity Monastery. Excerpted by permission of Holy Trinity Publications.
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Table of Contents
The Office of Preparation,
The Liturgy of the Catechumens,
The Liturgy of the Faithful,
Appendix: A Short Life and Appraisal of N. V. Gogol,