Sermon 21 by St. Seraphim (Zvezdenski)
Translated by Fr. Zachariah Lynch
Below the reader will find my translation from the Russian of sermon number 21 by St. Seraphim (Zvezdenski), On the Divine Liturgy (only one more to go!). St. Seraphim reveals, once again, to us that the Divine Liturgy is a direct window to the Sun of Righteousness. Through it, the world is sustained and upheld. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the enemy seeks to halt the service of the Divine Liturgy? Be it through outright hindrance or by replacing it with an anti-liturgy, a false liturgy (such as is performed, for example, by the pseudo-church in Ukraine, the “orthodox church of Ukraine” [OCU-EP]). We also see how vital it is to be physically present at the Divine Liturgy, and thus we may understand why the enemy strives to hinder people from attending, either through our own passions or external circumstances. May this rich sermon act to deepen our love and desire for the worship of the Most-Holy Trinity in the Divine Liturgy.
The sermons speak for themselves, so I leave you, the reader, to be nourished on the words of St. Seraphim on the Divine Liturgy.
All titles of the sermons are my own for purposes of this blog, in the original they are simply numbered. All footnotes are also mine.
My dear ones, once there were two families who lived in an immensely large home. Yet, between them there was a huge difference in the manner of their lives: one family dwelt in the bright and sunny side of the house while the other family dwelt in its dark side. On the side where the first family lived, there was a large bright window through which radiant rays of light shone; it was clean, had fresh air, and treated the eyes to an exquisite view. The space itself, thanks to the light and air, was completely suitable for healthy living – it was dry, warm, and clean. The people living there were always in good health and cheerful. But on the other side of the house there was no window and it was gloomy, dark, and cold. Most importantly, there constantly arose harmful vapors and stenches because this side was next to a low swampy place. The people who dwelt on this side of the house were frequently sick; they were pale, sluggish, and cheerless.
My friends, this home represents our world. The bright window on the first side of the house is the Divine Liturgy. I, a sinner, dare to say, that in this bright service – in this window – is open to me such a miraculous, such a wondrous, view of eternal blessedness that it seems my heart cannot contain its feelings of supreme thankfulness to God, Who has sent us such a gift!
Those who dwell in the bright side are those who have faith in Christ, come to the Divine Liturgy, breathe of the fragrance of God’s grace – poured out through this service – and enjoy the warmth of love and light from the Sun of Righteousness. Such people are healthy of spirit, bright, and peaceful because they are covered with the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Those who dwell in the dark part are those who do not desire to be with Christ and do not treasure the holy Liturgy. These pitiful people do not experience the warmth and grace of Christ the Savior. Their life is full of stench and rot because the vaporous and foul passions blind their souls. They have no window or ventilation by which to purify this rottenness from their souls; that is why, sometimes, the life of these people is so dark and gloomy. For this reason, my dear ones, I call you to come to the Divine Liturgy; for this reason I so desire that you would comprehend and love it – the light that illumines even the darkest abyss of sin. It is warmth that thaws even the most icy-cold soul; it is love, joy, and life.
Today I desire to explain to you the third portion of the Eucharistic canon – the elevation of the Holy Gifts. Yet, at the moment, I want to once again focus your attention on the Seraphic Hymn, namely on the quite priestly prayer offered during the hymn, and specifically as it is in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. This prayer is a comprehensive and fiery hymn to the Lord, Creator, and Fashioner, Who has poured out on people His measureless mercy. Here every word is a work of the deepest wisdom and grace.
It is no wonder that St. Basil the Great prepared for the composition of the Divine Liturgy with long prayer and fasting, and only then in the ecstasy of fiery prayer while prostrate before the altar did he compose these incredible prayers and write them down. These prayers are in the second part of the Eucharistic canon. Doubtlessly, St. Basil derived these prayers from the fiery Seraphim themselves, for they concelebrated together with this wondrous man. “With these blessed powers … Holy art Thou – truly Most Holy …”1 Once again, pay attention to the word “truly;” once again a sworn assurance is given here to the truth of what is being confessed. “Most Holy, and there are no bounds to the magnificence of Thy holiness.”2
Further, this magnificence is explained, for it is the great beauty of God, “With righteousness … Thou hast created man;”3 thus the creation of mankind is outlined – his blessedness and his fall into sin and the promised salvation, “Providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself.”4 Pay attention – “salvation … in Thy Christ Himself.” This is the foundation stone of our faith. And then, at length, the many mercies of God to the sinful human race are enumerated. “Thou didst send prophets,” and further on these words, “When the fullness of time had come,” and this is speaking, as you see, about Christ, Who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant,”5 and behold what a detailed confession of the God-Man’s deep humility and condescension follows together with the purpose of His coming into the world! “He appeared on earth … He obtained us for His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”6 Thanks to the sacrifice of Christ, do you hear who we are? A royal priesthood, a holy nation! “Having cleansed us” who were “sold under sin” (the devil completed a purchase, he purchased us through sin)7 and behold, Christ descended “through the Cross into Hades” and “made for all flesh a path.” As I have said before,8 Christ flew down into Hades on behalf of everyone of us, and “made a path for all flesh, a path to the resurrection from the dead.”9
And further the Resurrection and the coming Judgment are spoken of. The whole history of mankind, from creation until the last Judgment, is deeply outlined in such a concise, clear, and exact manner. At the end of the prayer, the closing words, “He has left us these things,” indicate the transition to the third part of the Eucharistic canon and the elevation of the Holy Gifts. During the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, this transition takes place at the words, “When He had come and fulfilled …”10 and then the words, “Take, eat.” The priest loudly proclaims these words and they must be received as the very words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He Himself calls to us with the very most-holy and most-precious words that He pronounced on the night of His Sufferings. Surely we will not remain deaf to this Divine call; at that time, those gathered in Church answer this call from Christ the Savior with a twofold amen, which is to say, “true and faithful.” The priest quietly reads [the prayer], “Remembering this saving commandment …”11 and finishes this short prayer with the exclamation, “Thine own of Thine own.” The Liturgy of St. Basil includes the words, “This do in remembrance of Me.”
That the words – “Take, eat” – are pronounced by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is made even clearer in the service of the hierarchical Liturgy. Have you ever noticed that at the reading of the Gospel the bishop removes the omophorion?12 I will tell you what the omophorion is – the most loved garment of the Savior. It represents the lost sheep that the Good Shepherd takes on His shoulders. In removing the omophorion from the bishop, he stands as a simple servant of the altar because it means in that moment the Lord is not speaking through him to the people, but rather the Lord is directly speaking to the people through the Gospel. Yet, before the elevation of the Holy Gifts, the small omophorion is once again placed on the bishop’s shoulders. He is now not a mortal, sinful, and weak servant of the altar. No, before the altar stands the Lord Himself. The bishop represents His most-holy image and His voice calls to us, “Take!” Be attentive to the words of your Savior, hearken to them with fearful reverence; at least for this short moment forget about all worldly squabbles, every strife, and daily care.
The words, “Take, eat …” indicate the third portion of the Eucharistic canon – the elevation of the Holy Gifts. Having remembered the Divine words spoken by the Divine Teacher at the Mystical Supper, the priest then takes in his hands the holy Chalice and Diskos and lifting them up on high, he proclaims, “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” The choir sings, “We praise Thee, We bless Thee ….” “Thine” the priest pronounces, showing the bread and wine to the Lord, as if to say, “Thine – Thy gifts, the fruits of the earth, which are given to us, we bring to Thee.” I will repeat it again, however many times I must tell you, for this reason alone does the earth bring forth fruit – wheat and grapes; for this alone she rewards us for our labors, so that everyday bread and wine are offered on the holy altar during the Divine Liturgy. No, not for us sinners who are covered with the wounds of sin, not for us does the earth give forth her fruit because we are unworthy of them, she gives them for the Bloodless Sacrifice and will continue to give them as long as the dread and holy Liturgy is served on earth.
“Thine own of Thine own,” that is, from Thy slaves, from Thy people, “we offer unto Thee,” and we offer, “on behalf of all and for all.” “On behalf of all,” may be explained thus, on behalf of every sin and for every iniquity. What a great, what a blessed phrase is “on behalf of all!” On behalf of everyone, for every sin this Sacrifice is offered; every iniquity is washed in the Blood that is poured out for us. O, impoverished sinner, covered in sins like leprosy, who has fallen into the abyss of the passions, O sinner, lift up your head, strengthen yourself with hope because through God’s endless love for mankind the Mystical Sacrifice is lifted up on behalf of your sins and unrighteousness also. O, what a joyful promise! Such a gift we have in the Divine Liturgy! “And for all,” these words express thanksgiving to the Lord for all His mercies to us.
We are offering to Thee Thine own gifts, for the earth is Thine, on behalf of Thy servants and for redemption from all their sins, and in thanksgiving for all the great mercies and blessings toward us. Such is the meaning of this exclamation.
Now, let us look at how the priest holds the holy Chalice and Diskos – he crosses his right hand over his left and raises the Holy Gifts on high. He, as it were, covers himself with the sign of the cross. What a deep meaning is found here! The priest is a man – he is a sinner like everyone else and maybe worse than everyone else – and he dares to offer the dread Sacrifice before which the very Seraphim tremble, and they are the very first of the angelic ranks who stand before the very Throne of God! The priest dares draw near to the Holy Altar, upon which, in the form of the sanctified Gifts, the Lord of Glory Himself is present, the very Lord of Hosts! How does this poor and weak sinner dare to be so bold? How does the heavenly lightening, the heavenly fire, not burn and incinerate him to utter ashes? Trembling because of his weakness and in dread before his service, the priest raises his hands in crosswise fashion, as if to say, “Not I, Lord, no, not through my unclean hands but through Thy Cross I lift these Gifts up to Thee. I cover myself with the cross, I hope on the cross, and through it I offer this dread Divine service.” The sign of the cross holds back the heavenly fire. This sign of the cross sanctifies the priest from every impurity and passion. And so, covered under the cross, he fearlessly stands before the Face of the Lord, before Whom even the Seraphim cover themselves with their wings.
This sign of the cross has yet another meaning too. On behalf of all are the Gifts elevated, for all sins. But how may we ask for the forgiveness of our sins, how have we deserved such mercy? Moreover, since we at every step forget the commandments? Since we at every minute serve our own selves and our passions? How may we hope for forgiveness? Yes! We may hope, hope to receive forgiveness and the Mercy of God because the Sacrifice for out sins is raised up on the Cross. He covers all – all our lawlessness; this covering extends over the whole sinful world – erring, adulterous, and lying in evil. Lord, we are not worthy of Thy mercy! We are full of every impurity but we have the sufferings on the Cross of Thy Christ, and we show them to Thee, through these wounds we are covered, we beseech Thee, in the Name of the Blood of Thy Son, forgive us all! This is what the crosswise holding of the priest’s hands proclaims and this is why we dare boldly to hope for forgiveness. We receive this very forgiveness in the Divine Liturgy! It is the axis of the world. As a wheel may only spin when mounted on its axis, so our world, our wheel of life, is able to move only because the Divine Liturgy is served, for in the time of its service the Bloodless Sacrifice is raised on high. Let those who have no desire to gaze through the window of the Divine Liturgy be not exalted, for they trample underfoot the priceless pearl. I say, let no one imagine that he can truly live without the Divine Liturgy.
If people are alive, if they eat bread, if springs give forth water, if the sun shines on everyone, and the moon traverses the sky, then it is only because the Divine Liturgy is served; if it were not served, fire from heaven would have fallen on our heads long ago due to our lawlessness. Long ago we would have rotted away from our falls into the passions and we would have suffocated in the abyss of worldly cares.
The Cross is our anchor. The Cross is our covering; the virtues of the Cross are commemorated everyday at the Divine Liturgy. Only the Cross will save the world from final destruction.
“The Cross is our protection.”
1 From the second Anaphora prayer of St. Basil the Great.
5 Ibid. Also, cf. Phil. 2:6-7
6 Ibid. Also, cf. 1 Peter 2:9
7 Cf. Roman 7:14, 23-24.
8 Cf. Sermon 18
9 From the second Anaphora prayer of St. Basil the Great.
10 From the second Anaphora prayer of St. John Chrysostom
11 The priestly prayer before the elevation of the Holy Gifts.
12 The distinctive vestment of Bishops in the Orthodox Church