At the Last Supper, on the “night when He was betrayed” (I Cor. 11 :23), our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist, the sacrifice of the New Testament. He did it in order to perpetuate His own sacrifice on the cross, and to leave to His beloved Spouse, the Church, a ” memorial” of His death and resurrection ” until He comes again.” (I Cor. 11 :25-26) On account of its divine institution, the Holy Eucharist becomes a “mystery of piety, a sign of unity, and a bond of charity.” (St. Augustine in PL, 35, 1613)
The Fathers of Vatican II (1963) earnestly admonished the faithful that they should have a “proper appreciation of the liturgical rites and prayers,” in order to participate at this ” Mystery of faith knowingly, piously, and actively.” (cf. Decree on the Liturgy, nAB) Hence there is a need to explain the historical and ritual development of the Holy Liturgy, keeping in mind the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, which is the most ancient of the Byzantine Liturgies that is still in use in our churches.
1. The re-enactment of the Last Supper is referred to as the Holy or Divine Liturgy. The word ” liturgy” is of Greek origin, meaning any public function in the interest of people (Ieitos-public ; ergon-service, function) . In the ancient Greek translat ion of the Bible called the Septuagint, the word ” liturgy” was applied to a sacrifice, considered to be a religious public service. In the New Testament the term was applied to the ” priestly function of Christ.” (Hebr. 8:6) Accordingly, the Christians adopted this word “liturgy” to describe the public ministry of the priest offering to God a Eucharistic sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. (cf. Letter of St. Clement of Rome, about 96 A.D.)
During Apostolic times the celebration of the Holy Liturgy was also called the ” Breaking of Bread.” (Acts 2:42; I Cor. 10:16) But soon after a new Greek term, that of the “Eucharist” (Greek eucharistia-thanksgiving) , was introduced. Thus at the end of the first century we read in the Didache: “On the Lord ‘s day, after you have come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.” (ch. 14) By the time of the post-Apostolic Fathers, under the influence of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107 A.D.), the term Holy Eucharist acquired its common use. St. Ignatius writes : ” 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)
It was only in the fourth century that the term “Liturgy” with the connotation of “Holy” or “Divine” was definitely adopted in the Eastern Churches. In the Old-Slavonic the word ” liturgy” was translated as ” sluzba” (service), and thus the technical term for the Holy Liturgy became ” Svjascennaja Sluzba Boza” (Holy Divine Service) , popularly ” Sluzba Boza.” In the West the Latin term ” Missa,” meaning a dismissal of the people from the Eucharistic assembly, was introduced by St. Ambrose (d. 397). Thus, since the fourth century the Western Churches started to use the term ” Holy Mass,” which eventually supplanted that of the ” Holy Liturgy.” However, since Vatican II , they once again have adopted the more meaningful term of the Holy Liturgy.
2. The Divine Liturgy is the work of both God and man. Its institution and essential elements come from our Lord Jesus Christ, but as to its external form and construction it is the result of human genius. The Holy Eucharist was instituted at the Paschal Banquet, during which our Savior 1) delivered a long and His last discourse (In. 14:1- 16:13), 2) recited a lengthy priestly prayer (In. 17: 1-26), and 3) sang with His disciples the prescribed Psalms of Hallel (Mt. 26:30). These, then, became the constitutive elements of the first part of the Divine Liturgy, usually called the Liturgy of Word, since God’s word (Epistle, Gospel, and sermon-homily) forms its central part. Only later were added some prayers, the singing of Psalms (antiphons), and other liturgical hymns (Troparia, Trisagion, etc.).
The second part of the Divine Liturgy, usually referred to as the Liturgy of the Eucharist, consists also of three essential elements: 1) offertory, i.e. the offering of gifts ; 2) consecration or the changing of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; 3) communion, i.e., the partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus.
These elements represent an organic development of three simple actions performed by our Divine Savior at the Last Supper, namely: 1) He blessed (offered to God) the bread and wine; 2) He pronounced the words of consecration: “This is my Body-This is my Blood” over the holy gifts ; 3) He gave the consecrated gifts to the Apostles in holy communion, saying: “Take and eat-Drink of it.” Here in an embryo we have all the essential elements of the Holy Liturgy, which the Apostles were commissioned to celebrate by Jesus Christ with these words : ” Do this as a memorial of me!” (Lk. 22:19; I Cor. 11 :24-26)
Christianity was persecuted and had to remain in the catacombs for the first three centuries. Thus the celebration of the Holy Eucharist had to preserve its pristine simplicity and brevity, as attested to by St. Justin Martyr (d. 165 A.D.) in his First Apology or by St. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235 A.D .) in the Apostolic Tradition. It was only after the peace of Constantine (313 A.D.) that Christianity received freedom of public worship and was able to develop its liturgy. Then magnificent basilicas were built and splendid celebration of the Holy Liturgy was introduced, as described by the famous Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land, Egeria (ca. 394 A.D.), in her recently rediscovered Diary of a Pilgrim.
3. The Apostles or the Apostolic Fathers did not leave any definite formulary of the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgies ascribed to some of the Apostles are of much later date and are not written by them. It seems that the Apostles and their successors, foliowing general pattern of Liturgy, improvised the liturgical prayers, as can be concluded from the words of St. Justin: “He who presides then prays and gives thanks to the best of his ability, while the people express their approval by saying: Amen.” (cf. I Apology, ch. 67) No wonder that by the middle of the fourth century there are mentioned numerous liturgical formularies, which were handed down by oral tradition in various parts of Christianity. These various formularies gave rise to diverse forms of worship which, eventually, developed into different Rites.
With the increasing influence of Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) in the East, and the formation of the Byzantine Rite, the local liturgical formularies were gradually suppressed and there remained only two basic formularies common to all Churches of the Byzantine Rite, namely: the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
Since in Constantinople the Liturgy of st. Basil preceded that of st. John Chrysostom, we will continue to concentrate solely on the Basilian Liturgy, while the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was treated in a separate leaflet.
At the present time the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated only ten times during the year, namely: on Christmas Eve, on the Feast of St. Basil (January 1), on the Eve of Epiphany, on five consecutive Sundays of Lent, on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday. On other liturgical days the preference is given to the shorter formulary of St. John Chrysostom. However, from the liturgical documents prior to the tenth century it can be ascertained that the Basilian Liturgy was a predominant formulary and in more frequent use. In its present form it differs from the Chrysostomian Liturgy only by the priestly prayers, which are considerably longer, especially the Eucharistic Prayer with consecration, known in our Rite as the Anaphora (“anaphora”-oblation).
4. st. Basil’s Liturgy by its origin belongs to the Syrian type of liturgy, as it is preserved in the Apostolic Constitutions from the fourth century.
Its roots can be traced to Antioch of Syria and to Jerusalem, Palestine, two cities that played a prominent role in the development of Christian worship. It was in Antioch that the followers of Christ “were called Christians.” (Acts 11 :26) From Antioch Christianity and with it Christian worship spread to Mesopotamia to the East, and to the West to Cappadocia and to other parts of Asia Minor. The first to receive the Holy Liturgy from Antioch was Cappadocia, with its metropOlitan See of Caesarea, which was presided between 370 – 379 A.D. by st. Basil the Great. It was then that St. Basil introduced some liturgical reforms, established proper order in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, formulated numerous liturgical prayers, and composed some new hymns. St. Basil also composed the most inspiring Eucharistic prayer, called Anaphora, which he based on Holy Scriptures. The Basilian Anaphora is considered the most beautiful liturgical prayer of all times for which alone st. Basil deserves to be considered the author of the Divine Liturgy.
The oldest text of the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great can be found in the Codex Barberini from the eighth century. But, written testimonies as to the existence of the Divine Liturgy being formulated by st. Basil can be found much earlier. In his Funeral Oration on his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) mentions that St. Basil “instituted a new form of (Eucharistic) sacrifice.” (cf. P.G., 46, 808) The same is testified by Agathangelos and Faustus of Byzantium in their famous histories of the Christian origins in Armenia, written in the beginning of the fifth century. Even the Council of Trullo (692) recognizes the Basilian authorship of the Divine Liturgy (canon 32). But the best proof of the authenticity of the Liturgy of St. Basil are internal, textual criteria, since the liturgical prayers condense in themselves the entire theological thought of the famous Cappadocian.
5. A few months after St. Basil’s death in 379, his best friend, St. Gregory of Nazianz (d. 389), became archbishop of Constantinople. After having recalled his confused faithful to the teachings of the Nicaean faith (325 A.D.), St. Gregory tried to establish some order in the liturgical worship in his new See by introducing the celebration of St. Basil’s Liturgy. In a short period of time, under the influence of the Constantinopolitan Church, the Basilian Liturgy was accepted by all the Churches of the Byzantine Rite as testified by Deacon Peter (ca. 520). In his letter to the African bishops he mentions that the ” Prayer of the altar (Liturgy) of Blessed Basil of Caesarea” was, in his time, “celebrated nearly in the entire East.” (cf. P.L., 65, 449)
Of course, the Liturgy of St. Basil during the centuries did undergo some modifications in its form and ceremonies, but the Anaphora, the central part of the formulary, remained untouched, as it came from the pen of St. Basil. Therefore, the entire formulary is rightly called the Divine Liturgy of Our Father St. Basil the Great.