On the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great

During the five Sundays of Great Lent we celebrate the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great on the Lord’s Day.  This Liturgy is used on five other occasions during the year, two more of which are during Holy Week - Thursday and Saturday.  (The other three times are the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany, as well as on Saint Basil’s day of commemoration, January 1).  This Liturgy is known for its longer prayers, some of which may challenge our capacity to stand still in concentration and prayerful attention.  But what prayers!  They strike me personally as being unrivaled in our entire Tradition for their beauty of expression and the depth of their theological/spiritual content.  Even though we are hearing them in translation, that beauty and depth remain intact and shine through quite well.

Saint Basil did not sit down and “compose” the entire Liturgy “from scratch,” to use a common expression.  The basic structure of the Liturgy was already an essential element of the Church’s living liturgical Tradition.  However, there is every reason to believe that he is responsible for the magnificent Anaphora prayers.  These prayers reflect Saint Basil’s intense preoccupation with the Church’s Trinitarian faith - that we worship the One God as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit being consubstantial with the Father as to their divine nature, and thus co-enthroned and co-glorified with the Father from all eternity. (Saint Basil wrote a separate, magnificent treatise On the Holy Spirit, demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit through his knowledge of the Scriptures and the Church’s liturgical Tradition).  That belief in the Holy Trinity, though present “in the beginning” of the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel, was under attack during the turbulent fourth century, with the Arian heresy and its various offshoots stirring up seemingly interminable debate and dissension. Saint Basil was one of the premier exponents of the Church’s faith that the one God is the Holy Trinity; and he helped establish the classical terminology of the Church in expressing that Faith:  God is one in “essence” (in Greek, ousia), yet three distinct “Persons” (hypostaseis).  That terminology remains intact to this day.  The opening Anaphora Prayer, “O Existing One, Master, Lord God, Father almighty and adorable,” is steeped in praise and glorification of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and thus deserves our deepest attention and sense of overwhelming awe as we stand in the presence of the Holy Trinity and as we join the angelic powers in “singing, shouting, and proclaiming: Holy!  Holy!  Holy!  Lord of Sabaoth!”

In profound relationship to the prayers of the Liturgy revealing the Church’s belief in the Holy Trinity, we find Saint Basil’s unrivaled expression of the divine “economy” (in Greek oikonomia) throughout. This refers to God’s providential dispensation/design toward His creation - culminating in the salvation of the world - in and through the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If I were asked to present to an interested inquirer the most compelling and succinct expression of the divine economy as taught and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church, I would definitely refer this person to the long Anaphora Prayer of Saint Basil’s Liturgy beginning where the Thrice-holy left off: “With these blessed powers, O Master who lovest mankind….”  After praising God “for the magnificence of Thy holiness,”  we begin to prayerfully recall - and thus make present - the full extent of His providential dispensation toward the world: “When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God….”  This long remembrance takes us through what we refer to as the “Fall,” through the promises of the prophets - “foretelling to us the salvation which was to come…”  - all the way through to the Lord’s Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and even Second Coming: “Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Thy majesty on high, and He will come to render to every man according to his works….”

Further recalling, and thus actualizing “the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world,” this entire process will culminate with the Epiklesis, or Invocation of the Holy Spirit, “to bless, to hallow and to show” that the bread and wine of our offering will “become” the Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We will then receive the Holy Gifts “for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.”

Today, the Orthodox faithful are blessed in that the prayers of Saint Basil’s Liturgy generally are read aloud so that the entire gathered assembly of believers may actually “hear” the prayers that reveal the Lord God’s Trinitarian nature and the divine economy together with the consecration of the Holy Gifts.  In the past that may have not been so, and even today it is not so in all Orthodox churches.  So we thank God for our own liturgical revival which has so enlivened our contemporary worship experience with full parish participation in the Church at prayer and praise.  However, and admittedly, there is one prayer that is usually read while the choir is singing—a final prayer near the very end of the Liturgy that the priest will say while facing the Table of Preparation and the remaining Holy Communion that will eventually be consumed by the priest, and while the choir is singing “Blessed be the name of the Lord, henceforth and forevermore” three times:  “The mystery of Thy dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected as far as it was in our power; for we have had the memorial of Thy death; we have seen the type of Thy Resurrection; we have been filled with Thine unending life; we have enjoyed Thine inexhaustible food; which in the world to come be well-pleased to vouchsafe to us all, through the grace of Thine eternal Father, and Thine holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”  This summation of the meaning, purpose and experience of the Liturgy is an “awesome” claim that perhaps may strike us in its awesomeness even more effectively if we break the prayer down into its component parts:

  • We have had the memorial of the Lord’s death;
  • We have seen the type of the Lord’s Resurrection;
  • We have been filled with the Lord’s unending life;
  • We have enjoyed the Lord’s inexhaustible food;
  • We ask to continue in this partaking in the world to come; and
  • All this through the grace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!

That is quite a Sunday morning experience which we so blandly describe as “going to church!”  Clearly the remainder of the day is all downhill - no matter what we do!  When we begin the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great we know that we have a long road ahead of us.  That will require some patience, concentration, and a willingness to “stay with it” through to its dismissal.  If we are able to do that, then the “rewards” are inestimable.  It will also test our deepest desires about what is “the one thing needful” in our lives and what is the treasure of our hearts.  Yet, the Sundays of Great Lent are a unique opportunity to further our movement towards the Lord as we move through Great Lent and our lives toward the gladsome light of the Kingdom of God.