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Celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. James

By Anberin Pasha
Holy Cross class of 2019

In the half-light of a warm mellow autumn evening, we gather in clusters in front of the Chapel. It is October 23, the feast day of St. James. The buzz of anticipation is  palpable, for those who know the Liturgy of St. James, the brother of the Lord, have a mystical gleam in their eyes. Half-dying with curiosity, I decide to wait it out and let the atmosphere wash over me. The sky begins to darken; some of us have waited a good half-hour and are getting restless. From his pedestal, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the founder of our school and a pillar of harmony and spiritual strength, stands in a gesture of continual blessing. The shuffling of feet suggests the attendees are anxious to begin. I recall Fr. Pentiuc’s words as he strides back and forth, vigorously exhorting us to pray unceasingly; now is as good a time as any.

Rarely celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox, St. James’s liturgy is of Apostolic origin, though preserved in a form that dates back to the fourth century and took its shape in the Church of Jerusalem, later spreading to other local churches in the Middle East and Syria (Jacobite) Orthodox Church, where it is celebrated to this day.

Everything is different this evening. The pall bearers and priests enter the Chapel in a procession in front of us as we follow. In the narthex of the Chapel a fragrant icon of St. James, decorated delicately with flowers in subtle hues, a reflection of the sweet soul of its decorator, Theophani, directs our gaze inwards.

“The way we celebrate it tonight retains some of the practices typical of early liturgy, such as the entrance of all the people with the clergy, marking the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word (this has morphed into the ‘small entrance’ in today's Liturgy of St. Chrysostom and Basil),” explains Father Philip Zymaris, who serves the Liturgy this evening with Fr. Nick Belcher. 

Vasileios Lioutas, originally from Thessaloniki, Greece, leads the chanters this evening. He is a doctor in the Boston area and the official chanter at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Boston. The Chapel is filled with students, guests, and faithful parish members from the neighborhood. Instead of facing ahead towards the iconostasis, we are looking to the middle of the nave, where the amvon, or pulpit, is placed. The Scripture will be read from here in order to emphasize the presence of Christ in our midst in the form of his word. Chanting fervently, Fr. Zymaris shakes us out of the stupor of mid-terms. His day has probably been as long as ours, if not longer, but this does not deter his spirit. We are now singing in unison and our voices rise, filling the Chapel as we awaken to the mystery of becoming one body in Christ. How often Father Dragas would recite St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom 12.5), here mysteriously united.

In an attempt to imitate the Liturgy of fourth-century Jerusalem and Syrian churches, certain features and furnishings are incorporated. Peculiar to this family of Liturgies, Fr. Zymaris explains, is the location of the synthronon (bishop’s throne), flanked by chairs for the presbyters, in the nave facing east, in sharp contrast with Constantinople practice that has a synthronon in the far east end of the church on the apse of the sanctuary facing west. This is where the clergy sit during the Liturgy of the Word as they listen to the Scripture readings.

“The altar table would have been closer to the people, visually and aurally accessible so that the presence of Christ as sacrament in the midst of the people is emphasized.  The so-called "Great Entrance" which begins the second part of the liturgy, the so-called Liturgy of the Faithful, normally would be a true entrance (not a "u-turn" as we do today) of the deacons bringing the gifts in silently from a separate building called the skevophylakion.  Tonight, because we had no deacons, the two serving priests were compelled to do this entrance,” elaborates Fr. Zymaris.

This liturgy is “truly the work of the people”; the rich, long Anaphora, a notable aspect of this Liturgy, is performed in such a way that people can fully participate in it. Theophani, the decorator of the St. James icon, ponders my query as to her experience of this ancient Liturgy. “What could I possibly say to even come close to describe the experience I had with my peers during the St. James Liturgy? I don't think there is really anything I can say except to quote what was reported by the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir at around 987 AD: ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth … We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.’  The services here, at Hellenic College Holy Cross, are indeed some of the most breathtaking services I have experienced. As a senior looking back, I can see how truly blessed I am to be part of such a community and how touched I am to have been able to adorn with flowers, not only the chapel all these years but the precious icon of St. James.” 

Professor Grammenos Karanos, our own professor of Byzantine Music here at HCHC, catches the tail end of the service after leading the student choir in Worcester. He says, “The musical setting usually sung is the one by Iakovos the Peloponnesian (d. 1800), Protopsaltis of the Great Church of Christ, in the plagal first mode.  Additionally, following the practice of the early Church, cantors chant Psalm 33 ("Taste and see that the Lord is good") or a selection of verses from it during the Communion of the clergy and the congregation.”

As the Liturgy draws to an end, Fr. Zymaris hands us the body of Christ and we drink the blood of Christ from the chalice held by Father Belcher. Fr. Zymaris explains this as keeping with tradition: “Communion is distributed much the same way it would have been in most of the Eastern liturgical families up until the ninth century: no spoons are used for the laity; they commune the body and blood separately exactly as the clergy do to this day, receiving the body in their hand and then receiving the blood from the chalice.  Finally, in the same way that all the people and the clergy entered the church, at the conclusion clergy and laity exit together after the simple dismissal: "You are dismissed in peace!" 

In peace we left, for if anything is precious about studying and living at a school such as Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, it is living in prayer and integrating it into our lives. Even as we struggle onwards, we are held and guided by great teachers who have walked this path before us. And as Father Chris reminds us, we are never alone, for Christ, the greatest teacher of all, is always with us.