According to the official OCA service book, the Divine Liturgy begins when the deacon “bows his head to the priest and says, ‘It is time to begin the service to the Lord. Bless, Master’”. (The words translated thus are rendered in the venerable Hapgood version as “time to sacrifice unto the Lord”.) The Greek original is kairoz tou poihsai tw kuriw/ kairos tou poiesai to kurio. In the Septuagint of Psalm 118/ 119 verse 126, these words are translated as “It is time for the Lord to act”. Ideas of doing service or sacrificing are therefore interpretive renderings. The words do not so much inform us about what we should do (e.g. offer service or sacrifice) as about what God is about to do. In these words the deacon tells the priest that the Lord is about to act, and because of this they should do something.
One may ask why it is the deacon who tells this to the priest. Why doesn’t the priest say this to the deacon? Or why doesn’t the reader say this to the priest? Or the choir director? After all, the service can’t properly get going until the choir director is ready to roll. Why is the deacon the one who says this?
The answer takes us out of the present and back to a time when the deacon, who was supported by subdeacons and door-keepers, was in effective charge of the assembled crowds. “If anyone misbehaves,” Chrysostom advised in his day, “call the deacon” (from his homilies on the Acts of the Apostles). In that day, when the people had assembled, the deacon would be informed, and he then would tell the priest that everyone had assembled. That is what he meant by saying “It is time for the Lord to act” — it was because everyone had now assembled that Christ was about to act and manifest His presence. The Lord had promised that “when two are three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), and now that the people had gathered in His name, He was about appear in their midst. “The Church” is not so much an organization to which one belongs as it is an event that takes place when Christians gather together in liturgical assembly. The term “church” in part refers to the experience of Christ manifesting Himself in the midst of His people when they assemble in His name. In the words cited at the beginning, the deacon is telling the priest that this assembling or gathering had taken place and that Christ was ready to manifest Himself. They had better therefore begin to do their part.
We see the same significance of the assembly in the original opening of the Liturgy as served in Constantinople in Chrystostom’s day, though that opening is now buried further into the service. In Chrysostom’s day the celebrants would enter the church in silence and ascend into the altar area. The main celebrant (the bishop) would then take his episcopal seat or throne in the high place and greet the assembly saying, “Peace be unto all!” to which they would respond “And with your spirit!” This was not just a way of the presider saying, “Hello everybody, nice to see you”. The exchange was his formal acknowledgment of the assembled Christians as those who have assembled in Christ’s name and who now had Christ in their midst. The mutual blessing set the liturgical seal on the assembly.
This is obscured somewhat in our present Liturgy, where this mutual greeting which once opened the service now takes place many minutes into the service itself, preceded by the opening doxology, the Great Litany, three Antiphons and their accompanying prayers and litanies, a series of troparia, the Trisagion Prayer and the singing of the Trisagion Hymn. One would never guess that this liturgical exchange was once the effective beginning of the service, and as it now is, it serves little point. It once sealed the opening assembly. Now it looks like a quick exchange introducing the prokeimenon and the epistle. That is probably why in the service book the response is given to the celebrant’s blessing of “Peace be unto all!” not by the assembled people whom he was addressing, but by the Reader. Why the reader? He was not addressing the Reader in particular, but rather peace was offered to “all”. The Reader however now responds because the blessing now serves to introduce the readings, not to seal the assembly. Given this diminution of meaning it is not surprising that in some versions of the Liturgy (such as in the Antiochian Liturgikon) it is simply omitted or appended as a footnote documenting the odd practice of “some traditions”. It has been effectively emptied of meaning.
This unfortunate change of meaning is not simply of historical or archaeological significance, but witnesses to a more profound change in our whole understanding of Liturgy. Before the assembling of the people was of crucial importance — it was the sign that Christ was about to act and manifest His presence in their midst. That is, the diaconal signal and the presider’s greeting witnessed to the fact that Liturgy was something priest and people did together, and it was in this cooperative action that the gift of divine presence was given. The assembling of the people is now no longer viewed in the same way. In Chrysostom’s day, the deacon would be told that everyone had gathered and that therefore something was about to occur. The fact of assembly was the precondition for doing everything else, for Liturgy was a corporate action. Now the Liturgy can begin at a set time (e.g. 10.00 a.m.) regardless of whether or not the people have gathered. The deacon now no longer says, “It is the time for the Lord to act” because the subdeacons or door-keepers have told him that everyone had gathered. He now says “It is time for the Lord to act” because his watch tells him it is 10.00 a.m. regardless of who has gathered. (Perhaps this is why the rendering “It is time to begin the service to the Lord” is now used, for this rendering expresses not the thought of God’s imminent action, but of our obligation. It’s 10.00 a.m. — time to start.) The people can come in anytime they like, and drift in throughout the service. Their gathering is no longer crucial or the sine qua non of liturgical functioning. As long as the priest and cantor or choir director are present, things can proceed. We Orthodox may say we do not believe in “private Masses” as in the historical western practice, but this offers a close enough approximation. Like the private Mass, the assembly of the people is no longer crucial. The canonical requirement of two or three people present in the nave (who may or may not eventually communicate) is a poor substitute for the earlier expectation that the people would assembly in their fullness.
We observe that in this mentality the performance of the Liturgy has become clericalized — it is now no longer something the clergy do as a part of the assembly and for which the gathered assembly was a crucial requirement. It is now something the clergy do for the people — a product to be consumed by consumers, regardless of the number of them present. The people feel free to come late for the Liturgy in the same way as they feel themselves free to come into a theatre late for a movie, and for the same reason — the movie will begin whether or not they are late, and their lateness will not effect the quality of the movie. The clergy do not feel free to come late to the Liturgy because their presence is crucial to its performance. We need to recover a sense of the significance of the assembly, and of the sanctity of the laity. They must come for the Liturgy on time for the same reason that the priest must come on time — because their presence also is crucial to its performance. That does not mean that Christ legalistically withholds His presence until a certain number have gathered. The Lord is gracious and condescending, and bestows the gift of His presence even when many are tardy and drift into the service after the Gospel. But His kindness must not be received as divine permission to be late or misconstrued that their presence if superfluous. As Paul said, God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Every baptized Orthodox Christian is called to do his or her share and should assemble on time to make their contribution to the Liturgy. Their presence is not superfluous. It is essential. It is so important that Christ pledged His presence to those who would gather in His name. Our service books tell the deacon to be on the lookout for the fullness of their presence and to announce this fullness to the priest: the Church of the living God has assembled! It is now time for the Lord to act.