One can often hear that priests and deacons celebrate the Liturgy, while laypeople pray during it, or even, as it is colloquially said, “I went to church and stood through the service”. Is this attitude to participation in the Liturgy correct? Are lay people just devout spectators who reverently make the sign of the cross from time to time and try not to be distracted? Does the rite of the Eucharist assign a special role in worship to the laity?
1. It is important to acknowledge that the laity are full members of the Church, the redeemed Nation of God. The word “laity” itself is not entirely correct in its application to ordinary members of the Church. After all, laypersons (‘the people of the cosmos’ in Greek) are residents of this fallen world, who are outside the Church, who have not been redeemed by the Blood of Christ and therefore have not tasted the grace of the Kingdom of Christ, which is offered through the Sacraments. The correct name for ordinary believers is the faithful – a term established in the Scripture and Tradition, as well as the laics (Greek Laos means the people of God), that is, the members of the Christian community. Laics have all necessary degrees of initiation into the ranks of God’s people – the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of Chrismation, which traditionally was administered only to kings and priests. In fact, all Christians are kings and priests, as the apostle Peter, the first apostle, asserts, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9). This is why the Savior came down to make us “unto our God kings and priests” (Revelation 5:10). Therefore, priestly dignity belongs to all Christians. All are kings, for every faithful person must reign over his or her nature and be the image of the King of Heaven. All are priests, for from now on all are called to submit their lives to God and offer praise to Him. All must become prophets, for God has poured out His Spirit into our hearts so that we may know and proclaim His will.
2. Speaking of the universal priesthood of all Christians, we do not in any way abolish the hierarchy of the Church or the priestly office, which, through consecration, has received a special privilege to carry out teaching and pastoral services in the Church, as well as the God-given authority to act in the holy place and lead church congregations. Therefore, the Church is made up of laic priests and hierarchical priests, who are put to special service in the Church of God. This structure of the Church is also well expressed in the divine service, in particular in the structure of the Liturgy, which has a pronounced character of a dialog between the priest and the congregation in their joint service to God. The very name “Liturgy” means a common cause, which indicates the shared participation of both the clergy and the faithful.
3. Since ancient times, the Church has been aware of the need for mandatory participation of the laics in the Liturgy. There is even a rule in the Nomocanon of Pseudo-Zonaras based on the words of Christ Himself: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), stating that a priest has the right to celebrate the Eucharist only in the presence of the faithful (at least one person). Although this rule has not always been observed for objective reasons, it still remains the norm of the church, and there is a penance for its violation. Just as the Liturgy cannot take place without a priest, so, according to the ancient custom, a priest must not minister in the absence of the congregation.
4. The very ritual of the Eucharist testifies to the active participation and commitment of the faithful. It is known that the priest does not pray on his own, but does so on behalf of all the faithful, on behalf of the congregation he is in charge of. This can be seen in all the principal liturgical prayers, where there is no “I” of the priest, but “we” and “us” of all the faithful participating in the Sacrament. Certainly, it is the priest who says all the prayers, because he is entrusted by the Church to do so, but the prerogative to seal the priest’s prayer and to confirm its veracity is reserved for the laics. The word “Amen” is a sacred privilege of the ordinary members of the Church and, as the famous liturgist Met. John Zizioulas insists, priests are wrong when they sometimes hurry to say “Amen” and thereby take over the function of the faithful. The right to say “amen” to the sermon of the priest does not belong to him, but to the whole congregation, which confirms and accepts what the preacher said. In the Albanian Church, it is the faithful who say “Amen, Amen, Amen” three times, confirming the validity of the sacramental change of bread and wine into the Holy Gifts.
5. The faithful do not just offer thanksgiving together with the priest, nor do they merely listen to God’s Word and receive it in the sermon together with the clergy. It is on behalf of the whole congregation that the priest brings the bread and wine, the fruits of human labor, to God so that they may become the food of salvation. This was very clear in some ancient rites when the deacons picked the best of the gifts brought for the Eucharist by lay people. Not only is the priest open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but the whole congregation is also waiting and praying for the descent of the Spirit of Christ, not only on the Gifts, but also on themselves. Finally, the culmination of the ministry of the faithful is the communion of the same Bread and of the same Chalice from which the clergy receive their communion. The obligatory communion of the faithful at the Liturgy is not only their sacred privilege, but also their canonical duty (e.g. Rule 2 of the Council of Antioch).
Thus, in order to open up the sphere of more engaged liturgical participation to each parishioner, it is necessary to recognize the importance of their role in the celebration of the Eucharist. Ordinary believers should not only be spectators of the sacramental action that takes place in the sanctuary, but also be its direct participants and collaborators of the priest, with whom they are involved in a constant prayer dialog (Peace be with you all – And with thy spirit; Lift up our hearts unto the Lord – We lift them up unto the Lord; Let us give thanks unto the Lord – It is meet and right, etc.). The prayer of every person strengthens the entire congregation. It is said for a reason that a single Lord have mercy uttered in the church may be equal to reading the entire Book of Psalms at home. Therefore, by accepting our share of responsibility not only for the life of the parish, but also for the divine service itself, we shall be able to immerse ourselves more fully and more deeply in the life that Christ has brought us.