Some have noticed recently that we have been emphasizing in our liturgical services on the participation of the people during the service. You probably must have heard few announcements about the importance of the participation during the Liturgy, but due to the limited time that we have on Sunday, we usually do not have time to explain the role of the lay person in the orthodox services. So I thought to take the time this month and write to you about this very important topic specially that we are approaching a season filled with prayers and liturgical services.
First, let’s understand the meaning of the word “layman”; it comes from a Greek word called “laos”, which means people. “Layman” then is the one, who belongs to a group of people, organization or corporation. It carries in its meaning a sense of identity and belonging to a bigger group. It carries the sense of responsibility and duty. As for the word “liturgy” it means common work, or common action. So Divine liturgy means the divine work of the people. So lay people participating in the Divine liturgy have an important role in which they should take on. People are used to use the verb “attend” in regards to the liturgy, so we say “I will attend the liturgy” or “I’m planning on attending the liturgy”, the problem with this concept of “attending”, is that it makes the liturgy a theatrical act in which one at the end take communion and leave. The problem with this is that it ignores the important role of full participation in the liturgy. The congregation has a very important integral role in the liturgical services and they must take it on.
All the Coptic Orthodox Liturgical services have an important role for the congregation, they have their own responses. These responses are not merely simple words as “Lord have mercy”, “I believe” or “Amen” but rather prayers placed in the congregation hands, to lift up and to raise before the Lord, and humbly asking Him to receive it as a sweet aroma to enter into His most Holy Place. No prayer, no blessing, no thanksgiving or a liturgical service exists in the church without “Lord have mercy” or “Amen”. There seems to be now a wrong understanding that the priest prays the liturgy and the people attend, but this is not correct. Priests, deacons and congregation participate together in the prayers, the offerings, the blessings and at the climax in partaking of the communion in the case of the Divine liturgy. Actually if you listen carefully to the liturgical prayers you hear them all prayed in the plural form, so we have “Let us give thanks”, “We worship you O Christ with your good Father and the Holy Spirit for you have come and saved us”, “We believe that this is true. Amen” or “Amen. Amen Amen, Your death O Lord we proclaim”.
When we look into the early church, we read in the book of Acts about the disciples “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” Acts 1:14, we read that they were all in one accord during their prayers. We read in 2 Chronicles chapters 7 and 29 that the congregation had their role of participation during the consecration of the temple. We can’t speak about the role of the lay people without referencing the book of Revelation and the great number of people who were dressed in white and holding palm branches in their hands “crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Rev 7:10, notice the manner in which they offer their praise, they cry out with a loud voice. The church ought to have this image for their lay people. We ought to all participate with our hearts, minds, bodies, emotions and voices. We are all one before the Lord during that time, each in his and her role, fully involved to praise His Holy Name.