Growing Spiritually Through Liturgy: On the Liturgy of Thanksgiving (the Eucharist)

Presentation given by Deacon Jeffrey Smith on Sunday, January 13, 2008

Last week Dave Vermette spoke about the Liturgy of the Word.  Today, I am to speak about the second half of the liturgy – that is our participation in the Eucharist.

Someone once remarked to me that a typical Protestant service is just the first half of ours.  The Protestants certainly focus on the Liturgy of the Word of God, but not so much on our second half, the Eucharist – thanksgiving for the gifts of God, and participation in his body and blood.

Last week, Fr. Antony asked me to imagine the liturgy as boiling; the gifts of bread and wine do not truly become the body and blood of Christ until they come to a complete boil.  This boiling point is when the Holy Spirit descends upon them, but there are many bubbles and simmering moments leading up to that boiling point.

My aim is to point out these bubbling or simmering steps.  Again, the very first part of the liturgy – the antiphons - or songs – focuses on entrance.  This is pre-liturgy, reminiscent of approaching the church.  In a village (I know this is a romantic image), we might come out of our homes, singing songs together on the way to church.  In February, when we celebrate the ancient liturgy of St. James, we will enter into the church together as a community.  Again, this is the ancient practice of a community waiting for the bishop and then entering into the sanctuary with him.  Once the community has entered the church together, we process with the Gospel, beginning the focus on the Liturgy of the Word (of which David spoke last week).  Right after we process with the Gospel, but before we read it, we sing the Thrice Holy Hymn, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have mercy on us.”

After the readings of the Epistle, the Gospel and the sermon expounding the Gospel, we process from the prothesis in the corner, through the Church to the Altar. At this point we sing the cherubic hymn. “We who mystically represent the cherubim...”  In Byzantium, the blessed bread and wine were sometimes kept in another building alongside the church, and brought in by the deacons with pomp and circumstance, delivering them to the waiting bishop, but it is important to remember that during the Great Entrance, the bread and wine is not yet the body of Christ.  At this point, we remember the bishop, the president, the living and the dead. Alexander Schmemann devotes a whole chapter in his book, The Eucharist to memory at this point.

The first bubbles appear at the anaphora, the Eucharistic prayers, the lifting, or offering up of the gifts.  The anaphora begins after “The doors, the doors.” (The outside doors to the world are closed, and doors of our hearts are opened.) Followed by “Let us stand aright, let us stand with fear, let us attend”, the priest gives thanks, “for all these things we give thanks,... we thank thee for this liturgy…” and the choir sings, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth.”  I know we sing this reflexively every week, but the point of this exercise is to be more purposefully aware and objective about what we do.

Now we are simmering with the words of institution or the anemnesis: “On the night in which he was betrayed, or rather, gave himself up for the life of the world, he took bread in his holy and blameless hands, when he had given thanks, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body, which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins, and drink this all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you, and for many, (one of the many universal statements in the liturgy) for forgiveness of sins.’”  Of course, the word “institution” is not really right here.  “Institution” is feeble and juridical.  What we have here is the kingdom of God, abiding in love.   

Then, “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto thee in behalf of all and for all”, (and by all). (Again the Eucharist is offered universally for all- and all of us are making the offering – not just the priest).  It is Christ’s own body that we are offering back to him. And he gave of himself totally, perfectly.  He is the perfect offering, enabling what is now a bloodless sacrifice.  We are not sacrificing animals.  (But we are still not quite at the boiling point), the boiling point comes next, when the priest supplicates; “we pray thee: send down thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts spread forth.”

This is followed by the words of consecration – the epiclesis: “Make this bread, the precious Body of thy Christ. – Amen.   And that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of thy Christ – amen.  Changing them by thy Holy Spirit.  Amen. Amen. Amen.  It is important not to reduce this moment or isolate it from the rest of the liturgy.      Alexander Schmemann wrote in his book, The Eucharist, that focusing solely on the moment of transubstantiation is artificial.  That’s why we are following the boiling analogy, in which transubstantiation is a process, not a specific moment. The Epiclesis has involved a dispute between the Orthodox Church and other churches that needed to know how the change takes place and at what moment does it take place. The Orthodox Church has always held the view that this is a mysterious reality, and that it is not within the power of our minds to apprehend it. It comes by the way of prayer. There is no moment of consecration. We look upon the entire Eucharistic Prayer as forming a single and indivisible whole, so that the three main sections of the prayer, Thanksgiving, Anamnesis, and Epiclesis, all form an integral part of the one act of consecration.

Then we recite the fruits of communion:  “This Eucharist is for cleansing of soul, forgiveness of sins, communion with the Holy Spirit, fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven, not to judgment or condemnation.”  

There are actually 3 prayers in preparation for communion.

1.    The prayer of John Chrysostom: “Unto thee, we commend our whole life and our hope O Master who loves mankind.  Vouchsafe us to partake of thy heavenly and awesome mysteries with a pure conscience, unto forgiveness of sins, pardon of our transgressions, and unto communion of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, and boldness toward thee.”

2.    Just after the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of Basil is also a prayer of preparation:  “Bless, sanctify, guard, strengthen, and fortify we who have bowed their heads unto thee.  Withdraw our every evil work; unite us to every good, and grant us to partake of these, thine immaculate and life giving mysteries.  

3.     The priest then says, “The Holy Things for the Holy”, he divides the bread (this is called the ‘fraction’ – fractioning, or breaking, the bread), saying, “The Lamb is God is divided, yet not disunited, He is ever eaten, yet never consumed, but He sanctifies those who partake of Him.”  In an interesting discussion with Teva Regule, she reminded me that normal food is consumed, is disunited, and then is dispelled.  Digested, it descends into the ground, dissipated, imparting both health and ill-health, whereas the Eucharist moves in the opposite direction.  We eat it, and we are lifted, becoming a part of something higher, part of Christ, something greater than ourselves.  We ingest His body, and become part of Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This Holy Food draws us up, makes us perfect.

Unlike other food which is in a state of decay and is eaten to be consumed, when we partake of the body and blood of Christ we are integrated.  These corruptible elements are transformed into life itself.   In the 14th Century, Nicholas Cabasilas wrote a commentary on the Divine Liturgy, saying that partaking of the Eucharist is "the final and greatest of the sacraments, 'for in it we obtain God Himself and God is united with us in a most perfect union.'"  This is the most intimate union with God that we can experience in this life.

The priest then arranges the pieces of the Lamb (the Bread of Life) on the rim of the discos in the form of a cross.  He takes the portion that is sealed with the name of Jesus – places it in the chalice, saying: “The fullness of the Holy Spirit.”  

Then we all say the formal pre-communion prayer together, “I believe and I confess that thou art truly the Christ who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief (of sinners).  I believe that this is thine own immaculate body.  Pardon my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of knowledge or of ignorance.  Make me worthy to partake of thy mysteries without condemnation.  Of thy mystical supper, accept me today as a communicant.  I will not be like Judas, but will confess thee like the repentant thief.  Remember me O Lord in thy kingdom.  May these mysteries be for the healing of soul and body.”  

The priest then partakes of communion and says, “Dance and be glad” – (did you know that we are called to dance in the liturgy?) In a sort of ecstasy the deacon reads, “How divine!  How beloved! How sweet is thy voice O Christ!  Having this as our anchor of hope, we the faithful do rejoice.” And they say that Pentecostals are charismatic!

It is common to hear, “Only Orthodox Christians who have prepared themselves with prayer and fasting may approach the chalice, but this is redundant, because preparation is implied by saying, “with fear of God, with faith and love, draw near”, not to mention all the prayers of preparation we have just recited.   In the Liturgy of St. James, we will take the bread in our hands and sip wine from the cup, as the spoon was a controversial innovation, added around 1000 A.D.  

I look forward to celebrating the Liturgy of St. James with you and thank you for this time to think about the meaning of what we do here every Sunday at the Eucharist.

Thanks be to God.