PASSAGE TO HEAVEN: AN APPRECIATION OF THE DIVINE LITURGY EXCERPTED FROM EYES OF THE GOSPEL BY ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH M. RAYA
Article from: Eparchy of Newton Website
The Epistle to the Hebrews presents an expansive vista depicting the history of our salvation: the manifestations of God to the Old Testament prophets, the incarnation of Christ and His all-sufficient self-offering. It concludes this anamnesis of God’s faithful love to us with the following injunction:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another …” (Hebrews 10:25)
Our response to God’s fidelity, then, is to be faithful to Him by being steadfast in our belief and to be faithful to one another by supporting each another in the Christian life. And this faithfulness to God and to one another is described as centered in the regular “meeting together” or synaxis of the Christian community: what we call the Divine Liturgy.
In looking for a way to express our call to be faithful to God and one another through the Divine Liturgy, we turned to one of our hierarchs, Archbishop Joseph Raya, who through his translations of the liturgical texts has placed his stamp on so many Byzantine churches in the English-speaking world. In The Eyes of the Gospel, published almost twenty years ago, Archbishop Joseph had woven a number of reflections on various of the prayers and movements of the Divine Liturgy. Archbishop Joseph has graciously allowed us to rearrange and reproduce his meditations in a new format. We trust that, in breaking the bread of his thought, as we do the Eucharistic bread, we have not rent it asunder.
To highlight the connection of the Church’s Liturgy with models of Biblical prayer, we have interspersed within this book a number of Scriptural texts to which the Liturgy refers or which it echoes. To emphasize the continuity of our Liturgy today with that of the Eastern Churches over the centuries, we have also included passages from some historic commentaries on or references to the Liturgy, for our celebration each Sunday resonates with the worship of thousands of years.
We hope that this work will serve more than one purpose: first of all it can provide those of us who regularly attend the Liturgy with a new appreciation of the mystery we celebrate. But if we are truly committed to be faithful to one another, this reflection can also be a means of encouraging one another: an avenue for us to lead others to participate in the Liturgy themselves.
This monograph was originally published in connection with the 1991 convention of the Melkite Greek Catholic Diocese of Newton.
Justin, one of the first apologists of the Christian faith, himself born shortly after the Apostles, gives an account of his faith and of the practice of the Christians of his time. He describes in detail the celebration of the Eucharist as it was conducted, and claims that these details are what the Lord Himself ordered His disciples to follow.
The account of the Liturgy described by Justin witnesses to the details of the Sacred Supper of the Lord and harmonizes with the details of the Breaking of the Bread by the Apostles. It is this same Liturgy of the first Christians that Clement of Rome describes and which the Church kept faithfully and transmitted in all its integrity. It is from this Liturgy that the Byzantine Liturgy derives and has its origin.
The ancients called this gathering of the faithful synaxis, a convention: a community that looks to eternity. Worshipping together in community, the faithful experience more readily both their unity in Christ and the power of the Spirit. They learn how to open and abandon themselves to the revelation of God, to experience Him, and thus be able to witness to their religious experience.
All the celebrations of the mysteries of heaven take on a special quality of joy and beauty in which one longs to participate. No one is merely a spectator or a pupil: every one is engaged in an action. Everyone is in readiness, calling on and waiting for the coming of tile Lord, who is coming, yet always present. They gather to receive the saving power of God and to rejoice in His goodness and glory
In these public functions there is constant motion and personal participation. Every act, gesture and movement of the body has its meaning. People sway with their bodies, move their hands, raise and lower their eyes, bow their heads. Their voices rise and fall in heartfelt supplication. Every person performing a bodily gesture in the celebration points to a spiritual reality and acclaims it.
People in prayer see the saints around them, wrapped in their icons with a mantle of eternity; candles flickering in a thousand hues of light; incense whirling in a warm atmosphere; music swelling from every corner of the assembled congregation; vestments of multicolors and designs which sway and shine. The deacons move around between the people and the celebrant. In the middle of the sanctuary stands the Bishop, image of Christ, presiding over the celebration.
The priests do not stay at the altar. They and their retinue of assistants come out of the sanctuary and walk in the midst of the congregation: first, perhaps, to incense, then to carry the Gospel book, finally to transfer the oblations or to receive them in a solemn procession, where angels mingle with us to carry the King of all and welcome His coming among them. They go around the church to sprinkle the people with perfume, to shower the congregation now with flowers, now with a smile, and yet another time with encouragement and a blessing.
It is not possible to understand Eastern Christianity by only reading or talking about it. It is necessary to experience its life, its actuality, by being present at its celebrations. The organic and completely self-evident center of Eastern Christianity is in its celebrations. “Come and see!”
THE HOLY PLACE
“I shall enter into Your dwelling place; before Your holy temple I shall bow in fear of You.” (Psalm 5:7)
The sanctuary and the altar have been, throughout the spiritual development of the Church, gradually hidden and separated not by an ecclesiastical, bureaucratic mandate but by the Christian sense of the sacred, by a real sense of the awesomeness of the mystery of God. St. John Chrysostom and all the Fathers constantly call the altar the “terrifying table”, and the mystery of the altar “terrifying mysteries,” “the terrifying sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ to which we have to approach with fear and trembling.” This is sacred terror and not fear of the unknown. It is a mystic trembling in the presence of heaven: “Take off your shoes,” said God, “for the place where you stand is holy” (cf Exodus 3:5).
The more secularized we become, the more our vision of the sacred and the holy becomes blurry, and even blinded. The closing of doors and curtains is not setting apart the clergy as if in a special class, shutting off the People of God from participation. It is rather a forceful revelation that there is a mystery, and that we cannot see or experience this mystery by physical contact. No human eyes or physical sight can penetrate or comprehend it. Only love and the surge of the soul on the wings of faith can meet the Lord and God of all.
‘The sticharion of the priest is fashioned after the robe of Aaron, the one going all the way down to his feet (Exodus 28:33).
‘Moreover it has the appearance of fire, according to the Prophet who says: ‘He makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flames of fire ‘” (Psalm 103:4; Hebrews 1:7), St. Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica, 14 (C. 725 AD)
THE PREPARATION OF THE GIFTS
In the ancient Church only the baptized, the initiated and those instructed in the faith were allowed to bring their offerings to the altar. Bread and wine symbolize and represent those who are united to Christ and made one with Him in baptism. As the many grains of wheat and the many grapes have to be crushed to become a new form of life-giving element which is bread and wine, so also the baptized are grafted onto Christ and voluntarily surrendered and given to Him to be one with Him. With Christ who is our Bread we become new life, life divine.
From the material offerings of bread and wine of the faithful, the deacons and, later in history, the priests selected what was necessary for the sacrifice and used the rest for their subsistence or the subsistence of the poor. The simple ceremony of offering, receiving, selecting and distributing the bread and wine, which is the human part of the covenant, was made at a special place called prothesis or proskomedia (table of oblation). This ceremony became more elaborate later and developed into a short story and a condensed drama of the whole eucharistic sacrifice.
Among all the loaves offered there is one called prosphora, representing Christ and stamped with a seal bearing His name: “Jesus Christ the Victor,” IC XC NIKA. When this seal is cut it is called “the Lamb”, the Lamb of God who represents here all humanity.
The priest lifts up the prosphora and signs it three times with the lance that pierced the side of the Lord on Calvary. He cuts the seal marked with Christ’s name, saying: “As a sheep He was led to the slaughter. And as a spotless lamb before the shearers, He did not open his mouth. In His lowliness His judgement was taken away. And who shall describe His generation?”
The priest, thrusting the lance into the right side of the bread, lifts out the lamb, saying: “For His life was taken away from the earth.” He turns it face down and pierces it on the side stamped “Jesus,” saying: “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a lance.”
Wine is then poured into the chalice with some drops of water. The memory of Calvary becomes alive again, and the priest declares, “…and at once there came forth blood and water and he who saw it bore witness, and his witness is true.”
Another special piece is cut “in honor and memory of our most highly blessed and glorious Lady the Mother of God” and is placed at the right of the Lamb, for indeed, “at Your right stood the queen in an embroidered mantle of gold.” Angels, prophets and saints, people living and people dead are also represented and arranged in rows around the Lamb on His throne.
The priest puts a star on the oblation and declares that a “Star came and stood where the Child was.” He declares the faith of the assembly in the Incarnation of the Son of God and in His appearance in human flesh. Here is Bethlehem!
Even the covering of the oblation becomes an occasion for the glorification of God and for our identification with Him: “The Lord is king, He has clothed Himself with splendor; the Lord has put on might and has girded Himself! Your glory, O Christ, has covered the heavens, and the earth is full of Your praise.”
“We offer You incense, Christ our God, for an odor of spiritual fragrance: receive if on Your altar in heaven, and send down on us in return the grace of Your all-holy Spirit. ” (Service of the Prothesis)
Through this ceremony we see the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God on the altar of heaven reproduced in the here and now. It is already a vision, a Theophany of God. The physical elements of bread and wine are filled with the Invisible. Our faith, love and prayer meet the Lord, who is present and ready for His mission of salvation by which He seals His covenant with God and with His people:
“That our God who loves mankind, having received them on His holy altar in heaven as a fragrance, may send down upon us in return His divine grace and the Holy Spirit as His gift…” (Divine Liturgy).
The “Sacrifice” is already present. We already call the elements of the Divine Liturgy of Christ “sacrifice of Christ,” “our sacrifice,” “sacrifice of the people.” Christ was alone in His suffering and offering on the cross. Now the people of God are present on Calvary and they have the occasion to ratify and accept the sacrifice as their own. The point is that we become co-offerers with Christ by our obedient self-giving; we offer to God the totality of our lives, of ourselves, and of the world in which we live. The sacrifice of Christ has been offered and accepted. Now we make it our own and we call it a “sacrifice of praise,” because in it we recognize already the goodness and generosity of God.
THE ENARXIS OR RITE OF ASSEMBLY
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit “
Every prayer, as every act of the Christian, is ordained ultimately, not only to his own fulfillment in the “vision of God” in heaven, but also to the transformation and consummation of all things in Christ. In Christ all that is, is full of possibilities for beauty, truth, community and justice. And the Christian is vowed to draw out all these possibilities into the realities of this world. All of reality invites him to respond to goodness with goodness of his own. The swayings and sounds and whispers of nature and of man are a continual prayer that brings God to man. The Christian hears within his soul these cries and sighs and longing, and he brings them in an upward movement of praise and glory to God.
This vision of the praying Christian is most explicitly clarified in the Litany of Peace, which opens all Byzantine public prayers and some Western liturgies also. In this litany the Christian gathers within himself the public servants: authorities both religious and civil; cities, country places and all those who live in them, the travelers by sea, land and air; the sick and those who suffer and those forgotten brothers who are in prisons. The Christian lives deeply in touch with all the troubles of the world and feels the pain of human life intensely. He brings all the earth and whatever it contains to God for His mercy, and dedicates himself for its healing and welfare.
When Christ ascended the cross, He succeeded in spreading over the whole world more of Himself, more of love and salvation than there will ever be of death, hatred, self-centeredness and sin. The mercy of God is the life-giving perpetuation of the divine energy of the Redeemer’s love, an outpouring of love and goodness that sanctifies and divinizes. The mercy of God is not a condescension, a paternalism on the part of God, a “crumb that falls form the Master’s table.” The mercy of God is God Himself in His transforming presence. It is He, the Bread broken for all, generously given and completely surrendered. The cry of “Lord, have mercy,” therefore, invokes the divine presence on the whole of creation, upon mankind and matter, upon the whole world thought of as gathered in the one embrace of Christ.
Many are the needs. Many, therefore, are the cries for mercy. The rhythm of the intentions and the repetition of the “Lord, have mercy” is the manifestation of the all-embracing concern of Christ and of the Christian’s heart. It teaches the individual and the community their true relation with the world and with all mankind as it makes them go beyond themselves to embrace the whole world, all mankind and every circumstance, and carry them in their prayer and in their daily life.
This litany of intentions is the vibrant acclamation of the Christian that everything and everyone belongs to God’s kingdom, where saint and sinner, believer and unbeliever are at home, and where all share in the peace of God. It proclaims the universality of the embrace of Christ which the Christian makes his own. The praying Christian realizes here that he is the brother of all and responsible for all. This is the kingdom of God!
“The antiphons of the Liturgy are the prophets’ predictions which foretold the coming of the Son of God… that is, they reveal His incarnation which we proclaim again, having embraced knowledge of it through those who have become servants, eyewitnesses and attendants of the Word.” St. Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica, 23 (c 725 AD)
In the antiphons Christians witness to the goodness of the Lord and shout their own hopes and joys at the sight of Christ’s action of salvation. Historically speaking, the antiphons were popular demonstrations and processions through the streets and winding roads of a given locality, from church to church, leading to the main Church where the celebration had to take place. These processions were meant to gather on their way the “good and the sinners, inviting every one, believer and unbeliever, to the wedding-feast of the King” (Matt 22:8).
The word antiphon means a refrain to a reading or to a rhetorical declamation often repeated during the course of a procession. Antiphons are devised to provoke in people enthusiasm, and joy, and to help them see the goodness of God who hears the immense desire of humanity. Humanity sighs and longs for the coming of the Savior, and God bends toward the earth, sending His Son to be incarnate. Salvation is then seen as present and already working among us. These street demonstrations, as they are worked out in the antiphons, end in a peaceful and nerve-relaxing hymn which sings the presence of the Son among men:
Only-begotten Son and Word of God, immortal as You are!
You condescended for our salvation
to take flesh of the holy Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary,
and without undergoing change, You became man.
You were crucified, O Christ God,
and crushed Death by Your death.
You are One of the Holy Trinity,
equal in glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit:
Once we have seen that the promises of God and the expectations of His people have been fulfilled, we understand that the wedding-feast is open to all and in full progress. An excited air runs through the congregation: the Bridegroom is now coming! We prepare to receive Him.
The ministers form a great procession with lighted candles, covered with a cloud of incense. The bejeweled Holy Gospel book, which is the symbol and sign of Jesus Christ Himself, is carried high on the head of the celebrant or the deacon.
” here the gospeller, as he holds the golden Gospel, passes along; and the surging crowd strives to touch the sacred book with their lips and hands,while moving waves of people break around.” (Paul the Silentiary, c. 550 AD)
The whole assembly rises to honor the coming of the Lord, using singing, imagination and all the human emotions. Everyone bows profoundly at the passage of Christ, adoring Him really present in His book of life. By bowing and by many signs of the cross, everyone proclaims his or her readiness to hear his voice and heed the lessons of His love. The Gospel Book is thus brought with solemnity and majesty into the midst of the congregation and finally to the sanctuary.
” the priest, standing in front of the altar, raises the Gospel Book and shows it to the people, thus symbolizing the manifestation of the Lord, when He began to appear to the multitudes. For the Gospel represents Christ in the same way that the books of the Old Testament are called the Prophets ( They have Moses and the Prophets,’ Lk 16:29) ” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 20 (c.1350 AD)
THE SERVICE OF THE WORD
After the entrance of the Gospel Book and its enthronement on the altar, the throne of God as it were, the people go on with their merry celebration of the saints or of an event in the life of Christ, remembering again a phase of the deeds and goodness of God. Christians assemble to celebrate the saints also. Heroes and benefactors of humanity, the saints have surrendered themselves to God and to their brothers and sisters. They become pure transparencies for God’s action, and thus they are to us extended radiances of the incarnation.
“After He who was foretold had appeared and made Himself manifest, no one could pay attention to the words of the Prophets. Therefore after the showing of the Gospels, the prophetic texts cease and we sing something from the New Testament: we praise the all-holy Theotokos or the other saints, and we glorify Christ Himself for coming to dwell among us.” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 20
Christians are the associates of angels in their service before God. We enter into this association when we proclaim with them the holiness of the divine Trinity. At this point in the Liturgy indeed, at the beginning of every prayer we affirm this association as we chant the Trisagion:
“Holy is God:” the Father, who is origin, source and point of return of all creation;
“Holy the Mighty One:” the Son. He is mighty because He conquered evil and death and wrought salvation and resurrection. “He is mighty, because through Him the Father was revealed to us and the Holy Spirit came to this world” (vespers of Pentecost).
“Holy the Immortal One:” the Holy Spirit, who is life and life-giving, whom nothing no evil, no sin, no amount of gravity of sin can ever kill or wipe out from the soul of the Christian.
“The Fathers originally received from the angels the Holy, holy, holy’ and from David the remainder, where he glorified God in Trinity, saying, My soul thirsted for God, the mighty One, the living One’ (Ps 41:3), and rightly and most appropriately composed the Trisagion Hymn. As a mark of petition they added again from David the have mercy on us’.” St Simeon of Thessalonike, Treatise on Prayer 24 (c. 1425 AD)
The assembly that reads the Word of God is the human race in miniature. In fact, such an assembly represents the whole human race. When it reads the Word of God and recalls His deeds of the past, it proclaims also His present action and care.
“Before the Gospel, the deacon comes with the censer in his hand to fill the church with sweet fragrance for the reception of the Lord, reminding us by this censing of the spiritual cleansing of our souls with which we should attend to the fragrant words of the Gospel.” Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy (19th Century)… it got about that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door, and He was preaching the word to them.” (Mark 2:1-2)
The whole life of Christ, all His teaching, even His smallest gestures, are aimed at saving mankind from tyrannies and changing the water of this life into the wine of the feast. The Gospel is like the charter of this freedom and dignity. The words of Christ, taken one by one or collectively are a stirring experience of life, allowing man to go into life and live it fully. Christ’s voice reaches an ecstasy beyond and above any voice ever heard on earth. The tone of His voice is a bearer of that sublime message that we are on our way to another, lovelier world, tinted with unimaginable wonders, alive with ultimate music and bursting with radiance and joy. We are going to a “banquet”, a “wedding” and a “kingdom”. Only those who go beyond appearances, and contact the reality of persons and of things, are allowed into that kingdom. God, man, creation, Christ and His entire life are so many reasons and subjects for wonder and joy that enable us to enter into that kingdom. Each one is a poem and a miracle of beauty that makes us sing in glory, awe and joy. Each celebration designed to make our life a celebration.
The story of the life and deeds of Christ is called Gospel, good news, because it is precisely news of life. The message of the Gospel penetrates to the heart and sweeps away sin and ugliness. It is always new because it is fraught with wonder. We Christians do not read, we proclaim the Gospel. Those who are gifted musicians and singers chant its words, its texts and its message. The Ancients always insisted, with a profound sense of wisdom, on the way the voice should be modulated, the way the words of the Gospel should be pronounced, and how the whole meaning should be brought out. Whether elaborate or simple, the proclamation of the Gospel has this one function: to convey the poetry of the text and the feeling of glory and joy of being in the presence of God.
Easterners call the Gospel the second incarnation. Whereas in the first the Son of God became Son of man, in the second incarnation in the Gospel the Word of God became word of man. He became a Book! For this reason the Gospel is always bound in silver or gold or precious materials. He is always on our altars, as it were God on His throne. The Gospel is carried in procession, borne aloft on our heads, incensed and kissed with reverence and devotion.
Saint John Chrysostom says, “When emperors of this world speak, we all shout with one voice and one heart, Glory to you, lord.’ But when the Lord Jesus speaks in His Gospel, our enthusiasm grows stronger and louder and we repeat it twice, Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!’” Our enthusiasm becomes love and we repeat the cry twice, once before the proclamation of the Gospel and once when the proclamation has ended.
“After the reading of the Gospel, the deacon urges to congregation to prayer. The priest in the sanctuary prays in a low voice that the prayers of the faithful may be acceptable to God.
“And what prayer could be more fitting for all, after the Gospel, than one for those who keep the Gospel, who imitate the goodness and generosity of Christ, the shepherds of the people and those who govern the state. These, if they are faithful to the precepts of the Gospel, as the Apostle says: Achieve after Christ that which is lacking in Christ’ (Col 1:24), in governing His flock as He would wish. Such, too, are the founders and heads of religious houses and churches, the teachers of virtue and all those who in any way contribute to the common good of the Church and of religion; they have a place here and are entitled to the prayers of all.” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 23
After the readings have been proclaimed and the special celebration of the day has put the Christian in the realm of God, the official and solemn transfer of the oblations to the altar takes place. A stir of anticipation runs through the whole congregation. Seized by the awareness of what is going to happen, everyone falls into a humble, yet confident, change of heart. Ministers and faithful express sorrow for their sins and the sins of the world:
Again and many times we fall down before You
and pray You in Your goodness and love for mankind to regard our supplications
and cleanse our souls and bodies from all defilement of flesh and spirit,
and grant that we may stand without guilt or condemnation before Your holy altar.
And upon these also who pray with us,
O God, bestow increase of life and faith and spiritual insight.
Give them ever to minister to You in fear and love,
to share without guilt or condemnation in Your holy mysteries
and to be made worthy of Your heavenly kingdom (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).
Purification of all sins is effected. The faithful know that they are forgiven and sanctified. Now they can face their Redeemer and God, unite with Him and feel their complete oneness with Him. They realize that they “mystically represent the cherubim,” consequently they “put aside all worldly care and sing the thrice holy hymn to the King of the universe who is coming escorted by all the angelic hosts.”
Let all mortal flesh be silent; let us stand in fear and trembling,
having no other thought but the thought of the Lord.
For behold, the King of kings and Lord of lords is coming to be sacrificed
and to be given as food to the faithful.
He is escorted by hosts of archangels and by all the principalities and dominions.
He is indeed escorted by the many-eyed cherubim
and by the six-winged seraphim covering their faces, all chanting:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. (Liturgy of St. James)
The sign and seal of the love of God is the love of neighbor. After having obtained forgiveness from God and making our peace with Him, we now ask forgiveness from each other.” “Everyone present confesses and proclaims his unity with Christ, the Lover of mankind: “I will love You, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my fortress, me refuge and my deliverance!”
Because of the love of the Lord who fills us with His peace and joy, we overflow with love. And because we know that Christ has forgiven us, we feel the urgent desire to forgive others and to be at peace with them. Each member of the assembly enthusiastically embraces his neighbor and gives the kiss of Christ, saying: “Christ is in our midst.” And the other answers, “He is and always will be.”
What a marvelous reality! Christians cannot hide or forget their all-embracing love. The Church, to be the Church of Christ, has to be first the revelation of that divine love which God poured into our hearts. Without this love, nothing is valid in the Church. The kiss of Christ is the dynamic sign wherein Christians express their love for each other before they share the one bread. Christ is our real love and life and our forgiveness. We share Him with others. Breaking the bread of Christ becomes a little vacuous without the breaking open of ourselves. It is Christ who unites us to one another and through one another to God.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23 24)
“The veil, that is the aer, stands for the stone with which Joseph closed the tomb, which the guard of Pilate also sealed.
“He approaches the stone of the tomb, the angel clad in white, raising the veil and indicating by his gesture the third day resurrection ” St Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica 41, 42
Once the brotherly love of forgiving is secure, the whole assembly bursts into singing the glory of the Trinity, by singing the Creed. This was composed in the year 325 at Nicaea on the occasion of that Council. It fixed in human words the content of faith and its proclamation.
In reciting the Creed we plunge into life, the life of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Creator is an artist, a worker, an inventor and maker of things and producer of life. Since God is a worker-artist, all of His creation is good. The Son is a savior and a lover. “For us men and for our salvation” He lived, died, resurrected, ascended and will come back again. The Holy Spirit is life and Giver of life and eternal joy.
Christians who proclaim in the Creed their acceptance of life in God, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, enter into the realm of creation, into the Kingdom of heaven, and become ready to respond to God’s excellence and love in the accomplishment of the mysteries soon to become reality on the altar. Within the reality expressed by the Creed, we find ourselves living and moving in an infinite and unmeasured Being who is Father and tenderness, who is Son and Lover, who is Spirit and Life-giver. It is the glory of the Christian to declare that all this was planned and executed by God, not for God’s sake, but “for us men and for our salvation.” We were redeemed, not because of our success or our mature years, but because of our troubles and perils and God’s greater love for us. In this we find rebirth in death, resurrection and life eternal. We are ready to go deeper into the realities of God and become “eucharistic.”
“Through Him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God…” (Hebrews 13:15)
The offerings of bread and wine are now “lifted up” from the earthly place to the divine and holy altar of God in heaven, thereby uniting the two. In this action of lifting up, the whole creation finds its way to God who pours out on it the same love He has for His Son. Salvation is thus made present and real. The Church also becomes real. She is seen to be what she really is, “the Bride of Christ,” pure and undefiled.
The anaphora or lifting-up remembers and expresses in its reality a double movement, one of descent and one of ascent. In the first movement, God descends upon man and creation to “lift them up” and make them sharers in His divine life. This movement is called “a mercy of peace”. The mercy of God is the gift of God, His self-revelation and self-giving. The second movement is a movement of ascent. Man is taken up to God to offer Him praise and thanks. This movement of ascent is called “sacrifice of praise.”
Thanks and praise: this is the answer of man to the gift of God, his awareness and recognition of God’s goodness. The tremendous mystery of the power, condescension and infinite love of God in “descending” and “lifting up” is enacted on the altar in these two successive and dynamic movements by which creation and man are deified. This mystery will culminate in the final and decisive union of the Creator with His creature in Holy Communion.
Let us stand well!
Let us stand in awe!
Let us be attentive!
Heaven and earth listen! God is pouring Himself down upon us! We adore in a great hush. We plunge into the abyss of concentration and the rapture of a mystic vision. We shut out all noises. We collect ourselves and all our faculties to breathe praise and adore. The voices are hushed, and chanting ceases. The shortness of answers gives time to listen only. All attention is centered on the marvelous happening.
At this point the amazement of the priest seeks and strains to make others hear what he hears. He hears the remote and strange sound of angels singing: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” He sees the Holy Trinity at work, pouring down on him all the goodness and love that Infinity itself contains. He becomes a whirl of admiration and praise:
It is truly fitting and right and worthy of the immensity of Your holiness that we praise You, sing to You, bless You, adore You, give thanks to You,
glorify You who alone are truly God;…
How could anyone tell Your might and sing the praises You deserve,
or describe all Your marvels in all places and times?
… O Master of all, You are eternal invisible, beyond understanding:
beyond description the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the great God and Savior, the Object of our hope…
[Jesus Christ] is the image of Your goodness, the Seal who bears Your perfect likeness, revealing You, His Father, through Himself He is the living Word,
the true God, the Wisdom, the Life, the Sanctification, the true Light …
By Him the Holy Spirit was made manifest, the Spirit of truth, the Gift of adoption,
the foretaste of the future inheritance, the First-fruit of eternal good, the life-giving Power, the Fountain of sanctification.
Empowered by Him, every rational and intelligent creature sings eternally to Your glory,
for all are Your servants. It is You the angels archangels, thrones, dominions praise
and glorify … they cry one to the other with tireless voices and perpetual praise … (Liturgy of St. Basil)
This “eucharist” or thanksgiving is the expression of life in God and the only true relationship between man and God. It is what really “makes possible” all that will follow.
The breadth of perspective of the true meaning of God’s intention and of His relation to creation is present here. The Father planned from all eternity and made this world and man and placed them in space and time. The Son embodied them in His own divine person in the incarnation and saved them by His offering or sacrifice. The Holy Spirit renews this salvation and divinization by His descent at the epiclisis, just as He did by His descent at Pentecost. All these divine historical actions become actual and alive before our very eyes. The world of faith takes shape, and the eternal mystery of God becomes reality in time.
Once again Christians share in the life of angels and declare that we are sharing in their function and playing their role. We recognize that we are not only associates of angels, but much more: we take their place on earth as ministers before the altar:
“We thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands,
even though there stand before You
thousands of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim,
six-winged and many-eyed singing, proclaiming,
shouting the hymn of victory and saying:
Holy! Holy! Holy Lord of hosts!
Heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!”
As we surge on the wings of our dignity, we join in the vision of Isaiah to sing the hymn of heaven, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” The world to come is already here present in the “Fullness of Your glory.” Christians reach the apex of their glory when they go beyond the horizon of the prophets and visionaries to look at the Trinity and melt into the divine Persons with an ineffable movement of joy. We address ourselves first to the Father:
“Holy are You and all-holy
You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.
Holy are You and all-holy and magnificent is Your glory!
You so loved Your world as to give it Your Son,
that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. “
(Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)
Then we recall the memory of the Son:
“When He had come and fulfilled all that was appointed Him to do for our sake,
on the night He was delivered up or rather, delivered Himself up for the life of the world
He took bread, and gave it to His holy disciples and apostles and said,
Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you for the remission of sins.’”
With the same simplicity and realism,
He took the cup of wine and said,
“Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new testament,
which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”
After having heard the voice of the Lord declaring the bread to be His body and the wine to be His blood, the Christian never asks “how.” It is simply the body and blood, the real and total Christ, just as when He walked around the lake and as He is now in His resurrection. The Christian has the mystical knowledge and a paradoxical grasp of the inconceivable. In an intuitive, primordial and simple approach, he knows beyond the process of the intellect. The Fathers say that the Christian “hopes for what exists already” and remembers what is to come in the immediate, because he drinks at the Source of the living water.
“Remembering, therefore, this precept of salvation
[ Do this in anamnesis remembrance of me.”]
and everything that was done for our sake:
the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day,
the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand [of the Father],
the second and glorious coming again, ”
This is the anamnesis, the memorial, which makes present and manifest here and now the divine events of the life of Christ. The Christian remembrance or memorial is not simply a recalling to mind of an event which existed once upon a time. Recalling the mysteries or events of the life of Christ who is risen, alive, always present, always active, makes them present with the same effectiveness and strength as when they were enacted by Christ. The ministers around the altar and the assembly of the baptized are now all wrapped in adoration. The deacon crosses his hands, the right stretching over the left to take up the diskos which lays on the left, the left hand stretching under the right to take up the chalice which is at the right.
He elevates both in gesture towards the east, then towards the west, the north and the south, thus planting Christ in the four corners of the universe, or rather gathering the universe in these four movements to offer it in Christ and with Christ to the Father, as the priest says:
“We offer You Your own from what is Your own,
in all and for the sake of all.”
What a simplicity in the grandeur and nobility of this gesture! The whole history of salvation, the whole revelation of God’s love, the whole meaning of Christianity is here made manifest. The whole value and the very meaning of life is given to the Father. The Father recognizes the whole creation in His Son and pours upon the whole universe the same love He has for His Son. “In this offering,” says Cyril of Jerusalem, “we bring to the presence of God the Father heaven, earth, oceans, sun, moon and the entire creation ” and we break out in praise and thanks:
“We praise You,
we bless You,
we give thanks to You, O our God.”
Until now we have marveled at the works of God and praised Him for His deeds of salvation. The Father “out of nothing brought us into being, and when we had fallen He raised us up again ” (anaphora). The Son declared matter to be His body and blood, and suffered and died and rose to make us one with Him. Now we fall on our knees, begging for the descent of the Holy Spirit: “We ask and pray and entreat: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered.”
It is another awesome and most astounding action of God for us. The Holy Spirit comes to fill us and to fill the oblations of bread and wine with His own eternal being and presence by acting personally and creatively. Bread and wine and the baptized all receive Him and are possessed by Him. The wonderful event of Pentecost is now renewed and is indeed most real! “Our God, who loves mankind, having received these gifts on His holy altar, sends down upon us His divine grace and the Holy Spirit “
Now, anyone partaking of this Bread and Wine will receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit who is “cleansing of the soul, remission of sins.” The body and blood of Christ will also confer the “communion,” the fellowship of oneness with the Holy Spirit Himself, who becomes also “Fullness of the kingdom of heaven, intimate confidence of the Father,” who sees only His Son present and who will not judge juridically or condemn, but save.
The Spirit of God “becomes closer to me than my own breath” (Gregory of Nazianzus) and “more intimate than my own intimacy” (Augustine). By this descent of the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, anyone eating the body or drinking the blood of Christ receives the divine uncreated energies in all their majesty and holiness. Sins are forgiven and life is given. The Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes hold of us, divinizing us. Theosis is realized!
Ministers at the altar and all the assembly of worshippers fall down on their faces, saying: “Amen! Amen! Amen!”
“After the spiritual sacrifice, the unbloody worship, has been accomplished in this Victim that is offered in propitiation, we call on God for peace in all the Churches, for tranquility in the world, for the emperors, for the armies and the allies, for the ill and the afflicted. In brief, for all those in need of help, we all pray and offer this sacrifice.
“We then remember all those who have fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs, that through their prayers and intercession God would accept our petitions; then for our fathers who have fallen asleep in holiness, for the bishops, and, in short, for all those who have already fallen asleep. For we are convinced that our prayers, which rise up for them in the presence of the holy and venerable Victim, are most profitable to their souls.” St Cyril of Jerusalem, Fifth Mystagogical Catechesis, 23:8,9 (c 375 AD)
“Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!” (Psalm 133:2)
The word “Father” on the lips of those who believe the message of Christ adds power and dignity and heightens their already sublime role in creation. The early Church found the “Our Father” a devastating and frightening prayer. No one can utter such words unless he has overcome all inner unrest, all selfishness and all provincialism. At one point of history, the words of the “Our Father” were not revealed to neophytes until they were ready to be baptized and receive the body and blood of Christ.
We are commanded to say to this Abba, “Thy kingdom come!” which means, “take over, be the only one who inspires, directs and rules my life.” We say it with mixed emotions but with daring. “Kingdom of God” means justice, peace and love. It is not simply a question of personal salvation or fulfillment, but the establishment of a new order of things. Those in the kingdom give to whomever asks, treat everyone as real children of God, forgive without question, resist evil.
The kingdom is characterized, therefore, by healing, forgiveness, sharing, reconciliation: all of which are acts a “family” shares and enjoys. God is a Father, Abba. The person who says the “Our Father” comprehends that he or she is united with everyone and that all are equal in the eyes of God, in whom they all find peace and salvation. They all belong to the kingdom: they are brothers and sisters.
Whoever says the “Our Father” must say it aloud, because it is “Our.” “Our” is a word of the community. Every member of the community must hear it. We say it also with our arms open to the heavens, the “Shamaim”: to “the everywhere.” It is in the “everywhere,” indeed, that the Abba resides and dwells.
“The priest takes the Bread of Life and, showing it to the people, summons those who are worthy to receive it fittingly: Holy things to the holy!’ The faithful are called saints’ because of the holy thing of which they partake: because of Him whose body and blood they receive.
“The priest breaks the Holy Bread, saying, Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God: broken and not dismembered, always eaten and never expended, but making holy those who receive it.’”
“Since this warm water is not only water, but shares the nature of fire, it signifies the Holy Spirit, who is sometimes represented by water, and who came down upon the apostles in the form of fire. This point in the Liturgy represents that moment in time, for the Holy Spirit came down after all things pertaining to Christ had been accomplished, In the same way, when the holy offerings have attained their ultimate perfection, this water is added.” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Liturgy, 36, 37
“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold, this has touched your lips, will remove your transgressions and wash away your sins” (Isaiah 6:6-7).
By uniting to our human nature, Christ made our flesh a part of His divine person. When we unite to Him in the Eucharist, His divine energies penetrate to the very essence of our being and transfigure us into the light of the divinity. Theodore of Cyr wrote: “By eating the flesh of the Bridegroom and drinking His blood, we enter into the chamber of the nuptial unity.”
In receiving the divine, the Christian becomes a flame of divinity. In accepting the “Gift,” he reflects the radiance of divine glory, Here he finds his real self, the dignity and grandeur of His humanity, which is shot through and through with divinity.
“… each one goes up, not to the priest, but to the fiery Seraph, preparing himself with open lips to receive from the holy spoon the fiery coal of the body and blood of the Lord, who will burn away all his sins like thorns.” Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy
“We have seen the true Light,
we have received the heavenly Spirit…”
Having become one flesh, one soul and one heart with Christ, the communicant bursts into a hymn of glory and joy, the joy and glory of being and of existing. His feet are, indeed, on the ground, but his chin is uplifted and his head stretches to the highest heaven. All his senses are awake and vibrant to the presence of Christ.
“O You, who graciously give Your flesh to me as food, consuming the unworthy: consume me not, O my Creator, but rather pass through all the parts of my body, into all my joints, my heart, my soul. … Ever shelter, guard and keep me in Your love. Chasten me, purify me and control all my passions. Adorn me, teach me and enlighten me always. Show me how to be a tabernacle of Your Holy Spirit and in no wise the dwelling place of sin…. “O my Christ and my God, make me, Your child to he a child of light: for You alone are the sanctification and the splendor of my whole being…” (Prayer of Simeon Metaphrastes)
this is life in the Holy Trinity, a perichoreisis, a dance, a playful twirl, an allegro con grazia, which whirls with the elegance of a waltz. Once the Christian has received Christ and realized the real meaning of his life, he is filled with emotion and motion and power. Even when he feels within himself a whole atmosphere of tears, he is underneath it all a smile. He has discovered the rhythm and movement about and within himself. He might be going through uncertainty, but he always emerges in a dazzling march towards the Light who is Christ. In Holy Communion he reaches an enthralling verve and a breathtaking, dramatic climax. These are really the heroic affirmations of the life force, which is in Christ and which from Christ flows into him. The finale for him is always the eyes of the Gospel illumined with all the glory and beauty of God, who is a never-ending feast and a supreme celebration.
“The priest brings out to the people the prosphoras or altar bread from which the portions were cut out and removed, and thus is retained the great and ancient pattern of the Agape or love-feast, which was observed by the Christians of primitive times. Therefore, everyone who receives a prosphora ought to take it as bread from the feast at which Christ, the Creator of the world, has Himself spoken with His people, and one ought to consume it reverently, thinking of oneself as surrounded by all men as one’s dearest and most tender brothers.
“And, as was the custom in the early Church, one ought to eat the prosphora before all other foods or take it home to one’s family or send it to the sick or the poor or to those who have not been able to attend the Liturgy.” Nicolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy
FOR FURTHER READING
For an introductory overview of the liturgical life of the Byzantine Churches, see:
Life and Worship: the Mystery of Christ Among Us. McKees Rocks, Pa: God With Us Publications, 1986.
For another reflective look at the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, consult:
Archbishop Paul of Finland, Feast of Faith. Translated by Esther Williams. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988.
For a study of the historic development of the structure and understanding of the Liturgy, look at:
Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1900.
For those interested in the historic commentaries cited in the text, the following are available in English:
Nicholas Cabasilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy. Translated by J.M. Hussey and P.A. McNulty. Introduction by R.M. French. London: SPCK, 1960.
Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy. Translated by L. Alexieff. Edited by Archimandrite Lazarus. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1952.
St. Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica. Translated by Daniel Sheerin, with icons by Rev. Mark Melone. Fairfax, Va: Damascene Foundation, 1984.
St. Maximus the Confessor, The Church, the Liturgy and the Soul of Man. Translated by Dom Julian Stead, osb. Still River, Ma: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982.
St. Symeon of Thessalonike, Treatise on Prayer. Translated by H.L.N. Simmons. Brookline, Ma: Hellenic College Press, 1984.