186. Holy Thursday Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil

In the Orthodox tradition, the full Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on fasting, penitential days, including all the ordinary weekdays of Great Lent. That is why on Lenten weekdays we serve the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, omitting the consecration of the Holy Bread and Wine.  But Great and Holy Thursday is a feast day, the day when Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist.

At this service we “anticipate” that Thursday evening, which is why this is a Vesperal Liturgy.

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11:21- 32

The Gospel Reading is taken from Matthew 26:1-20; John 13:3-17; Matthew 26:21-39; Luke 22:43-44; Matthew 26:40-75; 27:1-2

Now our worship services and readings get even longer – as you see immediately above. In these short Posts it’s not possible to talk about it all.

Here quickly is the narrative. We hear the third account of the sinful woman anointing Jesus, this time in the house of Simon the Leper, and then how the disciples prepared for the Passover meal, and the meal itself and the institution of the Eucharist.

Let’s stop and talk about the Liturgy.

The following is from the book The Shape of the Liturgy by Father Gregory Dix, a mid-20th century Benedictine monk of the Church of England. It reflects a Western view. We Orthodox do not “offer Masses” for particular persons and their needs, but we certainly do offer prayers for people and their needs at every Divine Liturgy. So in that context his words describe us as well. I have always found this passage very moving.

“Do this in ‘remembrance’ of me.”

“Was ever a command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner-of-war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc — one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the pastors have done this just to [create] the holy people of God.”

We spoke last night about the Holy Eucharist itself. So now let me add only one comment about today’s Epistle. Saint Paul warns his readers not to receive the Eucharist “in an unworthy manner, lest he eat and drink judgment upon himself”. Please do not misunderstand this.

Does he mean we must be morally perfect before we receive Holy Communion. Of course not. In that case, the only people who should come to the Altar would be our Lord Jesus Christ and His blessed Mother! The whole point of receiving the the Lord’s Body and Blood is for Him to give strength to us who are imperfect.

Pay attention to Paul’s next words: To receive “unworthily” means “not discerning the Lord’s Body”.

Worthy reception means: 1 To “discern”, believe in the Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in this Holy Mystery of His Presence. 2 Also to “discern” the Church  as “the Lord’s Body”, and therefore to be participating in the life of the Church. The Liturgy, after all, is not McDonalds’. We should not feel free to just run in occasionally and catch a quick snack of Holy Communion. 3 to prepare ourselves to meet Him with repentance, asking for the Lord’s forgiveness, at peace with those around us, and intending to try to live a better life. 4 To prepare ourseves for the Sacrament by prayer and fasting.

So long as this is how we approach the Holy Gifts, we will not be receiving “unworthily”.

The remainder of the Gospel covers: 

How Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, even Judas’ – the sign of His abject servanthood: “As I have done to you, you must also do to one another”.

His last temptation in Gethsemane. I think this was in one way His true crucifixion, the crucifixion of His will. “Father, take this cup from me. Yet not my will be done, but Yours.”

Judas betrays Him to the authorities, with a kiss. I used to think this was very peculiar. No, it was just the usual Middle Eastern kiss of greeting. But, how could he…

Simon Peter denies Him.

His trial before the Sanhedrin. When He answered “You have said it”, this was the say of saying “Yes”, just as in modern English usage: “You said it”. At last He had said clearly that He is the Messiah. That was why they convicted Him.

The Sanhedrin did not want His blood to be on their “innocent” hands. Also only the Roman authorities had power to execute, so “When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put Him to death; and they bound Him and led Him away and delivered Him to Pilate the governor.”

So much horror, coming so quickly. Try to imagine what this was like for Him. The final darkness of Holy Week was upon Him. He had known all along that this would come, but now it was here.

Next PostHoly Thursday Evening Matins: the “Twelve Gospels” service

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