Liturgy Survival Guide: Ascending to the Summit of the Eucharist

Together we have proclaimed the unchanging tenets of the Christian Faith in the Nicene Creed, and now the deacon cries out, “Let us stand aright! Let us stand with fear! Let us be attentive, that we may present the Holy Offering in peace.” A lovely back-and-forth between priest and people follows, since we make this offering together:

Let us lift up our hearts. / We lift them up unto the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord. / It is proper and right.

[Photo by Rob Horner]

In all my years as a Christian, I never, ever experienced the amount of preparation for Communion that the Orthodox Church requires. The reason for all the prayers, praises, and pleas for forgiveness lies in the nature of the offering itself. If communion is more than the sum of its physical parts, and if Christ truly gives Himself to us in the bread and the wine, we should not approach the chalice casually. To receive the King of kings, we must give Him adequate time and attention.

Body and Blood or Memorial Supper?

In the anaphora (literally, “offering”), the priest asks for God’s power to transform the offering of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, reciting Jesus’ “words of institution”: “Take! Eat! This is My Body… Drink of it, all of you! This is My Blood…”

The priest is not chanting some sort of formula, like a bit of magic that effects physical change. He offers the words as a powerful reminder that Jesus Himself authorized these gifts. In obedience we offer the bread and wine as a memorial, or anamnesis, to Him.

[Photo from Southern Orders blog]

Although the majority of Evangelical churches I have attended taught that Communion is merely a memorial supper, this very literal approach to the word anamnesis and to the sacrament itself is too small, too narrow an understanding of the Mystery. In fact, there is no mystery to this view at all. Communion becomes an intellectual exercise, an act of obedience with a personal, spiritual component. It has no power, and certainly no Presence.

But anamnesis is not a mere passive remembering. It is an entrance into the experience of the Mystery of Christ’s sacrifice. We cross ourselves and offer an “amen” to Christ’s sacred words because this belief in His real presence in the Eucharist is foundational to the Orthodox Faith.

How does this transformation of the bread and wine occur? In the scholarly disputes of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church developed the doctrine of transubstantiation, an answer to this question of how. The Orthodox Church has never embraced this teaching. The Eucharist is both bread and wine, Body and Blood; it is simply a mystery—from mysterion, “sacrament”—and we leave it at that.

The Church as a Eucharistic Community

Recognizing that we can only offer to God the gifts He has already given as Creator, we kneel in reverence and thanksgiving to sing together, “We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, O Lord, and we pray to You, O our God.” While we sing, the priest then prays the epiclesis, or “calling upon,” and asks God to manifest this Mystery, sending down His Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine, changing them through His power into the precious Body and Blood of Christ. He also prays for the Holy Spirit to transform us: “for vigilance of soul, for the forgiveness of sins, for the communion of Your Holy Spirit, for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of heaven.”

[Source of photo unknown]

Father Theodore Dorrance explains,

The local church is a eucharistic community, meaning that the center of its life is the exercise of the members’ royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9) in the offering of their lives and all God’s creation back to Him in thanksgiving…. The priest offers the bread and wine back to God on behalf of the local membership of believers. God, in turn, receives this thanksgiving offering and consecrates the gifts by His Holy Spirit, changing the bread and wine into His Body and Blood (Mk. 14:22-24). The members then receive back from God His Body and His Blood, experiencing an intimate and transformative union with God (John 6:56).

Embracing the World

The next prayers mark our final ascent in the service as we ready ourselves to reach the summit of the Eucharist. The Church looks beyond the believers standing in the nave as the priest intercedes for all people everywhere, because Christ died and rose again for all.

[Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash]

At this point the liturgy can begin to feel repetitive. Didn’t we pray for the world earlier? Yes, right at the beginning of the service. But the world needs our prayers.

And so do we. After praying for others, we look to our own lives in the precommunion prayers, asking for a peaceful and sinless death, an angel to guard and guide us, and a life of peace and repentance with a Christian ending.

The Lord’s Prayer

[Fresco of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo DaVinci, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan]

Next the priest prays, “And make us worthy, Master, with boldness and without fear of condemnation, to dare call You, the heavenly God, Father, and to say…” We then respond, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

The Lord’s Prayer is the culmination of all the previous prayers, because we can only have the boldness to approach God through Christ’s forgiveness.

Point of Historical Interest

[Icon of St. Augustine available from Monastery Icons]

Jesus commanded His disciples to pray this prayer, so let’s pause on our journey to consider why we recite it now, and not earlier—or later.

The ancient Fathers spoke about the placement of the Lord’s Prayer in this part of the service, right before Communion. Saint Augustine mused,

“Why is [the Our Father] recited before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ? Because human fragility is such that perhaps we entertained some improper thought…if perhaps such things have happened as a result of this world’s temptation and the weakness of human life, it is wiped clean by the Our Father, where it is said, ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’ that we might approach [the Eucharist] safely” (Sermo Denis 6).

[Icon of St. John Chrysostom from Eastern Gift Shop]

 

St. John Chrysostom wrote,

“At the time of the dread Mysteries, we will be able to say with a pure conscience the words of the prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’” (Homily on Ten Thousand Talents 83).

When at last the priest elevates the Body of Christ, he cries out, “The holy Gifts for the holy people of God!” In humility we sing in response, “One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, for the glory of God the Father, Amen,” knowing that any goodness we have comes from the holiness of Jesus Christ, for God’s glory.

The Destination: Reception of Holy Communion

At last it is time to receive Holy Communion, and the faithful sing the koinonikon, or communion hymn, usually Psalm 148:1: “Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the highest! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” We pray together the communion prayer that confesses our belief in Christ’s true presence in the elements, and we pray again for His mercy to make us worthy before we go forward. The chanters continue singing psalms as we queue up, so that we never receive Communion in silence. The timeless words of King David provide the soundtrack.

Taking in the View at a Scenic Turnout

Let’s pause again to observe the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the order and movement of the Church during this moment. Note that the chalice, filled with Christ’s sacred Body and precious Blood, is brought from the altar out to the people.

The symbolism in Orthodox architecture is profound. As Fr. Theodore explains,

The solea is the place between the holy altar and the people. Just as Orthodox Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, so the Orthodox Christian Temple is the fulfillment of the ancient Jewish Temple. The altar corresponds to the Holy of Holies. This is the place in antiquity where the high priest annually offered and sacrificed the unblemished lamb on the Day of Atonement. Today, this is where the celebrating priest offers the perfect and bloodless sacrifice—the Lamb of God—on the holy altar table.

The solea corresponds to the Holy Place where, in antiquity, the daily offerings and sacrifices were offered by the priests. … This is also the place where holy communion is distributed to the people.

[Photo of solea and iconostasis from the Catalog of Good Deeds blog, St. Elisabeth Convent]

Father Theodore continues, “Symbolically, this points to the reality of our Lord’s incarnation. Just as Christ in His divine humility was incarnated in human flesh, coming to us, so in the Divine Liturgy the chalice is brought to us on the solea, that we might partake of Him. We approach, and in a beautiful synergy He approaches us also.”

Gifts of Grace

Using our baptismal names (which may be different from the names we received at birth), the priest or deacon places the spoon in our mouths, praying a blessing over us. We have attained the summit, reaching the destination of our journey: receiving the precious and life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord.

[Photo of Fr. Theodore Dorrance and parishioners by Rob Horner]

Are we worthy? Of course not. And yet we pray to be made worthy.

Did we earn these Gifts by our holy lives? No way. As the communion prayer states, Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” We came to the Divine Liturgy to worship and to partake of His life, and He mystically gives Himself to us.

The service comes to a close very quickly after this with songs of praise and prayers of benediction. We leave, filled, for the liturgy after the liturgy—living out the life of Christ in the world. We will examine this concept in the final part of our Liturgy Survival Guide.

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