Behind the Icon Screen: The Journey of the Bread & the Wine

My husband Rob played guitar in a worship band for a small church plant that we had been attending. The little church, which focused on ministry to immigrants, was part of the charismatic Foursquare denomination, and we met on Sunday evenings in the sanctuary of a large, established church that was Evangelical Presbyterian.

Soon Rob and I would discover Orthodoxy, but at the time we were all over the religious map in our search for . . . something more. We were alternating between Anglican and Foursquare churches—formal liturgical services and services that featured the raising of hands, spontaneous public praying, and sometimes speaking in tongues. God help us. (And . . . He did.)

The band at this church rehearsed in an older chapel on the campus before our evening meal and service. One day they walked inside the chapel, and something was sitting on the altar table. Rob stepped over for a closer look and saw a dried-out piece of bread on a plate and a communion chalice with a scum of mildew floating on top of the liquid, which was likely grape juice.

[Image from whyy.org]

Except for our brief Anglican experience, the churches we had been attending for years were of the Anabaptist variety, affirming only two sacraments—baptism and communion—and believing that they had no actual spiritual power and effected no change in believers. They were mere symbols.

Even so, Rob was scandalized that someone at the home church had forgotten the communion elements. They must have been left there for days. “Even if you think this is just a symbol,” he mused, “why are you letting the symbol rot?” 

This is the church we were attending when I reached a point of despair in our Protestant journey, which I wrote about in my very first blog post for Ancient Faith in November of 2018. That congregation was filled with committed, sincere Christians who were doing beautiful work with the poor in the surrounding community. They were also quite lax and casual in their approach to worship. This laxity stretched to the point of disregard for the symbols of God.

I’m quite sure that allowing the bread and wine to mold was an accident. But that accident says a lot about ritual, respect, and the lack of belief that material things can be holy.

Of course, we Orthodox also can be guilty of treating the things of God as routine. We can be so absorbed in our own struggles that we are unable to “set aside all earthly cares” and offer genuine worship to the Holy Trinity and proper reverence for the saints. But I guarantee that this neglect of the elements of communion would never happen in an Orthodox church. Never. Because, despite our many sins and flaws, we know that “the holy things are for the holy people of God.”

Our clergy must follow many procedures in the handling of the elements of the Eucharist, and once the bottles of wine have been brought into the church and the prosphora bakers have delivered the loaves of bread, these physical items are handled reverently, protected, covered, and completely consumed. No leftovers allowed. This is because the ancient Church has always believed that the bread and the wine are truly the Body and Blood of our Lord. They are far more than symbols. As St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote about the heretics in AD 107, 

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, that flesh which suffered for our sins but which the Father raised in his kindness. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7.1

In the previous blog posts we examined the first two services of preparation: the Kairos prayers and the Vesting prayers. The last of these services is the Proskomide, the preparation of the bread and the wine for the Liturgy. But in this post I’m not going to deal directly with the various steps of this service. There are multiple videos on YouTube that explain them far better than I could, and the visuals really help. Just search for “orthodox service of preparation” or something close to that, and you’ll find lots of information. There is a very nice, 14-minute video from the GOA that I recommend, called We Offer These Gifts: The Proskomide Service.

Instead, we will focus here on the journey of the wine and the bread: what happens to them and how they are protected and respected, behind the icon screen and out among the people. But in order to appreciate these things, we need to look at the big picture of how the Eucharist fits into our lives.

Eucharistic Humanity

I want to give a shout-out to Fr. Theodore Dorrance, head priest at St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Church in Greenwood Village, Colorado, who shared his insights with me about the deeper meanings of our participation in the Eucharist, as well as the details of the journey of the bread and the wine. 

[Photo by Rob Horner]

In the liturgical life of the Church, the Divine Liturgy is the heart and soul of our worship, and Fr. Theodore describes the Eucharist as the center of the bull’s-eye. He recently stated, “To be truly human is to be a eucharistic being. . . . If we were to think about what makes up bread and what makes up wine in the broadest sense, it is our entire being and all of creation.” 

Let’s take a few moments to think about that. The wheat and the grapes are, of course, part of the earth and the cycle of seasons. They require the sun and the rain, human participation with irrigation, nutrients, and generational knowledge to grow them, and the farmers’ care and concern and trust in God. We are co-creators with God in tilling the earth and producing a harvest. 

When we receive the Eucharist, Fr. Theodore states, 

Then we receive, in a sense, the culmination of the offering of thanksgiving into our own bodies: Christ’s body and Christ’s blood. His flesh. His blood. His life for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. So that’s a really broad sense of the journey of the bread and the journey of the wine.

As St. John Chrysostom, who wrote the Divine Liturgy that we use most often during the year, preached in the fourth century:

What the Lord did not endure on the Cross (the breaking of His legs), He submits to now in His sacrifice for His love for you. He permits Himself to be broken into pieces that all may be filled. What is in the chalice is the same as that which flowed from Christ’s side. What is the Bread? Christ’s Body. Not only ought we to see the Lord, we ought to take Him and unite ourselves with Him in the closest union.

Let’s begin by following the journey of the bread, which requires an involved process of preparation. 

The Bread

[Photo from the website of St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Church, Beaver Falls, PA]

Volunteers bake prosphora, which means “offering” in Greek, usually at home. They use a special seal to stamp the top of the round loaf before baking it and taking it to the church. (By the way, prosphora baking is a wonderful service to the Church that intimately connects the bakers to the Eucharist. The Divine Liturgy is truly the “work of the people.”)

The seal is a large circle, with the shape of the cross inside it and the Greek letters that in English look like ICXC NIKA, meaning “Jesus Christ conquers.” The priest cuts out the center portion of the loaf, known as the Lamb, to be placed in the Communion Chalice along with wine mixed with water.

During the entire process of the preparation of the gifts, the priest prays many Old Testament verses with the theme of the sacrifice of Christ. The Lamb is placed on a raised plate called a paten or diskos, then the priest begins a series of commemorations, praying for various categories of the saints and for the church. While he prays, he removes portions of bread from the loaf, placing small crumbs on the paten to represent the people he prays for. 

In the video We Offer These Gifts: The Proskomide Service, Rev. Fr. Anton Vrame says of the process of placing the Lamb and particles of bread on the paten, “By the end of this, Christ will be surrounded by His Church—the Theotokos, the angels and saints, the living and the dead.”

Once the Lamb has been removed to place in the Chalice, the remaining  prosphora is cut into pieces by an altar server during the service and put in a bowl. These pieces are called antidoron, meaning “instead of the gifts.” This blessed bread is then offered from the bowl to everyone in the church, including the non-Orthodox, for eating after receiving the Eucharist and at the end of the service.

The Wine

The Communion Chalice contains wine with a little water mixed in. As the priest pours the water into the Chalice, he recites words from John 19:34, which states that when the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side while He was on the Cross, “out poured blood and water.” The amount of wine that the priest pours into the Chalice depends on an estimate of the number of laity and clergy who will be present for the Liturgy.

For example, a weekday Liturgy with only a few people attending does not require much wine. In my large parish, three chalices are often used on a Sunday. But regardless of the size of the congregation, the priest never fills the Chalice up to the brim. As Fr. Theodore says, he is “cautious not to fill it and spill it.”

[Photo by Rob Horner]

The wine used for the Eucharist is almost always a sweet red wine, but no specific type is required. The wine that was available in the centuries before a modern global economy depended on the type of grapes that grew in the part of the world where the believers lived. My parish uses a wine from Greece and Cyprus that is called commandaria. It tastes a bit like a port. (I feel very weird talking about the Eucharist as if I’m doing a wine tasting. The point is, individual parishes use a variety of wines.)

Orthodox believers in Mediterranean countries practice a lovely tradition at the Feast of Transfiguration, which is celebrated eachyear on August 6th. The first harvest of grapes is brought to the local parish to be blessed, and these grapes then are made into the communion wine for the following year. This practice connects our Lord’s Transfiguration to the transfiguring of the wine into the Blood of Christ. 

[Photo by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash]

This is a beautiful practice that truly connects the land, the fruits of the earth, and human labor to the offering of the Eucharist. Most of us in modern times are disconnected from this reality. I’m a suburban gal, and I have never grown wheat, harvested it, and taken the grain to the local miller to be ground into flour. I have never grown my own grapes and made my own wine. I think those in agrarian communities have a deep, experiential understanding of the prayers of the Holy Anaphora when the priest chants, “Your own of Your own we offer to You, in all and for all.” They have a personal understanding of growing and harvesting wheat and grapes, then taking these Gifts and offering them back to God.

The bread and the wine are referred to as the Gifts until the Holy Spirit transforms them through the prayers of the priest into the Body and the Blood of our Lord. This is a powerful example of the Liturgy as the work of the people as God cooperates with human effort in the Eucharist. 

Now let’s consider how the Gifts are handled from the moment they arrive at the church building.

Handling of the Gifts

After commemorations of the living and the dead in the Proskomide service, the priest covers the Gifts, and they will remain covered until they are offered to the people. He blesses the incense, then the golden asterisk, a sort of four-pointed star on legs that reminds us of the star of Bethlehem. The asterisk is placed on the paten to keep the veils, or coverings, from touching the bread.

The priest places a beautiful, embroidered veil over the bread and asterisk, and one over the Chalice. Father Anton notes, “The veils remind us of the swaddling clothes of the Lord at his birth, or the shroud he wore at his burial.” Finally the aer is placed over the bread and the wine. This rectangular cloth is decorated with an icon of the Burial of Christ. The themes of Incarnation and Burial are prominent in this service.

Next the priest censes the covered Gifts and completes the service with a final blessing and prayer, then kisses the aer. The Gifts are now ready for the Divine Liturgy. They are not set aside on a shelf, and they are not left unprotected and exposed to the possibility of contamination.

The Bread and the Wine during the Divine Liturgy

Those of us who are laypeople don’t really see the Gifts until the Great Entrance, when the Chalice and the paten, covered with their veils, are processed through the nave. The senior priest always carries the Chalice, and a junior priest or deacon carries the paten with the Lamb under the covered asterisk. If a priest is serving alone, the Chalice is always in his right hand and the paten in his left.

[Photo by Rob Horner]

The Divine Liturgy occurs in kairos time, or God’s time, which is the eternal present. You might have noticed something unusual, at least to our rational minds, in the prayers after the Gifts are returned to the altar. Before the priest asks God to “send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon the gifts here presented,” he offers this prayer:

Remembering, therefore, this saving commandment and all that has been done for our sake: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming again.

Did you catch that last part? We remember all of salvation history: the Cross, Tomb, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ in the past; His enthronement at the right hand of God in the present; and we r emember “the second and glorious coming again,” which will happen in the future. In Christ’s Church, all of these events are mystically in the present.

Following His Ascension, the Lord sits with his Heavenly Father in the heavens and at the same time, He is present with the faithful Christians in the Divine Liturgy. . . . His Presence fills the earth . . . and the heavens! Thus, together with Christ, the Christian who is in the Church and communes is at the same time on earth and in heaven. — St. John Chrysostom

The eucharistic prayer that occurs next is called the Holy Anaphora. Anaphora is a Greek word (ἀναφορά) meaning “offering up,” and it is the thanksgiving prayer by which the offering of bread and wine  are consecrated. After the Anaphora, the bread and the wine are no longer called the Gifts; we refer to them as the Body and the Blood of our Lord, because the mystical transformation has occurred. They are finally uncovered when the Eucharist is served to the people. 

Altar servers hold a communion cloth under the Chalice to catch any spills as the faithful open their mouths to receive the Body and Blood from the spoon. Sometimes a crumb of bread might fall on the cloth, and the assistants are watching for this. If it happens, the priest immediately eats it so that it doesn’t fall to the floor.

After Communion

When all the believers who are prepared to receive have partaken of the Eucharist, the elements are placed on the prothesis, or table of preparation, which is to the left of the altar from the congregation’s perspective. The table is behind the icon screen and isn’t visible unless you are up on the solea, peering into the altar.

The bread and wine that remain in the Chalice are now consumed by any of the ordained clergy who are present. Multiple clergy can consume what remains, and the timing of this varies. For example, while the priest is making announcements after the end of the service, another priest and deacon might consume the elements. If the priest is serving alone, he will consume them later.

Why do they do this? Well, you can probably guess at this point. The Body and Blood of our Lord should not be dumped in the trash or poured down the sink. They are certainly not left to mold. They must be completely consumed, accompanied by prayers of thanksgiving.

Father Theodore shared a specific method for making sure that every last bit of bread and wine are eaten: The clergy member uses the spoon to eat as much of the remaining wine-soaked bread as possible. Next he drinks about 90% of the wine, using the spoon again to remove the remaining particles that are still present, then finishes the rest of the wine in the Chalice.

But the process still is not complete. A miniscule amount of bread and wine might be left in the Chalice, so hot water is used to clean out the inside and the rim. Usually a communion cloth is used for the cleaning. Our parish has a lot of communion cloths: they are red and have a gold cross embroidered on one of the corners. Once the vessels are completely clean and empty, they are covered on the table of preparation until the next service of preparation. Even though none of the Eucharist remains in them, they are covered for the same reason most people put their drinking glasses in a cupboard: to keep away dust and insects.

If you’ve been following the progress of the bread and the wine closely, you might be thinking about all those cloths that have soaked up portions of the bread and the wine. They too are handled with great care.

The Communion Cloths

All of the communion cloths, whether used to clean the Chalice and paten or to catch any spills from the Eucharist, are placed in a plastic or metal basin. After a few liturgies have been served and the basin begins to fill up, the cloths must be washed.

[Photo by Rob Horner]

They are not tossed in the washing machine or hand washed in the sink. The water from the sink or the washer goes into pipes and on into the sewer system. The Body and Blood of Christ do not belong in the sewer, so the cloths are laundered in the same way that baptismal garments are cleaned after the newly illumined are baptized and chrismated with holy oil. They are washed in the basin with hot water and a bit of liquid soap, then wrung out, and the soapy water is thrown in the grass or garden. (I like to think of these yards and gardens as particularly blessed.)

This process is repeated two more times to ensure that none of the Eucharist remains in the fabric. After the three washings, the cloths are dried, ironed, and folded so that the cross in the corner is on top. They are then returned to the church to be used again.

Superstition or Reality?

Does all this caution feel like overkill to you? When I first began to learn about the care given to the Eucharist and every item that touches it, I was both deeply moved and weirded out. Part of me thought, “This is reverent and right. This is the way the Eucharist should be treated.” But another part of me felt that these procedures were a bit—I don’t know—superstitious? An excess of literalism?

[Photo of Lord’s Supper unit from Living Grace catalogue]

But I realized that the skeptical part of me has been marinated in the rationalism and materialism of the Western world my entire life. In addition, my religious life had been spent mostly in the rationalistic Evangelical view of communion, that the bread and the wine—or, in most cases, grape juice—are exactly what they appear to be and function merely as a memorial supper. As I discussed earlier this year in the post “Little Plastic Cups and Motley Communion Experiences,”  I have even experienced large-scale communion services that used self-contained Lord’s Supper units, with the cracker and grape juice sealed together in individual servings. I can guarantee that those servings are kept in the boxes they were packaged in until it’s time to distribute them. I can also guarantee that the word “Eucharist” does not appear anywhere in the labeling.

But when the Orthodox Church states that the bread and the wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ, we are not speaking metaphorically. This is not sentimental thinking or a strange philosophical construct. The ancient Church has always believed that the bread and the wine are truly His Body and Blood. The Roman Catholic Church added the concept of transubstantiation to explain how this occurs—a sign of the rationalism of that particular faith—but we Orthodox simply accept it as a mystery. And mystery does not mean metaphor. The Body and Blood are real and must be venerated and protected. This is why spills are a big deal.

Handling Spills

Accidents happen because we humans are clumsy. In my years in the Orthodox Church, I have seen dribbles and spills of the Eucharist three times and have observed how they are handled. I probably missed a few steps—this information comes from my observation. 

First, a communion cloth was draped over the area of the spill to soak up the wine, and the priest or deacon moved a few steps in front of the spill before continuing to serve the Eucharist. These actions prevent people from trampling the Body and the Blood. 

[Photo from HGTV.com]

Carpeting in a church makes the situation much more complicated. Several years ago I observed my priest after the service at the scene of a spill. He knelt and attempted to draw as much of the spill as possible into his mouth. But there is no way to completely extract the elements from carpeting, so the piece of carpet and padding that absorbed the spill were actually cut away. As you know by now, that piece of carpet that absorbed the Eucharist does not belong in the trash. So it was taken away and burned, then a new piece of carpet and padding were cut to patch the hole.

My parish has been remodeled since then, and, believe me, marble floors make spills much easier to deal with.

There are no doubt many details that I haven’t covered here. The Eucharist is served at every Divine Liturgy, which means that many of us receive it weekly, and maybe even more often because of Saturday and weekday services. It is easy for the familiar to become routine, so receiving communion can become a thoughtless, prayer-less habit. 

But the Orthodox Church takes such care with the bread and the wine because we believe that Jesus really meant what He said: 

[Icon of the Last Supper from Orthodox Wiki]

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” — John 6:53-58

***

In our next blog post I will be taking a trip down memory lane, thinking about the Bible verses I was encouraged to learn during my Protestant years. In “The Scriptures I Never Memorized,” we’ll discuss what these memory verses taught—and what they omitted. I hope you can join me.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for such an enlightening description!
    I also watched the recommended video on the Proskimede service; very good!
    As a Protestant minister/pastor, I have long been “convicted” of the Orthodox teaching concerning the Body and Blood of our Savior being real; a “mystery.” In fact, this past Sunday, I preached from John 6 when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Interesting that many followers could not handle his words and turned away.
    Keep the posts coming! I am always challenged and blessed by them.

    1. Thanks, Pastor Jeff! It took courage for you to preach from John 6. It’s hard to wiggle around the meaning when Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (v. 51). This passage obviously will make the list of “Verses I Never Memorized” next time. In the nondenominational church we attended for many years, the pastors always quoted from Luke 22 for the communion service. It’s missing those uncomfortable words from John. 🙂

  2. How fascinating!
    I admit, as a curious outsider (I don’t know how to describe myself, but that works I guess) I am fascinated by the “realness” of Orthodox communion, but also kind of terrified. (Of what? not really sure….)
    Anyway thanks!!

    1. Maybe being terrified comes from the seriousness of the Eucharist. I hope terror turns to reverence for you!

  3. Learned so much from this article- thank you! I LOVE how the Orthodox pay such reverent respect to details concerning the Eucharist.

  4. Morning,

    There’s much I am grateful for about this blog and the pods. I’m about to start catechumen classes. The blogs/pods including this one have opened and deepend my understanding as well as blown wide the doors of my experience/engagement.

    I’ve been blessed to be able to listen and then follow through experientially with an amazing priest who has engaged my enquiry be it observing the Proskemidi or vestment service.

    Sunday is now my joy day and listening out for the prayers, sun singing, hearing what is being said just fill me.

    There are a number of us journeying and I have recommended the podcast to them all. I also want to thank you for the recommendation of Fr Harakas’ book.

    Please keep it all coming

    Dawid (Liverpool, England)

    1. I’m so happy to hear this, Dawid. May God richly bless you and your fellow catechumens and inquirers as you journey toward the ancient Church!

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