The Divine Services Liturgy - 7
Last week, in our continuing study of the Divine Liturgy, we came to the most holy and sacred moment, when our offering of bread and wine is transformed into the very Body and Blood of Christ Himself. This great and holy Mystery, before which the angels tremble, is the most significant event of the liturgical service. Indeed, it is the most significant event which the Holy Church provides for mankind. If we truly understand and appreciate what is happening here, we must say that this transformation of the Holy Gifts, this descent of God upon the Holy Altar is the most significant event in our lives and in the whole world. What can compare to the majesty and mercy and mystery of God Himself participating in the life of His people in such an immediate and intimate way? For with the consecration of the Holy Gifts, Christ our Lord sacrifices Himself for us and rests upon the Holy Altar, the One Who offers and the One Who is offered.
Immediately after the Gifts have been offered and sanctified, the priest prays for those who will partake, that their communion may be unto sobriety of soul, unto the remission of sins, unto the communion of the Holy Spirit, unto the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, and unto boldness toward God; not unto our judgment or condemnation.
We pray for everyone and for everything. Christ is here before us now… we take this opportunity to pour out our hearts in love and praise and to ask Him for mercy and peace for everyone. The priest prays for the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, martyrs, for every righteous person, and then in a loud voice he prays ‘especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos, and Ever-Virgin Mary.’ The choir responds with a hymn of praise to the Mother of God, ‘It is truly meet…’
We then pray for the precious Gifts offered and sanctified, that our Lord will send down upon us the divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and for our other needs. The litany leads us up to the moment where we call upon our God as heavenly Father and say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father…’
As we stand before our Lord and Father here in Church, we must realize with warmth of heart our closeness to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We call upon God as ‘our Father’… for God indeed unites us through our participation in prayer and love for one another, through our common baptism, through our partaking from the same Chalice – uniting ourselves to Christ that we may indeed call upon God as our Father.
The priest then gives the blessing of peace to all and we bow our heads unto the Lord, praying that our offering and our petitions would be accepted and that we would be blessed at all times through Christ’s grace and compassion and love for mankind, together with the all-holy and good and life-giving Holy Spirit.
The priest then says the following private prayer, which beautifully and clearly illustrates the great Mystery which is taking place: ‘Attend O Lord Jesus Christ our God, out of Thy holy dwelling-place and from the glorious throne of Thy Kingdom, and come and sanctify us, O Thou that sittest with the Father on high, yet invisibly abidest here with us; and vouchsafe by Thy strong right hand to impart unto us Thy most pure Body and precious Blood, and through us to all Thy people.’ Christ sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and yet is here present before us in His Sacred Body and Blood.
The curtain is slowly closed at this time and the priest, crossing himself and praying that God would be merciful to him, a sinner, calls out in a loud voice ‘Holy Things are for the holy!’ At this moment, the priest lifts up the Lamb, that sanctified Body of Christ, and with fear and trembling, he breaks and divides the Lamb into four pieces saying: ‘Broken and divided is the Lamb of God; which is broken and not disunited; which is ever eaten and never consumed, but sanctifieth those that partake therof.’
While this is being done, the choir sings, ‘One is Holy. One is the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen. Praise ye the Lord from the Heaven, praise Him in the highest. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!’
‘Holy Things are for the holy’… Why is this said and what does it mean? The Holy Gifts which have been sanctified are intended for the faithful Orthodox Christians who have properly prepared themselves to receive Holy Communion. While we acknowledge that no-one is worthy, that there is only One Who is holy, our Lord Jesus Christ, nevertheless, through God’s great mercy and through our humble preparation, we may receive these Divine Gifts.
And how are we to prepare? I find that not everyone is clear on this… so let’s spend a moment making sure we understand the Church’s expectations for us in preparing ourselves to go to Holy Communion.
First of all, those who are intending to receive Holy Communion should make every effort to have attended the Vigil service the preceding evening. The Vigil service is directly connected to our celebration of the Liturgy and provides us with the fullness of our liturgical worship of God.
Second, there are specific and greatly beneficial prayers of preparation before Communion which should be read by all pious Orthodox Christians intending to go to Holy Communion. The proper order of preparatory prayers includes three Canons, an Akathist, the Canon of Preparation, and the Prayers of Preparation Before Communion. These prayers, which are found in our prayer book, should be read with attention and feeling. We should fight against treating these prayers as our ‘checklist’… the whole point of these prayers is to soften our hearts toward repentance and gratitude and hope.
Third, we must observe the fasts and especially the rule that from midnight on the evening before communing, we take no food or drink until we break our fast with the Divine Body and Blood of our Lord. (Exceptions are made for those who must take medicines, but otherwise a strict fast should be maintained.)
Fourth, we should be present for the entire liturgy. We should be here from the beginning and we should remain in church with our utmost attention throughout the liturgy as we participate and prepare to receive the Divine Gifts.
Finally, we should spend some days in reflection to recollect ourselves and our actions as we prepare for Confession. Those who will dare to approach the Chalice must prepare with a sincere and honest repentance – confessing their sins before God in the presence of His priest.
These points of preparation are not imposed upon us to make life difficult. These things are prescribed for us so that we may cleanse ourselves and make the best possible preparation to receive our Lord. In receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we have the great blessing and privilege of inviting the Lord Himself into the house of our soul. How should we prepare the house of our soul to receive such an honored guest? It is not appropriate for us just waltz into the church at the last moment and dare to approach the chalice. We must make our house ready, we must clean it up through prayer, fasting, and repentance – sweeping it clean and ‘rolling out the spiritual red carpet’, as it were, to show the proper respect and honor and awe for the King of Heaven Who deigns to come and abide with us.
Our Lord offers ‘Holy Things for the holy’… We are far from holy, but through the grace and mercy of God, He deigns to enter under the roof of the house of our soul.
As we said earlier, the Lamb is divided into four pieces. The first piece is placed into the chalice, the second piece is prepared for the clergy to eat. The third and fourth pieces are cut into small portions for the communion of the people. These are then placed into the chalice. Just as our Lord took the bread and blessed it and broke it for distribution to His disciples, so does the priest, with fear and trembling, cut the Lamb into portions for the people.
Fr Stephanos Anagnostopoulos, in his ‘Experiences During the Divine Liturgy’ clarifies for us: ‘Divided and distributed is the Lamb of God’. The Lamb of God is cut into small pieces, yet It is not divided. Even though the portion that each faithful communes may be small, nevertheless, the whole Precious Bread, the whole Body of our Lord, the One and undivided Lamb of God, Who gave His life on the Precious Cross for the salvation of the whole world, is imparted to us.’
When all is prepared, the curtain is pulled back and the Royal Doors are opened. Just as the stone was rolled away from the tomb, the Risen Lord is now brought before the people!
Next week we will talk about the Communion of the people and the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy. Until then, may our Lord Who presents Himself to us be ever present in our lives!