The Eucharist proper: the opening dialogue and Anaphora (eucharistic prayer)–Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, continued

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on November 10, 2008 at 4:08 am

Now we come to the high point of the Divine Liturgy in which we “offer the sacrifice of praise, giving thanks unto the Lord.”

The Anaphora: the dialogue

The climax of the Divine Liturgy now takes place. The holy anaphora, the oblation or “offering up (to God)”, now begins.  A very special dialogue serves to awaken and employ the highest human sensitivity: the noetic, or spiritual faculty of the soul. After the call to attentiveness, the deacon says, “that we may offer the holy oblation in peace” and the faithful add to this a further description of the oblation, thus defining it: “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” The due sacrifice to God amounts to “the weightier matters of the Law: judgment, mercy and faith” (Matthew 23: 23). “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6: 8).

Before the prayer of the anaphora is uttered, the priest bestows the apostolic blessing, from the earliest times of the Church’s life: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!” With this blessing, all is in order for the liturgical act. Apostolic orders and blessing have been given; it remains to fulfill them. The faithful have already “laid aside” all earthly cares; now they are exhorted to an even higher, noetic awareness: “Let us lift up our hearts!” The wording suggests a specific action here, not just mental attention, but something much more profound—spiritual attentiveness: “Hold your hearts upward!” “We hold them toward the Lord.” All join together now for the Eucharist per se, “let us give thanks unto the Lord” (in Greek, eucharistesomen). To this the laity, by singing the initial words, urges the celebrant to begin the anaphora proper, “It is truly meet and right.”

The anaphora proper

The anaphora itself is a mighty condensation of the whole of the apostolic eucharistic tradition. In it we hear all about “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2: 11). As mentioned at the beginning, there are various “liturgies” in use in the Orthodox Church: most commonly, those of St James, of St Basil, and of St John Chrysostom, in chronological order. Each of these differs most clearly in the variety in size and content of the anaphora.  Yet other liturgies exist as well, but are not widely used today. Each of these liturgies receives its name from the saint who composed the anaphora in it. In the beginning, the apostles and their successors prayed and eucharistized, “according to their ability” (St Justin the martyr, First Apology, 67, written c. A.D. 150). As the faith spread, there was an increasing need for the distillation of this holy Eucharist, especially as the bishops ordained presbyters to serve in their absence, since they could not be present themselves at every eucharistic synaxis. Thus, the written anaphorae came into being as we now have them.

The anaphora falls into three distinct sections, the juncture of each of which is marked by a special hymn sung by the people.  The initial expression of thanks to God for His mighty acts culminates with the singing of the thrice-holy, directly using the words of the angelic hosts themselves, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of sabaoth (a Hebrew word which means “armies [of angels]”)…”  Then, the center of the anaphora, the second section, stresses the manifestation of the love of God by the offering of the Son. Many people, even heterodox, love that verse in St John’s Gospel which occurs in this section, “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that whosoever should believe in Him, would have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The remembrance of the economy of salvation is developed at much greater length in the Liturgy of St Basil. The culmination of this section is the rehearsal of the very words of our Lord Himself, uttered by the celebrating priest, as though Christ were physically present, “Take, eat, this is My Body… Drink of this, all of you. This is My Blood…” After these holy words which provide a unique authorization for the whole of the Liturgy, the deacon (or priest) elevates both the diskos and chalice, holding them in a cross-wise fashion. With this action, the anaphora comes to the apex of human ability.  This is our offering, the simple basics of life, through which the Life of the world will come to us. “Wine maketh glad the heart of man… and bread strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 103: 16-17). With the elevation, the priest intones very solemnly, “Thine own, of thine own, we offer to Thee, in behalf of all and for all.” In such a short expression the priesthood of the whole body of the Church is expressed. Together, clergy and laity, the whole of creation, “Thine own,” is voluntarily offered back to God Who gave it. And this with a special purpose: for the salvation and reconciliation of the whole of creation, “in behalf of all and for all.” This is the ministry of Jesus Christ in miniature; this is the ministry of the Church in depth—to bring all back to God, voluntarily, in the freedom of love.

Immediately, the choir appends a sung augmentation to the words that the priest just uttered: “we hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks (eucharistoumen) to Thee, O Lord, and we pray to Thee, O our God.” This is meant as a completion of the priest’s words. Among many other things, this should emphasize that the liturgy is accomplished by the whole synaxis, not just the priest alone.


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