At the Last Supper Our Lord took bread, blessed it, broke it and said ‘Take eat. This is my Body’. The Orthodox Church believes that he meant what he said. Ever since the earliest days of the Church the Fathers insist that in Communion we receive not mere symbols, but the Body and Blood of Christ in the forms of bread and wine. Around the year 100, the great martyr, St Ignatios of Antioch, whom we call the ‘Godbearer’, wrote in his letter to the Romans, ‘I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was descended from David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible’. Theodore of Mopsuestia, a friend and fellow-student of St John Chrysostom, makes the point clearly, ‘When our Lord gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’ but, ‘This is my body.’ In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my blood,’ but, ‘This is my blood’; for he wanted us to look upon the bread and wine, after they had received grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit, not according to their nature, but to receive them as they are, the body and blood of our Lord. We should not think of them merely as bread and wine, but as the body and blood of the Lord, into which they have been transformed by the descent of the Holy Spirit’. St John Chrysostom himself puts it like this in his commentary on St Matthew’s gospel, ‘many people nowadays say, “I wish I could see his shape, his appearance, his clothes, his sandals.” Only look! You see him! You touch him! You eat him!’. We see him by faith, we see him with the eyes of the mind. As St John Chrysostom puts it, ‘Our Lord hands over to you in tangible things that which is perceived by the mind’
‘So that those who partake’
This is not to say that there have never been problems. Already St Ignatios knows of people who do not believe that the bread and wine become truly the Body and Blood of Christ. In his letter to the church of Smyrna he writes, ‘There are some people who abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his good-pleasure, raised from the dead’. In the West, particularly at the time of the Reformation, there was much controversy between Catholics and Protestants about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This has not been the case among the Orthodox, who have always that in the Mystery of the holy Eucharist the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we say in one of the prayers before Communion, ‘I believe, that this indeed your most pure Body, and that this is indeed your precious Blood’. The Orthodox could well make their own the answer that Queen Elizabeth I gave when she was asked her opinion on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist
He was the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it,
And what that word did make it,
That I believe, and take it
Every Liturgy is the liturgy of the whole Church, and the Church is the assembly – which is what the Greek word Ἐκκλησία means – of the all the members of the Body of Christ in every place and of every time. It is the sacrifice the Christ offered on Calvary made present here and now. In the Liturgy of St Basil at the moment of the Invocation we have the words, ‘this cup the precious blood of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, poured out for the life of the world’. And so we now associate all the Saints and all the departed with our local Liturgy. Every human being is saved by the Blood of Christ and so we can say that ‘we offer this spiritual worship for those who have gone to their in faith, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Apostles, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith; above all for our most holy, pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary’.
Axion Estin, Kyrie Eleison
Remembrance is a very import idea in Orthodoxy. The Liturgy itself is in memory of Our Lord, as we obey his command to ‘Do this in memory of me’. One of our favourite prayers and one which say just before Communion is that of the Good Thief, ‘Remember me, Lord, when you come in your Kingdom’. At funerals and memorial services the final prayer is always ‘Everlasting Memory’. And so at the most solemn part of the Liturgy we remember the living and the departed, and the priest and deacon now begin the reading of the Diptychs, that is the list names of the departed and the living, including the bishops, clergy and monastics, the whole church and the civil rulers. The word ‘diptych’ means ‘folded’, or ‘doubled’, and refers to the folded writing tablet on which the names were written. Originally the diptychs of the departed were introduced by the priest with the words, ‘Above all for our most pure Lady…’. The clergy would say the hymn to the Mother of God, ‘It is truly right to call you blessed’, quietly while the names of the departed were read out. This is explains why there is a censing at this point, as censing regularly takes place at commemorations the departed. Later on the reading of the names was dropped and the singers took over the hymn to the Mother of God. On great feasts the irmos of the ninth ode of the Canon of the feast is sung instead. The singing of the hymn to the Mother of God has had the unfortunate result that the rest of the prayer has, in effect, become detached from what comes before and that most people are almost unaware of the way in which the Church at this most solemn moment remembers before God all the living and all the departed.
Then follow the diptychs of the living, indicated by the priest’s chanting that for the bishop. In the old days the deacon would then read the names of the living, ending with the words, ‘And each and all’. The Greek means literally ‘And all [male] and all [female]’, but this is impossible in English! The older books still say that the deacon reads the diptychs of the living, but this is no longer done.
The great prayer of thanksgiving ends with a short series of ‘remembrances’, not unlike the petitions of the litanies, but which includes a remembrance of the poor. This reminds us that the Liturgy is not just about ourselves, reminds us that there are two great commandments, to love God and to love our fellow human beings. St John Chrysostom often ends his sermons by reminding his congregation that if they want to find Christ they will find him in the beggars that sit asking for alms outside the doors of the church.
In the Liturgy of Saint Basil this list of remembrances is very long and even includes a petition to God to remember the people we may have forgotten, ‘And those whom we have not remembered, through ignorance or forgetfulness or the number of the names, do you yourself remember, O God, who know the age and appellation of each, who know each from their mother’s womb’.
And so we come to the concluding doxology, with its insistence on the importance of unity, and that we are to come forward to share in the one Cup, ‘And grant that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise your all-honoured and majestic name, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages.
The people give their assent to all that has gone before, to the whole of the great prayer of thanksgiving, by their, ‘Amen’. This is very ancient and is described by St Justin, the Martyr, in about 155 AD, ‘when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying “Amen”; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons’. St Justin is writing for pagans and so tries to avoid technical Christian vocabulary. It is a pity that today this great ‘Amen’ is scarcely noticed. It should, ideally, be chanted by the whole congregation, and with emphasis.
Finally the priest solemnly blesses the people, who answer ‘And with your spirit’. There are only two places where this is the people’s reply. One is at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer and the other is here, at the end. On all other occasions they simply say, ‘And to your spirit’. The great prayer is framed by these two solemn greetings and responses.