After the proclamation of the Creed by the whole Assembly, we begin the most solemn part of the Liturgy, the great prayer of thanksgiving, at the heart of which we obey the command that Our Lord gave us at the Last Supper, to take bread and wine and to eat and drink them in remembrance of what he did for us in his Passion, Death and Resurrection; to take bread and wine which will become by the power of the Holy Spirit his Body and Blood.
The Prayer goes back originally to the prayers of blessing which were used in the time of Our Lord and are still said by our Jewish brothers and sisters over bread and wine. In the Gospel we read how Jesus, when he was about to feed the five thousand, ‘took the loaves and, when he had given thanks (εὐχαρίστησε), he distributed them to the disciples’.
Fifth Century mosaic in the Church at Taghba in Galilee,
the traditional site of the Feeding of the Five Thousand
In the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus on the first Easter day, as told by St Luke, we read that, ‘As he was sitting with them at table, he took the bread, said the blessing (εὐλόγησε), broke it and gave it to them’.
At important moments of the Liturgy, and at other services, the Deacon, or Priest invites the people to pay attention, ‘Wisdom! Stand upright!’, ‘Let us attend!’ Before the Great Prayer the invitation is especially solemn, ‘Let us stand with awe. Let stand with fear. Let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace’. It is not only the Priest who offers the holy oblation; it is the whole congregation who offers with the Priest. The whole Prayer concerns us, ‘We thank you’, ‘We cry aloud and say’ and so on. It is we who must ‘offer the holy oblation in peace’. Once again we are reminded that peace and love are absolutely necessary if we are truly to take part in the mystery of God’s love for us. So we reply, ‘Mercy and peace: a sacrifice of praise’. Our offering is to show mercy and love. This is our sacrifice. In the Old Testament God tells us plainly, ‘It is mercy I want, not sacrifice; knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’. The Prophet Isaias puts the matter very clearly at the very beginning of his prophecy. He tells the people that ‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel does not know me, and the people has not understood me.’ This is where the ox and the ass that we see in the icon of the Nativity come from. They are not there as just Christmas decorations, but to ask us a serious question, ‘Do you know your Master? Have you understood who I am?’
The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib
The prophet goes on to remind us that true religion is about ‘mercy and peace’ justice and love of our fellow human beings, not simply splendid services. As we begin the solemn Prayer of Thanksgiving let us pay attention to his warning, ‘What do I care for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings. I take no pleasure in the blood of calves, lambs and goats. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: I cannot bear them. I detest your new moons and festivals; they weigh me down, I am tired of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you. Though you pray even more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; stop doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.’ Try replacing some of this list with ‘Artoklasies’, ‘Mnimosuna’, ‘Paraclesies’. What really matters is what is in our hearts. That is what God looks at, not the mere outward performance.
His All-holiness the Œcumenical Patriarch Bartholemew
Next follows a solemn dialogue between the Priest and People. First the Priest greets the People with the closing words of St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ All that we do, above all the divine Liturgy, we do in the name of the most holy Trinity. We answer, ‘And with your spirit’, the Spirit that dwells in every baptised Christian, but also, as St John Chrysostom points out, the Spirit by whose power the bread and wine will become the Body and Blood of Christ.