The first Pokrov leaflet on the Eucharist was published in time for Easter, Pascha with which is it intimately connected. The Lord told His disciples – and us – to do it in remembrance of Him. The greatest event of His life is the Resurrection and thus the Eucharist is a joyous proclamation that Christ is risen. Now that the Easter period is over, the Church looks forward to Pentecost. The Risen Lord ascends with His human nature to sit at the right hand of the Father and to send the Holy Spirit (Who proceeds from the Father) to the Church of the Apostles. Now we look at the shape of the Eucharistic liturgy with the accent on the Holy Spirit.
On the night He celebrated the Mystical Supper Christ told His disciples that it is better for them that He leaves, for then the Comforter can come to continue His work on Earth. On the day of Pentecost the ‘Church of the Holy Spirit’* is born. Since that day, the Church – led invisibly by its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ – continues the work of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit. This happens essentially in the Eucharistic liturgy, a Mystery that energises the existential perception of Christ in our midst through the sanctification of us – and the gifts of Bread and Wine, in which we commune (that is, interact) with Christ and with each other. This enables us to feel the union of love with God and our brothers and sisters in the Church, the Body of Christ. The key role here belongs to the Comforter. In the prayer of the Eucharistic canon, we ask God the Father to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify us- and the Holy Gifts.
The Eucharistic liturgy is a remembrance of Christ’s life as a timeless entry into it, a contemplation of it and a participation in it. In a structural sense, the liturgy consists of three parts corresponding to the three periods of Christ’s life: His birth, His ministry and His passion, death, resurrection and ascension.
Before the Liturgy as a communal event begins, the priest performs a preparation of the bread and wine and commemorates the living and the dead. This section is a contemplation of Bethlehem, the Incarnation, as well as the purpose of the Incarnation. He is born to become the Lamb of God, the gift of love for our sanctification with God’s humanity, according to St Gregory the Theologian (4th century). That sanctification occurs in the life of the Church, contemplated in the graphic arrangement of the bread on the discos, a round metal plate with a stem that represents the world. A cube-shaped ‘Lamb’ is cut out of the prosphora stamped with a cross and the letters IC XC NIKA – ‘Jesus Christ wins’. The prosphora, baked from two round parts of dough, represents the divine and human natures of Christ. The Lamb is cut from it with words said from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (Chapter 53), contemplating the suffering Messiah being led to the slaugher as the Lamb of God. The Lamb prepared from the bread is used for consecration at the third part of the Liturgy. It is placed in the centre of the discos, as Christ is the Head of the Church. Wine with a tiny quantity of water is poured into the chalice at this point. Small triangular particles are cut out of the bread (prosphora) to represent the Mother of God and nine orders of saints (John the Baptist, the prophets, the apostles, the holy hierarchs, the martyrs, the ascetics, the unmercenary healers, the saints of the day and the author of the liturgy being served), as well as the living and the dead. These particles represent the Church around its Head. Names of the living and the dead, commemorated with particles added to the discos from other prosphoras, complete the picture of the Church. Before the Liturgy begins, the priest places a cruciform asterisk representing the star of Bethlehem (and the Cross) over the Lamb. The vessels are then ‘wrapped’ in sewn covers, representing swaddling clothes of Baby Jesus as well as His burial shroud. These two covers are cross-shaped and ‘wrap’ around the discos and the chalice. A larger cloth called the ‘air’ is placed over both vessels. This term comes from the use of the ‘air’ later in the Liturgy, waved above the Gifts during the singing/reading of the Creed. This motion is symbolic of the Spirit as in many languages the words for ‘spirit’, ‘breath’ and ‘wind’ are the same or similar. When the prepared Gifts are covered this way, the priest (or the deacon, if one is serving) censes the Gifts completing this first part of the Liturgy (‘proscomede’ = offering). He continues censing the altar and the Church in preparation for the beginning of the Liturgy of catechumens.
This should complete our description of the first part of the Eucharistic service. We will need another instalment or even two to give a meaningful picture of the whole Liturgy. The Eucharist needs more explanation than the other Mysteries because it is so central in the life of the Church.
Archpriest Nicholas Karipoff
*Expression of ancient Church writer Tertullian; the title of the book by Archpriest Nicolas Afanasieff