In sacramental Christian traditions, the rite of Holy Communion is the central act of worship. It constitutes a center from which all other aspects of the Christian life are supposed to radiate and to which they are supposed to return. It is known by many names: the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, the Lord's Supper (a name less used in sacramental traditions), and the Eucharist (from the Greek eucharistos, meaning "thanksgiving," deriving from the Prayer of Thanksgiving which lies at its heart). The excerpt that immediately follows describes, in considerably simplified form, a typical celebration of the Divine Liturgy within the Eastern Orthodox Church:8
Nowhere does the power of liturgical worship to create a separate reality out of ordinary time and space, a reality in which the truths and deepest hopes of faith seem to become tangible, show itself more clearly than in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox church. The interior of the church building itself is truly like the household of God and a foretaste of heaven. It will probably be ornamented in the brightest of colors, gold to suggest the glory of eternity and red to hint at divine splendor. In the dome overhead may be painted Christ as Pantocrator, enthroned as ruler of the universe, surrounded by his saints and angels. To the front may be the infant King in the arms of his mother, a grave and wise woman who has become no less than a personification of divine wisdom.
All around the church are icons ..., those characteristic Orthodox church objects of devotion which so well express its sense that heaven, eternity, is all around us all the time, imminently able to break through into the world of time. Icons are richly luminous paintings of Christ or a saint [or a biblical scene], done according to [the strict] ... conventions [of Sacred Tradition] to represent the Holy One in his or her glorified, heavenly aspect, and opening the viewer into that transcendent reality. Orthodox people light candles and pray before the icons, and also kiss [them] .... Usually a church will have a prominent icon at the doorway [corresponding to the day or season of the liturgical calendar], for greeting upon entry, and others perhaps adorn the walls. The greatest assemblage, however, will be on the iconostasis, or icon screen, a splendid partition that separates the congregation from the altar. Like a visible face of heaven before earth, or a wall of glory shielding its deepest mysteries, the iconostasis is ablaze with saints in their holy magnificence. The iconostasis also contains [doors] . . . through which robed ministers process in and out during the service, like envoys from another world [the Kingdom of God, the World to Come], to read the Gospel or to present the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. In the center is an opening [the Royal Doors], over which a curtain can be drawn at the most sacred moments, and through which the priest is visible standing at the altar. For, in the Eastern Christian tradition, that which is most holy is screened [but never opaquely and never closed off entirely], and allowed to abide in its transcendent mystery.
But if the church is a place of magnificence worthy of its divine proprietor, it is also a household, and there one who belongs can also feel at home. People of the Orthodox tradition treat their churches with a peculiar combination of reverent awe and informality that is not quite matched in Western Christianity. The devotion with which they kiss the icons and pray with the offering of the divine mysteries is unswerving, yet they also move about the church to light candles, or come and go during the long services with a freedom that suggests being at peace in the halls of an exalted but old and close friend. Evelyn Underhill says of the Orthodox liturgy: "The whole emphasis lies on the sacred wonder of that which is done; and the prevailing temper is that of a humble, contrite, and awe-struck delight. . . ."
The Sunday offering of the divine liturgy will begin in this characteristic atmosphere of reverential informality. Parishioners move quietly about the church, lighting candles and praying before various icons. At one side, a small choir sings a preparatory Matins service [-alternating with the fluid chanting of the priest and deacons, their hauntingly beautiful, non-instrumental singing of ancient hymns will suffuse most of the subsequent liturgy-] and the priest and his party of deacons and servers enter from the side almost inconspicuously. The first act is waving incense before all the icons [and the members of the congregation] which is itself an act of [venerating the image (= icon) of God in each] . . . . [Repeated censing at different points throughout the service completely fills the church with its fragrance.] After that, the priest proceeds to the altar to chant the opening words: "Blessed be the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, now, and for ever, and from all Ages to all Ages."9 In the original Greek, "Ages" is "Aeons," and immediately this weekly offering is set in the midst of immense cosmic time where the eternity of the Trinity is manifest here and now.
And it is with the here and now that the next part of the service is concerned. The deacon begins with a long series of litany-like prayers, to which the choir responds "Lord, have mercy" at each, on behalf of such homely concerns as the city, the weather, those who travel, as well as divine protection of the faithful, and the commemoration of the saints. The role of the deacon is significant, as leader of the prayers and reader of the Gospel. While the priest represents the divine center of the mystery, the deacon is like an intermediary, catching up the petitions of the people and laying them at the altar, delivering to them the words of the promise of eternal life.
The petitions end in the ancient prayer called the Trisagion: "Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal ..." repeated three times. (The number three echoes over and over again in the liturgy emphasizing the importance of the Trinitarian image.) Then a reader reads a lesson from one of the Epistles [i.e., one of the books of the New Testament other than the Gospels. And, after a solemn procession in which the lavishly ornamented book of the Gospels is carried out through the Royal Doors, the deacon intones a passage from the life of the Savior. The Gospels are much beloved by the Orthodox tradition, and have played a prominent role in Orthodox piety and mysticism, especially in Russia.
After the Gospel comes a spoken interpretation of the scriptural passages just read-that is, a sermon or homily expounding the meaning of the scripture and relating it to the lives of the people.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist proper begins at this point, the climax of the Liturgy, the celebration and sacramental presentation of the one great Eucharistic Feast. It begins with the deacon and priest joining with the people in prayer to God to cleanse and purify their souls and bodies from all defilement, that they might be made worthy of receiving the Holy Mysteries. Thereafter comes
. . . the celebrated Cherubic Hymn, usually sung to a particularly sweet and moving melody. It begins: "We who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the ThriceHoly hymn to the life-giving Trinity." As the liturgy advances and deepens, the assembled church has, as it were, passed into the heavenly places and shares in the adoration of the angels.
During this hymn the priest and deacon go to the preparation table, where lie the bread and wine that are to be consecrated. Preceded by acolytes carrying candles, the deacon carries the bread on a paten and the priest the chalice of wine, the paten and chalice covered with a small veil, out of the sanctuary by one of the side doors, process around the church, and then in the Great Entrance proceed through the Royal Doors to the altar, symbolizing both the entry ofJesus Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his enthronement in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God to come.
The offering is followed by more prayer and praises as this service like a river winds its way slowly and meanderingly; deep and contemplative, unchanging, drifting almost slower than the eye can detect, yet before its end it accumulates tremendous force. After the prayers, comes the symbolic kiss of peace [which expresses the reconciliation of each member with every other, saying, alternately, "Christ is in our midst! He is and will be!" Thereupon,] the deacon cries the words, "The doors! The doors!" Though no longer enforced, they recall the days in the early church ... when from here on catechumens [(i.e., persons as yet unbaptised and under instruction), penitents (i.e., persons not in good standing), and unbelievers] were excluded [after first being dismissed] and the doors barred; what followed was the "[Liturgy] . . . of the Faithful" for fully initiated believers [in good standing] only.
The clergy and people next sum up their faith in a recital of the Nicene Creed, which expresses the principal tenets of the Christian faith. Then follows the anaphora, the elevation or lifting up, of the Gifts of bread and wine and the clergy and people into the very presence of the Holy Trinity-that there, by the working of the Holy Spirit, they may enter into of the Mysteries of Jesus Christ. It begins with
the exchange of verses beginning "Lift up your hearts"-the lines that mark the transition to the great Eucharistic prayer in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, [Lutheran,] and Anglican liturgies alike. Then follows another feature common to all [four] ... and to the ancient church, the short angelic hymn beginning, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts ... " called the Sanctus.
The Eucharistic prayer in the Orthodox liturgy is typically long. It includes such basic features as the following: Christ's words of institution at the Last Supper are repeated ....
[O]n the night in which He was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in his holy, most pure and blameless hands, and when He had given thanks and blessed and sanctified and broken it, He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying: "Take! Eat! This is My body which is broken for you for the remission ofsins." . .. And likewise, after supper, He took the cup saying: "Drink from it all of you! This is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins/"10
[T]he Holy Spirit is invoked [to effect the sacramental change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ]; the Lord's Prayer is said; and the bread is broken, given out, and the priest and those of the faithful who desire and are prepared receive it in communion.
Communion in the Eastern Orthodox church is given on a spoon, on which both bread and wine are placed. Although there have been movements in the twentieth century to encourage more frequent communion, adults still frequently take communion only once or at most only a few times a year [out of a sense of its great holiness and their unworthiness]. To communicate [i.e., receive communion] properly, one must undergo a fairly serious preparation of prayer, confession, and fasting.... On the other hand, infants and small children are welcome to the sacrament and, being in a state of innocence and grace through their baptism and chrismation, need not submit themselves to arduous preparation. It is not uncommon to see a line of parents holding babies at communion time in the Orthodox liturgy, while they themselves do not partake.
After communion, thanksgivings are offered as the choir sings a short hymn whose words seem with particular power to sum up the meaning of the liturgy to the faithful as a mystery whose brightness opens into the supernal realities:
We have seen the true Light.
We have received the Heavenly Spirit.
We have found the True Faith.
Worshipping the Undivided Trinity,
This is our salvation.
After the formal end of the service, an interesting custom is observed. The priest comes to the front of the congregation and a tray with a large pile of pieces of bread is placed or held beside him. The congregation files forward: each person greets the priest, kisses the cross he wears [or holds], and takes a piece of bread. This is not the bread of the Holy Communion as such; rather it reenacts the ancient church's agape or "love-feast" held after the Eucharist. But, in view of the infrequency of lay communions in the Orthodox church, it may to some extent [for them, if not officially,] take its place, and certainly the practice is in keeping with the intimate, homey atmosphere of informality, which is one important aspect of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from james B. Wiggins and RobertS. Ellwood, Christianity: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, pp. 130-133.
The sacramental meaning of the Eucharist is explained rather well by a contemporary Anglican theologian, Kenneth Leech.11
... The Christian Eucharist or Mass depends upon the doctrine of Creation. It is because the created world is sacramental that we can have sacraments in the Christian Church. What does that mean? It means that God reveals himself and communicates himself through the created world, through matter. The divine glory is seen through the material creation. The seventeenth-century Anglican writer Thomas Traherne said:
You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because others are in it who are everyone sole heirs, as well as you.
. . . The specifically Christian sacraments are not freak interruptions of the natural order. All reality is sacramental. As the eastern Orthodox spiritual writers say, the world is a sacrament.
The poets and visionaries, Christian and non-Christian, have seen the world and natural things as sacramental. So Wordsworth spoke of flowers which suggested thoughts that lie too deep for tears; Tennyson spoke of the flower in the crannied wall as microcosm of God and man; Roden Noel of God's holy sacrament of Spring, and Kingsley of the wayside sacraments of our hedgerows. All sacraments, whether of nature or of grace, derive from the one great sacrament of Creation, for the universe is the form in which the beauty of God's mind manifests itself. The sacraments of sun, moon, sea and earth, bird and beast, are completed by the sacrament of man, the climax of the creative process, the image of God himself. The sacramental principle, the conveying of spirit through matter, runs through the entire universe. So Teilhard de Chardin, in his profoundly moving book Hymn of the Universe speaks of "the whole earth my altar."
It is within this created, sacramental, God-revealing world that the church is placed. The New Testament speaks of the church as the pleroma (fullness) of Christ. Christ is the great High Priest who, by offering his blood, has redeemed us, and the church shares in his priesthood. There in Christ is the perfect sacrament of God: he is the perfect Man who perfectly images God. So if Creation is the first fundamental sacrament, the second is the Incarnate Lord, and the third is the church, derived from Christ, the extension of the Incarnation, or, as lrenaeus calls the church, the Son of God. He writes:
The church is the fountain o f the living water that flows to us from the heart o f Christ. Where the church is, there is the Spirit of Cod, and where the Spirit of Cod is, there is the church and all grace.
All our prayer takes place within the context of the church and of its catholicity. The word "catholic" tends nowadays to be used to mean "universal" as if it were a geographical or statistical notion. But it comes from the Greek kath'holou which denotes inner wholeness and fullness. The church is a symbol of the recreated world.
As the church is placed within the created universe, so the Eucharist, the Breaking of the Bread, the Mass, is placed within the church, and is the centre of its life and common prayer. The Christian Eucharist is the culminating point both of the action by which God sanctifies the world in Christ, and of the worship which the human family offers to God through Christ. From its earliest days the church has linked the Eucharist with creation. St lrenaeus speaks of it as "the first fruits of his own creation." Bread, "an element of creation," and wine, "which is of the same creation as ourselves," are offered "as the first fruits of his own gifts under the new covenant" (Against Heresies, 4.17).
. . . For the early Christians ... this Eucharist was the focal point of all their life and prayer: and throughout the ages it has remained so. What do we do when we celebrate the Eucharist?
There are four actions, which follow from the actions of Jesus [at his last meal, the Last Supper, with his disciples]: he took, he blessed, he broke, and he gave. First, he took: the action which we now call the Offertory. Bread and wine are taken and offered, and with them we are offered....
So at the Offertory of the Eucharist we offer bread and wine. In bread are contained the elements of earth, air, water, and fire, combined with the art and skill of the sower, reaper, and baker. The wine too is the fruit of the earth and of human work-the vine cut back in the winter so that it can burst forth into fruit, the symbol of sacrifice and joy, the wine of merriment. In offering these substances we offer not only the fruits of earth, for they are not wheat and grapes, but also the results of human work, and with them we offer our lives. As St Augustine said, "There are you on the paten, there are you in the chalice." ...
Jesus took bread and wine, and so do we, offering with them the whole of human labour and human pleasure. We are offered~not just our "spiritual lives" but our total selves, our intellects, our sexuality, our physical defects, our psychological hang-ups, our spots, our warts, and our madness. What is not assumed cannot be healed. Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this person to offer, which the womb of woman has given, and human hands have influenced, shaped, and damaged. It will become the Body of Christ.
The second action of the Eucharist is the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, the "Canon of the Mass." Jesus blessed: and the central act of the Christian liturgy is the blessing invoked upon this bread and wine. The Eucharistic Prayer begins with an act of praise (the Preface) which reaches its climax in the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, in which we join with the whole company of heaven. As St John Chrysostom says: "The angels surround the priest. The whole sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honour him who is present on the altar." And from the Sanctus we move to the prayer that the Holy Spirit may descend, the prayer which is known as the Epiclesis. . . .
It is the transforming power of the Holy Spirit which brings about the change, changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and changing human beings into his risen Body, sharers in his life.
By that power, Jesus Christ is said to be sacramentally present in such a way that Jesus' words, "This is My body ... This is My blood ... ,"repeated in the Eucharistic Prayer, effectively actualize his claim to the offered bread and wine and to the lives of those present as extensions of his own life.
A recent Anglican-Roman Catholic document, the Agreed Statement on the Eucharist (1971 ), expressed it thus:
In the eucharistic celebration we anticipate the joys o f the age to come. By the transforming action of the Spirit of God, earthly bread and wine become the heavenly manna and the new wine, the eschatological banquet for the new man: elements of the first creation become pledges and first fruits of the new heaven and the new earth.
So bread and wine, and also human persons, are transformed, and in this action the Eucharist sums up and expresses the whole of Christian life and prayer. For in all life, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is fundamental. Unless the Spirit falls in flame, there is no life. All prayer, like all Eucharistic celebrations, is the work of the transforming Spirit. Our part is Offertory: God consecrates and transforms. So the Eucharistic Prayer is, in the words of the Roman Missal, a "prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification."
The Eucharistic Prayer is the centre of all Christian prayer, the centre of all liturgy, the centre of our common life together, and it is therefore extremely important that this Great Prayer, as it is sometimes called, should express as fully and completely as possible the beliefs and intentions of the church in this central act of its life. The Eucharist is the centre of the church's worship, and the Eucharistic Prayer is the centre of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ, his work of redemption, is made present and active. What is this sacrifice, and in what sense can we call the Eucharist a sacrifice?
The concept of sacrifice in modern day English is distorted somewhat from its original meaning. Commonly nowadays we think of sacrifice as involving a sorrowful forfeiture of something of value and of religious sacrifice in its highest form as involving a forfeiture of life-hence, a death. It becomes especially obvious that this is a rather distorted conception when we consider the generic phenomenon of sacrifice (from the Latin sacra ficare, "to make sacred") within the religions of the world. There it more typically is a symbolic, celebratory act of giving something which is of value and beauty-food, more often than not-to the divine source of lifeo, appropriately (re-)acknowledging that source and its beneficence. It is a participation in a divine-human exchange in celebration of the relationship of human dependence upon divine beneficence. 12
Returning now to the account given by Leech,
Sacrificial language has been applied to the Christian Eucharist from the second century onwards, for the sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharistic Memorial have always been seen as going together. They are not two separate sacrifices, nor is the latter a repetition of the former, as so many Protestant writers in the past have thought; they are the same sacrifice. The Eucharist is Christ, present and active now in the fullness of his redeeming work. And that fullness does not simply mean the Cross [i.e., Christ's death] but the whole work of God in Christ from his Incarnation through the Cross to his Resurrection, Ascension, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the church. St John Chrysostom expressed it by saying: "we do not offer a different sacrifice like the high priest of old, but we ever offer the same. Or rather we offer the anamnesis [a recalling, a reliving that makes present] of the sacrifice."
The early Christian Fathers speak of the Eucharist as the new sacrifice of which the earlier sacrifices were simply types and shadows: the Eucharist however is the sacrifice of the last days. The sacrifice of Christ included not only his death but all that contributed to it, and culminates in his resurrection and ascension. The New Testament nowhere speaks of the "sacrifice of the cross" and does not equate sacrifice with death, for the essential priestly work of intercession continues in the heavens. "He holds his priesthood permanently because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7.24-5). . . .
The third action of the Eucharist is the breaking of the bread, the Fraction . . . . After blessing the bread, jesus broke it. In the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a document from the early church, this prayer is used over the broken bread:
We give thanks to Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through thy Son jesus. To thee be the glory for ever and ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, and being gathered together was made one, so may thy church be gathered together into thy Kingdom from the end of the earth.
So the breaking is associated with division and unifying, it is a sign of peace and fellowship . . . .
We can see the broken bread as a symbol of the Christian body, scattered throughout the world, and yet one. Yet there is another aspect of the breaking, for just as we are offered with the bread and wine at the offertory, so at the fraction, it is our lives which are to be broken and poured out in and for Christ. In all Christian life, there is the element of breaking. . . . Often the breaking point is seen as a breakdown, but breakdown can also be breakthrough. We break the bread in order to share it in unity: we are broken so that our lives can be shared with others in a deeper way.
And so we reach the climax of the Eucharist, the Communion, the sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy Communion is the climax not simply of the Eucharistic rite but of all Christian prayer. It is truly a communion in the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13.13). St Ephrem the Syrian said that Jesus
called the loaf his living Body and filled it with himself and with the Spirit . .. Take it and eat it in faith, never doubting that it is my Body, and that whoever eats it in faith is eating fire and the Spirit. ... Eat it, all of you, and eat the Spirit in it, for it is truly my Body.
The same writer wrote in one of his poems:
In the Bread we eat the power that cannot be eaten;
in the Wine we drink the Fire that cannot be drunk.
So in the Communion we become sharers in the Divine life, in the very communion of God. We receive the Body of Christ which we already are: so we eat what we are, and become what we are. And this communion with God is not simply a personal state of bliss, it is shared with the rest of the Body. It is truly and deeply mystical, the life hidden with Christ in God, and we are caught up into this hidden life as a family, as a common unity.
In the action of the Eucharist we can see the pattern of all spirituality: offering, blessing, breaking, and sharing. Our lives are offered to God within the redemptive offering of his Son. They are laid open to the sanctifying, consecrating power of the Spirit. They are broken and poured out in union with Christ for the life of the world. And they are, through Christ, brought into unity and communion in God with other lives which have been brought into Christ's Body. In this fourfold action we see the work of the Trinity, the creative, redemptive and sanctifying work of God in Christ through the Spirit. ... The Eucharist is a sharing in, and continuation of, God's creation of the world. If Baptism is a microcosm of Christian life, so is the Eucharist. Together they symbolize and realize a life of cleansing and nourishing, both themes united in the Pauline symbol of the Body of Christ, the soma Christou. The Body which is plunged beneath the water is the Body which hung and suffered and rose, and it is the Body which we eat and are. So the Eucharistic action is the pattern of all Christian action: the offering of materials and human potential to be used only according to redeemed means and ends; the recognition that such offering and commitment to action involves brokenness of body and spirit; the movement towards a life and society which is marked not by competition and ego-centricity but by cooperation and self-transcendence.
Selected excerpt of approximately 2,400 words from True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality by Kenneth Leech. Copyright© 1980 by Kenneth Leech. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.