Within our Orthodox faith, we are blessed and fortunate enough to share an intimate union with Christ through His Church and the sacraments. Central to the Sacramental life of the Church is the mystery of the Eucharist which is celebrated in the divine Liturgy. Many of the early Church Fathers, as well as contemporary theologians, have written a great deal about the Liturgy and have given us a great benefit by delving into the depth of what it really means to not only celebrate the Eucharist in the Liturgy, but to also be active participants in the Sacrament, whether male or female.
It is an instinctive characteristic of Orthodoxy to acknowledge the fact that it is impossible for us humans to fully grasp the nature of God, and by that same token, the manifestation of God’s power through His sacraments is also difficult for us to fully comprehend. Luckily, however, God is gracious enough to allow us all to relate to Himself in different and unique ways – for example, in the way that we all separately relate to the Liturgy, whilst at the same time staying within the bounds of the correct dogma and theology which has been passed down to us by the wisdom of our Orthodox Church.
Personally, although the Liturgy is made up of many different sections and components, the section which epitomises how I relate to this sacrament (apart from the Eucharist, of course), is the section titled the ‘Institution Narrative’. Growing up as a child, this section of the Liturgy was quite exciting for me as it signalled that Holy Communion wasn’t too far off and that the Liturgy was soon coming to an end! I also used to remember this section as the part where everyone needs to be standing: the deacons serving in the altar are holding candles and that the Priest would say a few phrases which seemed rather repetitive.
Luckily for me, as I grew older, this section of the Liturgy has taken on a whole new meaning. I would like to focus on the phrases which the Priest recites whilst (for lack of a better word) re-enacting what Christ instituted at the Last Supper – “He gave THANKS”, “He BLESSED it” and “He SANCTIFIED it”.
Far too often we are too focused on viewing the bread and wine as only being indicative of the substances that Christ chose to transform into His body and blood, that we overlook another simple reality which they represent. Bread and wine at the time of Christ were two of the most basic staples of life. To put it in perspective, it would be the equivalent of bread and butter in our context today (or roz and molokheya for us Egyptians). A deep reality exists in the Liturgy as we see how Christ has taken the basic staple needs of our life, and has transformed them into Himself for us to partake of and thus unite with Him. Going back to the three words mentioned above, we can also allow God to transform our fallen human nature by engaging in this synergy with God in doing the following:
- THANKS – accepting what God has given us in our lives including our circumstances (good or bad), health and possessions (or lack thereof), etc. and being grateful for “every occasion, in every condition and for all things”.
- BLESS – accepting God’s blessing in our lives and allowing Him to bless us. God’s blessings can sometimes seem difficult to observe in our lives, however in hindsight they are always realised.
- SANCTIFY – in the same manner that Christ took two earthly substances and transformed them into his own Holy Body and Blood, likewise we too should give every aspect of our lives to God so that He can sanctify them and make them His. This thought is captured perfectly in the Liturgy of St Gregory where the Priest recites the words “I offer You, oh my Master, the symbols of my freedom”.
It is beautiful to realise that God is the initiator in this whole process of transforming us, making us His and uniting us to Himself. In the Liturgy, the Priest also recites the words, “We offer you from what is Yours”. Going back to the analogy mentioned above, when God created the world, He alone provided us with our needs. After our fall, we brought corruption into the world. However, God still took these corrupt earthly substances (the substances which He Himself originally provided) and through His sanctifying works, He was able to bring it all back into unity with Himself. We can see here that not only does He initiate the process, but even when we cause the process to fail, He insists on constantly re-initiating it again using the very by-product of our corruption – He does not simply blot us out of existence and start over.
Our role here is simple (yet at the same time difficult) – all that we need to do is allow God to work in our lives and co-operate in His saving works. During the Liturgy, we should aim to handover every aspect of our lives to God. Our fears, worries, anxieties, attachments, dreams, hopes etc. – once we can handover everything to Christ without holding anything back from Him, He will do the rest and transform our lives, no matter how ugly and tainted we have made them, back to being in His image. As St Athanasious says:
“For as when a figure painted on wood has been soiled by dirt from outside, it is necessary for Him whose figure it is to come again, so that the image can be renewed on the same material – because of His portrait even the material on which it is painted is not cast aside, but the portrait is reinscribed on it”.
SAYG ~ Andrew Kyrillos.