Understanding the Liturgy: The Blessing of the Elements

Understanding the Liturgy: The Blessing of the Elements


The prayers of the blessing of the elements begin with the Institution Narrative, the story of the first Eucharist and how the Lord instituted it. The tradition underlying this is certainly older than the Gospels for many reasons.

First, a fully developed Institution Narrative ex­ists in the liturgy of Saint Mark. It is a well known fact that this ancient liturgy is older than the Gospels, for it has no New Testament quotations, and yet it has the Institution Narra­tive.

Second, Saint Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For I have received of the Lord, that which I have delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night he was betrayed, took bread …” (1Cor 11:24). It is again well known that this letter was written earlier than any of the Gospels and yet it has an Institution Narrative, that Saint Paul must have used in the Eucharist he delivered to the Corinthians.

Third, our Liturgy, retains some details not mentioned in the biblical accounts of the Last Supper. It is quite obvious that a tradition about the Last Supper existed very early on in the Church, from which both the Eucharistic as well as the biblical accounts drew.

Accounts of the Last Supper exist in Mat 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1Cor 11. There is no Institution Narrative in the Gospel according to Saint John, but here we have important details pertaining to the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Although the miracle of the feeding of the multi­tudes is mentioned by all four gospels (the only miracle so distinguished), yet only St. John gives us the discourse between the Lord and the Jews concerning the meaning of this miracle (John 6). From this discourse, we understand that this miracle is a figure of the Eucharist, in the same manner that the manna was a figure for the Eucharist in the Old Testament.

Saint John also tells us about the washing of the feet of the disciples that preceded the blessing of the bread and wine. The washing of the feet was a figure of confession before taking communion. [65]

For, being determined to give Himself . . . :

Christ gave up His life of his own will. Noth­ing forced Him to do so except His love for us. The crucifixion was not a historical act forced upon Him. For had He not been determined to give Himself up for the life of the world, He would have asked His Father to send Him twelve legions of angels to defend Him (Mat 26:53).

The narrative that follows is the most lively and most interactive part of the Liturgy, for, with every act re_told, the congregation gives its con­sent and declares its faith with beautiful melodies of assertion.

He took bread …:

In the act of taking bread into His holy hands, the Lord is symbolically taking His own life into His own hands. [66] “No man taketh it from me. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it away” (John 10:18).

In recounting and repeating this gesture, the Church re_enacts Christ’s self_gift. In the action of the priest (taking the bread into his hands as he recounts this), the self_giving of Christ is ex­tended to the present community. [67]

He looked up towards heaven . . . :

The fact that Christ “looked up towards heaven” is not mentioned in any of the four biblical nar­ratives of the Last Supper, but we find this men­tioned in narrating the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes (Mat 14, Mark 6, Luke 9). As we said earlier, the miracle is a figure of the Sacrament, and even though the biblical narra­tive of the Last Supper does not mention it, our liturgical tradition, much older than the written Bible, preserves for us the narrative and the words of institution spoken by the Lord, with most intricate detail. [68]

And when He had given thanks . . . :

By giving thanks, it is meant “His speaking to God the Father in the manner of a prayer.” [69]

He blessed it . . . :

Again, here it is understood that the Lord said a prayer to bless the bread. These prayers of thanksgiving and blessing that the Lord said on the bread and wine constituted the Liturgy of the Eucharist that the disciples learned from the Lord and later taught to the congregations where they preached. [70]

And He sanctified it:

The words “When He had given thanks” and “He blessed” are found in the biblical accounts of the Last Supper. The expression “He sanctified it” is however, not recorded in any of the biblical accounts of the Last Supper. It is found only in the Lord’s intercessory prayer found in John 17, “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19).

Many exegetes explain the word “sanctify” not in terms of “to make holy” for our Lord is the source of holiness, but in the sense of “consecrate”. To consecrate something or someone is to make a vow that this thing (or person) is offered ex­clusively to God. For example when we con­secrate a chalice or a paten, we are making a vow of offering them exclusively for the use on the altar. In a similar way, the Lord, when He was about to offer Himself as a pleasing sacrifice unto His good Father, on our behalf, sanctified Himself for this purpose, in order that through His sacrifice on the cross we may be sanctified in Him. Our beautiful liturgical tradition has preserved for us this act of the Lord “sanctifying Himself” in the context of the institution narrative. For indeed the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the eucharist are one and the same. [71]

Take, eat of it all of you :

In these words there is complimentary giving and receiving,

The gift is not thrust upon the other, it is freely taken by the other. One has the option of not taking. But, by freely taking, one responds to the gift freely given. [72]

This is my body .. this is my blood:

The early Church since it’s birth had clung to this tradition that the bread and the wine in the Eucharist are truly indeed the body and blood of Christ.

Saint Paul declares so clearly in his first letter to the Corinthians that “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1Cor 10:16). The observation that Saint Paul uses the interrogative, points to the fact that Saint Paul was not declaring something new but rather as­serting a tradition that was firmly established in the Church at that time.

The writings of the early Church Fathers reinforce this widely and unanimously accepted dogma of the early Church,

When the Master Himself has declared and said of the bread, “This is my body,” who will still dare to doubt? When He is Himself our warranty, saying “This is my blood,” who will ever waver and say it is not His blood? .. Do not think of the elements as mere bread and wine. They are, according to the Lord’s declaration, body and blood. Though the perception suggests the contrary, let faith be your stay. Instead of judging the mat­ter by taste, let faith give you an unwavering confidence that you have been privileged to receive the body and blood of Christ. [73]

The bread and the wine are not merely types of the body and blood of Christ, not at all, but the deified body of the Lord Himself. For the Lord has said, “This is my body,” not “This is a type of my body,” and “my blood,” not “a type of my blood.” And on a previous occasion He said to the Jews, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you do not have life in you. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” and again, “He who eats me shall live” (John 6:54_58).” [74]

. . . which shall be broken for you . . . :

To many, this saying will seem difficult to reconcile with the known facts about the crucifixion. It is obvious that no bones of the Lord were broken when he was crucified (John 19:33) and this agrees with the prophesies that “A bone of Him shall not be broken.” (John 19:36). Why then did the Lord tell the dis­ciples that His body “shall be broken”? The answer comes to us from modern science! Medical scientists wrote many articles about the “Pathology of Crucifixion” [75] , that is to say, what happens to the human body during the process of Crucifixion and what are the possible causes of death from such cruel punishment. Many agree that one of the effects of hanging the per­son from his wrists is multiple dislocations at his major joints. This means that the body be­comes disjointed or separated at the joints. It is probably this what the Lord meant when He pre­dicted that His body shall be broken.

The prophesies give support to this explanation, for David prophesies by the Holy Spirit concerning the Lord’s passion saying, “All my bones are out of joint” (Ps 22:14).

During the Fraction, the priest proceeds to gently disjoint the “body” along markings in the oblation, sometimes without completely separat­ing the parts. Could it be that the priest is emulating what happened to the body of our Lord on the Cross?

. . . to be given for the remission of sins :

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Physician of our souls is here prescribing for us His body and blood as a remedy for our sins. The Fathers tell us so,

What does the Apostle say to you? As often as we receive, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If His death, then we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22), I ought always to receive Him, that He may always forgive my sins. I, who sin al­ways, should have a medicine always. [76]

We should not suspend ourselves from the Lord’s communion because we realize that we are sin­ners. Rather, more and more we should hasten to it with eagerness, for healing of soul and purification of spirit, but with such humility and faith that we judge ourselves unworthy to receive so great a favour, and seek it, rather as a remedy for our wounds. [77]

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord, he was so afraid and said, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips …” (Is 6:5) Then, one of the Seraphim standing before the Lord flew to him carrying a live coal, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. He laid it upon Isaiah’s mouth saying, “Lo, this has touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” (Is 6:7).

The Fathers of the Church understand this as referring to the holy mysteries that purify us as soon as they touch our mouths.

As we are cer­tain that the Seraphim purified the prophet, so we are to be certain that by communion in the holy mysteries our debts are completely covered, provided that we repent and that we suffer and feel compunction in our hearts be­cause of our sins. [78]

We may want to under­line the fact that we should repent, suffer and feel compunction in our hearts (through confes­sion) before we approach the mysteries, for if we take communion while unrepentant, we be­come “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” (1Cor 11:27).

The Lord Himself has shown this clearly in the incident of the washing of the feet of the dis­ciples (John 13:4_10). The Lord started wash­ing the disciples’ feet, and when Peter’s turn came, he objected out of reverence to the Lord. The Lord tells Peter “what I do thou knowest not now but thou shalt know hereafter.” Here the Lord explains to Peter that the action has some mystical aspect that he will understand later (when he receives the Holy Spirit on Pen­tecost day). Peter nevertheless insists: “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” The Lord answers him: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.”

Peter, realizing that this mystical washing of the feet is essential to his eternal life, now asks the Lord to wash not only his feet, but also his hands and head. But the Lord answers: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet.”

The Lord’s action of washing the feet of his dis­ciples is symbolic of the washing away of sins through the Sacrament of Confession. The Lord emphasizes to us that it is not optional, since if He doesn’t “wash our feet,” we shall have no part with Him.

The Lord explains the relation of the Sacrament of Baptism to the Sacrament of Confession by saying that he that is washed (baptized) needs not to be re_baptized if he sins, for baptism is done only once, but only to “wash his feet” that is to wash away his every day sins through the sacrament of Confession.

. . . He mixed it of wine and water . . . :

Although not mentioned in the biblical narra­tives, yet our liturgical tradition tells us that in the Last Supper, our Lord used wine mingled with water. The Church Fathers had plenty to say about this.

That this wine of the Lord’s blood is to be mixed with water the Lord shows, not only through tradition, but also by the very nature of His Passion. From the stroke of the lance there flowed from His side blood and water (John :19:34). [79]

The book of Proverbs, written a thousand years before the Gospels, prophesies about this: “Come eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.” (Pro 9:5)

. . . This is my blood of the New Covenant:

A covenant is a treaty between two parties. The blood of an animal sacrifice was usually spilt as a witness to the covenant.

When God established His covenant with the people of Israel, we are told that Moses took the blood of the sacrificed oxen . . . “And sprinkled it on the people and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you” (Ex 24:8).

The prophet Jeremiah prophesying by the Holy Spirit says, “Behold, the days will come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel” (Jer 31:31). Our Lord es­tablished this new covenant “neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood” (Heb 9:12). The blood of Christ shed on the cross, and of which we partake in the Eucharist is the witness of this New Covenant between Christ and those who partake of Him. And what are the terms of this covenant? “Whoso eateth my flesh and drinks my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). “The covenant then, was established by blood, for blood is a witness to Divine favour.” [80]

. . . Do this in remembrance of me:

The Greek word for “remembrance” is “anamnesis”, which means more than just keep­ing the memory of a departed one. It means re_living an experience. In the Old Testament, the Jews kept the memory of the their salvation from Egypt by eating the Paschal meal. In the Eucharist, we are keeping the memory of our salvation (through the death and resurrection) of our Lord by eating His body which was broken on the cross for us and drinking His blood which was shed on the cross for us.

The Jews also considered the celebration of the Passover as a renewal of the old covenant be­tween them and God [81] , We too in the Eucharist receive this renewal of the new covenant between Christ and us.

The memorial action (Anamnesis) is the vital link that brings the sacrifice of Calvary into the Eucharist. It makes us recognize, in the sacrament, the same saving power of Calvary.

The Anamnesis Hymn:

In response to the Lord’s admonition, “For every time you shall eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim my death, confess my resurrection, and remember me till I come,” the people respond with this beautiful hymn, “Amen, Amen, Amen. Thy death, O Lord we proclaim …” This is one of the oldest hymns of the Liturgy and is found in almost all ancient liturgies, east and west. After having re_enacted the passion and the resurrection of our Lord in the ritual handling of the gifts, we now crown the memorial action by this public verbal proclamation of our faith in the death, resurrec­tion and ascension of our Lord. We then present to the Lord the sacrifice of praise, “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, We thank Thee …,” for this is “the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name” (Heb 13:15).

The Oblation:

“Therefore, as we also commemorate … we of­fer unto Thee …”

The offering of the obla­tions to God the Father is intertwined with the memorial action. The two are inseparable. The oblations (gifts of bread and wine) are the tools of the memorial action, not only in the ritual handling of these, but also in the fact that the bread will become the body of the Lord broken for our sakes and the cup will become the blood shed for our sakes. The memorial is meaning­less without the gifts.

The memorial action begins and ends in the handling of these material elements. It is that which transpires in and through this symbolic handling of these ele­ments that the mystery of the memorial action consists. [82]

Likewise the gifts are meaningless outside the context of the memorial, since the memorial assures us that we will find in the con­secrated gifts the same saving power of the death and resurrection of the Lord. Hence, this peculiar relationship, as we commemorate, we offer.

We offer to God the Father our gifts of bread and wine and he returns our gift as the life_giving body and blood of His Only_Begotten Son. We offer the gifts to God the Father, be­cause Christ offered Himself as a pleasing sacrifice to His Father. We offer to God what is really His own, for the bread and wine are God’s own creation. We offer them as the first fruits of God’s own crea­tion.

For everything, concerning every thing, and in everything:

This is one of the most difficult sentences to in­terpret. The Coptic reads, kata hov niven, nem ethve hov niven, nem khen hov niven.

The word kata is actually Greek and it has 14 dif­ferent meanings! However, most Greek litur­gists understand the first segment as meaning, “on behalf of all things.” That means we are offering the gifts on behalf of all the creation. Man is the custodian of God’s creation and when he offers to God his gifts, he represents all the created things; things seen and things un­seen. The Eucharistic offering is what it literally means, a thanks_offering (Eucharist means thanksgiving), and man offers it on behalf of all the creation.

In Psalm 148, the Psalmist invites the sun, the moon and the stars to take part in praising God, and in the hymn of the three children even heat and cold, fire and hail are summoned to praise God. In the same vein when man offers the Eucharistic oblation, he offers it on behalf of all the creation.

The oblation is offered on behalf of all humanity too, those who have gone before us, those now living, for those now being born and for those who will come after us. [83]

We offer the Eucharistic oblation concerning everything. This means that we offer our gifts as a Thanks_offering to God the Father because of His wonderful acts of creation (of us, and all things seen and unseen,) His acts of salvation across the ages; for granting us the new birth, and for sanctifying us; for making us His own con­gregation; for sending His Son to die for us; for His Son’s going into Hades to save our ancestors; for His promise to come back in glory to give us our reward if we are faithful and prudent.

We offer the oblations as Thanks_offering for all the good things God is giving us,

For this reason also the mysteries, awesome and full of abundant salvation, which are celebrated at every assembly, are called a Thanks giving (Eucharistia), because they are a recollection of many benefactions and exhibit the totality of God’s care for us. [84]

Again, here, we are offering our thanks_offering not only for our own blessings, but also for those of others. [85]

We offer our oblations in everything, that means always and regardless of anything. We offer them in times of peace and in times of per­secution; in times of plenty and in times of scarcity; in times of joy and in times of mourn­ing, and we will continue to do so until the Lord comes again.

The Epiclesis:

Now comes the most solemn moment of the Eucharist, when the whole Church, having of­fered the oblation to God the Father, now pleads with Him to send His Holy Spirit upon the whole congregation and upon the gifts, so that both the congregation and the gifts become sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

And we ask Thee, O Lord our God_ we, Thy sinful and unworthy servants. We worship Thee by the pleasure of Thy Goodness, that Thine Holy Spirit descend upon us, and upon these gifts set forth, and purify them, change them and manifest them as a sanctification of thy saints.

Note that the priest uses “we” and not “I” both in “we offer unto Thee” and in “we ask Thee.” For the priest is not offering his own gift, but that of the whole Church. It is also the whole Church that is asking God the Father to send His Holy Spirit upon the congregation and the gifts, the priest is representing the congregation in this petition. The congregation meanwhile, is offering to God praise and blessing, and service and worship.

The priest then, rising and signing the bread three times with the sign of the cross, says aloud, “And this bread He makes into the holy Body of Him,” to which the people reply, “I believe, Amen” (which means ‘so be it’). Similarly, when the priest says, “And this cup also, the precious blood of the new covenant of Him,” the people reply, “Again I believe, Amen.” Note that the people do not say “we believe,” because, belief in the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Him (Christ), has to be declared by every individual, and we will see why later on.

The nature of the change:

Now we have to deal with a difficult and little understood problem concerning the change of the elements into the Body and Blood of the resurrected and glorified Lord. The problem arose in the middle ages, when some Roman Catholic “theologians” started teaching that the bread and wine are “physically” changed (or trans_substantiated), so that the bread physically turns into flesh and the wine physically turns into blood!

The Orthodox never accepted this in­novation and actually condemned it. To us, the change is “mystical” and not “physical.” This is explained to us in the beautiful “Prayer of Reconciliation by the Thrice Blessed John.” [86]

Exalted above all the power of speech, and all the thoughts of the mind, is the richness of Thy gifts, O our Master. For that which Thou hast hidden from the wise and the prudent, Thou hast revealed unto us babes. And those things which prophets and kings have desired to see and have not, the same didst Thou grant unto us, we the sinners, that we may serve It and be purified thereby, when Thou didst ordain unto us the Economy of Thine Only_Begotten Son, and the hidden mystery of this sacrifice, which has neither the blood of the Law nor the righteous­ness of the flesh roundabout It. Behold the Lambis spiritual and the knife is verbal and immaterial; that sacrifice which we offer unto Thee!

What we are told here, is that the change of the gifts is a “hidden mystery” that is exalted far above the limits of human thought or the power of speech. It is hidden from the wise and prudent, who want to explain it in simplis­tic terms and reduce the “hidden mystery” into a physical trans_substantiation. But it is revealed to us, the “babes” who, in faith, believe in the mystery without any probing into the nature of the mystery, the “babes” who cry out aloud, “I believe, so be it.

Belief in the trans_substantiation would bring back the “Blood of the Law” into the bloodless sacrifice of the New Covenant. It would reduce the “Epiclesis” into some kind of magical in­cantation that changes the physical nature of the gifts rather than a sanctifying power that changes the essence of the gifts.

That the “change” surpasses understanding is also confirmed by John of Damascus,

And now you ask how the bread becomes Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood, and I say to you: The Holy S pirit comes and does those things which surpass description and understanding. [87]

The Holy Spirit descends not only on the gifts but on all of us, and by sanctifying us and the gifts, we receive the gifts as truly the very Body that hung on the Cross and the very Blood that came from the side of Christ. It is this double action of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for the priest to boldly declare, “The holies for the holy!” The bread and wine, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, become holies (Body and Blood of Christ) but only for the holy, who have been sanctified by the de­scent of the Holy Spirit in the Epiclesis, those who believe in the hidden mystery, without doubting or probing. This is emphasized clearly by Mar Ephraem the Syrian: “If any one doubts and eats it, it is plain bread to him.” [88]

It is for this reason that each one of us has to declare his un-doubting and unquestioning faith in the “hidden mystery” by the individual “I believe, Amen.”

That we have to accept this transformation by faith only is evident from the following:

The overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes, through the epiclesis, the rain to this new cultivation. For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things which are above nature, which it is not possible to comprehend except by faith alone. [89]

. . . and eternal life to those who shall partake of Him:

The Lord has promised us that “Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life” (John 6: 54). The Fathers of the Church in commenting on this, tell us that since what we partake of is the body of the risen Lord, which had victory over death forever, it be­comes in us like the little leaven which leavens the whole lump (Mat 13:33). Theophilus of Alexandria superimposes the call of Christ for each one of us with this insight: “Receive me as leaven into your mass, that you may partake of the indestructible life that is in me.” [90] Saint Gregory of Nyssa echoes the same senti­ment.

He plants Himself, by the economy of His grace, in all believers by means of the flesh which derives its substance from both wine and bread, mingling Himself with the body of believers, in order that, by union with that which is immortal, man also might partake of incorruption. [91]