Understanding the Liturgy: The Prayer of Reconciliation

Understanding the Liturgy: The Prayer of Reconciliation

The prayer of reconciliation made its ap­pearance in the Liturgy around the sixth cen­tury. Earlier documents show the Kiss of Peace following immediately after the Liturgy of the Catechumens. [24] The offering of the gifts would then start as soon as the Catechumens leave. We first hear about a “prayer before the Kiss of Peace” in the sixth century. Here is how one of the Church Fathers describes this prayer:

After these a prayer is made before the Kiss of Peace, that we might all be reconciled to one another in charity, and thus be worthily joined together by the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. [25]

We find the same prayer preceding the Kiss of Peace in the writings of Pseudo_Dionysius [26] .

Before the introduction of this prayer, the deacon used to exhort the people to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” thus asking them to be reconciled to one another before offering their gifts. There always arose this question in the minds of some people, why should I forgive my enemy? The Church tried to answer this question first from the pulpit, in sermons. An example of this comes from a sermon by St. John Chrysostom:

If you have anything against your enemy, get rid of your wrath, heal the wound, let go of your hostility, that you may receive healing from the table. For you are approaching the awesome and holy sacrifice. Show reverence for the goal of the sacrificial offering. The slain offering is Christ. And for whom was He slain, for what purpose? That He might make peace between heaven and earth, to make you a friend of the angels, to reconcile you to the God of all, to make you, an enemy and adversary, a friend. He gave His life to those who hated Him. Will you continue in enmity with your fellow servant? ÿ Hear at least what He says, When you offer your gift upon the altar, and, standing there before the altar, you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift upon the altar, and go and be reconciled with your brother, and then offer your gift [(Matt. 5:23_24)]. ÿ For this reason, at the very time of sacrifice He recalls to us no other commandment than that of reconciliation with one’s brother. [27]

Time and time again, the Church preached this message of reconciliation between man and man, based on the model of reconciliation be­tween God and man, that is the essence of the sacrifice of the Cross; the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Then, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church deemed profitable to standardize this teaching and making it a part of the Liturgy.

The message of the Prayer of Reconciliation is the same that St. John Chrysostom and other Church Fathers preached from the pulpit earlier. Christ has reconciled us to God; now we have to be reconciled towards one another, that we may be able to partake of the table of the Lord, without being condemned.

“O Great and Eternal God, who formed man in incorruption, and death which entered into the world by the envy of the Devil ÿ

This statement that describes man’s creation and fall is taken from one of the Old Testament’s “Deutero_canonical” books, called the Wisdom of Sirach,

For God created man incorruptible, and to the image of his own likeness he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world. (Sir. 2:23_24)

God did not have death in His plan for man. He created him in His own image; immortal. Man could have remained immortal had he not transgressed the commandment of God. But, through the envy of the devil, and man’s gul­libility in believing the serpent rather than God, man fell from grace and lost his immortality.

The devil envied man because God created him in His own image, not only of immortality, but also in God’s image of authority. The Book of Genesis tells us, “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth ÿ ” (Gen. 1:26). The liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian confirms this: “Thou hast inscribed in me the image of Thine authority.” Satan was God’s most beautiful and most wise creature (Ezek. 28:12), and his pride could not accept that man, who was created after him, would have this authority and dominion over all the earth, so, he con­spired and succeeded in robbing man of both his immortality as well as his authority over all the earth (Luke 4:6).

The destruction of death:

This death which came into the world by the envy of the devil was destroyed by the coming of the Son of God. One may wonder why the Liturgy does not time the destruction of death with the redemptive death of Christ but rather with His coming (manifestation). This is be­cause we believe that the salvation on the Cross was “afore- ordained before the beginning of the world” [28] The Church sees the destruction of death already happening at the manifestation of the Son of God. The same sentiment is reflected in the prayer of Simeon the Elder, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace for mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:29). Simeon too saw the salvation ac­complished in the manifestation of the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26).

Thou hast filled the earth with the peace from Heaven:

The Son of God’s manifestation (coming down into the world) was greeted by the angels who came to proclaim to us the peace from heaven, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and goodwill towards men” (Luke 2:14). But, what peace is this? It is peace between man and God, between heaven and earth, between men and angels, as St. John Chrysostom teaches us in the sermon quoted above. The same senti­ment is beautifully preserved for us in the liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian: “Thou hast reconciled the earthly to the heavenly, making the two into one ÿ and the old enmity Thou hast destroyed”

Pray for perfect peace:

The deacon exhorts us to pray that we may ob­tain this “peace from the heavens,” God’s per­fect peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:6). It is a different kind of peace than worldly peace. People of the world “speak peace to their neighbours but mischief is in their hearts” (Ps. 28:3) but, our heavenly peace comes from Christ. In His farewell discourse with His disciples, the Lord said unto them, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27). The peace that Christ gives us is not from this world. It is heavenly. It is the perfect peace that cannot be shaken by anything or anyone.

ÿ for love and the holy apostolic kisses:

The act of reconciliation, that we will be called upon to perform, becomes impos­sible without love. That is why the deacon exhorts us to pray, asking that we may be granted love. Love is the greatest of all commandments. To love God and your fellow man is the fulfilment of all commandments. Christian love embraces all: friends, neighbours, acquain­tances, even enemies who plot against us and seek to harm us. Christ prayed for His killers (Luke 23:34), so did Stephen (Acts 7:60). God is love and he who does not love has not known God. He who has no love cannot be reconciled to his brother.

We pray for love that we may be able to ex­change with one another the “Kiss of Peace,” that oldest of all Eucharistic rituals. We pray that the kiss we are about to exchange might be holy, without deceit or hypocrisy. The kiss is called Apostolic because it was delivered to us by the Apostles. St. Paul instructs us to share this kiss of peace (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26) and so does St. Peter (1 Pet. 5:14).

As usual, the people respond to the exhortation to pray by the customary “Lord have mercy.”

According to Thy goodwill O God:

God has shown His goodwill towards man in reconciling Himself to man in spite of man’s desperate situation. That Divine goodwill is clearly illustrated in the parable of the master who had a slave that owed him 10 000 talents (Matt. 18:23_33). Not only did the master for­give his servant’s enormous debt, he also gave him freedom from his slavery. Man was in­debted to God. He owed his life, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This enormous debt God has forgiven by sending his Only Begotten Son to die, thus paying the debt instead of mankind.

Man was also a slave “Bound and sold because of his sins” [29] , for all the souls of the sons of Adam were held in the prison (Hades). God has also given man his freedom from the slavery of the Devil, when Christ descended into Hades to free His elect from that prison.

The priest reminds God of His goodwill that was shown towards us, before asking Him for the many things that he will plead on our be­half.

Fill our hearts with Thy peace:

The first request is that God fills our hearts with His perfect peace, the peace which comes from heaven. Only then could we be reconciled to one another. Only then could we greet one another with a holy kiss.

Cleanse us from all blemish:

In older times, the deacon exhorted the people before communion, “He that is pure let him come forward!” It is fortunate that the rubric no more calls for these frightening words, for who can presume to be pure enough to partake? Only God can make us pure, only he can cleanse us. So the Psalmist tells us, “Purge me with the hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). It is for this reason that the Church, represented by the priest pleads with God, “cleanse us”

all guile, all hypocrisy, all malice:

St. Peter exhorts us to lay aside “all malice and all guile and hypocrisy” (1 Pet. 2:1), but, how can we lay away all these sins? Only God can help us do so, for He told us, “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is for this reason that we turn St. Peter’s exhortation into a prayer that God may help us rid our selves of all guile, all hypocrisy and all malice.

Guile means deceit, cunning, duplicity, double dealing. It means playing tricks on others.

Hypocrisy is pretense of goodness, feigning to be what one is not, insincerity. It means shak­ing hands with someone pretending to be recon­ciled to him while your heart is filled with hatred towards him.

Malice is chronic anger that has turned malig­nant! It is hatred and desire for evil for our enemies. It is a constant desire for revenge against those who wrong us. John Climacus describes it as a “dark and loathsome passion ÿ a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness ÿ the ruin of the virtues ÿ the poison of the soul ÿ the shame of prayer” [30]

The remembrance of evil, entailing death:

Remembrance of evil is the name given by the Fathers to “sins of memory”. The best way of explaining this is by giving an example. Sup­pose that you had a fight with someone in the past. You were then reconciled with him. You even confessed your sin of anger and obtained forgiveness (through the absolution). Months later and for no apparent reason, your memory re_plays the fight. Your memory, directed by the devil, enhances the viewing by adding “special effects” to the replay, making the fight seem much worse than it actually was. Sud­denly you are seized with anger, hatred, and spitefulness. Imagination quickly comes to the help of her sister (memory), and thoughts of revenge start cropping up in your mind. In your imagination you insult ÿ beat up ÿ even kill your enemy. Without you knowing it, you have once again fallen into the sin of anger.

Remembrance of evil is the greatest obstacle to reconciliation and forgiving one another. That is why we ask God to cleanse us from this deadly sin.

And make us worthy O our Master ÿ

Having been filled with the peace of God, and cleansed according to His goodwill, we now beg to be made worthy of that holy Kiss of Peace, and the partaking, without condemnation of the heavenly and immortal gifts.

We call the gifts immortal because the body we partake of is the body of the resurrected Lord. [31] And since after the resurrection death has no dominion over Him anymore (Rom. 6:9), we call the gifts immortal.

We call them heavenly, because even though we offer unto God earthly gifts (bread and wine), he returns the gifts to us as the body and blood of his Son, who is in heaven at the right hand of His Father. [32] And since we partake of the very flesh of the very Christ who is in heaven, we call the gifts heavenly.

Greet one another with a holy Kiss:

The deacon now exhorts us to exchange a kiss of peace. Having been edified by the prayer the priest offered on our behalf, we now show our reconciliation towards one another by greeting one another. The priests greet one another, the deacons greet one another, and the people greet one another. Here is how the Fathers describe this kiss:

You must not suppose that this kiss is the kiss ordinarily exchanged in the streets by ordinary friends. This kiss is different, for it effects a [co-mingling] of souls, and pledges complete for­giveness. The kiss then is a sign of a true union of hearts, and of banishing any grudge ÿ The kiss then is a reconciliation and is therefore holy. [33]

The hymn after the Kiss:

“Through the intercessions of the Mother of God St. Mary, O Lord grant us the forgiveness of our sins.”

The hymn is a plea for forgiveness. “If ye for­give men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14). This was the promise of our Lord. So, now that we have ful­filled this condition (forgiving one another as shown in exchanging the Kiss of Peace), we ask for the reward promised, that our own sins will be forgiven.

We end the hymn by offering worship to Christ together with His good Father and the Holy Spirit, For He came and saved us. It is through His coming to our world that the economy of salvation was inaugurated, that salvation that had its ultimate fulfilment on the Cross. It is this salvation that made it possible for us to be reconciled both to God and to our fellow man.

The deacon would then say, “Yea, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God hear us and have mercy upon us.” The deacon is saying “yea” to our petition, he is pleading with God to hear our petition and have mercy upon us.

In the old liturgy books we find a gap after this response, and on a new page bearing the head­ing, “Anaphora,” we find another exhortation of the deacon, “Offer in order ÿ ,” to which the people respond, “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” I am sure that many are wondering why did the liturgy book not join the two deaconal responses “Yea Lord ÿ and “offer ÿ The answer to this is in history.

As we said earlier, in the early Church tradition, immediately following the kiss of peace, the Catechumens were ordered to leave. The gap after the first response “Yea Lord ÿ repre­sents the historical landmark for the dismissal of the catechumens and the closing of the doors. Only then would the deacon invite the Faithful to bring forward their offerings by saying “Offer in order ÿ

To understand the point of view of the early Church about this “dismissal of the catechumens” let us go back to the writings of one of the early Church Fathers.

The deacon shouts to the catechumens to go out according to an ancient rite of the Church, the reason is that the Jews and heretics and pagans undergoing instruction, who came to baptism as adults and were being tested before baptism, might remain in the church and hear the counsel of the Old and New Testament ÿ but that after­wards they should go outside because they were not worthy to remain in the church while the oblation was being brought in ÿ as the Lord says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs and do not cast your pearls before swine.” (Matt. 7:6). For what on earth is more holy than the consecration of the body and blood of Christ, and what is more unclean than dogs and swine? They are comparable, by analogy, to him who has not been cleansed by baptism. [34]

Nowadays, things are different. The catechumens are basically infants, probably two or three months old, and the old obsession with secrecy has gone by. Now the offering of the gifts has been moved to the beginning of the Liturgy and there is no need to dismiss the catechumens. So, now the deacon says all three responses one after the others, “Greet one another ÿ followed by, “Yea Lord ÿ ,” fol­lowed by, “Offer in order ÿ ”The congrega­tion also now sings the hymn “Through the in­tercessions of the Mother of God ÿ followed by “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”

The Washing of the hands:

In the early Church, the washing of the hands was after the Kiss of Peace, during the Offering of the gifts. When the Offertory was moved to the beginning of the Liturgy (probably around the 4th century), another washing of the hands was “copied” to its new place, just before the procession of the Lamb. It was then that we started to have two washings, one in the offertory and another after the Kiss of Peace. [35] When the Prayer of Reconciliation was introduced before the Kiss of Peace (around the 6th century), the second washing was placed before the Prayer of Reconciliation.

Why did the Church keep two washings? It is because the washing is meant to prepare the priest spiritually before approaching the altar, “I will wash my hands in innocency, so will I compass thine altar O Lord” (Ps. 26:6). In the beginning, the priest approached the altar once, after the Kiss of Peace, the first part of the Liturgy (the Liturgy of the catechumens) being done entirely outside the Sanctuary. [36] When the offertory was moved to the beginning of the Liturgy, the priest approached the altar twice, once during the offertory, and once again when he prays the Prayer of Reconciliation.

When the priest has washed his hands, he shakes his hands in front of the congrega­tion as a sign of warning that anyone approach­ing the table of the Lord unworthily, will be responsible for his own condemnation.