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Written by the Very Rev. John Breck
Eucharistic gestures represent an offering of ourselves and all creation to the Author of Life. They describe not only ritual movements made in the context of the divine service. They symbolize as well a concern and a hope that all those around us might come to receive, in faith and in love, God’s self-offering made for the life of the world.
The center or heart of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is made up of a triptych that includes the Words of Institution, the Anamnesis or Memorial, and the Epiklesis or invocation of the Holy Spirit. These elements of the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer of Consecration express the mystery of divine activity accomplished for the life and salvation of all those who seek Christ and who long to be united with Him in eternal communion.
The first panel of the triptych reminds us that Christ Himself is the true Celebrant of the sacrament. The life-giving mystery unfolds precisely because it is celebrated by the One who is our High Priest, our mediator and advocate before God the Father, whose self-offering on the Cross makes possible the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, not only for ourselves, but for the whole world (1 Jn 2:1-2). When the priest, in the name of the people, speaks the Words of Institution, he makes audible Christ’s own declaration, spoken over the Paschal bread and wine: "This is my Body…This is my Blood." By this liturgical invocation the Divine Liturgy, charged with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, renders us contemporaries of the disciples in the Upper Room and of those who welcomed the Risen Lord into their house at Emmaus. Time and space are telescoped in the liturgical moment, so that we are truly "present" with Jesus and His disciples in Jerusalem, just as time and space are transcended at baptism, when we are plunged into "the waters of Jordan." Baptized with Christ as well as in Him, we commune with Him as well in the gifts He offers of His own Body and Blood.
The third or last panel of the triptych is the Epiklesis, the invocation addressed to God the Father by the priest, again in the name of the entire community. By this supplication, the priest fervently begs the Father to send, upon the assembly of the faithful, as well as on the sacramental gifts of bread and wine, the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, that He might transform both the people and these gifts into the Body of Christ. "Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here offered…," that the "change," the radical transformation into a new and transcendent mode of being, might occur within ourselves as well as within the elements set forth.
This "epikletic" prayer, perhaps more than any other, affirms an essential truth: that the people of God constitute the universal Church, and that the foundation and sustenance of the Church is the communion of the faithful in the Body and Blood of Christ. This is why the apostle Paul uses a single expression, soma tou Christou, "Body of Christ," to designate both the members of the ecclesial community and the holy bread, "given for you" (1 Cor 10:16f; 11:23-27). In its very essence the Church is "Eucharistic."
The central panel of this liturgical triptych, which constitutes the culminating point of the Eucharistic celebration, is the Anamnesis or Memorial. It commemorates – and thus makes real and actual (the Biblical notion of "remembrance" signifies "realize" or "reactualize") the events it recounts, from the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, through His resurrection and ascension in glory. Here again, time and space are telescoped, such that we remember what has not yet occurred, namely "the second and glorious Coming" (the parousia or eternal presence) of the Lord Jesus at the close of the present age.
This Memorial culminates in a gesture of offering that symbolizes the entire Eucharistic service. Crossing his hands to grasp the chalice filled with wine and the paten that bears the Lamb or Eucharistic bread, the priest (or deacon) elevates them and proclaims: "Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!"
It is significant that the literary structure or ordo of the service locates these words at the very center of the Divine Liturgy. That structure is in fact "chiastic," reflecting a concentric movement from the ends toward the center. From the opening benediction to the final blessing at the dismissal, the service moves centripetally, paralleling antiphons with the closing troparia ("We have seen the true light"), the reading of Scripture with the taking of Communion, the litany and the Creed with the litany and the Lord’s Prayer, and the introduction to the Anaphora ("It is truly meet and right") with the Hymn to the Theotokos ("It is truly meet to bless you"). The whole then culminates in the triptych that focuses on the Offering: "Thine own of Thine own…." It is this central affirmation – this offertory gesture – that represents the true center of the Eucharistic service. These words represent the fulfillment of our "liturgy," our communal, ecclesial work, which is nothing but a response we offer, in the form of supplication and thanksgiving, to the true Author of the sacramental mystery. It is He who receives these Holy Gifts, to make of them, for us and for the world as a whole, sacred elements that nourish us unto eternal life.
God first offers us the humble gifts of the earth, wheat and grapes. We receive them and by our efforts transform them into bread and wine, which we offer back to Him. He then receives them from our hands, in order to transform then into Eucharistic Gifts, "Holy Things." That is, we offer to God what He has already bestowed upon us; and He receives them, to offer them back to us as the ultimate Source of life.
This gesture of offering, made by the priest, is in reality made by the entire community of the faithful. By our baptism, all of us in the most basic sense are priests, members of a universal, royal priesthood. By offering ourselves and the elements of bread and wine, we offer to God as well the world around us. This is an essential part of the entire liturgical service of the Church. Unless we offer "ourselves and each other," both those within and those outside the community of faith, to Christ our God, the Eucharist remains incomplete, unfulfilled. "Thine own of Thine own we offer on behalf of all and for all." This means not only "all things," but "all people," every one who is created in the Image of God.
If we gather as the Church to celebrate the Eucharistic mystery, it is not as a closed community, a small group of the elect, isolated from the rest of the society. We celebrate as well for non-believing friends, for our enemies, for the outcasts and marginalized, for victims of war and social injustice, and for all those who have asked us to pray for them, "unworthy though we be." Our Eucharistic prayer is nothing other than a prayer "for the life of the world and its salvation."
We receive these words of Christ as an invitation: "Eat my flesh and drink my blood." This invitation is addressed to us as members of His Body, but they are addressed as well to this poor, war-torn and violence-ridden planet, which, in the words of the apostle John "lies in the Evil One" (1 Jn 5:19). May our prayer be that all the people of the world hear for themselves this invitation and accept it, that they might finally commune with us in all the joy and glory of eternal life.