The Christian world is often cast in terms of divide and distinction. There are those who would argue that the apostolic churches emphasize the power of sacramental mysteries to bring salvation as opposed to Protestant congregations and their greater focus upon an individual’s faith in God for eternal life. In this paradigm, a person’s reception of something external to them is considered to be critical for salvation in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, whereas an internal act of faith is preeminent in the Protestant view. Does this make the Catholic and Orthodox perspective one that leaves out our own personal and internal life of faith and instead focuses on a sort of magical view where the external sacramental life is all that is needed for salvation? Some would say so. After all, if Catholics and Orthodox receive “life-creating mysteries”, there is a sense of passivity that enters into our spirituality if these mysteries are in and of themselves able to make life in our hearts with no regard to the faith in our hearts. In this essay we will reflect on this by exploring the way that the theology of the apostolic churches embraces both an external or passive reception of salvation, as well as an internal or active embrace of the faith.
Specifically, we will consider the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, the primary Eucharistic prayer of the Byzantine Rite. Not only is it most often used in the Byzantine Tradition, the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom is a wonderful image of divine theology, and it exemplifies how our connection to salvation incorporates the reality of salvation as something received and yet truly incorporated by the faithful. By viewing our entire existence and salvation being brought about by God the Father, seeing thanksgiving (Eucharist) in all of life, meditating upon how Christ has saved us in a manner that leaves nothing undone, and professing that our complete transformation is rooted in our complete sacramental participation in the life of the Holy Spirit who comes to us in the mystical supper, we will find a balance between the primacy of God as Savior and the importance of personal adherence to the faith.
Existence and salvation accomplished by God the Father
In the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, we begin with the admonition to stand aright, in awe, and attentively so that we may offer it in peace. We are blessed with the Pauline phrase from 2 Corinthians which states, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” These words are not merely a Scriptural quotation, they are a powerful way to prepare our hearts and ensure that our theology and practice of the faith is full of the grace that is needed for what is to come. This dialogue is also a two way street, as the faithful respond by saying “And with your spirit.” Once grace is bestowed and received, the celebrant continues to guide our prayer by chanting, “Let us lift up our hearts”. Our hearts and minds must be engaged if we are most true to the words of the anaphora and so the faithful respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” The last admonition is perhaps the most important, as the celebrant intones, “Let us give thanks to the Lord” and the faithful reply by singing, “It is proper and just.” Why is this so crucial to the offering that we make? Eucharistia is the Greek word for thanksgiving, and as such we must give thanks to the Lord for a proper celebration of the Eucharist.
If we step back, it should be clear that all of the blessing and prayers enjoining us to be ready to offer our thanksgiving to receive the body and blood is in keeping with the theological understanding that as Catholics and Orthodox receive the life of God through the Eucharist, and that we must consider whether we are in such a state to be deemed worthy to receive. What this entails is a subject of much debate and is not the focus of the essay. But what is important is that while we profess that it is proper and just to give thanks to the Lord, we do not stop at simply preparing to receive communion as an external sacramental mystery. The celebrant’s prayer takes us further to consider exactly why we should give thanks to the Lord. The Anaphora continues by confessing who God the Father is as we pray to Him. We profess His ineffability, inconceivability, invisibility and incomprehensibility, and these sublime attributes are then placed in the context of what his creation of all things means in terms of mankind. The celebrant prays, “You brought us out of non existence into being, and again raised us up when we had fallen, and left nothing undone until you brought us to heaven and gave us your kingdom to come.” In hearing the words of the Anaphora, we tend to focus on who God the Father is, when the prayer uses lofty terms such as ineffability, incomprehensibility and the like. The proclamation of why we should thank God for His greatness of being casts our gaze to the external magnificence and wonder of who God is and that can cause us to long to receive Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, the description of God’s relationship to humanity should also be meditated upon in addition to our focus on God. Before commemorating the saving passion of His Son, this prayer has a powerful focus on the reality that God has accomplished all for salvation. In those words that are about what He has done for us and in us, we acknowledge that our very existence is through God who raises us up when we have fallen. This raising from sin, bringing to heaven, giving us the kingdom to come is all accomplished by God. All of these acclamations take our own contributions and they are set aside, while the salvific love of God comes into focus. Nevertheless, these are the prayers of Christians who focus upon salvation as an ongoing journey that is received through sacramental mysteries.
It may also be surprising to read that these actions of salvation that we acknowledge God as having accomplished include bringing us to heaven and giving us the Kingdom to come are actually placed in the past tense! We do not hear that we will be brought to heaven and receive the kingdom to come one day at our deaths, or perhaps at the Second Coming of Christ. We hear that God has done this. When so much in our life may seem incomplete and our destiny may feel far away, we are reminded that union with the Eternal God who will make all things right provides an objective reality where all has been accomplished for us by the One who is beyond the constraints of time itself. In praying to God the Father, we profess our faith in a manner that would ward off any sense of earning His favor through the sacraments. This prayer also dispels the notion that our salvation is something that puts us into a fixed state of “being saved”, for we hear that He has raised us up again when we had fallen. The mystery of redemption finds its beginning and end in the loving kindness of God who has accomplished all for us, and as such our focus is external, on the eternal God who has brought about our salvation.
Thanksgiving for all things
As the anaphora continues prior to the Sanctus, the proper response to the salvation described above is thanksgiving. Accordingly, we again thank God in our act of Eucharistia. The celebrant prays, “For all this we thank you, and your only-begotten Son, and your Holy Spirit, for all that we know and that we do not know, for the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed on us. We also thank you for this liturgy which you are pleased to accept from our hands even though there stand before you thousands of angels…”
We not only thank God for our creation and salvation in the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for everything as we pray the Anaphora. We thank Him for the Divine Liturgy itself, which He accepts from us. God could have ordained that the choirs of angelic powers would be the ones who offer the highest worship to God, and yet this prayer emphasizes that His pleasure is seen in accepting our sacrifice in the Anaphora, even though the angels stand before Him singing the thrice holy hymn. God thus accounts us humans worthy to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on this earth and this pleasure emphasizes that he accepts the offering from our unclean hands not in a manner of pagan placating. Instead, the dialogue is one of thanksgiving, love and pleasure.
With all this borne in mind, our hearts are called to a thanksgiving that is unbounded, when we pray that we thank God for all the things that we know and for all those things that we do not know. There is so much that we know which could arouse doubt in our lives, limiting our thanksgiving to only those certain aspects of life for which we have decided are worth thanking God. There are also so many things that we do not know which could likewise kindle fear or despair and quench our thanksgiving to not include all things. But if and when we exclaim that we thank God for everything both known and unknown, our heart is opened in all facets of our being to God entering our lives and even our view of the world itself. Therefore, we invite God to come to us via the mystery of the Eucharist so that we may have thanksgiving both in our hearts and to show thanksgiving through our gratitude for all things. Our focus then is, in a sense, external on God whom we are thanking for His acceptance and love that we can see in all things. In another sense, our focus is also internal in that we are the ones making thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving for the economy of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist
As the Anaphora continues after the Sanctus, there are more acclamations of the holiness of God the celebrant prays to Christ, “You so loved your world that you gave your only-begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. He came and fulfilled the whole divine plan on our behalf.” The anaphora brings our hearts to thank God the Father for the work of Christ with these words as well as the words of institution which follow. The spirituality of the Anaphora is focused on Christ, who could be viewed as the Savior who brought us our salvation. Our salvation is seen to be part of the whole divine plan which we receive as having been completely fulfilled on our behalf. No sense of lack is seen as these words are prayed. Are these words in keeping with the view that Catholics and Orthodox “work their own way” to salvation? This charge could be made, but only if we are not fully listening to the prayers!
After the words of institution which recount Christ at the Last Supper, the anamnesis follows. There we remember the sacred command and all that has come to pass in our behalf, and because we are praying to the Eternal God for whom all things are Eternally present, it even includes the second coming in glory, an event in the future! This remembrance reaches its apex when celebrant and faithful pray “Offering You, Your own, from Your own. Always and everywhere. We praise you, we bless you, we thank you O lord, and we pray to You our God.” The voice of this language has shifted from the external work of the Trinity saving us to the internal perspective of our own offering, praise, blessing, thanksgiving, and prayer. Our focus shifts on our own call to make an offering that is united to the external offering of God. While this offering is in keeping with the general depiction of how Catholics and Orthodox view the divine mysteries, the previous context of the Anaphora where we reflect on God as the one who accomplishes our salvation may shed light to balance one’s perspective on salvation as both external and internal.
The transformative effects of salvation in our union with God through Theosis
As we continue in prayer after the words of institution and come to the epiklesis, the Holy Spirit is called down to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. From a perspective of our union with God, this is important because these prayers allow us to receive God Himself through the Eucharist as the gifts are changed by the Holy Spirit. However, to see the link between our theology and our life of faith, let us reflect upon a section of the epiklesis that is not so focused upon the transformation of the Eucharist itself but upon the transformation of our lives. Reading this section in an edited form the celebrant prays, “send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts lying before us…that for those who partake of them they may bring about a spirit of vigilance, the remission of sins, the communion of your Holy Spirit, the fullness of the heavenly kingdom, and confidence in you, not judgment or condemnation.” Oftentimes, the epiklesis is focused on to exemplify that in Byzantine spirituality, Christ comes to us through thanking the Father, repeating the words of Christ at the Last Supper, and calling down the Holy Spirit to effect the change. This is perhaps more Trinitarian in nature than the Western perspective that the words of institution are the central and essential aspect of transforming the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. This distinction between the Latin Rite Catholic and the Byzantine approach could be used to drive a wedge between East and West, but is that the true focus of the prayer? If we step back and allow the words of the epiklesis that are about us to speak to us, we see something that may be more important than trying to bring chronology to a liturgy (which we have already mentioned is timeless in its remembrance of things past and future) or distinction between Churches. The transformation is also deeply focused upon us as participants in the Eucharistic celebration. The celebrant does pray “make this bread the precious body of your Christ and that which is in this chalice the precious blood of your Christ”, which were omitted in the quotation above. Nevertheless, when we expand our focus to the entire prayer of the epiklesis we can see our own part in being transformed. We hear that the Holy Spirit is sent down upon us and these gifts lying before us because we do not only want there to be transformation of the bread and wine into body and blood. We also want our entire being to be transformed so that we can be united to God Himself. We hear that the Holy Spirit is called down upon us so that we may partake and receive a spirit of vigilance, the remission of sins, the communion of [His] Holy Spirit, the fullness of the heavenly kingdom and confidence in [Him], not judgment or condemnation.
In so many ways, this last part of the Anaphora is a clarion call to demonstrate what the Gospel is with regard to us as recipients of the Divine Eucharist. Our theology of salvation effected by the Trinity and the reality of the Presence of the Trinity in the Eucharistic gifts pours out into our lives so that those lives might be transformed in divine union with the Trinity. In these words, we are being called not to just be prepared to receive the Eucharist and be forgiven. Instead, we are being prepared for what has been called by many “the liturgy after the liturgy”; that is, we are being prepared and transformed so that we can live out our life in union with God. We need a spirit of vigilance to walk wisely in life and live as God would want of His sons and daughters. We need remission of sins to overcome our own weaknesses, failures and guilt. This is the healing of our souls and bodies for which we pray prior to communion, but it is also a basic human experience that we are cleansed and can continue to walk in the light that calls us. We need the communion of the Holy Spirit to have the inspiration and guidance to live our life as He speaks to us in His still small voice, just as He guided the Prophet Elijah and the Church at Pentecost. We receive the fullness of the heavenly kingdom to be true sons and daughters of God who can not only “go to heaven” when we die, but we can live the blessedness to which we are called by Christ in the Beatitudes. For if we are receiving the heavenly kingdom, we will walk in those precepts and practices taught so clearly by Christ in narratives such as the Sermon on the Mount. Lastly, we need confidence in God and not judgment or condemnation, because anything short of this is a life of doubt and guilt. As we make missteps in the life to which we are called, the confidence asked for is the remedy to any judgment or condemnation that we experience. Thus, while the first half of the Anaphora grounds us in the perspective of Christ as our Savior in the Orthodox faith, the ending part of the epiklesis demonstrates that all of our theological points about the Eucharist which are external and received by the faithful find an arguably deeper reality in the Orthopraxis that we are called to not only by the purity of Eucharist, but by the deep prayers of internal transformation that come to us. The importance of an external reception of the transformed bread and wine is deeply linked to the importance of an internal actualization through our own transformation from humanity to divinity.
The most important fact to consider is that God whom we may have referred to above as external is not truly external. After all, He is internalized in the act of Holy Communion! Thus, the whole dichotomy of external versus internal is conquered by the Christian’s experience of receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist and being transformed by God through it. Perhaps that is the deepest lesson to be learned when we reflect upon salvation as it is celebrated in the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom. We are not passive, but we are also not acting out our salvation on our own. Instead, the theology and praxis that we see in the Anaphora testify that we are united to the life-creating Trinity, and the most important consequence of our reception of Holy Communion is that we are transformed through this unitive reception. As the Thanksgiving prayer after holy communion of our holy Father Basil the Great states: “Grant that they may bring about the healing of my soul and body; the defeat of every enemy; the enlightenment of the eyes of my heart; the calming of my thoughts and emotions; a faith that cannot be confounded; a love that does not pretend; a wisdom that overflows; the full observance of your commandments; the increase of your divine grace; and citizenship in your kingdom. Being preserved in your holiness by them, I will remember your love at all times. I will live no longer for myself, but of you, my Lord and Benefactor. Thus, having spent my earthly life in the hope of life without end, I will attain eternal rest where the sound of rejoicing never ceases, where the delight of those who gaze upon the beauty of your face cannot be expressed. For you, Christ our God, are our true desire, and the inexpressible joy of those who love you; and all creation glorifies you forever. Amen.”