Post date: Nov 30, 2016 7:07:25 PM
Orthodoxy is a faith of preparation. In the ultimate sense, we live our lives as preparation for eternal life, but we also prepare for things on a smaller scale. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about preparation is Great Lent and Holy Week. We spend eight weeks preparing for the feast of feasts through fasting, added services, and a more rigorous prayer life. Similarly, though in a less intense manner, we spend time preparing for Christmas, Dormition, and the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.
Of a more regular nature is our preparation for receiving the Eucharist. This reception is the essential act that unites us with Christ and with one another: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” St. Basil the Great is explicit about the importance of this reception: “To communicate each day and to partake of the holy Body and Blood of Christ is good and beneficial; for He says quite plainly: ‘He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life.’ Who can doubt that to share continually in life is the same thing as having life abundantly? We ourselves communicate four times each week…and on other days if there is a commemoration of any saint” (Letter to a patrician lady Caesarea).
I would like to focus here on this preparation for the Eucharist. There are several components that work together to prepare us to receive the holy Body and precious Blood of our Lord. There is a daily component: the remembrance that God is “a fire consuming the unworthy,” as we affirm in the last part of our pre-communion prayers. And each of us knows that, as St. Chrysostom says earlier in the pre-communion prayers that ”I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that You should enter under the roof of my soul.” So each day we ask God that, by His Grace, He transform our lives and make us worthy to receive His most precious and life-giving gifts.
A second component of our preparation consists of the pre-communion prayers mentioned above. In order to discern the Body and Blood of Christ and to be prepared to receive them, we have these preparatory prayers, which have come to us from some of the great saints of the Church – John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Symeon the New Theologian, John of Damascus, and Symeon the Translator (Metaphrastes). In one of the prayers from Compline, we ask that God “correct our thoughts [and] purify our minds.” This is the role of the pre-communion prayers: to correct our thoughts and purify our minds so that we can see with our mind’s eye the magnitude and intensity of what is set before us in the holy Eucharist. Depending on your prayer book, the number of pre-communion prayers may vary and a canon may or may not be included. Personally, I like my Romanian prayer book, which includes twelve prayers – a nice, Biblically-sound number – but the number of prayers is not as important as the attention and faithfulness with which we pray them.
A third component of our preparation is the Liturgy itself. Here, we hear the epistle and Gospel for the day. The Savior told his disciples that “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15:3). We, too, are cleansed – and thus prepared to receive the awesome mysteries of His Body and Blood – by the word He speaks to us at the Divine Liturgy through the epistle and Gospel. And, of course, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we be given our daily bread – that which is necessary for life – and the ultimate food necessary for life in Christ is His Body and Blood.
The three components above happen for each and every Liturgy. The fourth component does not usually happen with the same frequency, but it should nevertheless happen regularly, being of no less importance: the sacrament of confession. It is in this sacrament that we are cleansed in a personal manner of the stain of our sin, removing those things which darken our souls, so that we may more fully perceive the Body and Blood of Christ and receive Them for illumination and salvation.
All of the above are essential and indispensable elements of the spiritual life. There are also a couple of preparatory elements in which not everyone participates: the preparation of the gifts by those who offer them and the preparation by the celebrant priest or bishop.
I was reminded at blessing of the grapes at Transfiguration that the grapes, too, were blessed in part to become wine to be offered back, for the Holy Eucharist. These days, however, we think mostly of the prosforo. The prosforo is a blessed offering of our time and talent, a portion of which is to become the Body of Christ. Yet, I think it is something to consider for most of us. The thought of something that I have made becoming the Body of Christ is awe-inspiring. I do not know how much of what I do is sanctified, but there is this one thing that I can do and which will become the holiest of all things. And for me, there is something else in the baking of the prosforo: I often think of the saints for whose feast the prosfora I make will be used. These saints inspire me; they show me what life can become when we dare to allow Christ to transform it; they pray for me. Baking and offering a prosforo for their feastday Liturgy is but a small token of my gratitude for what they have done.
Finally, an element of preparation that is most often happens “behind the scenes” is the Proskomede. This is the service of the preparation of the gifts, which takes place either before or during Orthros. Here, the celebrant lifts pieces out of the prosforo – the Lamb inscribed with IC XC NI KA (Jesus Christ conquers), pieces for the Theotokos and the saints, a piece for the bishop, and pieces while praying for the living and the departed. These pieces, offered on behalf of the faithful, will be placed in the cup containing the Body and Blood of Christ towards the end of the Liturgy.
The holy fathers of the Church speak often of vigilance as being a necessary element of the spiritual life. Let us, therefore be vigilant in our preparation for the reception of the holy Body and precious Blood of our Savior and let us be vigilant that we prepare to receive the holy gifts as often as possible.
With love in the risen Christ,