Orthodox America

  Preparing the Bread of Life

"HOW many are there that say: how much I wish to see Christ's fair form, His fgure, His clothes. His very shoes. Why, here you see Him: you touch Him; you consume Him: and while you are longing to see His clothes, He gives you Himself, not to look at only, but to touch and to eat and to receive within you .... For it was not enough for Him to become man. Nor yet to be buffeted and slain. He ever mingles Himself with us, and makes us His Body, not by faith alone, but in very truth and reality,...That which the Angels behold with trembling and dare not gaze on with fear because of the radiance that beams from Him, with that we are fed."

-- St. John Chrysostom

    Most laymen arriving at church for the Divine Liturgy are not aware that, in fact, the Liturgy has already begun. Even before the reading of the Hours, the priest, fully vested, is in the altar performing the first part of the Liturgy called the Proskomedia (in Greek, Prothesis), when the specially prepared oblations of bread and wine are dedicated, made ready, and set apart for a holy and divine purpose, the Holy Eucharist or Mystical Supper of the Lord.

    An eyewitness once described the manner in which St. John of Kronstadt served the Proskomedia:

    "... St. John begins it with calm concentration .... He always performs it himself, surrounded by clergy. He is full of triumphant joy. With what thoroughness, assiduity, loving attention does he prepare the Lamb-straightens and reverently places It, measures It a few times, making sure It stands well on the diskos. 'Look, ' he would suddenly remark to his fellow priests... 'Father Paul, Father Nicholas !... Where else is there anything to compare with what we have! ... Look! There He is--Christ! Here, in our midst-and we are next to Him, around Him, like the Apostles...' All in the altar are filled with reverent awe and fear: as though angels are hovering here with their wings..."

      Because St. John of Kronstadt served Divine Liturgy in a quite extraordinary and inspired way, it is tempting to classify the manner in which he served the Proskomedia also as unusual. This, however, would be a mistake, for very many priests have experienced the joyful power of the Proskomedia, not only in its grateful commemoration of certain events in the Saviour's life, but also in the particular commemoration of the living and the dead--those not yet perfect--for whom the Church asks forgiveness of sins, salvation and eternal rest.

    The word "Proskomedia" means "offering" or "the bringing of gifts," from the ancient custom still observed in parts of Greece today, wherein the faithful would bring offerings of bread and wine to be used in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Hearkening back to this custom the individual loaves are called "Prosphora," meaning "that which is offered ." These loaves are prepared of pure wheat flour leavened with yeast.[1] Greek practice calls for the use of one large round loaf, in symbolic agreement with the Apostle's words: "For we being many are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread" (I Cor. 10:17). The Russian practice is to use five smaller loaves in memory of the five loaves with which Christ miraculously fed the five thousand, teaching them at the same time of that more perfect nourishment which was to come in the Mystery of Holy Communion (John 6:22-58). Each of these small loaves is formed of two circular parts, one firmly affixed on top of the other, signifying Christ's two natures: human and divine. The top of the prosphoron is stamped with a seal bearing the sign of the cross and the initials IC XC NI KA, meaning "Jesus Christ Conquers All." The wine is made of grapes and is red in color, reminiscent of blood.

This is the bread which cometh down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die. (John 6: 50)

 In beginning this first part of the Divine Liturgy, the priest stands before the Royal Doors and strengthens himself with certain prayers to the Saviour and the Mother of God. He then enters the sanctuary and carefully vests himself after first blessing and kissing each vestment. He washes his hands and approaches the Altar of Oblations or Proskomedia Table, mindful of the cave of Bethlehem where the Saviour began His earthly life. Taking the first prosphoron, he makes the sign of the cross over it thrice with the lance saying, "In memory of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ." From this prosphoron he cuts a cube-shaped section bearing the stamp while pronouncing the words of the Prophet Isaiah: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearers..." (Is. 53:7-8). This portion, called the Lamb and consecrated later in the Liturgy, is placed on the diskos. With the lance the priest makes a cruciform incision, saying: "Sacrificed is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world." Then he pierces the right side of the Lamb, remembering the Evangelist' s words: "One of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side and forthwith there came out blood and water." Symbolically following these words, he pours wine and water into the chalice. From the second prosphoron the priest cuts out a small portion in honor and memory of the Theotokos and places it on the diskos to the right of the Lamb. From the third prosphoron he cuts out nine particles, commensurate with the nine orders of angels, in honor of the saints: St. John the Baptist, the prophets, apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, monastics and God pleasing ascetics, unmercenaries, the ancestors of God--Joachim and Anna, the saint commemorated that day, and the saint whose liturgy is being celebrated (St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great or St. James). These particles are placed in three rows to the left of the Lamb. Below the Lamb are placed particles from the fourth prosphoron-in memory of the living, and from the fifth prosphoron--in memory of the departed. There also are placed particles cut from those prosphora brought to the altar at the request of the faithful together with the names of those whom they wish commemorated.-these are read individually as the priest removes the particles and adds them to the diskos on which the Body of the Church is now represented, together with its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

      Preparing to conclude the Proskomedia, the priest censes the star and places it on the diskos over the Lamb and the other particles; while symbolizing the star of Bethlehem, it also serves a practical purpose in preserving the arrangement of the particles under the veil with which the diskos is then covered. A similar veil is placed over the chalice, and both vessels are additionally covered by the "aer" which, together with the veils, symbolizes the swaddling clothes of the newborn Christ Child and the shroud of the Crucified Saviour. They also symbolize the glory in which Christ is clothed and which covers the world. Censing the prepared gifts, the priest entreats the Lord to bless the gifts thus offered, to remember those who have offered them and those in whose memory they are being offered, and to make him, as a priest, worthy to celebrate the Divine Mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

     Because the Proskomedia is a hidden, private, or "secret" service, usually unseen and unheard by the congregation (because it signifies the youthful "hidden years" before the Lord commenced His public ministry), some might think of it only in practical or utilitarian terms--as simply the reverent preparation of the bread and wine, The Proskomedia, however, is an integral part of the Divine Liturgy which, taken as a whole, "is the most important service of our Holy Church. It is miraculous, a masterpiece of the Spirit. It is a magnificent building, erected by the wisest architects according to an inspired plan .... In the Liturgy, as in an architectural work, everything has its proper place. The architects of the Liturgy used, instead of stones, precious prayers and concepts. They mined their materials from the Old and New Testaments, arranged and connected them to achieve an architectural harmony. The hearts and minds of all those who enter this structure are lifted up to the heavens .... He who has good intentions, a mystical ear to hear, and a mystical eye to see, is dazzled by the spiritual beauty of the Divine Liturgy.” (Bishop Augoustinos N. Kantiotis, On the Divine Liturgy: Orthodox Homilies, Volume One).

     Thus, the Proskomedia, together with all of the Divine Liturgy, sets before us the Divine Plan of Redemption, put so well by Nicholas Cabasilas: "In beholding the unutterable freshness of the work of salvation, amazed by the abundance of God's mercy, we are brought to venerate Him Who had such compassion for us, Who saved us at so great a price: to entrust our souls to Him, to dedicate our lives to Him, to enkindle in our hearts the flame of His love."

    Even though out of sight and hearing, the faithful should remind themselves inwardly of the significance and importance of this service by which the priest enters into a holy and special relationship with bread and wine, preparing them to become the very Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in obedience to the Lord' s commandment, "Do this in memory of Me." For "His passion is the very cause of our salvation, and without it mankind could not have been redeemed" (Cabisilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy).

[1] "In all the passages of Holy Scripture where the bread of the Eucharist is mentioned the bread is called artos in Greek .... Artos usually signifies wheat bread which has risen through the use of leaven ('unleavened' is expressed in Greek by the adjective azymos." (Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology),