THE CONSECRATION OF THE HOLY GIFTS — THE CHURCH’S AFFAIR (PART I OF II)
by Rev. Fr. Stylianos Muksuris
A serious misconception Orthodox Christian worshippers often have of themselves is that during the Divine Liturgy, they are mere spectators. The celebrant priest, they say, ‘performs’ the ritual or ‘acts’ on the people’s behalf. Essentially, the lay people take on a passive role. How often do Greek Orthodox Christians claim that they go to Church ‘to be liturgized’ rather than to actively celebrate the Divine Liturgy together with the ordained clergy of the Church? This perspective is often fed by a doleful misconception of the laity’s role in the divine services, but can also be due to the reduction of the Liturgy to a magnificent and complex performance in which the laity have no choice but to assume their place as the audience! Historically, such a misrepresentation of true worship has sadly affected all of Christendom, including most especially Western Christians.
How active were the laity during the Divine Liturgy? Sources readily available to us clearly indicate that in the ancient Church of the first century, the Eucharistic Prayer recited by the celebrant bishop during the weekly observation of the Liturgy, was said out loud. This prayer typically included a petition for the consecration of the people of God in attendance as well as for the consecration of the gifts of bread and wine. The people – and not the clergy! – sealed this prayer with the response “Amen!”, without which the entire rite was invalid. The liturgical responsibilities, so to speak, were equally distributed between clergy and lay people, since both constituted the Body of Christ, the Church. The Eucharist did not belong to the bishop only or to the presbyters, who later on would represent their bishop in the parishes that flourished after the fourth century. The Eucharist, its preparation, its celebration, and its communion belonged to the entire community of faith.
Once again, the Church of the first few centuries saw communion as absolutely mandatory for clergy and lay people alike. The injunction to “Take, eat” (Matthew 26.26) and to “Drink from it, all of you” (26.27) was addressed to the entire Church, because all Christians were called to keep the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Divine Liturgy. Hence, any concept of a ‘privatized’ Eucharist was completely foreign in the conscience of the Church.
During the consecration of the Holy Gifts, God Himself imbues the bread and wine with His invisible presence, but the combined prayers of the entire Church – clergy and laity – contribute to bringing this miracle to pass. Hence, the consecration prayer is not some magical incantation or spell that manipulates God to do what man wants, but the words of faith that communicate with God, thank Him for His manifold blessings and miracles of the past, and beseech Him for the privilege of experiencing yet another miracle in the mystical transformation of the Holy Gifts.
How is it then that the entire Church participates in the consecration? Next week, we shall look at this portion of the anaphora prayer and by carefully examining its structure, we shall see exactly how clergy and laity together interact in prayer during this holiest of moments in the Divine Liturgy.