It’s easy for those of us who partake of the Eucharist weekly to forget the stunning, world-inverting power of the Christian liturgy. This post, probably the first in a series, is a collection of texts from the early Church which give a sense of the wonder and awe with which the early Christians approached the Liturgy, most of which are prefaced with a quick introduction to explain their relevance. Naturally, they are only scratching the surface of early Christian writing on the Eucharist, and given that most early Christians could not read, these words scratched out on papyri can hardly be expected to express the fullness of what the liturgy meant to Churches of the ancient world.
The Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, c. 90AD
Few people appreciate the heavily Eucharistic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Mike Aquilina, a Catholic scholar says in his fantastic book, ‘The Mass of the Early Christians’, “John’s description of heaven’s court mirrored the arrangement of the bishop and his priests around the Church’s altar in the early liturgy. John’s hymns and chants reappear in many ancient liturgies.”
This passage, for example, very likely mirrors the arrangement of the early church around the bishop who was officiating the Eucharist:
“Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; they had crowns of gold on their head. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices.” (Rev 4:2-5)
In this next passage, all the hosts of heaven gather to worship the slain Lamb, a term we still use repeatedly in the Liturgy to refer to the Eucharistic Christ, who is offering Himself up for us …
“(Chapter 5 verse 6) And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain … (v. 11) Then I looked around, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and srrengtg and honour and glory and blessing!’ And every creature which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’ Then the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshipped Him who lives forever and ever.” (Rev 5:6 & 11-14)
The scene described above is not at all unlike what occurs in Catholic and Orthodox Churches daily all over the world.
The Liturgy of St. Gregory, c. 300s-400s AD
Most Churches use St. Gregory’s liturgy fairly infrequently, which is a shame because even though almost all liturgies use imagery and hymns from the Book of Revelation, St. Gregory’s contains perhaps the most conscious references to Revelation. One of the liturgy’s governing themes is the unity of heaven and earth in the Eucharist, and Revelation imagery is used to evoke images of Christ’s heavenly throne being mirrored on Earth.
In the ‘Anaphora’ (the prayer which begins with ‘Lift up your hearts’), the liturgy emphasises that the congregation is about to join the hosts of angels in their praise of God around His throne. Look both for the theme of Heaven and Earth being joined, and for imagery from Revelation in the following excerpts:
“You are He won the angels praise and the archangels worship. You are He whom the principalities bless and unto whom the dominions cry. You are He whose glory the authorities declare. You are He who unto whom the thrones send up the honour. Thousands of thousands stand before You, and ten thousand times ten thousand offer Your service. You are He whom the invisible bless and the visible worship. They all fulfil Your word, O our master.”
“O You, the Existent, Master, the Lord, true God of true God, who has manifested to us the Light of the Father, who has granted us the true knowledge of the Holy Spirit, who has manifested to us this great Mystery of life, who has established the rising of the choirs of the incorporeal among men, who has given to the earthly the praising of the seraphim. Receive from us also our voices, together with the invisible. Count us with the heavenly hosts.“
Describing his vision of Heaven, Isaiah says: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. The house was full of His glory. Around Him stood seraphim; each with six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet and with with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.'” (Isaiah 6:-3) In the Anaphora, the priest almost quotes Isaiah verbatim, again emphasising that the congregation is about to stand in the same glorious presence as the Cherubim and Seraphim:
Priest: “You are He around whom stand the cherubim and the seraphim, six wings to the one and six wings to the other, with two they cover their faces, with two they cover their feet and with tow they fly. And one cries to the other, sending up the hymn of victory and salvation which is ours, with a voice full of glory. They praise, they sing, they proclaim, they cry out, saying [… ]
Cong: “Holy Holy Holy Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of Your holy glory.”
Perhaps the most stunning thing about all this is that as Christians, this is not mere poetic hyperbole. Heaven really has been joined to Earth, and this new unity is clearest on Christian altars where God’s people lovingly offer Him the sacrifice of their own toil (the production of bread from wheat and wine from grapes), and as a loving Father, He offers the sacrifice back to His people in the form of His Son who died to save them. Before the priest begins the Institution Narrative, wherein he recites the words which Christ said to institute the New Covenant sacrifice of Himself, the priest offer himself to God:
Priest: I offer to You, O my Master; I offer to You, O my Master; I offer to You, O my Master, the symbols of my freedom. I write my works according to Your words. You are He who has given me this service, full of mystery. You have given me the partaking of Your Flesh, in bread and wine.
People: We believe.
There is no selfishness here, only mutual self-giving between God and the people. The people offer themselves and their work to God, and God sanctifies the offerings by infusing them with Himself, and then giving them back to the people. We humbly offer ourselves as temples of Christ’s presence, and He graciously comes and dwells within us. There is nothing purely metaphorical about the beauty of this self-sacrificial dance. The Christian Liturgy is an echo of the sort of reality which this fallen world has not known for centuries. In St. Isaac the Syrian’s words, he who eats and drinks the Eucharist “while still in this world, breathes the air of the resurrection in which the righteous will delight after they rise from the dead.” One day, the whole world will become a liturgical love-dance of self-giving, but until then, there is still work to be done and darkness to be defeated.
Of course, to believe in the ‘invisible glory’ of the Eucharist must seem like utter lunacy to the modern skeptic, and that’s fair enough. I don’t think the Mystery of the Eucharist is itself a preaching tool; without a uniquely Christian understanding of who God is and what He does a(love and give of Himself), the Eucharist cannot make sense. Even catechumens were not permitted to remain in the Church for the Eucharistic Liturgy, because its mysterious glory was comprehensible only to those who had already been ‘born of spirit and fire’, and thus initiated into this new love-centred experience of being. But even though the Eucharist has limited potential as a preaching tool itself, it is undoubtedly the source and wellspring of all preaching, service and Christian work. Our goal as Christians in the world is to lead as many as we can into the glorious light of the liturgical love-dance, which for now manifests in only fleeting bursts, but one day will suffuse the entire Creation.
“The Divine Liturgy empowers and inspires evangelism, social service, instruction and all else.”
~ The Orthodox Study Bible