How does this Divine mystery happen? After all, consecrated bread and wine do not descend from heaven! Indeed, the substances themselves sanctified in the altar are earthly and ordinary. However, they are spiritually and ineffably converted into the divine Body and Blood, when the Holy Spirit descends on the offered gifts during priestly prayers. This is an inexplicable and incomprehensible mystery to the human mind. There were some saints who saw with their own eyes the conversion of bread to the Infant, Who was prepared for the Lord’s Supper, and the wine turned to His blood, which was poured into the chalice. Others who have witnessed this Divine conversion also included some who doubted the sacrament and were allowed to witness the conversion to strengthen their faith. It is our responsibility not to seek a miracle, but to believe Christ’s words. After all, He Himself says that this consecrated bread and wine are His Body and Blood, and not some representations or symbols, as some Protestants now interpret it as.
That is why the communion of the Lord’s Supper is a terribly daunting mystery, which should be approached with great reverence and trembling. It is like fire: it enlightens the righteous, cleanses small transgressions and gives them eternal life with Christ. Those who are stubborn or sinners who do not fully repent, however, become the property of eternal hellfire. Holy Apostle Paul warns us about this: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this Cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord.But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the Bread and drink of the Cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:27–32).
Thus, sickness and physical death, and even worse, spiritual death, can be retribution for mindless communion of the Eucharistic Bread and Wine without correcting serious sins. Therefore, the Holy Church calls upon all of us for spiritual purification and correction, for which the sacrament of confession is given to us. A spiritual father (a priest or bishop) does not just allow a person to repent sins, but also gives terms for repentance that are determined by the rules of the Church. The penance is appropriate for the severity of sins and the sincere desire of the confessor to be cleansed. After sincere confession, the spiritual father allows the person to receive Holy Communion. Severely sick and dying Christians should be allowed to Communion immediately after confession, regardless of the severity of sins, so that no one departs from this world without Holy Communion. If the patient unexpectedly recovers after Communion, then he should further refrain from Holy Communion during the period of penance, laid down by the rules for his transgressions.
Substances used to serve the Liturgy
The third rule of the holy apostles, as well as other holy church canons, set strict requirements for substances that are to be brought to the altar for the Bloodless Sacrifice. Wine used for the Eucharist must be only be pure “from the fruit of the vine”, that is, from grape juice, without the addition of any other substances. In the wine cannot be added water, alcohol, sugar, dyes or flavors. Unfertilized grape juice (young wine) or non-grape wine (thorny, cherry, plum, etc.) cannot be consecrated and it cannot even be brought into the holy altar.
Like with the wine, there are holy rules also with the bread. This bread is called prosphora, which in Greek means “offering” (in ancient Russian, it can also be referred to as “prosphira”, “prosvira”, “proskura”).
In ancient times, people brought bread they had baked to the priest, from which he chose the best to use in liturgy. These loaves (“offerings,” that is, prosphora) were immediately marked with a cut in the shape of a cross, and the rest, without the sign of the cross, were left for eating on “agapas” (“evenings of love” – in ancient times, Christian meals were linked with the Eucharist and in monasteries, a place was always left at the table for Jesus Christ). Later, they began to not mark the loaves with a cross, but to bake the prosphora already with a seal bearing the image of the cross (the incision of the cross was made during the liturgy itself, from the lower side of the top of the prosphora, consecrated as the Body of Christ).
Among the Greeks, the Christians not only baked the prosphoras themselves, but started to also buy prosphoras from the market place to bring to church. In Rus’, the custom was to bake prosphoras directly in the church grounds, in order to avoid any incorrect preparation. The prosphoras were made by specially blessed people, men and women, who were called prosphirniki (men) and prosphirnitsy (women). These people had special requirements: they had to lead a chaste life, either in a legitimate Christian marriage or be completely unmarried. The Holy Stoglav Council in Moscow in 1551, testifies to the tradition that prosphirnitsy were to be pious, elderly widows who no longer had menstrual cycles. After the church schism of the 17th century, at the time of the impoverishment of faith and the purity of the life of Christians, there were cases when married women or unmarried girls were allowed to make the prosphoras if they didn’t find a suitable elderly widow. This was written, in particular, by St. Arseny of the Urals in one of his letters (Bishop Arseny of the Urals. “Justification of the Old-believer Church of Christ. Letters.” – M.: Kitezh. 1999, p.240).
The dough of the prosphora should include three substances, in honor of the Most Holy Trinity and as a sign of the three parts of the human soul. These three substances are: 1) flour (naturally leavened sourdough), 2) pure boiled (“live”) water, and 3) cooking salt. So teaches, in particular, St. Simon, the archbishop of Thessalonica. The leaven, which “revives” the dough for fermentation, symbolizes that the body of Christ is joined to the living soul. Salt is a symbol of the mind: when Christ became incarnate, he took upon himself a full-fledged human nature – that is, flesh, animated and rational. Apollinaris of Laodicea, a heretic of the 4th century, taught that Christ took upon himself only human flesh, and His Divinity supposedly took the place of His rational soul. On this basis, the Apollinarists introduced divine services using unleavened bread, without yeast and salt.
However, the Orthodox Church teaches that Christ is the perfect God and the perfect Man, with a rational soul. The unleavened ministry is not correct in the Church of Christ. The Roman Church is now using unleavened bread, which is one of the fundamental parts of Latin heresy. This innovation is rejected in Orthodoxy. Thus, the prosphora must canonically contain flour with natural leaven, water and salt.
Is it possible to use baker’s or distiller’s yeast sold in the store, instead of sourdough starter? Some elderly parishioners, whom the priest entrusts with the production of the prosphoras, ask for permission to bake with yeast, fearing that the dough will not rise without the addition of yeast. In this case, the priest must explain that store-bought yeast is an unacceptable substance for the dough of prosphora. This yeast is produced using waste from sugar production or products of chemical hydrolysis of wood, and these wastes and chemicals should not be included in prosphora.
Not by chance in I.G. Ksenos’s book, “The history and customs of the Vetkovsky Church”
[the Old-believer community that was in Belarus]
, which describes many pious, ancient Orthodox establishments, it is said: “Let prosphora not be made from yeast, but fermented, not over-salted and not sour, from pure wheat flour, baked, and still warm.”
Some who make prosphora avoid store-bought yeast, but add wine yeast (natural wine sediment) to the dough. This is also wrong. Wine yeast in the dough should also not be added. First, it would infringe the three-part prosphora; secondly, it is also unacceptable because the wine yeast in Scripture symbolizes the wrath of God (see the commentary on the 74th psalm). What, then, will the prosphora symbolize? Anger at the creators of such lawlessness? It is also not allowed to mix oil, hops (humulus), baking powder, soda and other foreign components to the dough.
How prosphoras are used in the service
The Orthodox prosphora has a round shape. It consists of a body (the bottom half) and a seal (the top half). The body of the prosphora symbolizes the earth (the material nature of the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ), and the round seal denotes His divine nature (the circle symbolizes beginninglessness and endlessness, that is, the properties of the Divine). The union of the body and the seal symbolizes the one Christ in two natures: Divinity and humanity. In Christian theology, this is known as hypostasis.
As a rule, no less than seven large “liturgical” prosphoras are made for the service. The other smaller “brought-in” (additional, ordered) prosphoras that are made, depend on the number of mentions (notes) submitted to the proskomedia, in order to pray for good health and for deceased Orthodox Christians.
During the proskomedia (the act of preparing the bread and wine for Eucharist), the priest chooses the best prosphora from the large prosphoras and, with prayers, cuts out a large, quadrangular part called an agnets (Russian for: lamb). That is what St. John the Baptist called Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). A similar phrase is written on the seal of the Old-believer prosphoras. The Lamb is cut out with four angles. This is symbolic, for the Lord Jesus Christ came to this world, having the four parts of the world (north, south, east, west), to consecrate it with His Blood. The symbolism also includes the Cross – the altar on which Christ’s Sacrifice was brought – which has four main points. The seal itself, however, remains round when cut, as a symbol of the Divine. That is, the cut is made around the seal, without damaging it.
The taking out of the Lamb (agnets) from the first prosphora depicts the birth of Christ from the flesh of the Blessed Virgin. From the bottom side, the Lamb is cut crosswise, which symbolizes the Crucifixion on the Cross. The upper right portion is then “pierced” with a specific, spear-like knife. This knife depicts the spear which pierced the Lord on His side (in the ribs) while He was on the Cross. From the perforation, flowed blood and water (John 19:34). Therefore, after the perforation of the Lamb, the priest or deacon pours wine and a small amount of clean, fresh spring (“living”) water into the chalice (liturgical cup). Not adding water with the wine is strictly forbidden by the holy fathers of the VI Ecumenical Council. The wine should be diluted during proskomedia, with prayer, and not before the service (that is, wine should not be used where water was added in the production process).
This is how the holy agnets (Lamb) is prepared – the bread, which during liturgy is sanctified by the Holy Spirit and becomes the Flesh of Christ. After the aforementioned actions, the priest cuts out triangular-shaped portions from the six other main (“liturgical”) prosphoras, as well as from the additional “brought-in” prosphoras. The triangular portions are in honor of the Holy Trinity and also to distinguish them in shape, so as not to confuse them during communion with the cubic portion of the Lamb to be put in the chalice.
Each of the main prosphoras have their own symbolic meaning.
The second prosphora is taken out “in honor and in memory” of the Most Holy Theotokos. This prosphora is called the Mother of God. The priest cuts out triangular portions from the seals on the six remaining main prosphoras and places the portions onto the holy Eucharistic liturgical dish, “on the right side” (on the left side, if viewed from the priest side) of the Lamb.
The Stoglav Council of 1551 instructs that a large portion be taken out of the prosphora of the Mother of God. The portion is to be taken from the part of the seal, which depicts the skull of Adam. This symbolizes that the sacrifice of Christ is for those born from Adam (when the portions are put into the chalice at the end of the liturgy, they are filled up with the Blood of Christ, like the skull of Adam, which according to legend, was sprinkled with Christ’s Blood during His crucifixion, in order to relinquish the sins of the First Man and his descendants). For as through Adam we all sinned, so as in Christ the faithful were justified (Rom. 5, 12–19). The Blood of Christ washed Adam’s sin and also the people for whom the prosphora portions are for, for the people came from Adam.
The third prosphora is taken out “in honor and glory” of the holy ethereal forces, saint John the Baptist and all the holy saints: a triangular portion (slightly smaller portion compared to the Theotokos prosphora) is cut out and placed “on the left hand” of the lamb (on the right side, if viewed from the priest’s side). This is the representation of the Deesis, the Mother of God stands at the right hand of the Savior, and John the Baptist – on the left. In old books, the third prosphora is often called Predotechevoy (the Forerunner).
The fourth prosphora was previously used to pray for “the health and salvation” of Orthodox kings, princes and boyars, the army and all Orthodox Christians. During the present day, this prosphora is cut out namelessly, praying “for all Orthodox Christians who care for the Russian land, the army and for all Orthodox Christians.” From the seal of this prosphora, a triangular portion of an even smaller size is taken out and is placed below the Lamb, at its lower right corner (in relation to the priest, it is on his left side).
The fifth prosphora is cut out with a prayer “for the health and salvation” of the primate of our Church (the metropolitan), his diocesan bishop and “all those in monastic and clerical orders”. A small triangular portion is placed on the holy Eucharistic liturgical dish, near the previous one, closer to the middle of the Lamb.
The sixth prosphora (in ancient times, until the 17th century, this prosphora could be combined with the fifth prosphora) is used to pray for the health and salvation of the hegumen of the monastery or the spiritual father of the priest who performs the proskomediya, and all those who hold a clerical rank or are a part of the monastic brethren.
Before cutting out a portion from each prosphora, a prayer is said – “Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy” and at the end – “Amen”. This is said for the previous prosphoras. Here, with the sixth prosphora, is a bit different. Since the additional “brought-in” prosphoras are also used to pray for the health and salvation of many people, the prayer “Lord have mercy” is not spoken on the additional prosphoras (for the prayer started on the sixth “main” prosphora continues on these additional prosphoras). “Amen” is said before the seventh prosphora. From the “brought-in” (additional) prosphoras, small portions (one from each prosphora) are taken out and are placed in a row below the previous portions taken out of the “main” prosphoras. At the end of all the prosphoras “for health,” the priest prays for himself and ends the prayer with: “Amen”. This ends the prayer of the “sixth prosphora”.
After this, the priest begins to take out portions of prosphora with prayers for all the deceased Orthodox Christians. He takes the seventh “main” prosphora and after saying the prayer: “Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy”, cuts out a portion and remembers in prayer the deceased founders of the church (or monastery), the holy Ecumenical Patriarchs, pious kings and queens, church hierarchs, pious princes and princesses and all those in the clergy or with a monastic rank. This portion is left to the side for the time being.
After that, without praying “Amen” and “Let us pray to the Lord”, the priest begins to take out small portions of prosphora for deceased Orthodox Christians from the remaining, additional prosphoras and places the portions on the bottom row of prosphora portions on the holy Eucharistic liturgical dish.
Then he prays over the seventh prosphora, taking out a triangular portion of the prosphora, with a prayer “for all of the departed” Orthodox Christians and concluding the prayer with “Amen.” When commemorating for the souls of departed Orthodox Christians on the seventh prosphora, additional prosphoras, as well as on the sixth prosphora, there are two customs.
If we act strictly according to the Service Book, then the seventh prosphora, for the commemoration of the founders of the church, the king and the clerical order, is only pierced, yet the portion is not immediately extracted. Then the portions are excised from the “additional” prosphoras for the departed, and after them, during the ending prayer (for all deceased Orthodox Christians), the portion is removed from the 7th service prosphora and is placed alongside the portions from the 3–6th prosphoras (at the bottom corner “to the left of the Lamb”, or, as viewed by the priest, at the lower right corner).
According to another custom, the portion from the 7th prosphora is excised from the utterance of the first words and is immediately put into its allotted place, and then portions from the prosphora “brought” to commemorate the departed are excised. After them, “all Orthodox Christians” are commemorated with a separate prosphora, “Amen” is uttered, and this last portion is put in the bottom row, with portions from the “additional” prosphora.
In concordance with the instructions of the Stoglav Sobor (Council of a Hundred Chapters), the portion dedicated to the Mother of God must be large, the one dedicated to the Forerunner must be slightly smaller, and the rest should be small, in order to better distinguish them during Communion, and also so as not to confuse the rank of prosphora when they are “consumed” at the end of the service. First, it is necessary to consume the Antidoron (the excised first prosphora, with a square cut-out from the extracted Lamb), then that of the Mother of God (with a large triangular cut-out), then that for the Forerunner (there is a smaller cut-out on it), and only after them are the remainder consumed (with small triangular cut-outs remaining from the excised portions).
Each prosphora is sacrificed only once: two or more portions are not excised from it, because what has already been offered to God and already belongs to Him cannot be offered again, just as a slaughtered sacrificial animal cannot be slaughtered a second time, because it will no longer be a living sacrifice, but carrion (this is one of the points of contention between the New-believers and the Ancient Church, as they repeatedly sacrifice the same prosphora, for which the Old-believers have reproached them since the very beginning of the Nikonian schism).
During the liturgy, through the prayers of the priest and with all the people posed in prayerful intercession before Christ, the Lamb extracted from the first prosphora, through the invocation and invisible descent of the Holy Spirit, becomes the Body of Christ, and wine mixed with water in the chalice becomes the Blood of Christ. The remaining portions are poured into the chalice and unite with the Blood of Christ, spiritually sanctifying all those, for whom they were excised. These portions do not become the Body of Christ, much less the bodies of those for whom they were brought. They signify an offering to God for the people commemorated. They are not used in Communion for anyone, but after the service the priest or deacon consumes them from the chalice together with the remnants of the Eucharist.
Thus, the Lamb and other portions (those for the Mother of God, all the saints, for the living faithful and for the deceased) lying on the holy Eucharistic liturgical dish constitute the symbolic image of the Church of Christ: Christ, the Mother of God, the angels and saints in the upper row represent the Heavenly, Triumphant Church; below them are the particles representative of the Earthly Church, the currently living pious Christians (and those deceased, the grave fate of whom we have not yet been informed of by God; yet those who are already clearly glorified as saints are remembered in the top row, with the third portion). These two parts of the one Divine Church of Christ are inseparably tied with each other, since the portions representing them lie on a single dish, which encloses them with its circular rim, as it were, in endless eternity.
Prior to Communion, the Lamb is divided into four parts, the first of which blesses the chalice with the sign of the Cross, the second is used for Communion by the clergy in the altar, and the two remaining parts are broken up into small portions and are put into the chalice for the Communion of the faithful outside the altar. All other (triangular) portions are placed into the chalice with the Blood of Christ at the end of the liturgy, becoming soaked in It and merging with the great Sacrifice of Christ.
For what purpose and for what Christians are the prosphora sacrificed
A portion, excised during the proskomedia for a living or a deceased Christian, brings them in Communion with the mystery of the Eucharist; it is placed in the Blood of Christ, for the remission of sins and the granting of eternal life to the commemorated. This may be called Communion in absentia of the commemorated. Therefore, during the proskomedia it is forbidden to commemorate those who are not worthy of such commemoration by their sins.
According to the teachings of Blessed Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, portions can be taken out only for those living faithful Christians who lead their lives piously and repentantly. Someone living in an unmarried union or fornication, or even those who do not repent of other obvious mortal sins, should not be commemorated during the proskomedia (these people can be commemorated in prayers for their health in private prayers, so that the Lord may enlighten them and lead them to repentance and rectification, whereas in the church, only during litanies and molebens). The portions for the departed are excised only for those who lived in true faith and repentance (the rite of church burial is also performed on such people).
Communion at the liturgy and outside the church
During the liturgy, the priest prayerfully invokes the grace of the Holy Spirit upon the offered bread and wine, and by the power of God they invisibly turn into the true Body and Blood of Christ. The priest divides the consecrated Lamb into four parts, one of which he puts into the chalice with the Blood of Christ (for the unification of the Body and Blood), the other he takes for his own Communion (if several priests and deacons are taking Communion, then he divides this part and distributes it to them), while the remaining two parts are used for the Communion of the laity outside the altar: he puts them into the chalice and brings them to the solea, where he conducts the Communion of infants and those who have been permitted by their spiritual father to receive Holy Communion, according to the result of their confession.
For the Communion of people outside the church (for example, those infirmed at home or in hospital) the so-called Reserved Sacraments are intended for use. They are prepared by priests once a year, on Great Thursday. These are the very same portions of the consecrated Lamb, only soaked in the Blood of Christ from the chalice and then dried out for convenient storage throughout the year. These gifts are stored in the holy altar in a special vessel called the “tabernacle” (Darokhranitel’nitsa – Gift Protector). To transport the Holy Sacraments for these demands at home, priests use a pyxis (Daronositsa – Gift bearer), a casket with Reserved Sacraments and a small chalice and spoon necessary for the patient to receive Communion.
At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the bishop or priest, according to the rite of liturgy, standing on the ambo, distributes the consecrated prosphora. Those who want to receive a prosphora should approach him, lay their palms together crosswise (right over the left) and take the prosphora with them, kissing the hand of the giver.
Sanctified prosphora should be consumed strictly on an empty stomach (prior to which only Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, as well as the Great Holy Water of the Theophany, may be ingested). After consuming the prosphora, three bows are done to the waist with the prayer of the Publican (“O God, be merciful to me a sinner. Thou hast created me, O Lord, have mercy on me. I have sinned immeasurably; O Lord, have mercy and forgive me a sinner”), and the third bow is placed to the ground, to the Holy Altar (to the clergyman leading the service).