Comments on the Main Themes
On Great Thursday the focus of the Church turns to the events that occurred in the Upper Room and at the Garden of Gethsemane.
In the Upper Room, while at meal, Jesus established and instituted the mystery or sacrament of the holy Eucharist and washed the feet of His disciples as well.
The Garden of Gethsemane calls our attention to Jesus' redemptive obedience and sublime prayer (Mt 26.36-46). It also brings us before the cowardly, treacherous act of Judas, who betrayed Christ with a kiss, the sign of love and friendship.
At the Mystical Supper in the Upper Room Jesus gave a radically new meaning to the food and drink of the sacred meal. He identified Himself with the bread and wine: "Take, eat; this is my Body.…Drink of it all of you; for this is my Blood of the New Covenant" (Mt 26.26-28).
We have learned to equate food with life because it sustains our earthly existence. In the Eucharist the distinctively unique human food - bread and wine - becomes our gift of life. Consecrated and sanctified, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This change is not physical but mystical and sacramental. While the qualities of the bread and wine remain, we partake of the true Body and Blood of Christ. In the eucharistic meal God enters into such a communion of life that He feeds humanity with His own being, while still remaining distinct. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, Christ, "transmits to us divine life, making Himself eatable." The Author of life shatters the limitations of our createdness. Christ acts so that "we might become sharers of divine nature" (2 Pet 1.4).
The Eucharist is at the center of the Church's life. It is her most profound prayer and principal activity. It is at one and the same time both the source and the summit of her life. In the Eucharist the Church manifests her true nature and is continuously changed from a human community into the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and the People of God.
The Eucharist is the pre-eminent sacrament. It completes all the others and recapitulates the entire economy of salvation. Our new life in Christ is constantly renewed and increased by the Eucharist. The Eucharist imparts life and the life it gives is the life of God.
Through baptism and chrismation we have entered into a new mode of existence. It is an existence of constant becoming. The Scriptures describe this as new birth, the death of the old man, the putting off of the old nature and the putting on of the new. This newness, this radical change in the mode of existence, is not accomplished by human effort. It is a gift from God. Rooted in the age to come, this new existence is maintained and nourished by the Eucharist. At every Divine Liturgy we hear the good news of Christ and enter into the process of conversion. We are given the possibility to acquire for ourselves the eucharistic manner of existence. Little by little we become ourselves communion and love. At the Divine Liturgy the tragic elements of our fallen existence - pride, individualism, blasphemy, vanity, hypocricy, envy, anger, division, fear, despair, pain, deceit, untruth, malice, greed, vice, gluttony, passions, corruption, death - are being continuously defeated, in order to make us capable to be love, freedom and life.
The Eucharist is offered to the Church as a whole not as a reward, but as a remedy for sin, a provision for life, the communion of the Holy Spirit, and an opening to others. Every baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian should be a regular and frequent recipient of the divine Mysteries. Care, however, must be taken that Holy Communion is approached with spiritual discernment and adequate preparation. A total fast, as described above, precedes our reception of Holy Communion. The observance of God's commandments constitutes the essential preparation and proper disposition for participation in the sacrament.
In the Eucharist the Church remembers and enacts sacramentally the redemptive event of the Cross and participates in its saving grace. This does not suggest that the Eucharist attempts to reclaim a past event. The Eucharist does not repeat what cannot be repeated. Christ is not slain anew and repeatedly. Rather the eucharistic food is changed concretely and really into the Body and Blood of the Lamb of God, “Who gave Himself up for the life of the world.” Christ, the Theanthropos, continually offers Himself to the faithful through the consecrated Gifts, i.e., His very own risen and deified Body, which for our sake died once and now lives (Heb 10.2; Rev 1. 18). Hence, the faithful come to Church week by week not only to worship God and to hear His word. They come, first of all, to experience over and over the mystery of salvation I on and to be united intimately to the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
By the power of His sacrifice Christ draws us into His own sacrificial action. The Church also offers sacrifice. However, the sacrifice offered by the Church and her members can only be an offering given in return to God on account of the riches of His goodness, mercy and love. This sacrifice is first of all, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It also has other forms, including commitment to the Gospel, loyalty to the true faith, constant prayer, fasting, struggles against the passions, and works of charity. At its deepest level, however, this offering in return (antiprosfora) is an act of kenosis (Lk 9.23-25). It is constituted by our willingness to lose our life in order to gain it (Mt 16.28).
In the Eucharist we receive and partake of the resurrected Christ. We share in His sacrificed, risen and deified Body, "for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal" (Divine Liturgy). In the Eucharist Christ pours into us - as a permanent and constant gift - the Holy Spirit, "Who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God - and if children - then heirs with Christ (Rom 8.16-17).
The central fruit of the Eucharist is the communion of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life, who prepares us for the resurrection and makes us advance toward it (Rom 8.2, 9-8). The other fruits of the Eucharist are related to this central gift. Vigilance of soul, forgiveness of sins, a clear conscience are both a preparation for as well as the result of our communion with the Holy Spirit. Sonship, fellowship with the saints, the manifestation of love in the unity of faith, and the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom are obtained by the communion of the Holy Spirit.
St. Gregory Palamas, in an insightful passage, helps us to understand the profound power and wonder of the Eucharist:
Christ has become our brother by sharing our flesh and blood and so becoming assimilated to us. . . He has joined and bound us to Himself, as a husband his wife, by becoming one single flesh with us through the communion of His blood; He has also become our Father by divine baptism which renders us like unto Him, and He nourishes us at His own breast as a tender mother nourishes her babies ... Come, He says, eat my Body, drink my Blood . . . so that you be not only made after God's image, but become gods and kings, eternal and heavenly, clothing yourselves with me, King and God.
The Washing of the Feet
The events initiated by Jesus at the Mystical.Supper were profoundly significant. By teaching and giving the disciples His final instructions and praying for them as well, He revealed again His divine Sonship and authority. By establishing the Eucharist, He enshrines to perfection God's most intimate purposes for our salvation, offering Himself as Communion and life. By washing the feet of His disciples, he summarized the meaning of His ministry, manifested His perfect love and revealed His profound humility. The act of the washing of the feet (Jn. 13:2-17) is closely related to the sacrifice of the Cross. Both reveal aspects of Christ's kenosis. While the cross constitues the ultimate manifestation of Christ's perfect obedience to His Father (Phil 2.5-8), the washing of the feet signifies His intense love and the giving of Himself to each person according to that person's ability to receive Him (Jn 13.6-9). In a meditation on liturgical and priestly service, Father Lev Gillet - who wrote under the pseudonym-- A Monk of the Eastern Church - made the following observations on the significance of Jesus' act. Though his words are addressed to priests, they are appropriate for and applicable to every Christian as well.
The washing of feet does not merely signify a necessary purification - take away the dust accumulated along the roadway, take away the errors due to human weakness. More than that, this act is a mystery of humility and love. Jesus wanted to be designated by the prophet Isaiah as the "Suffering Servant." In the Gospels He describes Himself as "Him who serves." He insisted on the fact that, in the Kingdom of God, the greatest should be the least. And now, before entering into His Passion, he says to His disciples: "If 1, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13.14-15).
The priest of Jesus cannot fruitfully accomplish this double priestly act - share the bread of the Word and break the bread of the Lord's Supper - unless, first of all, like His master, he kneels before others in an attitude of humility and service, and washes their feet. Without this precondition, his ministry will bear no fruit. How, then, in the priest's daily life, can this attitude of humility and service be realized?
Every pastoral act performed by the priest and every human relationship established by him should be marked by this double attitude of humility and service . . . Above all other, the priest should devote himself to those who suffer ... For the task of the priest is to direct towards the Savior every form of physical or psychological suffering, as well as every need for salvation. The priest will be especially devoted to the dying, the sick, those in prison, the persecuted, the poor, and the afflicted. He will give alms in the form of his money and his consolation. If he has no money, he will recall the words St. Peter spoke to the paralytic, and say: "I have neither silver nor gold, but I give you what I have . . ." (Acts 3.6). What I have - that is, my affection and my prayer ... In each new situation the priest is called upon to make a wholly new effort of understanding and love ... The priest has done nothing until he himself has "shared" the burden borne by the other person, until he himself has tried to bear that same burden (in a way that differs in each case and should be guided by discernment and grace), until he himself has truly entered into the suffering of his brother, and until his compassion actually costs him something and directs him towards a specific sacrifice.
The Synoptic Gospels have preserved for us another significant episode in the series of events leading to the Passion, namely, the agony and prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26.36-46; Mk. 14.32-42; Lk. 22.39-46).
Although Jesus was Son of God, He was destined as man to accept fully the human condition, to experience suffering and to learn obedience. Divesting Himself of divine prerogatives, the Son of God assumed the role of a servant. He lived a truly human existence. Though He was Himself sinless, He allied Himself with the whole human race, identified with the human predicament, and experienced the same tests (Phil 2.6-11; Heb 2.9-18).
The moving events in the Garden of Gethsemane dramatically and poignantly disclosed the human nature of Christ. The sacrifice He was to endure for the salvation of the world was imminent. Death, with all its brutal force and fury, stared directly at Him. Its terrible burden and fear - the calamitous results of the ancestral sin - caused Him intense sorrow and pain (Heb 5.7). Instinctively, as man He sought to escape it. He found Himself in a moment of decision. In His agony He prayed to His Father, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mk 14.36).
His prayer revealed the depths of His agony and sorrow. It revealed as well His "incomparable spiritual strength (and) immovable desire and decision . . . to bring about the will of the Father.'
Jesus offered His unconditional love and trust to the Father. He reached the extreme limits of self denial "not what I will" - in order to accomplish His Father's will. His acceptance of death was not some kind of stoic passivity and resignation but an act of absolute love and obedience. In that moment of decision, when He declared His acceptance of death to be in agreement with the Father's will, he broke the power of the fear of death with all its attending uncertainties, anxieties and limitations. He learned obedience and fulfilled the divine plan (Heb 5.8-9).
In the course of His agony, Jesus exhorted His disciples to watch and pray that they may not enter into temptation (Mt 26.41). This same admonition is applicable to every Christian in every generation.
Prayer connects us with Jesus, who, through His obedience became the unique and perfect worshipper of God. He becomes both the model as well as the subject of our prayer. Thus, with Christ always on our mind and in our heart we can neither be tempted nor can we perish, to paraphrase an ancient Christian text.
Prayer is the power that fuels the spiritual life. As breathing, eating, drinking, and thinking are essential to human existence, prayer is a fundamental element and acitivity of the Christian life. Authentic Orthodox spirituality is constituted by a vibrant prayer life rooted in the life of the Church, her faith and her sacraments; and related, as well, to the practice of fasting, which is seen primarily as obedience to and love for God, the transformation of the passions, and acts of charity.
Prayer is the most sublime experience of the human soul. Without it the soul is left cold and spiritless. It cannot enter into a sustained personal relationship with God.
Prayer is an act of faith. It brings us to the threshold of another world. Through it we reach and cross the ultimate frontier. We touch another world, which we come to experience as extraordinary peace, beauty, goodness, joy and trust. Prayer opens our life to a new reality which transcends us. We encounter the living God and converse with Him. The Holy One, who alone has existence, embraces us with His tender mercy, compassion and love. Divine light penetrates the depths of our soul to reveal our sins, purge our iniquities, heal our brokenness, illumine our intellect, strengthen our will, and gladden our heart.
As we noted above, Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss, the sign of friendship and love. The betrayal and crucifixion of Christ carried the ancestral sin to its extreme limits. In these two acts the rebellion against God reached its maximum capacity. The seduction of man in paradise culminated in the death of God in the flesh. To be victorious evil must quench the light and discredit the good. In the end, however, it shows itself to be a lie, an absurdity and sheer madness. The death and resurrection of Christ rendered evil powerless.
On Great Thursday light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed. At the Upper Room and in Gethsemane the light of the kingdom and the darkness of hell come through simultaneously. The way of life and the way of death converge. We meet them both in our journey through life.
Everyone born into this life is involved inevitably in the spiritual warfare, contending not against flesh and blood, "but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness" (Eph 6.12).
Sadly, there are those who continue in willful disobedience, who not only reject God but also wage war upon Him. There are others who evade Him. And still others, who have been baptized, but for one reason or another are negligent or lukewarm in their relationship with Christ and His Church.
In the midst of the snares and temptations that abound in the world around and in us we must be eager to live in communion with everything that is good, noble, natural, and sinless, forming ourselves by God's grace in the likeness of Christ.
In Christian antiquity it was customary to baptize the catechumens on the feast of Pascha. The oils of Chrism, used for the anointing of the neophytes or newly-baptized persons, were consecrated in advance, on Great Thursday. This practice continued through the late middle ages. The service of consecration was conducted annually. In time, however, it began to be celebrated occasionally, as the need to replace the Chrism arose.
When it is performed, the long and elaborate service takes place at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy on Great Thursday.
By ancient practice and custom the right to consecrate the Chrism belongs only to the bishop, although presbyters usually administer it in current usage. Each autocephalous church has the right to prepare and consecrate holy Chrism. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, as the first see of Orthodoxy, consecrates and distributes holy Chrism to other churches.
Holy Chrism is also called holy Myron. It is a mixture of olive oil, balsam, wine and some forty aromatic substances symbolizing the fulness of sacramental grace, the sweetness of the Christian life, and the manifold and diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Chrismation as the second sacrament of the Church, is related intimately to baptism both theologically and liturgically. While baptism make us sharers in Christ's death and incorporates us into His new risen existence, Chrismation makes us partakers of the Holy Spirit. Chrismation takes us beyond the restoration of our fallen nature by introducing in us the charismatic life. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us; embrace our life with power and love; infuse in us the gift of action; render us strong combatants in the spiritual warfare; and purify our hearts, transforming us continuously into a temple of the living God.
The Reserved Sacrament
By custom we consecrate two Lambs at the Divine Liturgy on Great Thursday. The second Lamb is used as the Reserved Sacrament. The Reserved Sacrament is used especially to give communion to the sick.
The priest prepares the consecrated Lamb, which is to be reserved, in exactly the same way the Lamb is prepared and reserved for the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. Special care must be taken to dry the Lamb thoroughly. To accomplish this, the Lamb is separated into several pieces. Some priests choose to heat the particles by placing them over fire (heat) in an appropriate vessel.
While there is no special service for the preparation of the Pre-Sanctified Reserved Sacrament, we have learned by tradition to do the following: At an appropriate, quiet time within the first or second day, when the Lamb has dried thoroughly, the priest approaches the holy Table and unfolds the antimension. Vested with rason and epitrachelion, he reverences in the usual manner and censes the Gifts. He places the discos or any other container that holds the Lamb, upon the antimension. Then with the lance (loghi) or some other appropriate instrument, he begins to break the Lamb into small particles (merides), known also in the liturgical language as margaritai (pearls). These are then placed in the Artophorion in an appropriate container. It is understood, that the priest performs this service with a prayerful disposition.
The Reserved Sacrament from the previous year, is consumed by the priest after the Liturgy on either Great Thursday or Great Saturday in the usual manner.
In the event the Reserved Sacrament has been exhausted; or for any reason altered, lost or destroyed; or does not exist, as in the case of the founding of a new church, the priest may consecrate a second Lamb at any Divine Liturgy, and prepare it in the manner described above, and place it in the Artophorion.
The Service of the Nipter (Washing of the Feet)
It appears that the Church had a ceremony of the Washing of the Feet annually on Great Thursday in imitation of the event at the Last Supper. For the most part, it was limited to Cathedral Churches and certain monasteries. In time, the service fell into disuse except in certain areas. It is now being recovered by many dioceses throughout the Orthodox world. The service is elaborate, dramatic and moving. It is conducted with special solemnity at the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. The service is contained in a separate liturgical book.
Vestments - Because we commemorate the establishment of the Eucharist, the usual mourning colors are not used at the Divine Liturgy on Great Thursday. The priest wears crimson or whitepurple vestments. The holy Table also is covered with a similar cloth.
The Icon - On Great Thursday morning and afternoon, we display the icon of the Mystical Supper.
Fasting - Because we commemorate the establishment of the Mystery of the Eucharist, wine and oil are served at the meal of the day.
Paschal Eggs - By custom, the paschal eggs are boiled in red dye on this day. By custom too, the paschal eggs are distributed to the faithful after the Liturgy at Pascha and are served at the paschal meal(s). Of course it should be noted that this subject is a matter of custom and not a liturgical rule.
The Orthros - of Great Thursday is usually chanted the previous evening by anticipation. Sometimes it is said on the morning of the same day. However, in this country the tendency has been to ommit it. For the most part it has fallen into disuse. In its place parish clergy celebrate the service of Holy Unction.
The Divine Liturgy - of Great Thursday was originally celebrated with great solemnity in the evening, in imitation of the Last Supper. In Constantinople it was preceded by the Service of the Nipter (Niptir) or Foot-washing Ceremony which was conducted by the Patriarch himself.
Gradually, the Divine Liturgy was moved first to the late afternoon and later to the morning hours of the day. The Liturgy, however, has retained its original vesperal character. It is comprised of two main parts: (a) the service of the Great Vespers, including the Entrance and three Old Testament Readings, and (b) the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, beginning with the Prayer of the Trisagion.
Great Thursday Evening - Following closely the New Testament events the solemnities of Great Thursday proper ended with the celebration of the vesperal Divine Liturgy. But as we have noted above the evening Divine Liturgies were transposed gradually to the morning hours of the day. In modern liturgical practice the Orthros of Great Friday is now celebrated on Great Thursday evening.
The Order of the Vesperal Divine Liturgy
The Proskomide - The priest prepares for the Divine Liturgy in the usual manner. At the Proskomide he will extract a second Lamb exactly as is done for a Pre-Sanctified Liturgy.
The Vesper Service
The priest fully vested, comes before the Holy Table in the usual manner. He raises the Gospel and intones the enarxis, Evlogimeni Basileia… -Blessed is the Kingdom
The Reader says "Come, let us worship. and reads Psalm 103. The Priest intones the Great Synapte.
The Choirs sing the Psalms of Vespers together with the appointed troparia of the Triodion.
The Priest censes as usual.
The Entrance - When the choirs sing the Doxastikon hymn, the priest reads the prayer of the Entrance of the Vespers. The Entrance is made with the Gospel (According to an ancient custom he may also hold the censer.). He blesses the Entrance. At the conclusion of the hymn, he raises the Gospel and says "Sofia Orthoi." The Evening Song of Thanksgiving, "Fos ilaron - O Joyous Light," is sung. The priest enters the sanctuary.
The Priest says: ... Esperas" at the conclusion of the hymn.
The Reader chants the Prokeimena and according to custom intones the three appointed lections of the Old Testament.
The Divine Liturgy
The Priest says "Tou Kiriou deithomen - Let us pray to the Lord" at the conclusion of the Old Testament readings. The Prayer of the Trisagion follows.
The Choir sings the Trisagion hymn ("Agios O Theos - Holy God"). The Reader recites the Apostolos in the prescribed manner.
The Priest reads the Gospel.
The remainder of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil follows. It is celebrated in the prescribed manner. However, in the place of the usual Cherubikon we sing the ancient troparion "Tog deipnou sou tou mistikou - At Your Mystical Supper . . . Also, this same hymn is chanted as the Communion hymn and in the place of " Eidomen ro' fos - We have seen the true light." The, Apolysis of the Divine Liturgy has a distinct festal prologue, "'O di' ipervallousan agathotita-…of His exceeding goodness."