Peace & Healing in the Divine Liturgy
Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / fourth lecture by Bishop Kallistos
This afternoon I spoke about the sacrament of Confession. Tonight, I would like to say something about the Holy Eucharist.
Let me begin with two words. The first is from 19th century Russia, St. John of Kronstadt: “The Eucharist is a continual miracle.” And my second word is from 14th century Byzantium, from St. Nicolas Cabasilas: “This is the final mystery. Beyond this it is not possible to go, nor can anything be added to it.” So, let us reflect together this evening on this “continual miracle,” this “final mystery,” which holds the church in unity, makes the church to be itself, and which is the heart of our life as Christians.
I would like to look at two things: first, what is the meaning of the word “liturgy”?; and secondly, how do we speak about “peace” during the course of the liturgy?
First of all, what is the meaning of the word “liturgy,” the word which Orthodox use above all when referring to the service of Holy Communion. The Greek term “liturgia” is sometimes explained as meaning the “work of the people.” That, I am told, is bad etymology, but it is, in fact, quite good theology, because liturgy indeed means precisely a shared corporate action. Liturgy is something done by many persons in common, something that none of us can do alone. So, if the Eucharist is termed liturgy, that means that, at the service, there are only active participants; there are no passive spectators.
Let us think together about the way in which the corporate, shared nature of the Divine Liturgy is expressed. Throughout the service, except on rare occasions, all the prayers use the plural, not the singular. We say throughout the Liturgy “we,” not “I.” Exceptions are only apparent exceptions. At the beginning of the Creed, it is true, it starts “I believe.” That is because the Creed was originally used in the service of Baptism, and so, the person being baptized as an adult used the singular when making their profession of faith. When the Creed was introduced from the Baptismal Service into the Divine Liturgy, the singular was preserved. If you look at the prayer said before the Great Entrance by the priest during the Hymn of the Cherubim, again you will see that he uses the word “I,” but that is a prayer said secretly by the priest. It was never said aloud. It was introduced into the liturgy at a time after the prayers had come to be said in a low voice so that they couldn’t be heard by the people. As it is a priest’s prayer, it naturally fits to say “I.” Equally, in the Russian use, before communion we use the prayer “I believe, Lord, and I confess,” but that really belongs to the Prayers of Preparation, not to the Liturgy itself, and so, naturally, when a person is saying the Prayers of Preparation alone in their own room, it is appropriate for them to say “I believe and I confess.”
Elsewhere in the Liturgy, the word used is “we.” And in this way the Liturgy reflects the pattern of prayer given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ: the Lord’s Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “us” five times, “our” three times, “we” once; but never at all do we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “me”, “mine”, or “I.” So, the liturgical pronoun is “we,” not “I.” And that underlines that the Liturgy is a common, shared act.
I often think of the story retold by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov about an old woman and an onion. You will all know it — how the angel tried to pull her out of the lake of fire, and how the other people in the lake of fire climb on in the hope of being pulled out as well, and how the old woman, alarmed by this, cried out, “Let go. Let go. It is not you who are being pulled out. It’s me. It’s not your onion; it’s mine.” And as we know, when she said “It’s mine,” the onion snapped in two, and she fell back into the lake of fire. And there, so I am told, she still is. If only she said, “It is our onion,” surely the onion would have been strong enough to have pulled them all out together. In saying “It is my onion,” she was being profoundly un-liturgical; indeed, she was denying her human personhood.
As persons made in the image of God, we are made in the image of God the Holy Trinity; and the Holy Trinity signifies mutual love. If we are made in the image of the Trinity, that means we are made to love one another. And if we refuse to love one another, that means we lose our true human personhood. So, there is no true person unless there are at least two persons — better still, three — in dialogue with one another. The doctrine of the Trinity means, in terms of our human personhood, I need you in order to be myself.
So that is the first way in which we see how the Liturgy is always a shared action. Always we say “we.” The Liturgy expresses mutual love. One of the things that I was taught by Nicholas Zernov very early in my acquaintance with the Orthodox Church was how important in the Liturgy is the phrase “Let us love one another, that so we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” Without mutual love there is no true confession of the Trinity, and no true Liturgy. I remember when I first became a priest in Oxford, Nicholas say to me, “We must have that portion of the Liturgy in English.” He was very keen on having everything in English, if possible. This was not the view of all the other people in the parish, but evidently he thought the English speakers especially needed to be reminded of mutual love. What a pity, in most of our Orthodox Churches, we do not exchange the kiss of peace among the congregation at that point. I don’t know what you do here in Vézelay. You have the kiss of peace? Well, I would expect nothing less of Father Stephen, but I am afraid that we don’t at Oxford, and that is a sad thing, though the exchange of the kiss of peace among the congregation had already dropped out quite early. By the time of St. Maximus it was only being exchanged among the clergy.
As we continue talking about “we,” let us notice another element in the Liturgy which stresses the importance of mutual love, the importance of communal solidarity at the service. When, as celebrant, I come into the church for the start of the service, before I go into the sanctuary to put on my vestments, I say the Prayers of Preparation in front of the iconostasis. I then venerate the icons. I then turn to the west, away from the sanctuary, and bow. Often nobody else has arrived in the church at that time, so I only bow to the angels, but if there are humans there as well, then they should bow back. A second time, before as celebrant I go to the Holy Table to take the gifts of bread and wine and carry them in the procession of the Great Entrance, once more I bow to the people and they bow back. A third time, before Holy Communion, once more the celebrant turns and bows to the people and they bow back, though in most Orthodox churches at this moment, the doors are closed and the curtain is drawn, so nobody sees that.
What are we doing when we exchange these bows with each other? Is this simply a mutual courtesy? No, it has a far more specific meaning. The priest, as he bows, says aloud, or else in his heart, “Forgive me.” And the people, when they bow back, respond, either aloud or in their heart, in the same way: “Forgive us.” And each may say in their heart, “May God forgive us.” So what we are doing in the exchange of bows is giving and receive pardon — mutual forgiveness. And this, again, shows how in the Eucharist we never come to receive communion alone as isolated individuals. We come as members of a community; and, we come, or we should come, as members of a reconciled community — a community that is at peace with itself. Without the giving and receiving of forgiveness, there is no true celebration in the full sense.
Then, thirdly, let us note another thing in the Liturgy. Before the beginning of the Anaphora, the great prayer of offering, there is an opening dialogue. The celebrant or deacon says, “Let us stand aright, let us stand with fear.” Then the people respond, in the correct text, “Mercy. Peace. A sacrifice of praise.” In fact in most churches they say, “a mercy of peace,” but that does not make very good sense. If we consult the older Greek manuscripts we find, “Mercy. Peace. A sacrifice of praise.”
Notice that we begin by speaking of peace before we begin the Great Prayer. Then the celebrant blesses the people, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The people respond: “And with your spirit.” “Let us lift up our hearts.” The people answer, “We lift them to the Lord.” “Let us give thanks to Lord.” The people answer, “It is meet and right.” Incidentally, if we followed the more ancient texts, we shouldn’t go on by singing, “It is meet and right to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence” and so on. The meaning of the people’s response is. “It is meet and right to give thanks,” and so it remains in the Greek tradition, but the Russians added other words in order to fill up space while the priest was saying the prayer silently. If you say the prayers aloud, there is no need to do that. It actually obscures the meaning of the people’s response there. (We need quite a lot of liturgical tidying up in our Orthodox churches, but this is the proper critical text of the Liturgy based on the best manuscripts. Perhaps that is something we might get on with as Orthodox in a constructive way instead of arguing about other matters.)
Now what is the meaning of this opening dialogue? Here is the explanation given by St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “As we begin the actual celebration of the dread mysteries, the priest prays for the people and the people pray for the priest, for the words ‘and with thy spirit’ mean precisely this: Everything in the Eucharistic thanksgiving is shared in common. For the priest does not offer thanksgiving alone, but the whole people give thanks with him. For after he has replied to their greeting, they then give their consent by answering: ‘It is meet and right.’ Only then does he begin the Eucharistic thanksgiving.” So on the understanding of St. John Chrysostom, this opening dialogue exactly expresses our togetherness as we embark upon the central part of the Eucharist. The priest alone says the prayer of the Anaphora, but the people are directly and actively involved in everything that he does. And so, in this dialogue, the unity of priest and people in the shared action of the Liturgy is clearly underlined. The priest greets the people; they respond to his greeting:”The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” — “And with thy spirit.” This is mutual prayer, as St. John Chrysostom explains it. The priest then invites the people to raise their hearts on high; and the people respond by saying, “That is exactly what we’re doing!” And then the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord,” and that could also be translated: “Let us offer the Eucharist to the Lord.” And the people say: “That is an excellent idea.” Only when they have responded in that way does the celebrant continue. The celebrant is, as it were, asking permission from the people to continue with the Eucharistic celebration. He needs their endorsement. He cannot act on his own. The prayer is theirs as well as his. Their active consent is indispensable. So the Eucharistic Anaphora begins with a dialogue because the Eucharist is, par excellance, the human action. We are eucharistic animals as human beings; and also, the human animal is essentially a dialogic animal — an animal that engages in dialogue. So what that dialogue before the Anaphora is expressing is just what I said a few minutes ago: I need you in order to be myself.
All of this then helps us to understand how the Eucharist, if it is to be properly celebrated, needs to be celebrated by a community that is at least at unity within itself. It is offered by nobody singly, but by all of us in loving fellowship with one another. That is the ideal. Let us all try to make it also the reality.
Now I would like to move to my second point which concerns the meaning of the word “peace.” This is a recurrent phrase in the Liturgy: peace. Here I borrow from the excellent little book by the Monk of the Eastern Church, Fr. Lev Gillet, Serve the Lord With Gladness. Fr. Lev has a great gift for expressing deep truths with remarkable conciseness and simplicity.
[Bishop Kallistos made a gesture imitating quotations marks, then explained:] There was a minister in America some years ago who used to begin and end all of his sermons with a gesture like this. People asked him why do you do that. “My sermons,” he replied, “are not my own. They are actually taken from other people, and those are the quotation marks.” So for this little bit, as I am paraphrasing Fr. Lev, I ought to do this as well.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the text of the Great Litany at the beginning of the service, the Litany of Peace. Three times we speak about peace: “In peace let us pray to the Lord”; “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord”; “For the peace of the whole world and the good estate of the holy Churches of God and for the communion of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
This threefold request for peace is not a superfluous repetition. Each repetition is charged with a distinctive significance.
At the very outset of the public part of the Liturgy, we establish the fact that peace is the spiritual space in which the Divine Liturgy is being celebrated. We start by saying “in peace, let us pray to the Lord.” We cannot enter into the action of the Liturgy or experience the joy of the Kingdom unless we have within our hearts, by God’s mercy, a state of interior peace. So we start by seeing peace as an inner state of our soul. “In peace” — the state of wholeness and of integration. So at the beginning of the Liturgy we are to banish, from within ourselves, feelings of resentment and hostility toward others: bitterness, rancor, inner grumbling, or divisiveness. We are to shed these things; let them go; begin the Liturgy “in peace.” That is Stage I.
Then Stage II: “For the peace from above…” Peace is not just a psychological state produced by my own effort. Peace, true peace, comes from above as a gift from God, a gift of grace. “Without me,” says Christ, “you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) In translating the Philokalia, I have been struck by the surprising frequency with which that text is quoted. “Without me you can do nothing.” We see that peace is not a manufactured article, human made. It is a gift, a charisma. We therefore have to open our hearts to receive Christ’s gift of peace: “the peace from above.” As it says in Ephesians 2:14, “He is our peace.” Notice in this second petition how peace is closely joined with salvation. “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls.” Salvation, in the tradition of the Christian East, is not understood primarily in juridical terms, as a release from guilt, although it is that in part. But salvation thought of positively means wholeness, fullness of life. We can’t have that wholeness, that fullness of life without the divine gift of peace.
Then we come to the third petition: “For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy Churches of God, the union of all.” The peace that we seek is not just inward looking, not world denying. It is outward going, active, practical. We seek peace not for myself alone, but for and with others. If I seek peace selfishly, I will not find it. Peace and unity go together.
So then, that is the sequence: “in peace” — “peace from above” — “peace of the whole world.” Peace is not self-centered. It is outward looking, ecstatic (in the literal sense of that word), generous, and practical. In Fr. Lev’s words: “We pray for the peace of the universe. Not only for humans, but for all creatures: for animals, for vegetables, for stars, for the whole of nature.” So we enter into a cosmic piety. We express our sympathy with everything to which God has given being. But though our prayer for peace is not limited to the human race, that is certainly where we begin. And how urgent at all times, but especially now, is the need for the prayer begging Christ to give peace to this suffering world.
Then we have God’s response to that threefold prayer for peace. It comes a little later in the service when the celebrant says to the congregation: “Peace be with all.” In Slav use, that is said soon after the Little Entrance and the Trisagion. In Greek use and, again, in the Slav, it comes before the Gospel, and repeatedly thereafter. “Peace be with all.” That is not just an empty phrase but is a powerful performative utterance — not just a courteous formality, but the transmission of a reality. Now what the priest is transmitting is not his own peace. He is speaking at this moment in Christ’s name. He is transmitting to the people God’s peace: “The peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) We think at this point of Christ’s words at the Last Supper: “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, give I unto you.” (Jn. 14:27) There is a two-way traffic. Our prayer for peace is the one movement, then the responding movement, God’s gift of peace. The effect of peace is unity with ourselves; unity with God; unity with others round us. Peace and unity in this way are essential marks of the eucharistic celebration.
So then, remembering Plato’s words — “The beginning of truth is to wonder at things” — I ask you tonight to renew your sense of wonder before the final mystery, the great mystery of the Eucharist. I began with the words of St. John of Kronstadt, who was a very profoundly eucharistic priest, so let me end with his words: “In the words ‘take, eat, drink’ there is contained the abyss of God’s love for humankind. O perfect Love! O all-embracing Love! O irresistible Love! What shall we give to God in gratitude for this Love?”
Bishop Kallistos is Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and leads the Greek parish in the same city. His books include The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. His lecture may not be reproduced without his permission. The transcription was made by Fred Bittle. Our thanks to him.