The Spirituality of the Proskomedia
The Spirituality of the Proskomedia
Though most of the laity is not present at the proskomedia, nonetheless the spirituality of this preparatory service involves you in a clear if unseen way.
Special breads called “prosphora” must be baked for use at the Divine Liturgy. Prayer accompanies their preparation. Five large loaves are made, in two parts to signify the human and divine natures of Christ in one person, and the top portion of four of them is stamped with a seal in the form of a cross with the letters
the abbreviation for the Greek words for Jesus Christ Conquers (i.e., through the cross and resurrection; see e.g. Colossians 1:15, 2:15ff; I Cor. 15:54, 57; Revelation 12:11, 17:14). One may be sealed with an image of the Theotokos. In addition, smaller breads are baked and the faithful purchase these to commemorate their relatives or friends living and departed. The red wine was also locally produced and made as an offering to the church. Often monasteries became bakeries and/or wineries for this purpose.
The origin of this service is a simple need: how shall we prepare the bread we bring in order that it might be used at the Divine Liturgy? We consecrate it at the altar after the great entrance through the anaphora (Eucharistic prayer), although in Orthodoxy we tend to think of the entire Divine Liturgy as the work of the Holy Spirit in setting aside these gifts for us. But how shall we prepare it, manually and physically, in order to put it to this use?
In the early church people brought many offerings to church other than money; they brought fruit, produce, bread, wine. Most of this was eaten at dinners called Agape meals and/or distributed to the poor of the parish. Some of the bread and wine would be reverently set aside (the meaning of the word “consecration,” by the way) for use at the Divine Liturgy. Hence our service.
The proskomedia originally consisted of short prayers said over the host prior to the Anaphora. When the skeuophylakion (a separate building outside the NE arc of the Apse) was developed, the service moved to that space; in this pattern people brought their gifts to the separate building. In the 8th century the ceremony became elaborate, probably under impetus from interpretations by St Germanos, Archbishop of Constantinople, whose meditations on the Divine Liturgy were very influential.
At the table of preparation, a priest takes one of the four loaves and signs it with the spear in a cruciform manner with the words, “In Remembrance of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ” three times. As he cuts out the center portion (called the Lamb), he repeats the words of Isaiah 53, “As a sheep led to the slaughter….” The lamb is cut crosswise on the bottom to just below the seal, and then pierced with the spear as it is set upright on the paten, to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ. At this time, also, the wine is poured into the chalice with a smaller portion of water added to it.
The second Prosphora is the one sealed with an image of the Theotokos. She is commemorated as the priest cuts out a particle “in honor and memory” of our Lady Theotokos, and we beseech her prayers also that this may be a worthy liturgy. The particle is placed on the paten to the left of the Lamb with the words “The queen stood at thy right side.”
With the third prosphora we commemorate the nine ranks of holy ones:
- The Archangels Michael and Gabriel and all the angels,
- John the Forerunner and Baptist and the other Prophets,
- The Apostles (especially Peter and Paul),
- The fathers among the saints, esp. the three great hierarchs,
- The martyr-saints, both men and women, esp. Stephen and George,
- The venerable God-bearing fathers and mothers,
- The unmercenary saints (physicians who healed without pay),
- The ancestors of God and the saints of the day and special saints to the jurisdiction and/or local church, and lastly
- St John Chrysostom or St Basil of Caesarea (depending on whose liturgy is being celebrated).
These nine particles are set on the paten to the right of the Lamb in three rows. In some rites of the proskomedia, the Archangels are not commemorated and John the Baptist is then first, separate from the rest of the prophets.
The fourth prosphora is used to commemorate the living members of the church, including bishops, priests, deacons and monastics of the jurisdiction. These particles are placed just below the Lamb toward the front of the paten.
The fifth prosphora is used to commemorate the departed, and those particles are placed below the row of the living.
Lastly, particles are taken from the prosphora given by members of the parish for commemoration at that liturgy.
After all this preparation, the star and veils and large veil are censed with words from the Psalms and, lastly, the prepared and veiled gifts are censed and we pray that God will graciously “remember those who offered it and those for whom is was offered, for you are good and love mankind.”
Particles may be cut from the small prosphora until just before the Great Entrance. Hence altar boys may come out several times to get more prosphora as people set them aside for their commemorations.
The particles are brought with the Lamb to the altar during the Great Entrance, and there they remain until the conclusion of the liturgy. When the priest and deacons and servers return to the altar after communing the faithful, the particles are swept into the chalice with the words,
“Wash away, O Lord, the sins of all those here commemorated, by your precious blood; through the prayers of your saints.”
We see that, over the centuries, the proskomedia developed not only into an elaborate ritual but also into one that has poignant and precise relation to our active spiritual life. Who of us would not want to do more to remember our friends and relatives in time of need and at prayer?
St Germanos likened the proskomedia to the hidden years of Jesus, when he was at prayer and pondering the form his ministry would take, and when he was in constant communion with the Father and the Spirit. We, along with Christ, emerge from this preparatory liturgy into the fullness of the Divine Liturgy, our public affirmation and witness to the faith.