Words of Life
by Fr. Thomas George
Words and their meaning are essential to knowledge, understanding, and our path to life. If we lack wisdom it often is due to our misunderstanding of meaning or to the inattentive way we listen to the words we hear. This human weakness was demonstrated on one occasion in our Lord's ministry. St. John recorded that the apostles and our Lord were discussing the departure of many who had been following Jesus, who left because they found His words hard to accept, even offensive to their ears. Jesus said to the Twelve, "Will you also go away?" St. Peter professed to our Lord, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68). The words of Jesus had been misunderstood and instead of bringing life to their hearers, they led to their rejection of God's message. St. John claims the words used to tell this story about Jesus are able to lead to life, for they were written "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His Name." (Jn 20:31).
The words used by the Church in prayer also testify to her Lord. The depth of their meaning and their proper reception by our ears are essential to a clear understanding and meaningful participation in Church life. With these goals in mind let us examine some of the words used in the liturgy and the manner in which they are heard and discuss some nuances that may help lead us to eternal life.
Examining the liturgy's Anaphora prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving and offering which begins with the words "It is meet and right," we see that it is an address intoned to God the Father by the bishop and the people of God. In other terms it is a duet (for lack of a better word) of the Royal Priesthood in praise and thanksgiving to God. In this duet, the cleric (bishop or priest) and the people each have parts that are intoned aloud, although the prayer itself is singular and is prayed by all together. The Anaphora prayer ends with both the priest and the people intoning the "Amen." The subject and verbs used in the Anaphora are in the plural, "we" remember, "we" offer, "we" praise. Thus, the whole community offers this thanksgiving to God.
This prayer is not merely recited, but chanted or intoned. The unfortunate practice of a silent anaphora with exclamations of the last few words before the change of "singer," be it priest or people, became common after the 6th century. The exclamations were aloud so the next "singer" would have a cue when to begin his part. This innovation caused much of the duet to be expressed inaudibly, with the people not hearing a large portion of the Anaphora prayer.
In time the people's perception of one of these exclamations changed. Indeed the text of the prayer itself was actually changed later (13-14th century) to accommodate this new perception. What had been a single sentence, started by the priest and completed by the people, now became two sentences, one for the priest and another for the people. "Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all" was the first. "We hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we thank Thee, O Lord" was the second.
If we examine the original language and grammar of the texts used by the Church before the 13th century we see "Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee", was originally a clause of a large complex sentence which reads:
Remembering this saving commandment, and all those
The compound verb of this long sentence was not "we offer" but "we hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we thank Thee." Rephrasing it may help us to understand its intended meaning:
As we remember this saving commandment, and all those
This sentence of the offering prayer is shared between the priest and the people. It clearly demonstrates that the thanksgiving (the Eucharist) is an offering made by the priest AND the people: "As WE remember,... as WE offer, ... WE hymn Thee..."
Restoring the original words of St. John Chrysostom's anaphora prayer allows us to perceive its true meaning and to forsake the misleading 13th century revision, "Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all". In English translation it can be understood that we say we are offering this thanksgiving for everyone! We must be careful how we hear these words. We can pray on behalf of someone, but we cannot pray in his place. How can we offer the worship and gratitude we each owe God for those who reject Him as savior and refuse to acknowledge Him? How can we offer a sacrifice of praise to God for those who ignore or do not believe in Him? We cannot accept Christ and His salvation for those who refuse to receive it. But we can and do 'hymn and bless and thank' God on account of all things and because of all things. "On account of (or according to) all things and because of all things" is the literal and basic meaning of the Greek words in this sentence, "kata panta kai dia panta." These words should not to be tied to the act of offering but to "we hymn Thee, we bless Thee, we thank Thee" as Fr. Ephrem Lash noted at a recent SVS Summer Institute. But what do these words mean? Let's explore one possibility.
I believe this phrase refers back to events listed at the beginning of the sentence, "Remembering (keeping in mind) ... all those things that have come to pass for us" and to the final event, the "second and glorious Coming." It refers to everything God has done to save us, and to everything He has promised and will do at the end of this age: our deliverance from the powers of this world, the Judgment, and the complete inauguration of the Kingdom. This sentence "sung" by the priest and completed by the people can be translated as:
On account of all Thou hast done and for all Thou wilt do
In any case the phrase is intended to explain why we hymn, bless, and thank the Lord.
The following phrase, "And we pray Thee, O our God", is the beginning of another sentence (the Epiclesis) which asks for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us and upon the offered Gifts. I must note that 'pray' is used here in its archaic English meaning of 'to ask earnestly' (p. 2267 of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary). The underlying Greek could be translated as 'we beseech Thee' or 'we implore Thee'. The meaning is to offer a petition to someone not just because you want something from him but because you NEED something from him. This sentence is also an example of the duet of the people (who begin it) and the priest (who completes the thought) seen previously when the people say, "It is meet and right", followed by the priest repeating the words silently in the altar.
Today the latter half of the priest's next sentence is heard by the people, but if we examine all of it we see it clearly repeats and completes the thought initiated by the people.
Again we offer Thee this reasonable and bloodless
While we have only reviewed the Anaphora of St. John, the Anaphora of St. Basil also demonstrates the same meanings we have presented here. The practice of silent prayer and short audible exclamations in the liturgy has led to unintentional but false perceptions of the words of St. John and St. Basil. While this practice may have been caused by an increase in the size of the buildings the Church used in worship and the natural limitations of the human voice, there is no necessity in this day of amplifiers and microphones to keep this innovation. These men have given the Church two magnificent expressions of Her faith. It is our responsibility to hear their words correctly and to share their faith with the generations to come.
[Fr. Thomas George attended St. Vladimir's Seminary and lives in the State College, Pennsylvania area. He served as a deacon at Holy Resurrection Church, Wayne, New Jersey. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org ]