In the early Church, the primary word used to describe the celebration of the Mystery of Christ was Eὐχαριστία-Eucharist (thanksgiving). This “Thanksgiving” was an attitude which defined early Christian worship and praxis. It was a thanksgiving for every part of creation from the beauty of the stars to the bounty of the sea, and above all, it was an act of gratitude for the revelation and presence of Christ. It was a celebration and thanksgiving for the crucified and Risen Christ’s presence at and in the Eucharist by the Holy Spirit as the unique revelation of the Father.
Put more simply, it is primarily a thanksgiving for God Himself. Metropolitan John Zizioulas says this when he writes:
The Eucharist is… an act of thanksgiving to God the Father ‘for your holy name’, which is a way of referring to God’s very identity, His personal existence revealed and made known to us through Jesus. The most important gift to us, therefore, is the fact of God’s existence, his ‘name’…
He continues by saying the essence of the Eucharistic Ethos, therefore, is the affirmation of the Other and of every Other as a gift to be appreciated and evoke gratitude.
Panayiotis Nellas takes this concept, which is of a somewhat philosophical nature, and expresses it in a simple yet infinitely profound manner when he writes that the”…Eucharistic character [ethos] makes the faithful accept life, their fellow human beings, the fruits of their labors, nature itself, as gifts that they then give to each other and that all offer up to God within the selflessness and joy of receiving and giving gifts.”
The early Liturgy was also characterized by ἀναφορά- offering/referring. This offering was manifest in the Bread and Wine. These elements were used because of the command of the Lord to “do this in remembrance of Me.” However, they were also used because bread and wine are unique to us as persons; they are an expression of culture. They are also used for nourishment and are therefore an expression of life. This means that we are not merely offering “food” but are offering our very lives. They are an expression of man’s work; it is the fruit of labor, but a labor that is not in isolation, a labor that is a synergy with God and with each other. We may till the ground and plant the seed, but it is God who sends the rain and sun, provides the seed, and gives the wisdom to make bread and wine. Finally, it is an offering of all we have, a referral and orientation of all of creation to Him who alone can give it life and meaning.
“In the preparations for the Divine Liturgy, that is in the cultivation of the earth which will provide the wheat and the grapes, and which in turn will become bread and wine through human labor and skill; in the elevation of poetry to hymns of praise, of painting to holy icons, of fragrance to liturgical incense; in the coming together and the being at peace which precede the offering of the Holy Gifts; in asceticism and prayer, that is, in all the labor of hands, mind and spirit, the faithful preserve the true orientation which God entrusted to them.” (Panagiotis Nellas)
“We can find nothing of our own to give Him… that is why we take everything that is His own and offer it with gratitude… this total liturgical offering given in return to the Lord who is eternally slaughtered-an act of thanksgiving and freedom- forms the center of the mystery… This offering strips us of everything: we are lost (Matt. 16:25). We cease to exist. We die. At the same time, this is the moment we are born into life…” (Archimandrite Vasileios)
Within the Hymnography of the Church, we come across the idea that man’s gift to God was the person of the Virgin Mary, who was herself a gift to Joachim and Anna from God. Here we can perhaps imagine Joachim bringing his small child to the temple and using the words of Chrysostom’s Liturgy, “Thine own of thine own we offer to Thee.” Following this offering at the Entrance of the Theotokos, we remember the Annunciation, where the Father sends the Holy Spirit upon this gift/offering (Panagia) who thus becomes Theotokos.
In the Liturgy, the Priest and the people as the body of Christ pray to the Father to send down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts/offering changing them into the Body and Blood of His Son. The Body and Blood were themselves the gift that Christ was given by Man through the Theotokos (who was herself a gift to the barren Joachim and Anna!). In a certain manner, therefore, Christ in offering us His body and blood is saying, “Thine own of thine own I offer unto you.” As can be seen, this path of Eucharistia and Anaphora is an ever-ascending journey of union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“Holding the gifts of his gratitude, man ascends through the Divine Liturgy to the heights of God …the bread and the wine receives the blessing of the life-creating Spirit and becomes Eucharist. Man communes in the Eucharistic food, in Christ, and himself becomes a constant Eucharist, thanksgiving.” (Hiermonk Gregorios)
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