Proskomedia: The Liturgy of Preparation

My dear readers, below you will find my translation of Sermon nine on the Divine Liturgy by St. Seraphim (Zvezdenski). All endnotes are my own. Also, within the sermon itself, I provide what I consider a few clarifications contained within brackets [ ]. The preceding sermons may be found here. May the rich words of St. Seraphim continue to inspire us in deeper love for our Lord Jesus and His incalculable gift of the Div. Liturgy.

Begin Sermon 9 –

My friends, if you are asked, “Who are you?” How would you answer? Answer in this way – a Christian! Yes – Christian – what an honorable name. For this name the first Christians did not spare even their own lives; for this name the martyrs received terrible sufferings, even unto death. What delineates a person with the title of Christian from everything else? [Communion in] the Life-creating Chalice. A Christian – out of all the peoples of the world – is one who receives of the Divine nature of Christ the Savior.1 A Christian partakes of Communion at the Divine Liturgy – this is why he must treasure the Liturgy beyond measure. I tell you again, count the day as lost in which you were not able to be present at the Divine Service. For it is the Divine Lampada, lit by Christ the Savior Himself; it is the diamond purchased with His very Blood.

We have already begun to speak about Proskomedia, which is the first part of the Liturgy. The priest, making the exclamation “Blessed is our God,” takes the prosphoron loaf that is prepared to serve as the Lamb in his left hand, and with his right, he makes the three-fold sign of the cross over the top of the prosphoron.2 He then pronounces, “As a sheep led to the slaughter” as he cuts along the right side. He then cuts along the left side with these words, “Or as a blameless lamb before its shears is silent, so He opens not His mouth.” Then cutting along the upper side, the priest says, “In His humiliation, His judgment is taken away,” and cutting along the lower side, he pronounces, “Who shall declare His generation?”3

These four prophetic proclamations all relate to Christ the Savior. He truly was meek and silent before His enemies, as a lamb is before its owner who has the deciding say over its life. The third verse is of special significance, it proclaims Christ the Savior was so humble that He did not demand the application of the law at His judgment. The Sanhedrin condemned Him in only one night, which violated all the laws of judgment; yet the Savior did not protest against this lawlessness. The fourth verse, on the other hand, indicates the unique origin of the humble Lamb, the God-Man, His generation – His origin – cannot be known because it is Divine.

After cutting all four sides, the priest then lays the prosphoron on its right side and cutting [the bottom] takes out the holy bread, it now being in a square form,4 while saying the words, “For His life was taken up from the earth.”5 The priest then turns the prosphoron, with the seal facing downwards, and cuts it in cross-wise form6 while saying, “Sacrificed is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world …”7 This first piece that is set on the diskos is called The Lamb because it represents Jesus Christ. At the time of the Eucharist, it is this piece that becomes the Body of Christ.

The priest then turns the Lamb over, so the seal of the cross is again facing up, and pierces the right side,8 saying, “One of the soldiers pierced His side …”9 And having pronounced the words, “At once there came out blood and water,” he pours wine and water into the chalice and blesses it. At this moment, the setting aside of the Lamb also images the Most-Pure Theotokos; according to the interpretation of the holy Fathers, this portrays the Nativity of Christ and His coming forth from her.

The priest images the Holy Spirit, through Whom the incarnation of the Son of God was accomplished and the deacon is likened unto the Archangel Gabriel, the herald of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As the priest places the Lamb on the diskos, he images forth the placing of Jesus Christ in the manger – the diskos represents the manger and the cave. It also represents, at one and the same time, the new tomb into which Joseph and Nicodemus placed Jesus Christ.

The priest then takes the second prosphoron and says, “In honor and memory of our most blessed Lady Theotokos …” and removing a [triangular] particle, he places it on the right side of the Lamb, while saying, “The Queen stood on Thy right side …”10 This particle represents the Most-Pure Virgin Mary, whose prayers the priest calls upon, for the Mother of God prays unceasingly for the whole world before the throne of God.

The third prosphoron is called, “Of the nine ranks.” It is called by this name because nine particles are taken from it in honor of all the holy God-pleasers. According to the teaching of the Church, the heavenly hosts are numbered in nine ranks. In the same manner, the saints – the Church triumphant – are numbered in nine ranks. In honor of these nine ranks, particles are taken from the third prosphoron. Special importance is given to this loaf, and thus the priest must diligently pray over it. The saints who are invoked when removing the particles from this third prosphoron give unto it, as it were, their grace. For this reason, this prosphoron is especially given to the sick and suffering, those who stand in great need of being fortified in spiritual strength.

Taking this loaf, the priest proclaims, “Of the honorable and glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John” as he removes the first particle, which will begin the first row.11 He places it on the left of the Lamb. He then takes a second particle from this first row, saying, “Of the holy and glorious prophets: Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, David and Jesse, the three holy youths, Daniel the prophet, and all the holy prophets,” and places it below the first. This second particle is dedicated to all the holy prophets who were heralds of Christ’s coming. The third is dedicated to the holy Apostles [and is placed below the second].

The first particle of the second row is placed in memory of the holy hierarchs: first of all are commemorated the great hierarchs, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom; then various other Ecumenical12 hierarchs together with those of Russia.13 The priest then removes the second particle of the second row in commemoration of all the holy Martyrs, both male and female. The third particle of this row (the sixth altogether) is dedicated to the memory of the venerable Fathers and Mothers. This particle completes the second row.

The first particle of the third row is placed in memory of the holy unmercenary healers and wonder-workers. The eighth particle is placed in honor of the holy forebearers of God, Joachim and Anna, who served the cause of salvation by bringing forth the Most-Holy Virgin Mary. While taking this particle, the priest also commemorates the saints of the day and the patron of the temple [in which he serves], together with all the saints. The ninth particle is dedicated to the memory of St. John Chrysostom.14

Taking the fourth prosphoron, the priest remembers the Patriarch,15 all Orthodox hierarchs, and the local bishop as he removes a particle and places it at the foot of the Lamb.16 He then removes particles for the living [faithful],17 while saying, “Remember, O Lord …” [and the name] and places them next to the first [for the hierarchs]. The fifth prosphoron is dedicated to the departed. The priest remembers the names of the departed while saying, “Remember, O Lord …” and removing the particles he places them below those for the living. Last of all the priest removes [from the fourth loaf] a particle for his unworthiness. Thus, the fourth prosphoron is dedicated to the remembrance of the living members of the Church and the fifth for the departed. These commemorations at proskomedia have great significance because at the end of the Divine Liturgy the priest places all these particles in the Chalice with the Holy Mysteries while praying, “Wash away, O Lord, the sins of all those here remembered, by Thy precious Blood …”

The priest asks the Lord to purify and wash away, in His Life-Creating Blood, the sins of every person he has remembered at proskomedia. This is why it is so important for the departed to be remembered during proskomedia. The particles that are removed for them are washed in the Blood of the Redeemer; this mystery lightens any burdensome sin for our departed brethren. If you love your departed relatives, have them commemorated. Maybe sometimes you yourself are unable to request their commemoration, in such a case ask someone else to give their names for commemoration at proskomedia. There is no better gift you could offer on behalf of your departed loved ones.

On Mountain Athos there exists an ancient custom: after one year the bones of a departed monk are exhumed. If they are clean and white, then they are interned again with honor as the brethren rejoice that their brother was pleasing to God. Clean, white bones are considered an indication that it is well for the soul of the departed. On the other hand, if the exhumed bones are dark, then the monks transfer them to a particular room and pray intensely to the Lord on behalf of the departed one. Only when the bones lighten do the brothers cease their intense prayer for the departed, for this indicates that the Lord has cleansed the departed monk of the sins.

Do you see how important commemorations are, do you see how they aid the departed? Do not miss an opportunity to have the departed commemorated and in doing so they also pray for us. Although they cannot help themselves beyond the grave, they are able to help us because they see our lives clearer than we ourselves do and therefore also what is most beneficial. Thus, they especially pray for us when we commemorate them in prayer.

Having completed all the commemorations, the priest takes the thurible and says, “Incense we offer Thee, O Christ our God …” He then takes up the star-cover18 and places it on the diskos while praying, “A star came and stood over the place where the young child was.”19 At this moment the Nativity of the Savior is remembered, together with the appearance of the wondrous star. The incense represents the presence of the Holy Spirit. The priest and deacon image forth the celestial hosts who with trembling awe looked upon the birth of the Savior of the world. Then the priest, having censed, covers the holy bread and diskos with a veil, while saying “The Lord reigns; He is robed in majesty …”20 He then covers the chalice with another veil while saying, “Thy virtue has covered the heavens …”21 In closing, he covers both the diskos and the chalice with a large veil, which he censes, while praying, “Cover us with the shelter of Thy wings …”22 These coverings represent, at one and the same time, both the swaddling bands in which the Holy God-Child was wrapped at His birth and the burial shroud in which Christ the Savior was wrapped for His burial.

Thus, at proskomedia two of the greatest events are commemorated at one and the same time: The Nativity of Christ and His death on the cross together with the sufferings He endured. They are celebrated as it were in anticipation because in proskomedia the Church speaks to us, “And for what purpose was Christ born? For this purpose, that He would save us by His sufferings.” Still, the main focus of proskomedia is the birth of the Savior. Thus, at the moment when the priest censes the covering aer for the diskos and chalice, he is just as if with the host of angels beholding the birth of the Son of God, and therefore he cries out three times in rapture, “Blessed is our God, Who art thus well pleased: Glory to Thee.” Blessed is our God Who was so well pleased that He poured out His mercy on us to the point that He chose to take our human form! In this moment is embodied the amazement of the angels as they stand before the ineffable love of God for mankind. The angels themselves are astounded by the birth of the God-Man.

The priest then reverently bows three times before the table of oblation, as if before the very manger of the God-Child. He then reads the incredibly wondrous prayer of the offering, which Father John of Kronstadt never read without tears of tender compunction, “O God, Our God, Who didst send the Heavenly Bread, the food for the whole world …” With this prayer, the priest witnesses to his weakness before God and asks that He still permit him to serve without condemnation the sacred mysteries for the sake of the Son of God and for the blessing and illumination of the people. The priest does not hope on his own strength, for coming to the dread service of the Divine Liturgy he places his hope on the heavenly and strengthening aid of God’s grace.

After this, the priest concludes proskomedia with a dismissal. Following the dismissal, the priest censes the table of oblation together with the Holy Gifts; he then censes the altar table in a cross-wise fashion, saying, “In the tomb with the body, in hades with the soul as God …” Following this, both sacred ministers, confessing their sinfulness, run to the mercy of God asking for forgiveness of their sins. To this end, they recite the 50th Psalm of David23 with special attention, for it is an icon of repentance.

Then with tender supplications to the Holy Spirit, they ask Him to come and purify us from every impurity and human weakness. These supplications are concluded with the hymn of the angels in honor of Christ’s Nativity. Thus, having been cleansed of their sins and placing their hope on the mercy of God, the sacred ministers are as though united with the angelic hosts who sing the glorification of the Consubstantial Light Who has come into the world. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill towards men,”24 cries the heavenly powers with delight and together with them, the sacred ministers offer three bows. The ministers are images of the angels. As the celestial ones beheld the birth of the Savior and announced this joy to the people, so the sacred ministers are preparing to announce Him standing present in the temple with the faithful. The priest prays, “Glory to God in the highest …” with his hands uplifted, which represents the fluttering wings of the angels as they stand bright, astonished, and in wonder before the incarnation of the Son of God. As if seized with the sacred awe of the celestial ones, the priest prays, “O Lord, open Thou my lips …”

The priest then kisses with reverence the Gospel that lays on the altar and the deacon kisses the altar itself; in doing so they greet the King of kings Himself Who sits upon the altar as a throne. The deacon with head bowed raises the end of his orarion25 with three fingers of his right hand and says to the priest, “It is time for the Lord to act, bless master.” To this the priest responds, “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.” And the deacon asks him, “Pray for me, master;” the priest answers, “May the Lord direct thy steps.” “Remember me, holy master,” the deacon asks yet again. “May the Lord God remember thee in His Kingdom, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” the priest answers.

This dialogue between the priest and deacon has deep meaning, according to the interpretation of the holy Fathers, it represents the assembly of the heavenly powers who in unison announced to mankind the joyous tidings of Christ’s Nativity. The angels beheld this great wonder with fear and holy awe, and in such a manner announced this wonder to the people in holy dread. Therefore, with great awe the priest and deacon approach the proclamation of this message, seeing how they are but men who are weak and sinful and even less worthy [than the angels] to speak of Christ’s Nativity. For this reason, the deacon so ardently asks the priest to pray for him because it falls to him to be the first in announcing the great tidings to the people. Having read the angelic glorification, the priest and the deacon through it also call upon the angels to help them. Behold, what a feeling of holy awe must be filling the soul of the sacred ministers and the faithful who are present at the completion of proskomedia. This fellowship with the heavenly powers completes proskomedia and the Liturgy commences. In ancient times, when the sanctuary was open, this dialogue took place in the midst of the temple [in the nave], as it is preserved in the hierarchical Liturgy.

1Cf. 2 Peter 1:4

2The priest typically repeats “In remembrance of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ” with each signing.

3All four verses are taken from Isaiah 53:7-8 LXX

4 A reminder of the New Jerusalem, cf. Rev. 21:15-16

5Cf. Isaiah 53:8 LXX; John 12:32

6Taking care not to cut through the seal. The prosphoron loaf bears the seal of the cross with the words, “IC XC NIKA.”

7Cf. John 1:29; 3:16-17; 6:33, 57

8All designations of right and left are from the perspective of the Lamb. The Lamb is pierced under the letters IC.

9Cf. John 19:34-35

10Cf. Psalm 44:10, LXX

11The rows move from top to bottom.

12Universal

13Here are commemorated hierarchs of significance for certain lands and local churches, which would vary from country to country.

14Or St. Basil the Great, or St. Gregory Dialogues, depending on which Liturgy is served.

15In some cases the leading Metropolitan of the local Church is commemorated.

16It is interesting to note that St. Seraphim omits to mention the particle that is subsequently removed with the words, in current practice,“Remember, O Lord, our land and its Orthodox people.” I believe that in Imperial Russia the Tsar was commemorated at this point. It is possible that he omits it because it seems, the sermons are given after the Soviets took power.

17Only Orthodox Christians, both living and departed, may be remembered on the diskos during proskomedia.

18In Greek -Asterisk; In Slavonic – Zvezditsa

19Cf. Matthew 2:9

20Cf. Psalm 92 LXX

21Cf. Habakkuk 3:3

22Cf. Psalm 16:8; 60:5; 90:1-4

23According to the LXX

24Cf. Luke 2:14

25Deacon’s stole

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