Personal and Communal Transfiguration in the Anaphora of St. Basil

Rev. Dr. Steven Hawkes-Teeples, SJ

The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated ten times each year in present-day Byzantine usage. It is worth noting that, unlike the Chrysostom anaphora, different forms of the Basil anaphora have been present in nearly every branch of the Eastern churches at one time or another. The Byzantine form of the Basil anaphora is the longest, which in all likelihood indicates that it is the latest form. Through church history, people have frequently been willing to add things to an anaphora, but few have had the courage to take anything out. Some people believe the Chrysostom anaphora is an abbreviation of the Basil, but the two texts are quite distinct. One only has to read the two texts to see the obvious differences.

Studies over the past century have made it clear that there are connections between the person of St. John Chrysostom and the anaphora that bears his name. However, when we turn to the Basil anaphora, the best that can be said is that we have many unanswered questions. Did Basil write it, any of the various versions of it? We can’t say. Is there any hard proof of a clear connection between the historical person Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia and the anaphora? At this point, not really. A number of scholars have tried to show some sort of connection, but none of these efforts has really succeeded. What we find in the earlier forms of the Basil anaphora seems to have both a theology and a vocabulary from a period before Basil’s period.

Today the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the dominant liturgy, but in the early centuries it was not so.  Until the ninth and tenth centuries, the Liturgy of St. Basil was the ordinary liturgy of Sundays and major feasts of the Byzantine world.

I have been asked to speak on “Personal and Communal Transfiguration in the Basil anaphora,” easy topic because of the very nature of the eucharist and its prayers. The Divine Liturgy does not exist to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, our Lord, God, and Savior. God has given us the eucharist  in order to transform you, and me and all of us. The Basil anaphora is about nothing else than transformation of persons in God’s grace. In fact that is what all anaphoras deal with.

Like Chrysostom and many other anaphoras, Basil has a sort of hourglass structure. It begins with the vast cosmic sweep of the Trinity in heaven and all creation. Then, bit by bit, it narrows down to a certain period and place, the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord, God and Savior. It highlights that night before his Passion and the seder meal with his disciples. Then from there, we look at a larger and larger field of all the people touched by Christ and his saving life, death, and resurrection. We consider first all those who have gone before us, all the deceased, saints and sinners. Finally we pray for the living, people around the world, rich and poor, sick and healthy, young and old. So we are bringing to our prayer angels, saints, the deceased both good and bad, the living, and in some sense even those not yet born. It’s gigantic.

Most of us who go to Byzantine liturgy regularly have heard the opening dialogue of the anaphora with Chrysostom liturgy and consider it part of that liturgy, but the dialogue is actually the first of the nine sections that make up the Basil anaphora. The basic structure of our Divine Liturgy was worked out with Basil long before the various Chrysostom prayers were plugged in later.

The opening priestly greeting speaks of the grace, love, and communion of the holy Trinity being with us, in us, around us, and penetrating every aspect of our lives. We are called to become people more and more deeply embedded in the life of the Trinity. As I live more and more in the middle of the reciprocal love of God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, truly I can never be alone. I am supported, sustained, and loved by the most powerful force. This is already given; our challenge is to live it out.

Next, we are asked on to lift up our hearts. This is obviously a symbolic call to turn our attention and our affection to God and his service, and to keep in mind that our liturgy on earth is, and should be, a reflection of the eternal liturgy in heaven. All of us are busy with a great many things. Those things are generally good and worthwhile things. It is perfectly reasonable to be concerned with and involved in updating my address book or working on the plans for my summer travels. But it is helpful for us to set those things aside as we begin to pray, whether private prayer or liturgical prayer. I would want to emphasize the beginning aspect here. It is good for us to leave these things aside when we enter into our prayer. As we begin, we need to focus on God’s love for us and our response to God. Later on, we will bring into our prayer many of those concerns and offer them up to God.

In the final element of the dialogue, the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord” (Εὐχαριστήσωμεν τῷ Κυρίῳ, blahodarim Hospoda), to which we originally responded only “It is proper and just” (Ἄξιον καὶ δίκαιόν ἐστιν, Dostojno i pravedno jest) and was later extended. These two brief assertions, just a very few words, contain the whole spirituality of Christian life. Our life of prayer and, indeed, our whole Christian life needs to spring from gratitude. God has first created me and then called me to be a Christian, to be reborn in baptism to live a graced life. God’s grace has touched my life in dozens of ways over the years. It’s always God who starts and we who respond. If our prayer is only requests, then we haven’t yet tapped into the basic current of Judeo-Christian prayer from at least the time of Abraham 2,000 some odd years before Christ. God made us and formed us and is sustaining us at this very moment. Whatever we have to say to God needs to start with thanks.

Our response, “It is proper and just,” can sound a bit timid and unsubstantial, sort of like a liturgical version of “yeah, sure.” But it is a significant reinforcement of what we just said. It is fitting and proper for humans to thank God, indeed it gives our life meaning. Our life starts to make sense when we are giving thanks to God.

Then we turn to the second section of the Basil, which runs from the end of the dialogue until the Holy, holy, holy. In most churches for centuries this has been read quietly by the priest while the congregation sings. That this text has very rarely been heard in the past thousand years is particularly tragic. These texts were originally conceived to be our common prayer, offered by the whole community to God, as well as a statement of God’s loving intention for all of us.

Interestingly, the second section of the Basil starts with God the Father and our relationship with him. The text gives many titles and descriptions for God the Father — eternal Being, Master, Lord, God almighty, enthroned in glory in heaven, yet also present in the depths (“bezdny” in Slavonic, τοὺς ἀβύσσους, the abysses, in Greek).

This last is a key statement. Much of theology and spirituality focuses on God in eternal serene majesty, which is right because God is the source of serenity and majesty. However at times that can lead us to ask, “Where is God in the difficulties, even the tragedies of this world?” I think the Basil here suggests a response. God is fathoming the depths, ἐπιβλέπων τοὺς ἀβύσσους, “pryzyraj bezdny.” It’s important to remember that the gaze of God the Father is not a passive looking on, like one of us watching something happen. When we witness a traffic accident, generally there is little that we can do. God’s looking on things is an active, loving involvement. He is present and involved. It is difficult and challenging for us that God doesn’t prevent tragedies from happening, but we all know that they do happen. What is key is that God is actively concerned and involved in the depths, where life is hard and painful.

In the Basil, the main thing which the Father has done is that He has granted us the knowledge of God’s truth. In the infinite love of the Trinity for all of us, God has chosen to reveal to us the reality about who God is. This has enriched our human life by showing us what the real parameters of human life are. We are oriented toward God; that’s where we started and that’s our goal.

Because we know this, we need to praise God, to sing to God, to worship God, to thank God, to glorify the one true God and to offer our spiritual worship with contrite heart and humble spirit, as the Basil says. As we said earlier, our life starts to make sense when we are giving thanks to God. We don’t really see what it means to be who we are until we start to give thanks. Giving thanks to God makes us more fully human. This is essential, but it is also so easy to lose sight of.

Obviously the turning point in the revelation of who God is, is Jesus. The Basil says, not as I think we might be inclined to today, that Jesus revealed certain things, but that God the Father revealed Himself through Jesus. The text here follows an older patristic theology, which emphasizes strongly the unity of God and plays down the differences between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This very tightly unified vision of the Trinity is one of the reason why scholars tend to think that anaphora is older than Basil of Caesarea.

So, as we said, God the Father revealed himself through Jesus. Jesus is our hope, the image of God’s goodness, and the seal bearing God’s likeness. And there follows a further list of Jesus titles.

And then, through Jesus, God has revealed the Holy Spirit. It is by means of the Spirit that, not only we humans, but even the angelic powers, are enabled to worship God and to offer unending praise to God. Here in the Basil we find one of the most developed pneumatologies or theologies of the Holy Spirit for this early a period. This point would seem to support Basil’s connection to the anaphora because of his known concern for the Spirit and Spirit theology.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and the Gift of our divine adoption as daughters and sons of God. The Spirit is the pledge of our future inheritance and the first-fruits of the eternal blessings to be received from God. In addition, the Spirit is the life-creating power and the wellspring of sanctification. Being a Christian is too hard for a mere mortal without the Spirit’s divine assistance. Because we have the Spirit at work in us, we have the strength to live this life.

All this takes us back to the point mentioned above in the opening dialogue: the heavenly liturgy of saints and angels with the Holy Trinity, the eternal celestial liturgy, leading us to the Holy, holy, holy, where we proclaim that God is indeed holy, more holy than anything else. The hymn, which is the third part of the anaphora, sings this holiness on earth, as it is sung by the angels and saints in heaven. Our liturgy on earth should try to reflect the heavenly liturgy, to be an image of the heavenly one.

In the fourth section, between the Holy, holy, holy and the words of institution, the Basil continues with the theme of holiness, but then marks a sharp contrast. Here we go back to creation for a moment and then reflect on our beginnings. We were lovingly created, honored with the image of God, placed in a delightful paradise, promised eternal life, and the enjoyment of eternal blessings. Then we all know what happened —the Fall.

It is also worth noticing that the Basil points out that our life with God is a relationship of choice and love. We were given all things and our obedience was required. We had to make choices.

The Basil speaks of God’s righteous judgment, but says that immediately after the fall God provided for humanity the salvation of rebirth in Christ (in Greek τὴν ἐκ παλιγγενεσίας σωτερίαν, in Slavonic “i paky bytije spasenije”). Thus God began the long preparation for the Incarnation. In spite of our disobedience, God did not turn away from us, nor forget his creatures, but intervened again and again in merciful loving-kindness. God sent the prophets and the Old Testament Law to guide and prepare us, and, finally, at the chosen time sent the Son.

The closing lines of this fourth section of Basil’s liturgy go into a lyrical description of Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost. It all turns back around from Jesus enthroned in heaven and comes to the Last Supper, which isn’t chronological at all.

Then in the fifth section, as in most anaphoras, Basil’s liturgy has the Words of the institution of the eucharist at the Last Supper. The bread and wine are presented to God as a symbol of his coming sacrifice of his life on the cross. In some ways, it is a sort of memorial before the fact. Jesus clearly expressed that the bread and wine are his body and blood sacrificed for humanity for the remission of sins. The Basil then contains Jesus’ command to repeat the ritual, which is taken silently in most liturgical usage. This command is absent from the Chrysostom.

There follows the brief sixth section of the anámnesis, which ties together our remembrance of what Christ did in the past with what we do here and now. Since we know all that God has done for us in the passion, the burial, the resurrection, the ascension, the enthronement in heaven, and awaiting his return in glory, we come together as a church community to celebrate God’s love for us. It began in the past with all these great mysteries, but it continues for us in the present and will support us in the future. This leads us up to the elevation of the gifts with the words “offering to you, your own, from your own; always and everywhere” (Τὰ σὰ ἐκ τῶν σῶν σοὶ προσφέρομεν, κατὰ πάντα καὶ διὰ πάντα or “Tvoja ot tvojix, tebe prynocjashche, o svich i za vsja”).

Next we come to the epíclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, which has a double structure. It is important to note that before we ask God to send the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine, we first ask that the Spirit be sent upon us. This is the real goal of the Divine Liturgy and all our Christian prayer — to transform us. If we manage to transform nothing but the bread and wine, then in some sense the liturgy has failed. We need to be transformed into an eschatological community at service of the Lord, as God’s continuing presence in the world around us.

So that we may be transformed, we ask God to bless and sanctify the gifts. In Chrysostom’s liturgy, we pray that God’s Spirit make (ποίησον in Greek, сотвори in Slavonic) the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Basil’s liturgy uses an older phrasing asking God to show (ἀναδεῖξαι in Greek, in Slavonic показати) the gifts to be the body and blood. Once again this very ancient formulation suggests that, at least in its earlier form, the anaphora goes back further than the historical Basil of Caesarea.

Then the anaphora contains a very important statement. It tells us what is the purpose of our liturgy, of all these prayers and songs, indeed the purpose of our whole Christian life. So what is this purpose? What do we hope to accomplish in all this? It’s actually quite simple. “So that all of us who share in this one bread and chalice may be united with one another in the communion of the one Holy Spirit” (Greek ἡμᾶς δὲ πάντας τοὺς ἐκ τοῦ ἑνὸς ἄρτου καὶ τοῦ ποτηρίου μετέχοντας ἐνῶσαι ἀλλήλοις εἰς ἑνος πνεύματος ἁγίου κοινωνίαν, Slavonic “nas zhe svich, ot jedynaho chilba i chashy prychashchajushchychsja, sojedyny druh ko druhu vo jedynaho Ducha Svjataho prychastije”).

A couple of things are worth noting here. First and foremost is that the whole focus of the liturgy points to us receiving communion. Obviously those who guilty of major offenses like murder, apostasy, and adultery should abstain, but the ordinary Christian should receive regularly, remembering that the formula for the administration of communion says it is for the remission of sins. From the late classical period well into the 20th century, this basic point was forgotten or overlooked. We in the Eastern churches are frequently irritated about pressure on us from the Western church, but sometimes the west is right. The restoration of frequent communion — which was certainly a Latin innovation — is unquestionably one of those points. All of us Byzantine Christians, whether Orthodox or Catholics, have done well to imitate the Roman Catholics on this point.

We also notice that we are praying that God unite us. It can seem on the surface that we are not asking for very much, but, in point of fact, we are asking for everything. We pray to be united, that is to say, at peace with one another. So we are asking for an end to all human conflict and injustice — a pretty tall order. But it is not just with our human brothers and sisters on this planet, the third rock from the sun, but also to be united in the communion of the Holy Spirit. So we are also aiming for a perfect and complete union of ourselves with the divine will of God. That is pretty much all we could possibly ask for. If we had all that, we would need nothing more. This, then, is why we go to church, do liturgy, and receive communion. We hope, bit by bit, day by day, to get a little closer to those exalted spiritual goals. That is the purpose.

The rest of this section in which we pray not to receive communion unworthily and we ask for mercy and grace is simply spelling out a bit what we have already requested from God. All these things are simply part of the ultimate unity with God and all creation that we seek.

With this prayer for mercy and grace, the Basil makes a transition to the eighth part of the anaphora, prayers for the living and the deceased. When we sing the troparion to the Богородица (Theotokos) was once the point, at which the diptych for the deceased was read in the Middle Ages.

We may note that the prayers regarding the saints are located immediately before the prayers for the deceased. This reflects the perspective of the early church, such as we find in St. Paul, where all Christians, including the deceased, are considered, at least in some sense, saints. So the community prays for them and with them. Later the church makes a distinction between the great saints and the ordinary deceased members of the community. Basil’s liturgy, which is so extensive in others areas, is surprisingly brief in its prayers for the deceased.

These prayers for the deceased are in many ways simply an extension of our prayer that we be united with one another in the communion of the one Holy Spirit. In addition to our union with God, we are also asking to be united with the Богор0дица (Theotokos) and with all the great and holy women and men of times gone by. And we are also asking that all the deceased in the same way be united to God and, one day, also to us.

The intercessions of the second sort, those for the living, are much longer. They also form a remarkable list of petitions, in which the Basil has a particularly poetic turn. We pray, first of all, for the church and its leaders. We recommend to God’s grace especially benefactors, whose generosity supports the church and her work. In exchange for the earthly gifts they bring, we ask God to give them spiritual blessings; in exchange for the earthly, the heavenly; in exchange for the temporal, the eternal; in exchange for the perishable, the incorruptible.

Then the anaphora turns to the secular leaders of our government, praying that they may bring us peace and tranquility to support our Christian life. Continuing our prayers for the government, we ask that God maintain the good and the virtuous in their goodness and virtue. I find it particularly touching and striking that it adds a request that God help turn those who are evil to good.

In praying for the present church community, we also pray for those who are absent for reasons beyond their control. In the first place, this includes the sick obviously. Once again here, the Basil has a fairly lyrical tone:

Fill the houses with every good thing, preserve the marriages in peace and harmony, nurture the infants, instruct the young, support the aged, encourage the faint-hearted, gather the scattered, lead back those who have strayed, and unite them to your holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

And it continues to pray for the mentally ill, those who are travelling — remembering that travel before the modern era was always a very dangerous proposition — and particularly for those, who are generally in the very weakest position in most societies, the widows and the orphans. We also pray in a special way for prisoners and those who have been condemned by society’s authorities.

In a thoroughly Gospel spirit, the anaphora calls on us to pray ‘for those who love us, for those who hate us, and those who have asked us to pray for them, unworthy though we be.’ Once again, this is a very striking petition.

Our prayer then opens out even further to all people. The Basil asks for God’s mercy and grace on those people we would want to pray for, but whom we cannot remember. In a certain sense here, we are almost asking to unite ourselves to God’s loving and saving intent for all humanity.

In the liturgical celebration, as we all known, these intercessions are broken up by the invocation for the hierarchy, “Among the first, O lord, remember…,” “Ἐν πρώτοις μνήσθητι, Κύριε…,” “V pervach pomjany, Hospody…” In the early centuries, this was the point, at which the diptych for the living was read.

In the final part of these intercessions, the Basil circles back to the church and its leaders. We ask for God’s grace for the bishops, the priests, and the deacons. The celebrant prays for himself. We also prays for an end to schisms and divisions in the church.

Finally we conclude with the closing intercessions,

Accept us all into your kingdom, showing us to be children of the light and of the day. Grant us your peace and love, O Lord our God, for you have given us everything.

And then the final doxology aloud,

And grant that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise your most honored and magnificent name, Father Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.

All of these many requests directed to God simply reinforce and spell out more fully what we asked back in the epíclesis: that we be united with one another in the communion of the Holy Spirit. We ask that things may go well so that we may be able to serve God and all our brothers and sisters generously and peacefully. Doing so, we hope to grow as God’s daughters and sons. In different ways, we ask God to help us with that growth.

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