To many of us this is strange terminology, but yet it is an occurrence at each and every Divine Liturgy and at whatever time that a Liturgy is performed. It is a very important part of the Divine Liturgy. (It is pronounced —Ee-peek-lee-sis’).
What does it mean? First and foremost, it is a calling upon God the Father to send the Holy Spirit to change the Gifts of bread and wine into the True Body and True Blood of Jesus Christ. (It is comparable to the Feast day of Pentecost). We can note this action in the Liturgy as a continuation with the prayer of consecration. (Secretly said by the Priest) … Again we offer unto thee this reasonable and unbloody service and beseech thee and pray thee and supplicate thee: send down thy Holy Spirit upon us and these Gifts here spread forth.
(The Priest signs the Holy Bread with the sign of the Cross, saying quietly:) And make this bread the precious Body of thy Christ:
(The Priest makes the sign of the Cross, saving quietly:) And that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of thy Christ:
(The Priest makes the sign of the Cross over both the Holy Gifts, saying quietly:) Changing them by thy Holy Spirit: Amen, Amen, Amen.
The Epiklesis is in great dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The difference is mainly Theological and Liturgical. The question rises how does the change take place and at what moment does it take place?
It comes by the mode of prayers. It is not submitted to a moment of consecration, but we climb (ascend) to this consecration through the will of Christ, through the prayers of the Liturgy, since the Liturgy is one whole knit prayer culminating in bringing to the believer salvation through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. What Christ did is once and for all, and thus the change of the Bread and the Wine into the True Body and the True Blood of Christ is not submitted to time, but to eternity, i.e., ever changing into His True Body and True Blood through the Liturgy. God cannot be held to time. Thus the Orthodox Church in consecrating climbs to this point when all gifts are transformed to the True Body and Blood. For the Greek Fathers it was a whole act of mysterious reality: a climax affair.
The Orthodox Church has always held to this view that it is a mysterious reality, and that it is not within the power of our minds to apprehend it. To ask, how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. St. John of Damascus in his exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV. Chapter XIII — Concerning the Holy and Immaculate Mysteries of the Lord, pg. 83, says. “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.” Frank Gavin — Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Thought, pg. 330 — writes, “The bread and wine are not ‘types’ of His Body and Blood, but His Body and Blood in very fact. The bread and wine are by the invocation and descent of the Holy Spirit converted into the Body and Blood of Christ. But the manner of this change is unknown to us and inscrutable: the solution and explanation are reserved for the elect in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We partake them in Holy Communion of the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In the Liturgy all happens mysteriously and mystically.
In the Western Church from the eleventh Century on, there began to be developed the theory of … transubstantiation … as an attempt to explain the change. This is, in brief, that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into that of the Body and Blood of Christ, while the accidents (color, taste, etc.) remain. We reject this theory. How does the substance change and the accidents remain the same? It is only through the accidents that the substance is distinguished as such from some other substance. The Orthodox Church says that this rejection by the Roman Catholic Church is a rejection or simplification of everything, even the Incarnation. The whole Chalcedonian affirmation is that Christ is perfect Man without sin and perfect God, One in essence with the Father: One Person in Two natures without confusion, without change, without division, and without severance. (Council of Chalcedon, Tome of Leo, 451 A.D.). Therefore, if the Eucharistic Bread is Christ, the Incarnation is present. The bread must remain bread, and in the substance of the bread is contained the Godhead. It is not a replacement of bread into Body, but a change into Body. One substance also contains the substance of the divine. To destroy would mean that Christ destroys one nature to replace it by another. This is not so. Christ does not destroy, but He replaces with the bread His Holy Divine Substance. “This is my body — This is my blood.” It means equal and that, it truly is. In the 15th century the Eastern Church took over the term Transubstantiation without the theory, and used it as synonymous with the term “change” (conversion), in Greek “Metabole.” The Eastern Church does not recognize that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ while the accidents remain under which the Body and Blood of Christ exist, but simply says that the bread and wine are changed into the Very Body and Blood of Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit, through whom these things surpassing reason and understanding are achieved.
The whole life of the Orthodox Church is in the Holy Spirit. Thus through the Holy Spirit is all accomplished. The priest invokes the Holy Spirit to change the gifts. The Roman Catholics reject Christ’s presence in the Liturgy in our consecration as we have it, because the Roman Catholic priest takes the place of Christ: taking the full power of Christ. The Roman Catholic belief is that the priest is another Christ, and he needs no special need of prayers, because He is Christ. There is no need for the Holy Spirit in the act. But John the Baptist only recognized Christ because the Spirit descended and remained upon Him. “And John bear record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, upon whom thou shalt see the spirit descending, and remaining on him the same is he which baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:32-33) Thus we see that Christ worked all in the Spirit: so how can the Roman Catholic priests say that the Holy Spirit is not needed to change the gifts into the true Body and Blood of Christ if in reality the Roman Catholic priest is another Christ?
When the Roman Catholic priest says “take eat, this is my body and drink ye all this is my blood” then does the consecration take place. A moment of consecration. Their whole Epiclesis is in the moment of consecration. This is the only thing needed by them, and they believe they don’t need anything else but the moment. Therefore, the moment of consecration of the Roman Catholic Church becomes a process, a mode of operation in prayer for the Greek Orthodox, for if only the moment were needed, for what use are the other prayers in the Liturgy? If it is so, then the only thing needed is the moment without the rest of the prayers of the Roman Catholic Mass. But the whole act, as said, is in the Spirit, and is one knit prayer. The Liturgy and all the Church is transformed into the parish of God, because the Holy Spirit acts in it. It all becomes an action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, so, the Orthodox Epiklesis or consecration is the general form of Christian prayer coming to us from the early Church where all is accomplished … in the Spirit, and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood through Holy Communion after the consecration of the gifts in the Liturgy — you have no life in you: he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died: he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58).
Rev. Fr. Theodore Ziton