Proskomedi (part 1)

How does the Holy Spirit speak to us? How does the Holy Spirit help us to make decisions? How do we know who has authority to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the Church? These are the questions we are going to learn about today and in the next few Sundays.

In order to learn about this we are going to study the Proskomedi. The Proskomedi is a service of preparation that is celebrated by the priest before Divine Liturgy. When it is finished, the wine and the bread are ready to be carried into the church for the Eucharist. The priest celebrates this service on a table in the altar that stands off to the side.

The table is called the Prothesis. “Prothesis” means the act of bringing something forth. The Proskomedi service is a picture of how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. We are going to study the text of the Proskomedi for a few reasons. First of all, learning about the prayers of the church teaches us to think like the Church. Second of all, the Proskomedi teaches us what the words “authority” and the “inspiration” of the Holy Spirit mean.

Authority comes from the Latin word “augment.” In Roman law, authority was idea that you can only make new laws if they are a continuation of previous laws. You cannot make anything new. Christians took this concept and applied it to the doctrine of the Church. Like St. Paul and St. Vincent teaches us: we only repeat what we have heard.

The Proskomedi tells us about Christian authority and what makes for authoritative teaching. The Proskomedi teaches us who has authority. It does this by showing us what the original authority is and how it continues and reaches us.

The word Proskomedi means sacrifice. It is a Bloodless sacrifice. In ancient times and in the Old Testament, food offerings and whole-burnt offerings fell into this category of bloodless sacrifices. These were not animal sacrifices of blood or atonement. They were offerings from the people without blood. The Proskomedi is the sacrifice that we make, offering what we have to God. We offer our work to God by giving the product of our work.

The first prayer of the Proskomedi is, “God be gracious to me, a sinner.” That might sound like a generic introductory phrase. But in fact, this prayer captures the essence of all of our prayers. We are sinners who need God.

Today we read about Zacchaeus who was a sinner. Zacchaeus was basically like the mafia. He was an extortionist. Being a tax collector meant not only that he took people’s money but he had the power to put you in jail whenever he wanted if he didn’t get the money he wanted.

We read today how Zacchaeus turned his life around. Zacchaeus was numbered among the seventy apostles who Jesus sent out to heal and preach the gospel. Zacchaeus became an apostle and a bishop!

Zacchaeus is a good example of how God works in our lives. The “original” from which all authority derives is Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to Zacchaeus and sees him hiding in a tree. And Jesus says to him “come down, I am going to eat at your house.” Where did Jesus get the authority to tell him what to do? Where did Jesus get the authority to just say “I am going to your house?”

On the one hand Jesus got that authority because he is the creator of Heaven and Earth and is the Son of God. But more importantly Jesus has that authority because he created Heaven and Earth in order to die on the cross for us. Jesus has the authority to call Zacchaeus to repentance because Jesus is eternally the righteous one who died for Zacchaeus. Jesus leaves his Father’s house to come to save Zacchaeus. By his death, Jesus is showing Zacchaeus what Zacchaeus should do. “Go to the lost sheep,” he tells Zacchaeus. “Boldly go to sinners and enter their houses when everyone else thinks they are unclean, just like I have entered your house. Love the sinners. Believe in the power of God to heal the sinners.” That is what Jesus is calling Zacchaeus to do. Because Jesus is the one who does it first, he has the authority to cause Zacchaeus to do it. He is the original, Zacchaeus is the continuation.

Zacchaeus is there in Jerusalem at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes. He sees the power of the Holy Spirit to convert thousands of people. Zacchaeus receives the authority and the gift of preaching the gospel, the gift of guiding the Church as a bishop. He takes what he and all the apostles saw, what they together learned from Jesus. He takes what Peter, the leader of the apostles has said. He takes the guidance of the twelve chief apostles. Working within that framework he goes out to continue his own ministry as an apostle and a bishop.

The Holy Spirit moves in the Church. The Church received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Each person received their individual gift and calling of the Holy Spirit in the context of the whole Church. No one did it alone. No one is independent of the rest. No one speaks on their own authority. Not even Jesus speaks on his own authority, but rather he speaks what the Father has spoken to Him.

So when we continue to learn about the Proskomedi we continue to see how the life and death of Jesus has power and authority that spreads out from one person to the next, in the context of the Church, in the fulness of all the people in the Church who are called to various tasks and positions of leadership, and it continues down to each person in their place.

Each of you has the authority to spread the Gospel. Primarily you do this  by living the Christian life. In the same way that Jesus’ authority comes from what he does and he invites you to be righteous with him. He has authority because he knows how. He has authority because he has experienced suffering for righteousness’ sake.

Authority and inspiration in the Church come from the life of obedience and worship and discipleship. And it is spread from you to others who see it in you. It comes through you to your children and grandchildren, to you nieces and nephews and other children in your life; to your godsons and goddaughters, to enquirers and catechumens. Your life in Christ is a conduit for the Holy Spirit to reach others. But only in the context of the wider Church.

Your authority is not to enforce canons. Canons are provided to bishops as a help for them to guide us. Your authority is not to decide how the Bishops should lead the Church. Your authority is not over priests and deacons. You do not have the right to make the bigger decisions about how the worship is done in the church. Each person in their own place and their own calling. Each person has their own type of authority and inspiration.

Each person only has as much authority and inspiration as the Holy Spirit has given them in the context of the Church. Authority and inspiration are given us first and foremost in order for us to obey Jesus, and to have a life of righteousness that they invite others to join.

St. Paul talks about this authority when he speaks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He says that the body is one, and the head cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” The leaders of the church must not disdain or ignore the people who follow them.

Our bishops need us to learn from them and to follow them. The church does not function well if we do not all follow their leadership. They need us to pray for them. They need us to do the work of serving and running the day-to-day tasks of the church. They need us to listen to them so that others can be saved: to provide a good example of cooperation and obedience to others.

The foot (that is us) cannot say to the head, “I don’t need you as my head” or “I can also be a head.” We have one head. The bishops do not need our guidance. One person is the father. All the others are children. The Head cannot say to the foot, “I do not need you.” But the head is still the head and not the foot.

I once heard Bishop John tell a group of people, “As the bishop, I need you to have a job. But you need me in order to be a church. Without me you are just a club. You might be a great club, but you are not a church without me.”

The Holy Spirit comes to each person through the whole of the Church. He comes to us through the teachings of the Church which come to us through our teachers. He comes to us through the scriptures when they are taught and explained to us by those whom the Holy Spirit has called to teach us. The Holy Spirit does not come to you by going around the Church, but through the Church, through the fulness of the life of the Church.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is not just a radio frequency that anyone can tune into without respect to training or ordination. The Holy Spirit guides us by providing us with people who have studied and are recognized by our bishops as being qualified.

So let’s read one of the first prayers of the Proskomedi:

Make ready, O Bethlehem for Eden has been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life has blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin. For her womb has become a spiritual Paradise in which is planted the divine plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of Old.

This prayer is not just from the Proskomedi, it is also a hymn that we sing at Christmas. On the Prothesis table where we celebrate the Proskomedi we have the Christmas icon. Christ coming to us when we celebrate the Proskomedi. Soon we will receive the body of Christ.

We say that Eden is opened. The creation of the world and the garden of Eden was part of the story line in which Jesus would become man. That is the whole point of creation and human existence is for us to become like Jesus. The Tree of life is the cross. It is beginning to come to us when we prepare of the Divine Liturgy.

The prayer mentions the “Divine plant.” This recalls when Jesus says, “I am the vine you are the branches.” Jesus says “remain in me” Jesus’ love, self-sacrifice, total dedication to God are what we are called to make our lives about. They are the climax of creation.

The life we are created to live in Christ, that is the continuation from the original which is Jesus Christ. All authority and all inspiration from the Holy Spirit shows us how to be part of that. Authority brings about the continuation of the life of Jesus Christ in the life of every Christian. That authority begins in the altar where the Bishop serves together with his priests that he has ordained.

We come to the Proskomedi asking for help as sinners. When the Holy Spirit guides the Church by giving the gift of leadership to our bishops, and the gifts of teaching to our teachers, when the Holy Spirit speaks to us through them about how to live a life in Christ, that is the help we are given. Authority is the voice of the church calling us to a life in Christ, telling us how, guiding us. The hymn above says that we shall live and not die as Adam. Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.

Next time we will talk about how the Proskomedi explains to us what the life in Christ is. What is it that the Church teaches us to do? How does it guide us? How does the work of the Holy Spirit become our own life? That is what we will discuss in the next part of this series.

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