The Anaphora of St. Basil

March 28, 2013 Length: 6:49

Fr. Philip LeMasters, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University, explains that St. Basil's Anaphora calls us to live out practically what we enact liturgically in response to the needs of the human beings whom we encounter every day.

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During the season of Great Lent, when we serve the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on Sundays, I’m always struck by how beautifully the anaphora portrays the compassion and mercy of God for us weak and corrupt human beings. At the very heart of our eucharistic celebration, our remembrance and participation in the love of the Father who sent the Son, of the Son who offered himself to deliver us from death, and of the Holy Spirit in whom we personally become partakers of the divine nature.

The prayers following the sanctification of bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood include many petitions for human beings who are in particular need of God’s compassion and aid. The celebrant asks God to remember the poor, the sick, prisoners, widows, orphans, captives, those condemned to the mines, in exile, in harsh labor, and in every tribulation, necessity, and danger. They bear the brunt of the corruption of the world, and these prayers remind us that the divine compassion we celebrate in the Eucharist extends to them also. Their suffering—or better yet our suffering—is a symptom of what we have done to ourselves and one another in our rejection of fulfilling God’s purposes for us and everyone else, ever since Adam and Eve.

In order to pray such socially charged petitions with integrity, the members of the Church must enact the very philanthropia and compassion for which we give thanks and pray. As the body of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s very identity is that of an embodied icon of God’s salvation. The presence, witness, and ministry of the Church may not be reduced to addressing poverty, disease, and other social problems. Nonetheless, St. Basil’s anaphora calls us to live out practically what we enact liturgically, in response to the needs of the human beings whom we encounter every day.

To fail to do so is to fail to show the love of Christ we claim for ourselves, and thus to invite judgment. As our Savior said, “In that you did not do it to the least of these my brethren, you did not do it to me.” Just as the epistle of St. James condemns those who say, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving the things which are needed for the body of the hungry and naked, those who separate liturgy from life are in a false position.

In the anaphora, the prayer before the Our Father, and the prayers of preparation for Communion, the gravity of receiving the Eucharist is a central theme. The celebrant prays that

...no one of us may partake of the holy body and blood of thy Christ unto judgment or unto condemnation, but rather that we may find mercy and grace.

Communicants pray for “salvation and sanctification of soul and body, the expulsion of every evil imagination, sinful deed, or work of the devil.” They beseech God that

...the holy gifts will cause [them] to love thee always, to amend and keep firm my life, and be ever in me, to the increase of virtue, to the keeping of thy commandments, to the communion of the Holy Spirit, and as a good defense before thy dread judgment seat, and for life eternal.

Those who commune do so for growth and holiness and union with the Lord. That should be evident in their lives. They are to live out the implications of the great blessing they have received as partakers of the divine nature. Presumably, to refuse to do so would make us subject to the consequences of eating and drinking judgment upon ourselves, through an unworthy partaking.

Among other dimensions of holiness, a life truly in communion with Jesus Christ will be characterized by generosity to the suffering and miserable human beings in whom our Lord is present. Those whose lives do not become epiphanies of divine compassion to their desperate neighbors fall short of the social implications of communion with the Lord. If we refuse to show compassion after having received the Eucharist, we condemn ourselves, rather like the wicked servant who refused to forgive a small debt after having been forgiven of a much larger debt by his master. We would then receive the divine compassion selfishly, refusing to extend the same generosity to others. Remember what St. John wrote in his epistle: “But whoever has this world’s good and sees his brother in need and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

St. Basil himself preached this message boldly to wealthy parishioners who did not share their resources with the needy. Citing the account of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, he taught that those who are under accusation in this passage are not those who have stolen anything. These charges are rather leveled against those who have not shared with others. He also insisted that whoever has the ability to remedy the suffering of others but chooses rather to withhold aid out of selfish motives may properly be judged the equivalent of a murderer. Even as the consequences of disregarding the needy are grave, the rewards of showing compassion are sublime. As St. Basil said:

Give but a little, and you will gain much. Undo the primal sin by sharing your food. Just as Adam transmitted sin by eating wrongfully, so we wipe away the treacherous food when we remedy the need and hunger of our brothers and sisters.

As we enter mystically into the heavenly banquet this Lent, let’s remember that we cannot claim the divine compassion selfishly for ourselves. If we truly commune and give thanks, we must become living icons of Christ-like mercy and love to those in whom we encounter our Savior every day of the week.