Prosphora and Theosis
Elissa Bjeletich · July 12, 2012
Elissa explains how to use the baking of prosphora to talk with children about theosis, which she calls "the meaning of life."
Welcome to Raising saints, today we’re talking about how to talk with kids, from the little pre-schoolers all the way to the high-schoolers on their way out into the world about the biggest issue of all…Theosis…the meaning of life.
St Athanasius wrote “God became man so that man might become god,” growing ever closer to God, becoming more and more His image, as He created us to be is the purpose of our lives. It’s critical that we teach our children about the meaning of life, we can’t assume that they’re going to figure it out on their own, especially since the culture around us offers them all sorts of distractions and plenty of options.
There’s encouragement to lead a life that’s all about money and status, or maybe a life that’s all about saving the environment or something, but the truth is that the real meaning of life is not a lifestyle choice. It’s Theosis. And if we don’t teach them that who will?
If we just pull out a book on Theosis and try to read it to a kid we’re going to run into trouble. It’s an intimidating topic, but if we talk about it in simple terms and if we offer kids concrete analogies and demonstrate to them what all these abstract ideas really mean then theosis is an absolutely accessible topic and one of vital importance to all Orthodox Christians. Young and old.
Theosis is a transformation, and amazingly it’s one that we participate in but which is the work of God. Somehow we do our part to enable theosis but it does truly come from God, a gift of His grace, His love and His mercy. There’s a back and forth activity, a co-working of man and God. And it’s beautifully demonstrated in one of the simplest offerings we make in the Church. The Prosphora, you know, the bread we make for communion. And it just so happens that baking prosphora with kids is a really delightful activity.
I think there’s a way to teach theosis through prosphora, let’s consider it.
One of the most wonderful and concrete ways that children and indeed all of us can participate in the life of the Church is to take a turn baking prophora. It’s really a great activity for kids because it’s so concrete and they’re physically working to create something that is central and vital to the divine liturgy. You can bake prosphora with any size group, with one child or with fifty children. Whether in a vacation Church camp setting or a Sunday school class or at home with your own children.
In a large group you should bring supplies enough so that kids can either make their own loaves or perhaps break into groups of two kids per loaf. But we really want the kids to feel ownership of the bread and to get their hands in there and to really work on it. So you don’t want too many kids per loaf. Bread making takes a little while and it calls for patience, but while our hands are busy with the work of bread making we’ll have time to talk to kids about the prosphora which means offering in Greek.
This is an opportunity to teach kids about offering and transformation, and the way which God will change this bread and change us for the better…about theosis, the meaning of our lives.
It has been said that baking prosphora transforms the baker more than the baker transforms the bread. Experienced prophora bakers might tell you that the prayerful effort of kneading the dough, of taking the time to make this very basic and essential offering actually feeds and transforms the baker. Working to create this offering opens us up to God and invites Him to transform us. The whole idea of transformation is quite central to bread baking anyway. No matter which recipe you like to use for prosphora, it always begins with four basic ingredients, wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. Nothing else of course as prosphora is always the very simplest of breads. Just standing there and looking at those ingredients with your kids you know that there must be a transformation coming because this doesn’t look anything like bread.
Four very different ingredients all coming to us already dripping with meaning from the Scriptures.
First the wheat. Christ has taught us to recognize that wheat when it dies and is buried, bursts forth from the ground with new life. Wheat is a symbol of resurrection and life.
To that we add water, remembering how Christ sanctified the water when He was baptized in the Jordan and how He explained to the Samaritan woman that the water He offered becomes a fountain of water inside of us springing up into everlasting life.
And then we add salt, knowing that He calls us the “Salt of the Earth” because we are the preservers of His covenant and because as Christians we flavour the world. The entire world is made better, flavoured by our presence in it.
And the fourth ingredient is yeast, which is often discussed in the Scriptures but there you’ll see it called leaven. Leavened bread uses yeast, unleavened bread does not. You may recall that Christ warned His disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but He was talking about their doctrine not their bread. Christ was referring to the way that their bad teaching could begin to spread in exactly the way that a very small amount of yeast mixed into a bushel of flour will change the whole bushel. Just a tiny amount can create a transformation that affects everything.
We’re going to want to talk with the kids about yeast so let’s do a little demonstration. Before you gather the kids get a cup of warm water, not hot, not cold, but nice warm water and put in a tablespoon or two of yeast, a tablespoon or two of flour, and a tablespoon or two of sugar. We’re not going to put this into the prosphora, it’s just a demonstration to show the kids what yeast does, because as you’ll see when you let yeast dissolve in warm water and you feed it some sugar and flour the yeast comes alive and it starts bubbling up, and this is what we want the kids to see.
Now let’s get the kids and maybe start out talking about the Divine Liturgy, where this bread will be offered. In fact, during the Great Entrance when the prosphora is offered we hear something beautiful “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”
Let’s think about that, “Thine own of Thine own.” Where did we get this flour? God created wheat, He created all of the plants, we take these seeds and we plant wheat in our fields and we care for it. God gives us the seeds and the fertile soil and He rains water down on it, and He shines warm sunlight on it, and it grows.
As farmers we cooperate with Him to create these beautiful crops which will feed us and nourish us. We take a small amount of this crop and we offer it back to Him. We offer back the first fruits of the harvest He sent as we’re called to do in the Scriptures. “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all.”
This flour, this bounty of His harvest we take and we mix, with yeast and salt and water. Now the yeast is really interesting, if you put flour and salt and water together, you’ll get a real tough dough, something you might use as a kind of clay to make Christmas ornaments or something. But you’re not going to get a nice soft bread, for that you’ll need yeast.
Yeast or leaven is alive. Unlike flour and water and salt, leaven is really alive, and if you kill it, it won’t work. When you mix it into water you use warm water to wake it up, but not too hot or you’ll kill it. Yeast is alive, it’s like the breath of life that God blew into us to create us. With a breath He transformed us from clay to living souls, and now we’re about to take this flour and mix the liveliness of the yeast into it, and that yeast will start blowing into it.
It creates bubbles in the dough, blowing air right into it, transforming it from a mere ball of clay, into a beautiful fluffy loaf of bread.
Take a look at that cup of water and yeast we set aside moments ago, show them what the yeast has done, it’s alive and unless we’ve killed it by using water that’s too hot, it’s foaming up in there. The life of the yeast is acting on this water and sugar and flour, and it’s starting to blow bubbles in it. When we mix yeast into flour that’s what it does. That’s why bread is bread, because the yeast has breathed life into it, created bubbles into it. Puffed it up and made it soft and fluffy, the yeast transforms it, and brings life into it.
Now let’s talk about wine. How is wine made? Well it’s a lot like bread. We farm these grapes, these gifts from God, and we take them and we smash them up to make grape juice. Now what else do you need to make wine? What do you add? Once again, we’re going to add yeast and that yeast will bubble up and blow air into our grape juice and it’ll trigger fermentation, chemically transforming sweet grape juice into wine.
We take God’s simple gifts of wheat and grapes and we inject our own creative energy, our yeast and our effort, and we transform them into bread and wine, and then we take them into the Church. They’re not holy yet. They’re just the product of our kitchens, of our hands, but they’re offered up in love.
Now what is God going to do with them? Like we did, He takes the gifts and He adds His creative energy and He blesses them in His amazing way. With His beautiful, mysterious energy, He will transform them into the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally we receive the transformed gifts, the Holy Mysteries, and what happens?
They transform us.
Through this beautiful Mystery, God changes us. Making us holier and stronger and better. What an amazing culmination to this beautiful process.
What we really want to express to the kids is this passing back and forth. When we receive Him, His gifts and we add some of our creativity and effort and offer them back to Him. And then He adds to that and offers it back to us. It’s this beautiful cycle of offering and transformation, that ultimately transforms us. This is how we should be living our lives.
God is forever giving us life and blessing us with our families and our communities, our talents and our lives. When we take those gifts and invest our creative energy and offer them back to the Lord, He will transform them and make them even greater, and offer them back to us.
Our entire lives can be invested in this process of greatfully offering back to God. And it will totally transform us.
The real offering isn’t just bread…we may be baking bread and bringing it to the Altar, but the real offering here is our own hearts, and our lives. In that same Divine Liturgy we will pray, “Let us commend ourselves and one another, and our whole lives unto Christ our God.”
How do I offer everything to God? I can offer bread and I can offer wine, but how do I offer everything? Because whatever I offer up to Him, He will transform and use to transform me. How do I offer myself? How do I find a way to leave nothing behind? To offer everything that I am?
We have to really look at ourselves and ask, which parts of us do not love God? Sure we’ll offer up hearts to God but even the part of us that prefers video games to prayers, let’s offer that part up to God too. And the part that wants to make snide remarks about rude people, let’s offer that up too. Let’s find every part of ourselves that shrinks into the shadows and hides from God, and let’s bring it out into the Light, and offer it up to Him, and present ourselves for transformation. Let’s find out what kind of transformation will happen for us when our prosphora, our offering is our entire life. “Let us commend ourselves and one another, and all our lives unto Christ our God.”
We can offer for more than ourselves, we can offer one another. What does that mean? We can offer the whole world up to God. Whenever we offer up intercessory prayers asking that God take care of our friends and our family, that He Shepherd our nation and our world, we are offering up those people to God. When we read about a disaster or a war somewhere across the globe and we prayerfully ask God to watch over and protect and love the people caught up in it, we are offering those people up to God.
When we offer our world to Him, we invite Him to transform it. Indeed this is such an important part of the prosphora offering, the intercessory prayers. When we give our bread to the Church, we can include a special list of the people we wish to have the priest pray for at the Altar. So when you find some time to bake with the kids and you talk about this beautiful cycle, where we join with God and work with Him in transforming things and offering gifts, they’ll be kneading dough and becoming a concrete part of the Liturgical offering.
And then as the dough rises and the yeast does its transformative work, let’s have everyone write a list of their names for the Priest. Who will they lift up? Who will we offer to God’s care and keeping at this Divine Liturgy? This is one small conversation.
A loaf of bread baked in a short period of time.
Afterwards the kids probably won’t hang around asking questions and telling you how you’ve changed their lives, from what I can tell they usually run off and just play, or maybe go grab a snack with their friends, but from now on every once in awhile, the Great Entrance will be a little bit different for them.
As they come to see themselves in the offering, a new layer of the Liturgy will have opened up for them, and who know whether those same words will have a deeper impact on them in the weeks that follow? Or whether they’ll have a clearer perception of the change that Holy Communion can bring them. Whether they’ll cherish this great Mystery just a little bit more. Who can say what new blessings may come to young people who live with ideas like these in their heads.
Now the trouble here is that I’m talking and talking but don’t want to give you the impression that you should just lecture those kids, I have a tendency to be long winded, but even I know that kids don’t really want lectures and they don’t get excited about lectures.
What I hope you’ll be doing is not lecturing but having a conversation. And don’t worry about getting every point in. Hopefully you’ve provided a framework here, a little bit of direction, but every conversation is different, and an honest respectful dialogue that shows kids that you love them and that you value their thoughts, that’s the most crucial thing.
If it turns out that this lesson just wasn’t in the cards today, that’s alright, if you baked some prosphora that’s a blessing, if you managed to get them to think a little bit about what an offering is, what transformation is, then you did great.
Above all, be prayerful and ask the Holy Spirit to help you give the kids whatever it is that they need, and respect the fact that we don’t know what they need. Trust that God knows what each of us needs and that if we offer ourselves up to be His conduits He may just send them whatever messages He knows they need through your conversation. Never think that if you don’t communicate the points you wanted to make that the conversation was a failure. If you’re listening to God’s messages you’ve probably already noticed that He works in Mysterious and tricky ways. Be loving and respectful.
It’s just as important to hear what they’re thinking and respond to their ideas as it is to give them information. And I know that there have been plenty of saints who will assure us that it’s not talking and teaching that will bring someone close to God, it’s praying. So pray for everyone of them, and love them and do your best. Trust that God will work His wonders whether you know He’s doing it or not.
I like to remind myself that our Sunday School is really God’s Sunday School, and my children are really His children, and we need to trust Him to love them and guide them. After all, we’re raising His Saints not ours.