What are we doing when we gather together as the Body of Christ? And, more importantly, why? From the earliest accounts of our Eucharistic celebration, we know that Christians gathered on the Lord’s Day to read “the memoirs of the Apostles or the prophets” (which, in the received tradition of the Orthodox Church, is the reading of the Epistle and Gospel), pray for the world, offer bread and wine to God with prayers and thanksgiving and then distribute the gifts to each and, finally, give any leftovers to the poor and needy . Our Divine Liturgy was built on this foundational structure. Today, we often categorize our celebration in two parts—the Liturgy of the Word where we hear readings that instruct us in the Christian faith and prepare us to celebrate together as the Body of Christ in what is called the Liturgy of the Faithful.
What are we doing when we gather together as the Body of Christ? And, more importantly, why?
Themes of the Liturgy
Last year during our sermon series on the Liturgy, we focused on the Liturgy of the Word, in particular on the “words of the Word of God.” We explored the various ways that the words of God are used, especially through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to create, forgive, teach, heal and ultimately give us hope. This year, we will turn our attention to the Liturgy of the Faithful particularly, focusing on the themes of our communal gathering. Did you ever notice how many times we say “thanks,” “praise,” “love,” or “peace” in the service? Before Covid, when the young people of our parish would participate in liturgical service more regularly, I would pick one of these key words each week and ask them to count how many times it is found in the liturgy. At the end of the service, I would then ask, “Now what are we doing when we gather together as the Body of Christ?” For them, the answer would then be obvious. They would remark with a new-found excitement—“We are giving thanks!” “We are praising God!” “We are showing our love of God and each other!” or “We are experiencing the peace of God!” For the next few Sundays, we will explore each of these themes in more detail. Today, I will focus on the theme of “Thanksgiving.”
Did you ever notice how many times we say “thanks,” “praise,” “love,” or “peace” in the service?
God’s Gift to Us
Depending on any variations in the service (for instance, what the Choir sings during communion, etc.), we say the word “thanks” (or some variation thereof) over eight (8) times in the Divine Liturgy (Chrysostom). Thanksgiving is one of the main emphases of our celebration as the Body of Christ. In fact, it is from the verb “to thank” (Eucharisto in Greek) that we get our word, “Eucharist.”
We say the word “thanks” (or some variation thereof) over eight (8) times in the Divine Liturgy.
One of the first times we hear the word “thanks” is during the opening dialogue of the great Eucharistic Prayer, the Anaphora  (p. 111). The priest asks us to “Lift up our hearts” and we respond by saying “We lift them to the Lord.” He then says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord” and we respond by saying, “It is proper and right….” (In some traditions at this point, as it our present service books, we add the phrase, “to worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in Essence and undivided.” However, this is a later addendum to the original, more simple, response of acknowledging that it is meet (or proper) and right to give thanks to the Lord.) The priest then continues in the first part of the prayer (sometimes called the Preface, p. 112), emphasizing that it is right to do so when he says, “It is meet and right to hymn thee, to bless thee, to praise thee, to give thanks unto thee, and to worship thee…”
So, what are we thankful for?
So, what are we thankful for? If we listen further we hear that we thank God for bringing us into being—our life—and for God’s continued relationship with humanity. This God who is totally beyond our comprehension—as we exclaim, “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” and has the power to create out of nothingness, is both unknowable and yet, able to be known. Our God reveals God-self to us; He wants a relationship with His creation. Even when humanity turned away, our God did not give up on us, but continues to care for us. God keeps reaching out to us to draw us back into communion with Him. In the Anaphora of St. Basil that we will celebrate during Lent, we hear that God sends prophets to His people, gives them guidelines by which to live their lives (i.e. the Law) and finally, comes to us as one of us so we could get to know Him more fully (p. 136). We continue to thank God in the Liturgy for all these “benefits bestowed upon us, both manifest and unseen.” Our relationship with God is truly a gift and for that we give thanks.
Our relationship with God is truly a gift and for that we give thanks.
Our Gift to God
We continue in the prayer to thank God also for this ministry (i.e. liturgy) that we celebrate. In other words, as my mother used to say, when someone gives you a gift, you acknowledge it, thank them, and, as part of that exchange, offer your gift in return. For us, we thank God for accepting our gifts, when we gather together to offer them to God by the work of our hands. Jesus gives us the model for offering our gifts, when we recall His words at the Last Supper, “…when he took the bread in his pure and blameless hands…gave thanks, blessed it and broke it, giving it to His Disciples” (p. 113). (The text in the Liturgy of St. Basil is even more explicit, when in the Prayer before the Lord’s Prayer, we acknowledge that it is God who teaches us how to worthily give thanks. (p. 142)) Similarly, in our offering, we praise, bless and give thanks to God (p. 113).
As my mother used to say, when someone gives you a gift, you acknowledge it, thank them, and, as part of that exchange, offer your gift in return.
The Return Gift
Our gifts of bread and wine are offered to God and, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, they are returned to us as the Body and Blood of Christ. We give of the bread of our life and in return we are given, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the Bread of Life (Jn.6). For this, we thank God once more in the Prayer of Thanksgiving for “feeding us with the heavenly and immortal Mysteries” (p. 125). We then ask God to “direct our paths and guard us in our lives” (p. 125). This is also emphasized in the original Greek in the Prayer after the Lord’s Prayer in the received version of the Liturgy of Chrysostom. (This prayer was originally a dismissal prayer for those not receiving the Eucharist.) Here, we thank God again for our existence, our life and ask Him to “guide the course of our lives for our benefit”. (Today we use a replacement phrase, “distribute these Gifts here spread forth, unto all of us for good,” that, while praiseworthy, shifts the original focus of the prayer—of asking God to guide our lives.) Our God is a companion with us on our journey. Like a good parent, our God is with us when we begin to crawl, guides us for our first steps in life, lets us go free when we want to run and picks us up when we fall. Our God celebrates our achievements and grieves at our struggles. Even when we turn away from Him, our God is waiting for our return. Like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, our God is not only waiting for us to return, but runs towards us, inviting us—again and again—to this Heavenly Banquet to feast with the entire Body of Christ. And for all of this, we are thankful.
Like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, our God is not only waiting for us to return, but runs towards us, inviting us—again and again—to this Heavenly Banquet to feast with the entire Body of Christ. And for all of this, we are thankful.
 Justin the Martyr, First Apology Chapter 67, accessed 3/6/2021, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm.
 All liturgical references are from the Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church according to the use of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (Englewood Hills, New Jersey: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 1987).
 The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, trans. Faculty of Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1985), 28.
*This reflection is adapted from a sermon given at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, Mass.