On the Words of Institution and the Epiklesis

St. Nicholas Cabasilas ca. 1323-1391

Certain Latins attack us thus: They came that after the words of the Lord: “Take and eat” and what follows there is no need of any further prayer to consecrate the offerings, since they are already consecrated by the Lord’s word. They maintain that to pronounce these words of Christ and then to speak of bread and wine and to pray for their consecration as if they had not already been consecrated, is not only impious but futile and unnecessary. Moreover they say that the blessed Chrysostom is witness that these words consecrate the offerings when he said in the same way that the words of the Creator, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22), spoken on a single occasion by God, continue to take effect, so the words once spoken by the Savior are also operative forever. Those who rely more on their own prayer than on God’s word are in the first place implying that His words lack effectiveness. They show that they put more trust in themselves, and in the third place they make the holy sacrament dependent on something uncertain, namely, human prayer, and in so doing they represent so great a mystery in which the most steadfast faith must be shown as something full of uncertainty. For it does not follow that he who prays will necessarily be heard, even if he has the virtue of Paul.

It is not difficult to refute all these arguments. Take first the works of the divine John [Chrysostom] on which they rely and consider whether the words of Christ can be compared to the words of the Creator. God said: “Be fruitful and multiply”. What then? After these words do we need nothing more to achieve this and is nothing else necessary for the increase of the human race? Is not marriage and conjugal union essential, and all the other cares which go with marriage, and without which it would be impossible for mankind to exist and develop? We consider marriage, therefore, necessary for the procreation of children, and after marriage we still pray towards this end, and without seeming to despise the Creator’s command, being well aware that it is the primary cause of procreation, but through the medium of marriage, provision for nourishment and so on. And in the same way, here in the liturgy we believe that the Lord’s words do indeed accomplish the mystery, but through the medium of the priest, his invocation, and his prayer. These words do not take effect simply in themselves or under any circumstances, but there are many essential conditions, and without these they do not achieve their end. Who does not know that it is the death of Christ alone which has brought remission of sins to the world? But we also know that even after His death faith, penitence, confession and the prayer of the priest are necessary, and a man cannot receive remission of sins unless he has first been through these processes. What then? Are we to dishonor His death and to claim that it is no effect, by believing that its results are inadequate unless we ourselves add our contribution? By no means.

It is unreasonable to address reproaches like these to those who pray for the consecration of the offerings. Their confidence in their prayer is not confidence in self, but in God Who has promised to grant what they are seeking. It is indeed the very contrary which is fundamental to the conception of prayer. For suppliants perform the act of prayer because they fail to trust themselves in the matters about which they pray and they believe and that they can obtain their requests from God alone. In throwing himself upon God, the man who prays admits that he recognizes his own helplessness and that he is dependent upon God for everything. This is not my affair, he says, nor within my own powers, but it has need of you, Lord, and I trust it all to you. These principles have an even more wonderful application when we are forced to ask things which are above nature and beyond all understanding, as the sacraments are. Then it is absolutely essential that those who make prayer should rely on God alone. For man could not even have imagined these things if God had not taught him of them; he could not have conceived the desire for them if God had not exhorted him; he could not have expected to receive it if he had not received the hope of it from Him Who is the Truth. He would not have even dared to pray for those things if God had not clearly shown him that it was according to His will that they should be sought for, and that He is ready to grant them to those who ask. As a result, the prayer is neither uncertain nor the result unsure, as the Lord of the gift has in every way made known His desire to grant it. This is why we believe that the sanctification of the mysteries is in the prayer of the priest, certainly not relying on any human power, but on the power of God. We are assured of the result, not by reason of man who prays, but by reason of God Who hears; not because mantas made a supplication, but because the Truth has promised to grant it.

There is no need to speak of the way in which Christ has shown His desire to ever grant this grace. This is why He came into the world, why He was made a sacrifice, why He died. This is why altars and priests and every purification and all the commandments, the teaching and the exhortations exist: all to the end that this holy table may be placed before us. This is why the Savior declared that He desired to keep the Passover (Lk. 22:15), for it was then that He was going to give the true Passover to His disciples. This is why He commanded them: “Do this in remembrance of Me”, for He wished this mystery to be performed among us always.

How then could those who pray have any doubt about the object of their prayer, if He intended that those things which they seek to have be received by them, and He Himself wishes to grant them Who alone has the power to give? Therefore those who believe that the offerings are consecrated by prayer are neither scorning the words of the Savior, nor trusting in themselves, nor yet causing dependence on something uncertain, such as human prayer, as the Latins vainly reproach us.

A further proof is that the all-holy Chrism, stated by the blessed Dionysius [the Areopagite] to be in the same category as Holy Communion, is also consecrated and sanctified by prayer. And the faithful have no doubt that this prayer is efficacious and consecrates. In the same way the ordination of priests, and that of bishops as well, is effected by prayer. He who is ordaining lays on his hands and then says to the clergy: “Let us pray for him that the grace of the Holy Spirit may come upon him.” Similarly in the Latin Church the bishop ordaining priests anoints the head (*) of the candidate with oil and prays that he may be richly endowed with the grace of the Holy Spirit. And it is through prayer that the priest gives absolution from sin to penitents. In the last sacrament of Unction it is equally the prayer of the priests which confers it; this sacrament has the power to give healing from bodily illness and the remission of sins to those on whom it is performed, as is confirmed by Apostolic Tradition: Is there any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed any sins they shall be forgiven him. (James 5:14-15)

How can those who condemn the prayer in the sacraments answer all these arguments?

If, as they say, the result of prayer is uncertain it would be equally uncertain whether the priest is truly of that holy office whose name he bears, or whether the Chrism has the power to consecrate, and therefore it would be impossible for the sacrament of Holy Communion to exist, since there would be neither priest nor altar. For our critics would hardly maintain that the words of the Lord would be effective if they were spoken by just anyone, and perhaps even without an altar. And indeed the altar upon which the bread must be placed is in fact itself consecrated with the Chrism which in turn is consecrated by prayer. And further, who can give us remission of sins if there is doubt about the priests and their supplications?

To follow the innovations of these men would indeed inevitably mean the total destruction of all Christianity. It is therefore clear that for those who hold such doctrines the very foundations of their virtue are in question, and there is indeed great danger for those who fabricate innovations of this kind, alien to the tradition of the Fathers and undermining the security which this tradition guarantees. For God Himself has said that He answers prayer and grants the Holy Spirit to those who ask, and nothing is impossible to those who pray in faith, and his assurance cannot be untrue. It is nowhere stated that this will happen to those who simply speak this or that word. It is the tradition of the Fathers who received this teaching from the Apostles and from their successors, that the sacraments are rendered effective through prayer; all the sacraments, as I have said, and in particularly the Holy Eucharist. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, the great teachers of the Church, affirmed this, as so many others had already done. Those who deny such authorities deserve no consideration from those who believe in right doctrine. The words of the Lord about the Holy Mysteries were spoken in a narrative manner. None of the Apostles or teachers of the Church has ever appeared to say that they are sufficient to consecrate the offerings of sacraments. The blessed John [Chrysostom] himself said that, spoken once by Christ, and having actually been said by Him, they are always effective, just as the word of the Creator is. But it is nowhere taught that now, spoken by the priest, and by reason of being said by him, they have that efficacy. In the same way the Creator’s word is not effective because it is spoken by a man, applied to each particular case, but only because it was spoken by the Lord.

That which silences our adversaries decisively is the fact that the Latin Church herself, to whom they refer themselves, does not cease to pray for the offerings after the words of consecration have been pronounced. This point has escaped them, no doubt, because the Latins do not recite this prayer immediately after pronouncing Christ’s words, and because they do not ask explicitly for consecration and the transformation of the elements into the Body of the Lord, but use other terms, which, however, have exactly the same meaning.

This is their prayer: “Command that these offerings be carried in the hands of Thy holy angels to Thine altar on high.” (**) What do they mean when they say: “That these offerings may be carried up”? Either they are asking for a local translation of the offerings, i.e. from the earth and lower regions to heaven, or they are asking that they be raised in dignity from a humble state to the highest of all.

If the first of these is the case, we must ask of what benefit it is to us to pray that the holy mysteries may be taken away from us, since our prayers and our faith assure us and demand that they should not only be with us but remain with us, since it is in this that Christ’s remaining with us even to the end of the world consists. (Mat. 28:20) And if they know it is Christ’s Body, how can they not believe that He is truly and mysteriously both with us and in heaven, sitting at the Father’s right hand, in a manner known only to Himself? How, on one hand, shall that which is not yet the Body of Christ, which is truly heavenly, become heavenly? Or how, on the other, could that which excels all authority, power, dominion, and supremacy be carried up by the hand of angel?

Supposing, on the other hand, that the prayer of the Latins is asking that the offerings be raised in dignity and transformed into a higher reality, then they are guilty of a monstrous blasphemy if, considering that the Body of the Lord is already present, they nevertheless believe it can become something higher or holier.

Thus it is clear that the Latins know perfectly well that the bread and the wine are not yet consecrated; that is why they pray for the offerings as elements still in need of prayer. They pray that these which are still here below may be carried on high, that, as offerings which have not yet been sacrificed, they may be carried to the altar where they are to be immolated. For this, they have need of the hand of angel. In the sense in which the great Dionysius speaks when he says that the first hierarchy, that of the angles, comes to the aid of the second and human hierarchy.

This prayer can have only one significance – it transforms the offerings into the Body and Blood of the Lord. It is not to be imagined that the altar which it names lies in some place above the heavens set apart by God; to do this would be to associate ourselves with those who believe that the proper place of worship is in Jerusalem or on the mountain of Samaria. (Jn. 4:20-21) But since, as St. Paul says, there is one God and one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, in the Savior alone is all that can confer upon us sanctification or have power of intercession. And what are those things which have power of intercession and can confer sanctification? The priest, the victim, the altar. For, as the Lord says, “The altar that sanctifieth (Mat. 23:19) – the altar consecrates the gift.

Now, since Christ alone sanctifies, He alone must be priest, victim and altar. We know from His own words that He is both priest and victim: “For their sakes I sanctify Myself.” (Jn. 17:19) The most holy Dionysius, in his chapter On Chrism, tells us that Christ is the altar. “If our divine altar is Jesus, He Who is the divine consecration of heavenly minds, in Whom we ourselves, consecrated and mystically sacrificed, have our oblation, let us look upon this divine altar with the eyes of the Spirit.”

The priest then prays that the offerings may be carried up to the heavenly altar – in other words, that they may be consecrated and transformed into the heavenly Body of the Lord. There is no question of a change of place, a passage from earth to heaven, since we see that the offerings remain among us, and that even after the prayer their appearances remain.

Since the altar consecrates the gifts placed upon it, to pray that the gifts may be carried to the altar is to ask that they be consecrated.

What is the consecration conferred by the altar? That of the offerings placed upon it. Through that consecration the Divine Priest Himself is sanctified by being offered to God and sacrificed. (Jn. 17:19) Since Christ is at one and the same time priest, altar, victim, the consecration of the offerings by this priest, their transformation into the victim, and their carrying up to the heavenly altar are all one and the same thing. Therefore, if you pray that any one of these things come to pass, you pray for all; you possess that for which you pray and you have accomplished the sacrifice.

Your [Latin] priests, regarding Christ as the victim, pray that the offerings may be placed in Him; thus, though in different words, they are asking just what we sk. That is why our priests, after they have prayed that the elements may be changed into the Divine Body and Blood, and having made mention of the heavenly altar, do not go on to ask that the offerings be carried up to it, since they have already been taken there and accepted, but they ask that in return the grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit may be sent to us. “Let us pray for the consecrated offerings.” That they may be consecrated? Certainly not, since they are so already; but that they might sanctify us, that God Who sanctified them may sanctify us through them.

It is evident therefore that is not the whole Latin Church which condemns the prayer for the offerings after the words of consecration, but only a few innovators who are causing her harm in other ways; they are men who pass their time in nothing else but “to tell, or to hear some new thing”. (Acts 17:21) (A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 29-31)

(*) This should be “hands”. In the Roman Catholic rite the head of a bishop is anointed at his consecration.

(**) The prayer referred to is as follows: We humbly beseech Thee Almighty God, command that these things be carried by the hands of Thy angel  to Thy altar on high before the sight of Thy divine majesty: that so many of us as shall by this partaking at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of Thy Son, may be fulfilled with all grace and heavenly benediction. Through the same Christ our Lord. 

From the Catholic Encyclopedia – Epiklesis 

It is certain that all the old liturgies contained such a prayer. For instance, the Liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions, immediately after the recital of the words of Institution, goes on to the Anamnesis — “Remembering therefore His Passion…” — in which occur the words: “thou, the God who lackest nothing, being pleased with them (the Offerings) for the honor of Thy Christ, and sending down Thy Holy Spirit on this sacrifice, the witness of the Passion of the Lord Jesus, to manifest (opos apophene) this bread as the Body of Thy Christ and this chalice as the Blood of Thy Christ…” (Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western, I, 21). So the Greek and Syrian Liturgies of St. James (ibid., 54, 88-89), the Alexandrine Liturgies (ibid., 134, 179), the Abyssinian Rite (ibid., 233), those of the Nestorians (ibid., 287) and Armenians (ibid., 439). The Epiklesis in the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is said thus: “We offer to Thee this reasonable and unbloody sacrifice; and we beg Thee, we ask Thee, we pray Thee that Thou, sending down Thy Holy Spirit on us and on these present gifts” (the Deacon says: “Bless, Sir the holy bread”) “make this bread into the Precious Body of Thy Christ” (Deacon: “Amen. Bless, Sir, the holy chalice”): “and that which is in this chalice, the Precious Blood of Thy Christ” (Deacon: “Amen. Bless, Sir, both”), “changing [metabalon] them by Thy Holy Spirit” (Deacon: “Amen, Amen, Amen.”). (Brightman, op. cit., I 386-387).

Nor is there any doubt that the Western rites at one time contained similar invocations. The Gallican Liturgy had variable forms according to the feast. That for the Circumcision was: “Hæc nos, Domine, instituta et præcepta retinentes suppliciter oramus uti hoc sacrificium suscipere et benedicere et sanctificare digneris: ut fiat nobis eucharistia legitima in tuo Filiique tui nomine et Spiritus sancti, in transformationem corporis ac sanguinis domini Dei nostri Jesu Christi unigeniti tui, per quem omnia creas…” (Duchesne, “Origines du culte chrétien”, 2nd ed., Paris, 1898, p. 208, taken from St. Germanus of Paris, d. 576). There are many allusions to the Gallican Invocation, for instance St. Isidore of Seville (De eccl. officiis, I, 15, etc.). The Roman Rite too at one time had an Epiklesis after the words of Institution. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) refers to it plainly: “Quomodo ad divini mysterii consecrationem coelestis Spiritus adveniet, si sacerdos…criminosis plenus actionibus reprobetur?” (“Epp. Fragm.”, vii, in Thiel, “Epp. Rom. Pont.”, I, 486). Watterich (Der Konsekrationsmoment im h. Abendmahl, 1896, pp. 133 sq.) brings other evidences of the old Roman Invocation. he (p. 166) and Drews (Entstehungsgesch. des Kanons, 1902, p. 28) think that several secrets in the Leonine Sacramentary were originally Invocations (see article CANON OF THE MASS). Of the essential clause left out — our prayer: “Supplices te rogamus” (Duchesne, op. cit., 173-5). It seems that an early insistence on the words of Institution as the form of Consecration (see, for instance, Pseudo-Ambrose, “De Mysteriis”, IX, 52, and “De Sacramentis”, IV, 4, 14-15, 23; St. Augustine, Sermon 227) led in the West to the neglect and mutilation of the Epiklesis.

That in the Liturgy the Invocation should occur after the words of Institution is only one more case of many which show that people were not much concerned about the exact instant at which all the essence of the sacrament was complete. They looked upon the whole Consecration-prayer as one simple thing. In it the words of Institution always occur (with the doubtful exception of the Nestorian Rite); they believed that Christ would, according to His promise, do the rest. But they did not ask at which exact moment the change takes place. Besides the words of Institution there are many other blessings, prayers, and signs of the cross, some of which came before and some after the words, and all, including the words themselves, combine to make up the one Canon of which the effect is Transubstantiation. So also in our baptism and ordination services, part of the forms and prayers whose effect is the sacramental grace comes, in order of time, after the essential words. It was not till Scholastic times that theologians began to discuss the minimum of form required for the essence of each sacrament.

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