Servant of the Epiclesis

The role of deacons in three explicit invocations to the Holy Spirit

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Within the Divine Liturgy, there are many different kinds of prayer. One type of prayer, which is offered in nearly all of the sacramental mysteries in the Christian East, is a particular type of invocation to the Holy Spirit known as an epiclesis. This prayer involves the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon an offering to consecrate, sanctify, empower or make effective the sacrifice.

In the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, there are three such explicit invocations to the Holy Spirit, and it is good to take note of the role that the deacon plays in each one as a servant to the epiclesis.

The first epiclesis is made during the prayers of the preparation for the gifts. This invocation to the Holy Spirit occurs after the deacon has assisted the priest in preparing the Eucharistic bread and the wine mixed with water at a special table of preparation on the north side of the sanctuary. Here the deacon presents incense already burning in a censer to the priest to bless for the incensing of the veils, which will drape over the sacred vessels as well as the holy gifts themselves and will immediately be used by the deacon to incense the holy table (altar) after the rite of preparation.

The priest, after the diaconal petition, “Let us pray to the Lord,” then blesses the incense with the Sign of the Cross and offers this first invocation: “We offer incense to you, O Christ Our God, as an aroma of spiritual fragrance. Having received it on your heavenly altar, send down upon us in return the grace of your Most Holy Spirit.” Here the reference to a fragrant offering evokes both the Old Testament imagery of incense filling the holy place as part of the twice daily offering to the Lord (cf. Ex 30:7-8; Ps 141:2), as well as St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:2: “And live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” The deacon, who is buried with a censer, is both the servant of the fragrant offering of incense and the calling down of the grace of the Holy Spirit upon the ministers and the faithful.

The second epiclesis is known as the Great Epiclesis. This is the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the priest in the anaphora or Eucharistic prayer. Once the words of institution (“This is my body. … This is my blood …”) have been prayed over the gifts with the deacon using his stole (orarion) to point to these gifts in a supplicatory manner in the name of the people, explicit prayers are made calling down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts to “make” (says Chrysostom) or “show forth” (says Basil the Great) this bread to be the Body of Christ and this chalice to be the Blood of Christ “changing them by your Holy Spirit.” Here the deacon again petitions the celebrant to “bless the holy bread … the holy chalice” and “both” together, offering an “Amen” each time in the name of the faithful. The effect of this prayer is heard in the words of the celebrant immediately following the epiclesis: “That for those who partake of them they may bring about a spirit of vigilance, the remission of sins, the communion of your Holy Spirit, the fulness of the heavenly kingdom, and confidence in you, not for judgment or condemnation.” Here the Spirit of God is invoked to effect within us a Eucharistic transformation by grace to live a truly Christian life in the Spirit.

The third and final epiclesis occurs during the diaconal litany as part of the preparation for holy Communion. This epiclesis is unique in that the priest does not make this invocation, but rather the deacon does: “For the precious gifts offered and consecrated, that our God who loves us all may receive them on his holy, heavenly, and mystical altar as an aroma of spiritual fragrance, and send down upon us in return his divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us pray.” One of the noteworthy things we see in this particular invocation is how closely it parallels the first epiclesis over the incense. Now the fragrant offering (cf. Gn 8:21) rising to the heavenly throne and altar with Christ the high priest mediating is the Eucharistic gifts themselves, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit sent by Christ, his Mystical Body in the congregation.

In these three prayers of invocation, we see the vital role that the deacon plays as a servant of the epiclesis, calling down the Holy Spirit with the priest upon the incense, the holy gifts and the faithful in a special threefold Pentecost in the Divine Liturgy.

FATHER DANIEL DOZIER is co-founder and chief learning officer for The Center for InMinistry Development and an associate professor of Scripture and Catholic leadership,

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