Therefore, most holy Master, we also, Your sinful and unworthy servants, whom You have made worthy to stand before Your holy altar, not because of our own righteousness (for we have not done anything good upon this earth), but because of Your mercy and compassion, which You have so richly poured out upon us, we dare to approach Your holy altar, and bring forth to you the symbols of the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. We pray to You and we call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that through Your mercy and compassion on us, Your Holy Spirit may come down upon us and upon these gifts here presented, to bless, sanctify,
And make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
And that which is in this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Shed for the life and salvation of the world. Amen. Amen. Amen.
(Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 29-30)
When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Christ is Risen!
The prayer for this reflection is positively my favorite prayer of all time. I get to say it out loud as part of the Divine Liturgy ten times a year, and each time I do, it makes me cry. It captures the depth of our sinful and the majesty of God’s mercy. It is both humbling and bold. In these reflections, I have tried as best as I can to bring in theology and Scripture to offer spiritual reflection on these beautiful prayers that St. Basil wrote in the fourth century. For this reflection, I feel that I can only write something in a personal way because this prayer is so personal to me.
First, this prayer touches the depth of our sinful state—the sinful state of all of us as Christians; the sinful state of us who serve as priests; and my personal sinful state. The beautiful thing about this prayer is that we can interpret “we” as we the clergy and also as “we” the people who are in the church. Because even though the people present are not the celebrants, we are all worshipping in church, “before” the Holy Altar, whether we are standing one foot away, or one hundred feet away in the pews.
No one is worthy to stand before the Holy Altar, or even in sight of the Holy Altar—no priest, no parishioner. There is no amount of our own personal “goodness” that makes us worthy. The prayer emphasizes that “we have not done anything good upon this earth.” Of course, we have done good things upon this earth, but nothing that approaches God’s standard of goodness or Godliness.
It is only because of God’s mercy and compassion that we can dare stand at the altar, the priest in front of it, and the people near it. The good news is that God richly pours out this mercy and compassion upon us. And it is only because of this that we can dare approach the Holy Altar, and offer up the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ.
As I offer this prayer, and say these words–“for we have not done anything good upon this earth”—I think of the sinful things I have done, the things that are incongruent with a priest standing before the Holy Altar and consecrating gifts that will become the Body and Blood of Christ, touching them, partaking of them, and distributing them to others. If I thought about this too much, I might be tempted to quit, to run away in shame. Yet, as the prayer continues, I feel a profound sense of God’s majesty, this mercy and compassion being so richly poured out upon me, so that I can stand at the altar and offer the gifts.
The prayer continues that we pray for this mercy and compassion that have been so richly poured out on us to come through the Holy Spirit, not just upon us, but upon the gifts we are presenting. The words of consecration are slightly different in the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and that of St. John Chrysostom. However, in both instances, there is a blessing over the bread and over the cup and then over both the Gifts together. With the first two blessings there is a single “Amen” and with the third blessing, there is a triple “Amen.”
Going back to the idea that no one is worthy, that is always true. Because worthiness and entitlement go hand-in-hand, and entitlement is a dangerous thing. There is no room for humility where there is entitlement. This prayer does have a sense of boldness, as we “dare to approach” the Holy Altar table, but it also has a very profound sense of humility.
I had the blessing to serve as an altar boy throughout my youth and many things I saw and heard my priest do helped me answer my call to the priesthood and have shaped the priest that I am today. I remember my priest raising his hands towards heaven praying this prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to come down on us and dropping his hands to gesture towards us in the altar, and then on the gifts presented, as he gestured towards them. I can still hear his voice in my head, praying with both humility and boldness, over the Gifts that were “shed for the LIFE and SALVATION of the world.” This reflects the bold yet confident words from Titus 3:7, “so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in the hope of eternal life.”