Some Thoughts on the Epiclesis in the Divine Liturgy

The epiclesis (also spelled epiklesis, and sometimes capitalized) is the prayer found in most if not all of the traditional Eastern Liturgies by which the priest-celebrant calls the Holy Ghost down upon the gifts. The Latin equivalent to this Greek word is invocatio, and its meaning is “invocation,” or “calling down.”

There are different angles from which one might consider this issue of the epiclesis: polemical, liturgical-theological, and mystical. Here, I would like to focus mostly on the latter two meanings.

Just what are we talking about and why is it “an issue”?

As the epiclesis is a major feature in the different Rites of the Christian East (Alexandrine, Antiochene, Byzantine, Armenian, etc.), let us reproduce one example, to make it concrete. Because the most commonly offered form of the Divine Liturgy is the venerable rite of Saint John Chrysostom, I choose it. Here is the epiclesis as it appears in this Ruthenian (Catholic) usage of the Divine Liturgy:

Priest: Moreover we offer to You this spiritual and unbloody sacrifice, and we implore, and pray, and entreat You, send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here set forth.

The deacon lays the ripidion (or the veil) aside and comes close to the priest. They both bow three times before the Holy Table. The deacon then bows his head and pointing with his orarion to the Holy Bread says in a low voice:

Deacon: Master, bless the Holy Bread.

The priest bends over the Gifts and makes the sign of the Cross over the Holy Bread, saying:

Priest: And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.

Deacon: Amen.

And the deacon again:

Deacon: Master, bless the holy chalice.

The priest blessing it, says:

Priest: And that which is in this chalice, the precious Blood of Your Christ.

Deacon: Amen.

The deacon again, pointing to both Holy Gifts, says:

Deacon: Master, bless both.

The priest blessing both Holy Gifts, saying:

Priest: Changing them by Your Holy Spirit.

(An Orthodox edition of the same liturgy may be found here for comparison.)

Catholics believe that the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place at the “words of institution” (i.e.,“This is my Body… This is my blood…”) uttered by the celebrant at Mass. This is the dogmatic teaching of the Church since the Council of Florence, and confirmed by the Council of Trent. The separated Christians of the East believe that the epiclesis itself is consecratory either as an essential complement to the words of institution (as some hold), or even alone without the words of institution altogether (as others hold). Since the fifteenth (and especially since the seventeenth) century, this issue is a major bone of contention between Catholics and the Orthodox.

It is necessary to note that the epiclesis takes place in the Divine Liturgy after the words of institution have been uttered by the celebrant. This leads many Latin rite Catholics who attend a Byzantine (Maronite, Coptic, Ethiopian, etc.) Divine Liturgy to wonder how it is that after the consecration the sacred species are spoken of as if yet unconsecrated. For our separated brethren of the East, this is not a problem, since they do not believe the words of institution are consecratory, at least not alone and without the epiclesis.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Eternal High Priest. It is He, the Man-God, who is the priest that confects every sacrament and offers the one Sacrifice of the New Law, the divine Eucharistic Sacrifice. The alter-Christus standing at the altar of sacrifice this side of Heaven is a man in Holy Orders who is ordained as a ministerial (servant) priest to offer sacrifice and confect sacraments in persona Christi — in the person of Christ. “Let a man so account of us,” Saint Paul says, describing his own priesthood, “as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). It is Christ who acts through His ordained servant. The priest standing at the altar truly offers the sacrifice — not by a mere legal fiction or dramatic conceit — but he does so in radical metaphysical dependence on the priesthood of Christ; for, if he is not acting in persona Christi, he is nothing but an eccentric man dressed in antiquated vesture going about unconventional activities at an altar.

It therefore stands to reason that it is the words of Christ that effect the double consecration, whereby both the bread and wine are transubstantiated, yielding up their substances to be replaced by the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (united to his human soul and divinity), while yet retaining the accidents of bread and wine.

Polemically, there are arguments that the Catholic side can and does draw forth — particularly from historical Eastern sources — to prove the consecratory efficacy of the words of institution. For this piece, however, I am not concerned with those proofs. Rather, taking the epeclesis as a given in the venerable oriental liturgies which anyone with a Catholic spirit must regard as holy, I would like to appreciate the truth, beauty, and goodness of the liturgical action of the priest in calling down (invoking) the Holy Ghost upon the Gifts at this point, and not earlier in the Divine Liturgy.

Monsignor Joseph Pohle, in his Volume II on the Sacraments, gives us two different explanations of the epiclesis, which he then synthesizes into one:

The first considers the Epiklesis to be a mere declaration of the fact that the conversion has taken place, or that in the conversion an essential part is to be attributed to the Holy Spirit as co-Consecrator, just as in the mystery of the Incarnation. According to this theory the Epiklesis possesses only a declarative value, dramatically recalling an historic event to the imagination, but nevertheless refers to the Consecration as such. The priest, at the moment of the Consecration, cannot actually express all the thoughts that move the heart of the Church. Therefore, lest the important part of the Holy Ghost in the act of the Consecration be passed over in silence, he goes back in imagination to the precious moment and speaks and acts as if the Consecration were just about to occur. Thus in the Epiklesis liturgical art conspires with psychology to draw out, as it were, the brief but pregnant moment of the Consecration into a series of vivid dramatic acts. The Epiklesis, therefore, bears the same relation to the Consecration as the periphery of a circle to its centre. A similar purely retrospective transfer is met with in other portions of the [Roman, Latin] liturgy, as in the Mass for the dead, when the Church prays for the departed [in the Offertory prayer] as if they were still capable of being rescued from the gates of hell.

A second explanation refers the Epiklesis, not to the enacted Consecration, but to the approaching Communion, inasmuch as the latter, being the means of uniting us more closely in the organized body of the Church, makes us members of the mystical Christ. The invocation of the Holy Spirit has for its object, not to produce the sacramental Christ by Transubstantiation, but by a sort of spiritual transformation wrought in holy Communion, to fructify the Body and Blood of Christ for the benefit of priest and people, as we read in the Roman Canon of the Mass: “Ut nobis corpus et sanguis fiat dilectissimi Filii tui Domini nostri lesu Christi” [“that it may become for us the Body and the Blood of Thy most beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord”: words in the Roman rite immediately preceding the consecration. Monsignor Pohle is laying emphasis on the subjective implications here: for us.]. It was in this purely mystical manner that the Greeks themselves explained the meaning of the Epiklesis at the Council of Florence.

Since, however, much more is contained in the plain words of the Epiklesis than this mysticism, it is desirable to combine both explanations into one.

Both liturgically and in point of time the Epiklesis stands as a significant connecting link between the Consecration and Communion. In its relation to the Consecration, it is an attempt to bring time to a standstill, as it were, to fix the precious moment in the imagination, and to emphasize the part taken by the Holy Spirit as co-Consecrator. In its relation to Communion, it is a petition to the Holy Ghost to obtain the realization of the true presence of the Body and Blood of Christ by their fruitful effects in the souls of priest and people. Here we have the mystical, there the real Christ; these are the two underlying ideas of the Epiklesis, which may therefore be defined as “the ritual development of the content of the Holy Eucharist, both in respect of faith and grace, with particular reference to the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of glorifying Him as co-Consecrator and Dispenser of all graces, and for the spiritual benefit of priest and people.”

In all their activities in creation, the three Persons of the Trinity act together. The consecrated phrase of scholastic theology is “all of the acts of the Blessed Trinity ad extra [in creation] are acts of all three Persons.” We only distinguish the activity of the Persons by their internal relations within the Trinity. When either the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost act in creation, neither acts alone, but all three act. Therefore, by the power of the Holy Ghost, the transubstantiation is effected, just as it is by the power of the Father and of the Son.

But there is a particular aptness to calling down the Third Person, to whom we appropriate works of sanctification. Internally, that is, within the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Ghost is the terminus of the Trinitarian processions. Externally, and by what we appropriate to Him based on this eternal reality, He “finishes” and “perfects” Christ’s work (e.g., “…he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you” (John 14:26). Therefore, we can say that His activity, in perfect complementarity with Christ the High Priest, makes this divine Sacrifice efficacious for us. The Paraclete, the “sweet guest of the soul,” comes into us to make this Communion efficacious for us, and for the whole Church.

Come Holy Ghost! Make us Love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament more and more!