By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
The celebrant receives the gifts of Holy Communion, makes the sign of the Cross, and lays them on the Holy Altar table. The deacon brings the censer and the celebrant offers incense to the gifts.
After receiving the gifts of Holy Communion, the celebrant lays the veiled chalice on the Holy Altar table. The deacon brings the censer, and the celebrant offers incense three times to the holy gifts. This appears like a small act by the celebrant, easily missed by the congregants. However, it contains deep spiritual meaning and a holy mystery.
Laying the gifts of Holy Communion on the Holy Altar table symbolizes Christ laying on the Holy Cross then in the sepulcher as sacrifice for our sins and redemption. Censing the gifts symbolizes the incense which the women brought to the sepulcher of the Lord. Before our eyes, Christ is brought to Golgotha, raised on the Holy Cross, and dies as a sacrifice. We recognize this act of love as the most significant sacrifice in human history. Our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated His profound love by giving up His life on the Holy Cross for the sins of all.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of love. His life was an act of love towards all of humanity. If we belong to Him and believe in Him, we should reflect His love in our lives. If we want to receive what He has freely and unconditionally given us, we should in turn give that gift to others. When Jesus sent His apostles to serve others, he instructed them, “freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) If we love to be forgiven, to receive the gifts of God, to enjoy God’s mercy and love, to have salvation and freedom, how can we keep these to ourselves? When a person does us a favor, what do we usually do? We ask them what we can do for them. What can we do for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? He instructs us, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater….” (Mark 12:31)
The Holy Altar table is God’s throne. However, it is also the table of sacrifice, the Holy Cross. The moment when the gifts of the Holy Communion come to rest on the holy table reminds us of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham waited years to have a child, and God offered him Isaac when he was old. One day, God called Abraham to test him and asked him to sacrifice his only son on a mountain in Moriah. Abraham obeyed God and offered Isaac as a sacrifice. Can we imagine how hard it was for Abraham to offer his only son as a sacrifice to God? God did not let him continue, sending an angel to deliver Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead of Isaac. (Genesis 22) It is easier to sacrifice one’s own life than to offer one’s child as a sacrifice.
As we reflect on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his child, look at the veiled chalice and remember our Lord Jesus Christ. God offered His only begotten Son to suffer and hang on the Holy Cross, to save all of us from the wreath of sin. Imagine the Mother of God, who witnessed the suffering and death of her son on the cross. She endured unbearable pain watching Christ suffer on the Holy Cross. Despite His suffering, we continue to sin every day. Christ’s suffering for all of our sins is immeasurable. Every Sunday, on the Holy Altar table, Christ is sacrificed for our sins anew. What do we give Christ in return? What would you do for God, who sacrificed Himself for you?
These spiritual reflections and meditations should help our souls gradually dwell in the Divine Liturgy. His love overwhelms us. We start to understand why we stand before the glorious throne and sacrificial altar of God. God’s love connects us to one another and to Him. We feel His holy and redeeming blood giving life to our sinful souls. The Badarak, the Divine Liturgy, is more than a mere collection of rituals and liturgical songs. The Badarak gives us life in a way that can shake our entire existence. It cleanses our hearts of sin. Further, the altar is more than just a piece of stone upon which a metal cup sits. We have to look beyond the visible, and touch the spiritual aspects of the Badarak. Only after that can we realize that Christ's sacrifice takes place in our hearts, not on the Holy Altar table. The Divine Liturgy is spiritually centered on remembering Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.