Every time the Divine Liturgy is served, priest and deacon stand before the Table of Oblation/ Prothesis and prepare the bread and the wine for the coming Eucharist. In the case of the bread, this involves taking five loaves (in the Russian tradition; one large loaf in the Greek tradition), preparing one large cube of bread to be “the Lamb” (the consecrated bread which becomes the Eucharistic Body of Christ), and making other commemorations as well from the other four loaves. The priest places the Lamb in the midst of the diskos (the raised plate or paten on which the bread is placed and carried), and then takes a series of little particles of bread and arranges them around the central Lamb. From one loaf a particle is cut and placed beside the Lamb to represent the Mother of God. From another loaf, nine ranks and classes of saints are represented by name in the form of nine other particles. From another loaf particles are removed as the names of various living people are commemorated and represented by their particles. From the fifth loaf particles are removed as various departed people are commemorated and represented by their particles. All of these various particles are arranged around the central Lamb so that the diskos represents Christ surrounded those whom He loves. The theology manuals (those dusty and sometimes dubious tomes) tell us that it is an image of the Church, with Christ at the center. Thus we read in These Truths We Hold, “All of the particles are arranged on the Paten around the Lamb, depicting the Church Militant and Triumphant, united in the Liturgy as in common divine service.” Never mind the rather western distinction here between the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven; the image is still ecclesial—it is the Church which is represented on the Paten.
It is doubtless because of this that the official rule is that only Orthodox Christians may be commemorated on the Paten in the particles removed for the living and the departed. No further details are given, however, or answers to the question, “How Orthodox do they have to be?” Does a person who was baptized Orthodox but who never sets foot in Church count? How about if they only come for Pascha, or for the Paschal procession? Or how if they only come four times a year, but never receive Holy Communion? Or if they come and commune only once a year? How about if they are fornicators? Or Masons? We can quickly see that there are problems involved in declaring that only Orthodox may be commemorated if no further details are provided, for this sets up the liturgist to be a judge over the souls of men, and to decide who exactly is “in” the Church and fit to be included. There are standards in the Church of course, which is why the Church excommunicates some and reconciles others. But these cases of excommunication are difficult and individual ones, to be dealt with pastoral discretion, prayer, and wisdom. It is not for the often-times over-worked priest who can know little of such private things. Deciding who is ultimately saved and who is not is God’s job, not the priest’s.
Accordingly, some suggest that we include anyone we like in the commemorations, regardless of whether or not they are Orthodox, or even Christian. After all, it is argued, the Church in her Liturgy prays for everyone in the world, regardless of their faith or lack of it—in the Great Litany we pray for the sick and the suffering, and for those who travel by land, by sea, and by air, and there is no suggestion that this refers only the sick, suffering, and travelling who are good Orthodox. The Church, like her Master, has concern and compassion for all the world, and intercedes for everyone, and in fact has done so since the days of St. Paul. Paul commanded us to pray for our civil leaders and for all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), which in his day included the Emperor, and the Emperor for whom Paul commanded prayer was not Christian, or even remotely moral. The Emperor in Paul’s day was Nero. Since therefore the Church prays in her Liturgy for everyone regardless of their faith, surely we should include everyone on the Paten as well?
This is the argument, and those standing by the “official” practice have an answer: in her intercessions the Church prays for all, but the Paten is an image of the Church, not the world, and so only those in the Church should be included there. Just as the Church gives Holy Communion only to her members, so in the Proskomedia she only commemorates her members, since the Paten represents the Eucharistic Church. The Table of Oblation therefore mirrors and anticipates the Altar Table, and partakes of its exclusionary boundaries. Thus the two groups have tended to square off against each other, sometimes accusing each other in turn of worldly laxity and narrow-hearted sectarianism. One side appeals to love; the other to the rules which express theology.
I suggest another way of looking at the Paten, one which attempts to contextualize the rite of Proskomedia. (Here I must express my appreciation for Stelyios Muksuris, in his article, “Why the Last Should be First” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly.) When the full liturgical rite of Proskomedia was gradually forming, Byzantium was in full swing. That is, the boundaries of the Church more or less coincided with the boundaries of the world. There were heretics and Jews, of course, and eventually Muslims too, but the world was considered to be essentially Christian, with these other realities viewed as intruders, dissonant notes in a universal chorus. The Roman way of looking at things persisted in Byzantium (whose citizens of course called themselves not “Byzantines”, but “Romans”). In this vision, the oikoumene (or world) was the Roman world, now ruled by Christ and His Emperor. They knew, of course, that there were people outside the bounds of the Empire (in Parthia, for example), but in principle the Romans saw whole world as Roman, and what was once “the Great Sea” had now become mare nostrum—“our sea”, a mere Roman lake. Advancing Realpolitik did not ultimately shake this persistent vision. Everyone in that society was Christian—or at least everyone who fit in.
In this contextualized way of viewing the cosmos, the distinction between the Church and the World, if not utterly collapsing, certainly found no emphasis. There was in that vision, no sharp dichotomy between the Church and the World such as exists in today’s West. I suggest therefore that the Paten may be properly also viewed as an image of the redeemed world, with Christ ruling at its center, surrounded by saints and faithful, both living and dead. Is the bread on the Paten the Church or the World? That question, sensible and urgent in today’s pluralistic and secular society, would have made rather less sense when asked in Byzantium. The bread was both Church and World—or (perhaps better) the Church as microcosm of the World, and the redeemed World of which the Church is the first-fruits (James 1:18).
This being the case, we may legitimately commemorate on the Paten everyone in the world for whom we pray in the Liturgy, since everyone in the world which has been redeemed by Christ. The arranging of particles of bread on the Paten seems intended not to express the Church’s place in the world (which would include a reference to her boundaries, and thus exclude the heterodox), but rather the redeeming power of Christ in the world in all its cosmic fullness. The rite of proskomedia feels, when being performed, not like celebration of the Church’s purity and safety or an act of exclusion, but a celebration of the cosmic scope of salvation, a proclamation of inclusion. Feelings, admittedly, are a poor lens for viewing theology, but here feelings seem to confirm an objective Byzantine view of the world. That view saw the cosmos as redeemed by Christ and hurtling toward the eschatological feast of the Kingdom, as heading inexorably to a banquet table at which Christ would sit down to feast with the world. That is the view expressed at the Anaphora proclaimed aloud at the Altar Table. It is also, we may be allowed to think, the view expressed at the rite of Proskomedia spoken quietly beforehand at the Table of Oblation.