06 September 2017
Preparing bread for
the Liturgy early in
the morning as part
of an old tradition
Early on Sunday mornings, while the house is quiet, I prepare the bread I am going to use when I am presiding at the Eucharist later in the morning.
Although I have often used Communion wafers or hosts, I prefer to use one piece of bread for the whole congregation, to symbolise that through we many we are one body for we all share in the one bread.
Earlier this week, early on Sunday morning, I posted a photograph of the bread I was preparing, and the seal I had used to mark or emboss the communion. There was a generous response on Facebook, with almost 100 reactions, and many people wanted to know what sort of bread I used, and asked me to explain the symbolism of the wooden seal I used to make an impression on the bread.
For a small congregation, as in many of the churches in this group of parishes, there may only be 20-40 communicants on a Sunday morning.
A large loaf, as used in the Greek Orthodox tradition, is impractical in small Church of Ireland parish churches. We probably have the same number of Sunday communicants as found in even a large Greek parish. Although few people receive Communion in Greek parish churches, a large amount of bread that has not been consecrated but that comes from the same loaf, antidoron (Ἀντίδωρον) is distributed to all present afterwards – a practice unknown outside the Orthodox tradition.
The Book of Common Prayer states that the breads to be used at the Eucharist ‘shall be the best and purest bread that can be obtained.’
So, I take two or three slices of the best sliced pan I can find in my local supermarket, which also makes the connection between the Eucharist and daily life. I cut these together into a circular shape using the rim of a large glass. Placing the glass over the slices of bread held together, and rotating it in a full circle, aerates the bread, raising it slightly, giving it the shape of a large host, but the appearance of one piece of bread.
One side, the side on the breadboard, remains flat, while the side caught inside the glass becomes rounded in the process.
I remove the bread from the glass, turn it over, and then use a Greek Orthodox prosphoron seal to make an impression on the other side. If I expect a large congregation, I repeat this exercise with a second lot of three slice of bread, and then put two unmarked sides back-to-back. They soon join together, so that I am left with one large piece of bread that is easy to use at the offering, during the Great Thanksgiving, and at the fraction.
I have learned, by experience, to look at a congregation and estimate how many pieces I need to break the bread into without counting. I am seldom left with more than one pieces after distribution, and have never run short.
A prosphoron (πρόσφορον, offering) is a small loaf of leavened bread used in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. The plural form is prosphora (πρόσφορα). The name comes from the Greek πρό (pro meaning ‘forward’ and φορα (phora), ‘to bring,’ in other words, to ‘bring forward.’
The word originally described any offering in a temple, but in the Orthodox Church it has come to mean specifically the bread offered at the Divine Liturgy or Eucharist. And so, it is the offering of bread to God.
A prosphoron is made up of two separate round pieces of leavened dough that are placed one on top of another and baked together to form a single loaf. This double-loaf represents the two natures of Christ: human and divine. And so, my use of two pieces of bread that are brought together continues this tradition.
Before baking, each prosphoron is stamped with a seal that usually bears the image of a cross with the Greek letters IC XC NIKA (‘Jesus Christ Conquers’) within the arms of the cross. This impression is baked into the bread and serves as a guide for the priest who will be cutting it.
There is a deep theological meaning in the rising of the bread and bread in general as a metaphor for the Resurrection and for life and salvation in the Church.
The practice of using prosphora seals goes back centuries. Traditionally, Orthodox prosphora seals are made of materials such as brass or wood, and have wooden handles for easy holding.
The seal I use was bought some years ago in a church shop on Ethnikis Antistaseos in Rethymnon in Crete that also sells icons, incense, burners, candles and other church good. This seal is made of wood, and has a large design on one side, and a smaller design on the other side.
The designs are carved by hand and continue and age-old tradition of these representations or impressions, with the Greek initials IC XC NI KA between the arms of the cross on the seal.
Russian Orthodox prosphora seals are smaller in size compared with the Greek seals.
For devout Orthodox Christians, preparing the prosphora bread for the Divine Liturgy is a privilege and a way to serve God and the Church. Any Church member in good standing may take part in baking prosphora bread with a blessing from the priest in the parish.
In many parishes, women will take turns baking the prosphora. Some traditional Greek homes reserve a pan that is used only for making prosphora. In monasteries, the task is often assigned by the hegumen (abbot) or igumenia (abbess) to one or several monks or nuns of virtuous life.
Usually, a person goes to confession before baking prosphora, in the morning while fasting. Special prayers may be said before starting, and the baker tries to maintain a prayerful state of mind throughout. It is traditional to have an icon and a lighted candle in the area where the prosphoron is being prepared, as it is an offering of faith. The Jesus Prayer may be used during the preparation.
In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the practice is to bake one large, single bread, a reminder that we are one body and that we all share in one bread (see I Corinthians 10: 16-17).
In the Russian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox and other churches in the Slavic traditions, the tradition is to bake five smaller prosphora, recalling the five loaves that Christ used to feed the multitude.
The prosphoron is made from only four ingredients, wheat flour (white), yeast, salt and water. However, it is said salt was not used in early times and it is still not used in the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.
A prosphoron is made up of two separate round pieces of leavened dough that are placed one on top of another and baked together to form a single loaf. This double-loaf represents the two natures of Christ: human and divine.
Before baking, each prosphoron is stamped with the seal and this impression, baked into the bread, serves as a guide for the priest who will be cutting it.
The impression baked into the bread serves as a guide to the priest who carves the bread and serves or presides at the Divine Liturgy.
Early on a Sunday morning, during what is known as the Liturgy of Preparation (προσκομιδή, proskomedia), the priest cuts a cube from the centre of the prosphoron, using a liturgical knife known as a spear. This portion is known as the Lamb (Ἀμνός Amnos), and this portion is consecrated, and from this portion both the clergy and the laity receive Holy Communion
In addition to the Lamb, the other particles from the prosphoron commemorate:
The Theotokos or Panagia, the Virgin Mary;
The nine ranks of angels and saints;
The living, including the local authorities and the ruling bishop;
The remainder of the prosphoron is cut up for the antidoron, the blessed bread that is distributed at the end of the Liturgy.
A Greek-style prosphora seal for one large loaf can be interpreted in this way:
In the centre is the Lamb (the initials IC XC NI KA, the Christogram);
to the viewer’s right is the Panagia (the initials ΜΘ, Μήτηρ Θεοῦ);
to the left are the Nine Angelic Ranks (symbolised by nine triangles);
on the top and bottom are extra Lambs for the Presanctified (symbol: the Christogram).
The positions of the Panagia and Nine Ranks are reversed when the impression is made on the bread.
The laity may also present smaller prosphora together with a list of the faithful living and departed they wish to have commemorated during the Liturgy. The priest will remove a triangular piece as well as several smaller pieces from each of these smaller prosphora as he prays for each of the people named on his list.
Other loaves are also baked for blessing and distribution to the people outside the Divine Liturgy. These are generally called artos (‘loaves’) and are usually made from a single round of dough rather than two. They may be stamped with the same seal that is used at the Divine Liturgy, though usually they have only a simple cross or an icon such as the patron saint of the local church or monastery.
This recipe can be used to prepare the prosphoron bread, which is then brought to the Church for offering in the Divine Liturgy.
6 cups flour (sifted);
2 cups warm water (43 C, 110 F);
1 prosphoron seal;
1 teaspoon salt;
2 cakes or packs of yeast for imprinting seal.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.
Add the salt and the flour and knead until smooth.
Place in the bowl, cover, and let the mixture rise.
When it doubles in size, knead again.
Then divide the dough in half and put in cake pans that have been floured only (no oil or grease).
Dip the seal in flour and stamp the bread firmly to leave a clean imprint. Use a toothpick to place a few small holes around the edge of the seal.
Let the bread rise again for about one hour.
Then bake for about 30 minutes at 180 degrees C (350 F) or until light brown.