The Anaphora of St. Basil: the coming of our Lord
The Anaphora of St. Basil tells of the whole story of our relationship with God.
The story of the Garden of Eden reveals that as human beings, we have not trusted God, but instead thought that we could achieve glorification by our own efforts. By being unfaithful to the divine plan, “man disobeyed you, the true God who created him; he was led astray by the deceit of the Serpent, and by his own transgressions was subjected to death.” This attitude afflicts the human race to this day, as Frank Sinatra crooned, “I did it my way.” Despite this, God has remained completely faithful to his creation, and “did not turn away from your creature forever.” The first part of the Anaphora tells how God acted to restore it in “his merciful loving-kindness,” by sending prophets and angels and giving “the Law as an aid.”
The Anaphora, however, makes clear that this was not the fulfillment of God’s lovingkindness. Though we struggled for communion with God through sacrifice, the full union would not come until Jesus, our Lord and the Messiah. The Epistle to the Hebrews explains, “But in those sacrifices, there is only a yearly remembrance of sins” (10:3-4) but in the sacrifice of Christ, “through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and … we have a great priest over the house of God” (10:19-21). To accomplish this, God, in His only-begotten Son, had to take on the human nature, to become flesh and blood as we are, only without sin (Hebrews4:15). The Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom expresses this by quoting John 3:16, “You so loved your world that you gave your only-begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have life everlasting.” This mystery of the Incarnation, therefore, in the very foundation of our faith — not as an assent to certain propositions, but as the very being of our life, and we live and act in the grace of God, which is his transforming love. The Anaphora of St. Basil, then proclaims this same mystery in greater detail, basing himself on the Letters of St. Paul. The coming of Christ in human nature was when “the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4). On the mountain, Moses spoke to God face to face, as a person speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11), yet adding, “you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). In Jesus, however, God spoke to us through his only Son, “the very one through whom [he] created the ages.” In quoting Hebrews and the Letter to the Philippians, St. Basil formulates the mystery of the Incarnation in one beautiful paragraph, “Although he is the reflection of your glory and the express image of your person, sustaining all things by his powerful word, he did not deem equality with you, God and Father, something to be grasped; rather, while remaining everlasting God, he appeared on earth and lived among men.”
Having proclaimed the mystery of the Incarnation, the Anaphora then describes the consequences of this act, quoting the same Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, “In becoming incarnate from the holy Virgin, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, conforming himself to the lowliness of our body, that he might conform us to the image of his glory” (Philippians 2:7; 3:21). To state more simply, the Son of God became human people to serve us like a slave. Slavery was not exactly the same thing then as it later became, but it was still the form of a servant without individual freedom. Jesus himself reaffirmed this, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He gave an example of service by washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, as an example, “I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:15-16). Again the Anaphora proclaims that the Incarnation was for service to us, to free us from sin, “it pleased your only-begotten Son …. to be born of a woman ….to be born under the Law (Galatians 4:4), to condemn sin in his flesh (Romans 8:3) so that those who are dead in Adam might be brought to life in him, your Christ.” Jesus, as Son of God, took upon himself the punishment for sin, which is death, so that he could give us life in his resurrection.
This entire mystery is proclaimed in the assembly of the Divine Liturgy because it tells us how we, as Christians, should live in Christ. If the Son of God so humbled himself, so too we should live in humility and in a spirit of service to others. This is Jesus’ teaching, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). For our Lord, his greatest hour of glory was his death on the Cross in order to give us life. The Letter to the Philippians tells us that humility is the path to glory, “[Christ Jesus] humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8-9). This is true for all of us, as Jesus reiterated many times, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, also Luke 14:11 and 18:14). Therefore, whenever we pray the Anaphora with the priest who pronounces it aloud, we again reaffirm our faith in Christ, who alone gives us life and glory, and we promise to walk in the path he has sown by becoming one of us.