Of Prosphoras and Pre-Cut Pieces

A traditional prosphora loaf used in the preparation of the Divine Liturgy. A seal is pressed into the loaf before baking to represent actions that occur during the Proskomedia.

Soon after I entered the Catholic Church in 1992 I discovered a Byzantine Catholic parish that celebrated the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English and immediately fell in love with the Divine Liturgy. I continued attending this parish and saw a notice in the parish bulletin about an adult education series beginning explaining the significance of the Divine Liturgy. I went. The presenter was a newly ordained Eastern Catholic priest and the first presentation was about a part of the Liturgy I did not even know existed: the Proskomedia or the Liturgy of Preparation (sometimes also called the prothesis liturgy). As the name implies, this is a preparation of the bread and wine that will be used in the Divine Liturgy and is celebrated by the priest and deacon behind the iconostasis.

For the presentation, Father gave us all a copy of the text for the Proskomedia (pages 5 to 14 at this link) and explained both the symbolic and spiritual significance of this part of the Divine Liturgy, noting the arrangement of the altar bread for Liturgy on page 9. During this presentation, however, Father made a comment that surprised me. He had been discussing the spiritual significance of the various actions made during the Proskomedia and then he said: “However, it should be noted that this is not usually how things are done in the limited time before Divine Liturgy begins.” His tone was apologetic. Later, I came to find out that in the vast majority of Byzantine Catholic parishes this preparation liturgy was, except for a handful of parishes, usually dramatically abbreviated. The text is followed but usually the rubrics are adjusted to make the service easier and take less time. I also found out that this priest has become one of the few priests in the Byzantine Catholic Church who follows the traditional Proskomedia rite before the Divine Liturgy.

But, before we discuss how modern Byzantine Catholic practice has abbreviated the Proskomedia, a look at the traditional service is necessary. A brief overview and pictures of the traditional Proskomedia service is given by Fr. Thomas Hopko in his series The Orthodox Faith. Another pictorial presentation can be seen here. There are videos of the Proskomedia online worth watching. Here is the service performed by a Greek Orthodox priest:

(Two catechetical versions are also online: one by Archbishop Lazar and another by from an Orthodox parish in Arizona.)

During the Proskomedia the Lamb is cut out of the prosphora loaf and prepared to place on the diskos. This cutting facilitates the Fraction that occurs after the Consecration.

Briefly, the service is as follows: a special loaf (or sometimes loaves) of bread, stamped with a seal and known as prosphora (Greek for “offering”), is baked beforehand (often by members of the parish) and brought to the church.  During the Proskomedia service, the priest prepares the loaf (or loaves) following a prescribed manner that requires several cuttings. First, a large piece of bread is taken from the loaf  and it is called the Lamb (from which Communion is taken) and other smaller pieces are cut out from the remainder of the loaf (or from other loaves) which represent commemorations for the Theotokos and other saints and also visible representations of particular prayer requests. The arrangement on the diskos or paten can be seen in this picture:

The Lamb (cut out from the prosphora loaf) and commemorative particles (taken from the remainder of the loaf) on the Diskos or Paten. Certain commemorations are prescribed and others can be added by the priest.

The arrangement is rich in symbolism and spiritual meaning. The big center piece (“the Lamb”) is cut out of the prosphora loaf, and has already been noted, is used for the Communion of the clergy and the people. Communion is a rite of unity, where all all brought together in the one body of Christ. Hence, in the symbolism of the Byzantine liturgy Communion is to be received from the one consecrated Lamb:

Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:17)

The arrangement of the commemorative pieces on the diskos is also symbolic. According to Fr. Thomas Hopko:

It signifies the gathering of the entire Church of God into one great assembly: Christ the Head, together with the Theotokos and all the members of his Body, those already glorified with him in the presence of the Father, together with all of the faithful disciples on earth. The prothesis clearly shows that the eucharistic liturgy is always the action of the entire Church, with its head Jesus Christ, and is always offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

Small particles of bread are also placed onto the diskos representing special prayer requests for the living and the dead (churches and monasteries will often have diptychs or memorial books with names of the living and departed) whose names are read by the priest during the Proskomedia and are thus commemorated at every Liturgy in addition to the prescribed commemorations in the liturgical books. In some traditions parishioners can bring in or obtain small prosphora loaves for special prayer requests which are made during the Proskomedia. One parish newsletter explains:

The small “prosphora” bread loaves are brought into the Altar each Sunday with a list of names of those living and departed. The priest prays for each person by name, taking out a small particle of the bread from each loaf and placing it on the Diskos (plate holding the bread which will be the Eucharistic bread). The priest is praying for you and with you, not instead of you. After Holy Communion the priest places those particles—which represent each person—into the Chalice, immersing and mingled them with the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord.

In Orthodox churches this use of whole prosphora loaves has traditionally been viewed as unchangeable even in situations where an abbreviated method might speed up the Liturgy or make things more convenient. The same procedure is followed for every Liturgy though the size of the Lamb might be adjusted. For example, notice the size of the Lamb at a recent Liturgy in Ukraine which was attended by thousands of worshipers. A few of the tiny commemorative particles can also be seen next to the Lamb.

Lamb and Chalice from Kiev, Ukraine. Communion is shared from the one Lamb. Barely visible are some of the small commemorative particles next to the Lamb.

The liturgical use of the prepared bread and wine in the Divine Liturgy can be seen in these videos of the Pascha celebration at St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Olmsted Falls, Ohio:

At 6:45 minutes, during the Anaphora the Deacon lifts the gifts in offering as the priest chants: “Your Own of Your Own we offer unto You in behalf of all and for all.” Here one can see the paten being lifted up with the Lamb surrounded by the various commemorative particles. At 8:18 minutes, the priest and deacon pray for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts of bread and wine at the Epiclesis, changing the Lamb and the wine in the chalice into the Body and Blood of Christ.

At 3:53 minutes in the next video, after the Deacon says: “Let us attend!,” the priest elevates the consecrated Lamb as he sings “Holy Things are for the Holy.”  He elevates only the Lamb, not the entire diskos — thus showing the distinction between the consecrated Lamb and the unconsecrated commemorative particles. He then breaks the Lamb (the Fraction) into four parts and prepares it for the Communion of the clergy and the faithful.

Now, when the Lamb is removed from the prosphora loaf during the preparation liturgy there is a fair amount of bread left over. This is distributed at two points during the Divine Liturgy. First, because Orthodox tradition requires the faithful to fast before Communion they are given bread (and in some traditions they are also given wine and water) to give them strength after they receive the Eucharist. Also, at the end of Liturgy the unconsecrated (but blessed) bread is given out to the people while the priest imparts a blessing on them. This unconsecrated bread taken from the prosphora loaf is called antidoron.

Antidoron, wine and water to take after Communion. This is the Slavic practice. The Greek & Antiochian practice only uses antidoron.

Antidoron literally means “in place of the gifts.” It has an interesting historical origin:

The Antidoron has its origins in the food distributed to the poor.

The Faithful would bring gifts of wheat, bread, oil, and wine to the Church – specifically to the Diaconikon (a separate building set aside for the deacons’ use).

The deacons in the diakonikon would receive the gifts [and] they would prepare it for use in [the] Divine Liturgy. The rest would be distributed to the poor at the end of Divine Services. (source)

Greek and Antiochian Churches distribute only the Antidoron after Communion and at the end of Liturgy

In the era of infrequent Communion all the faithful would receive the antidoron at the end of Liturgy while only a handful of people received Communion during Liturgy. However, the modern practice of antidoron has acquired a different meaning where frequent Communion is practiced. In addition to being an aide in the breaking of the Eucharistic fast, one Orthodox priest explains:

The Antidoron is given to all the people, including those that could not take Communion and is a symbol of spiritual communion, a remembrance of the brotherly agape dinners that were taking place after Liturgy in the Primary Church. The Antidoron should be taken with great reverence as a great blessing from God.

It is explained this way by one Orthodox parish webpage:

Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread offered at the conclusion of the liturgy. As we file past the priest, we come to an altar boy holding the basket of blessed bread. People will take portions for themselves and for visitors and non-Orthodox friends around them. If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship.

Now, the abbreviated version followed in the vast majority of Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic parishes is to use pre-cut pieces of bread instead of following the traditional cuttings of a prosphora loaf during the liturgy of preparation. Sometimes the loaves of prosphora bread are baked without the seal, but usually there is a seal used. Whichever the case, the loaves are cut up with a uniform small size and the pieces usually stored in containers. Before Liturgy, the priest then takes a container with a sufficient number of pre-cut pieces to the altar of preparation and instead of cutting them as prescribed he takes them out of the container and then places them on the diskos while the prayers of the Proskomedia are said from the liturgical books. In many parishes, however, there is no reading of a list of additional names (from the diptychs or memorial books as mentioned above) and pieces of bread placed on the diskos as prayer requests for the living and dead.

In most Byzantine Catholic parishes the priest takes pre-cut pieces from a storage container to arrange the diskos. Communion is not given from one Lamb. There is no leftover bread to use for antidoron.

The size of the Lamb is usually much smaller. For example, at this link is a picture of the diskos from a liturgical celebration with a Byzantine Catholic Bishop in the USA with a small Lamb on top of many pre-cut pieces. This link shows a larger Lamb with pre-cut pieces, with most of Communion obviously coming from the pre-cut pieces. Pre-cut pieces are still used by Greek Catholics in Ukraine as can be seen in this recent photo from 2009. This abbreviated version used by most Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic parishes is a short-cut for the priest, making the preparation liturgy goes by much quicker. Since there is no leftover bread from the prosphora there is no need to have antidoron distributed.

The full arrangement on the diskos in a Byzantine Catholic celebration. In the center of the diskos is a small Lamb, which will be broken into 4 small pieces, along with the other pre-cut pieces.

Not all Eastern Catholics feel this is the correct way to do the Proskomedia. Byzantine Catholic scholar Fr. David Petras expresses his view that

the most serious latinization in my opinion is the use of pre-cut particles rather than the comminution of the ahnec (lamb) for Holy Communion.

Liturgical latinisation in this context is the copying of Western (Latin Rite) practices viewed as normative and better by Byzantine Catholic Churches. The use of pre-cut pieces instead of using the traditional prosphora loaves is an imitation of the Western hosts and can be cited as an example of the latinization that befell the Ruthenian  Church. Fr. Petras detailed this in a post on the old CINEAST discussion board and describes how this led to a departure from the Eastern tradition. Fr. Petras explains how the Roman Church adopted

the custom of having individual pre-baked portions of communions (the wafers). Eastern Catholics found this more practical and began to cut the loaf ahead of time. Today, in some places, no effort is even made to keep the Communion for one liturgy from one and the same loaf, and I’ve even seen a couple of instances where the symbolic fraction has been omitted, and a bunch of particles dumped on the diskos and then distributed in Communion. I also saw one instance where the celebrant took four particles, symbolically held them together, and then let them fall back into four separate pieces. (Originally posted 27 May 1998 at this link, which is no longer available.)

This type of conscious and unconscious copying of Western traditions was much more common among Eastern Catholics before Vatican II and that Council made a call for Eastern Catholics to return to their authentic traditions:

6. All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. All these, then, must be observed by the members of the Eastern rites themselves. Besides, they should attain to on ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them, and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.

Strengthening this call, the Vatican published a liturgical instruction for the Eastern Churches having the force of canon law in 1996. It quoted Pope John Paul II’s reflection about Vatican II

asking the Eastern Churches in full communion with it to have the courage to rediscover the authentic traditions of their own identity, restoring the original purity where necessary. (Section 12)

The same Vatican document later detailed a policy that

the practice of the Orthodox should be taken into account, knowing it, respecting it and distancing from it as little as possible so as not to increase the existing separation, but rather intensifying efforts in view of eventual adaptations, maturing and working together. (Section 21)

There have been some great strides taken by Byzantine Catholics in the restoration of these “ancestral traditions.” Probably, the most significant is the restoration of Infant Communion, starting in the mid-1990s.

But, when it comes to restoring the authentic traditions relating to prosphora bread and how it is used at Liturgy there has been great resistance. A few parishes have restored the traditional prosphora practices of commemorative particles and Lamb cut from the loaf and antidoron— most notably St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic in Toronto. The vast majority have not. The reasons given to retain the pre-cut practice generally relate to pragmatics even though the traditional prosphora tradition is faithfully observed throughout Orthodoxy. Occasionally some of the arguments against using antidoron reveal an anti-Orthodox prejudice. One Byzantine Catholic priest told me that distributing antidoron “really makes absolutely no sense if people have received communion.” He further quipped: “I am not really fond of handing out bread here, there, and everywhere.” As is noted above, the prosphora tradition (whole loaves, whole Lamb cut out during Proskomedia, antidoron from the remainder of the bread) is universal in Orthodoxy. In modern practice, antidoron is not viewed as some substitute for Holy Communion but as as a sign of fellowship. It puzzled me this Byzantine Catholic priest thought it was important to follow authentic tradition but at the same time would criticize the universal received tradition of the Byzantine liturgical rite. He admitted pre-cut pieces used during the Proskomedia were a latinization (which is fairly obvious since the dropping of prosphora traditions and the use of pre-cuts only arose among those who were in union with Rome). On general principle, he would say he was opposed to maintaining latinizations, but returning to whole prosphora loaves instead of using pre-cuts was not on the horizon for him. Sadly, this seems to be the attitude of many Byzantine Catholic priests. Implementing the authentic prosphora tradition would require too much extra work or extra time. Using pre-cuts is much easier even if it guts the spiritual symbolism of the Proskomedia and the concept of Communion from “one loaf” (I Corinthians 10:17).

It is not surprising, then, that there has been practically no catechesis on the Proskomedia or prosphora traditions given in Byzantine Catholic publications. Recently, a major catechetical work on the Divine Liturgy was published by Byzantine Seminary Press entitled Time For the Lord to Act with absolutely no discussion of the Proskomedia. The practical result of all this is that in many Byzantine Catholic parishes the Proskomedia has no connection to the average member of the parish. The practice of including additional commemorations for the living and the dead during the Proskomedia (the reading of prayer request names where additional particles are placed on the diskos next to the Lamb) is often minimized. Parishioners are aware that the Proskomedia is going on before Liturgy but its rich symbolism is often not understood.

It was stated in an earlier version of this article that some parishes of ACROD, the (American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese) which re-united with Orthodoxy after breaking away from the Byzantine Catholic Church had retained the pre-cut custom and had not restored antidoron, though photos and videos (see Divine Liturgy — Consecration of the Camp Church at 87:40 minutes)  from the Diocesan website and from some local parishes show restoration of the traditional Lamb on the diskos. I received this clarification from a priest of the ACROD diocese, who noted that pre-cut pieces are not used for the Proskomedia in their parishes and that distributing antidoron is standard in ACROD parishes:

All [ACROD] parishes follow our standardized liturgicon and perform the proskomedia in the traditional manner NOT using precut particles. I know of no priests who do not follow this ruling.

I have been a priest for 17 years and have never used precut particles.  The only permitted variation is that in very large parishes after the proskomedia has been completed,  a portion of the Lamb can be pre-cut  and then is placed on the paten underneath it  so that  at the time of communion it is easier to prepare the communion.  I personally wait until after consecration cut the Lamb, however, I am only communing about 40 people.

The anointing and bread given at Mirovanije in the Ruthenian Church comes from the Artoklasia service at the end of Vespers. It is not antidoron.

Similarly, in the past, I’ve had a couple of Byzantine Catholic priests say that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also uses pre-cuts. I can find no substantiation for that claim. In fact, in the video of the Liturgy (at 1:12 minutes) of the consecration of  one of their Bishops, one can clearly see a large Lamb on the diskos.

Recently, however, the moderator of a Byzantine Catholic discussion board explained the situation clearly in a recent post on the Byzantine Forum. Some have confused antidoron with the custom known as mirovanije (an anointing with olive oil accompanied by the distribution of bread that was blessed at Vespers) that is given at special feasts in the Ruthenian Church and the moderator explained how the mirovanije tradition (derived from Artoklasia or Litija)  is different from the antidoron given at the Divine Liturgy:

There are a small number of Ruthenian parishes which celebrate the Antidoron in the traditional form. Antidoron is common across all Byzantine Churches, is a correct part of the Ruthenian recension, and should be restored.

Mirovanije, the festal anointing celebrated after Divine Liturgies on holy days (and often transferred to the following Sunday), is a pastoral transference of the service of blessing of five breads, wheat, wine and oil (litija or artoklasia).

Litija, the blessing of the bread, wheat, wine and oil properly takes place at the end of Great Vespers (after the troparion). The faithful are then anointed and receive the blessed bread and wine after the Gospel of Matins. The five loaves symbolize the five loaves that the Savior blessed to feed the five thousand, with the larger symbolism of the service being the common meal of the agape feast.

It appears that the transference of this blessing service from the Vespers and Matins to the end of the Divine Liturgy can be traced to the time of the dropping of Vespers and Matins in most parishes.

Hopefully, such voices for the restoration of the antidoron tradition will eventually be heard in the Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic Churches and they will see the full restoration of their own prosphora traditions in their liturgical life. Already it is reported that some Eastern Catholic seminaries no longer use pre-cut pieces and have restored the traditional prosphora in the Proskomedia.

Surely, there are greater and more significant issues than such liturgical issues between Byzantine Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Even though I am no longer a Byzantine Catholic I pray that their Bishops will work towards restoring authentic Byzantine tradition to their Church. The greater issues will need to be faced squarely with prayerful attention by the Bishops and faithful of our Churches in dialogue and reflection.

For further reading:

Two Views of the Proskomedia (video links)

Website on Prosphora Bread
Baking Prosphora Bread
Catechesis on the Proskomedia

7 Responses to Of Prosphoras and Pre-Cut Pieces

  1. Fr. Ernesto says:

    It may interest you to know that many Greek and Antiochian Orthodox priests now place all bread in the chalice before communion, and that several Orthodox theologians teach that everything on the paten is consecrated and may be used. I guarantee you that we are NOT trying to imitate the Roman Catholics (GRIN).

    However, as one professor pointed out, to claim that some is consecrated and some not is to argue that the Holy Spirit goes as far as to differentiate between crumbs and molecules (since some always come off the lamb when one is handling it) in order to consecrate some and not others. Also, the oldest tradition seems to be that if it is on the paten, it is consecrated. The theology of the particles then is that of the ONE Body of Christ being consecrated. It becomes very Christological. In Christ we shall be saved because we are in Him and He in us. There is but ONE bread.

    In most Antiochian parishes in the USA, the Proskomedia is celebrated before the start of Orthros in order to allow enough time for it to be finished without hurry. So, the typical Antiochian order is Kairon, vesting, Proskomedia, Orthros, Divine Liturgy, rather than the Kairon, vesting, and Proskomedia happening within the celebration of Orthros.

    Admittedly, the older tradition is that they are all done within Orthros, but as you commented, traditions will change somewhat with circumstances. In this case, the lack of deacons to conduct the prayers at Orthros and to cense means that the priest is short on time and must rush the Prosdomedia, unless it is moved earlier.

  2. orthocath says:

    Thank you, Father, for the information about the evolving practice. As to those parishes which put the commemorative particles into the Chalice before Communion, do they then omit the directives in the current texts to put them in after Communion?

    The GOA text:


    The Antiochian text:


    [After Communion]

    People: We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.

    (Having returned the Cup to the holy Table, the priest transfers the particles of the Theotokos and the saints into the Chalice, and then those of the living and the dead saying:) Wash away, Lord, by Your holy Blood, the sins of all those commemorated through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all Your saints. Amen.

    Do they omit this part of the Liturgy?

    Still, what you’re saying is interesting and I wonder if this viewpoint will gain more of a following or not.

    Also, I understand the pastoral need to push the Proskomedia before Orthros (Matins). However, I presume that prosphora (baked with a seal) is still used and that the Lamb and commemorative particles are still cut out as prescribed and that antidoron is distributed also.

    Again, thank you for sharing your insights here.

  3. Fr. Ernesto says:

    Let me answer your second question first. Yes, we still use the full loaf with the seal and do the Lamb, the Theotokos, and particles as prescribed, and the antidoron is also distributed. But, do realize that the Liturgikon in the USA points out that some jurisdictions use five prosphora loaves each time.

    As to the first question, I can tell you how the practice has developed among many, but not all, priests in the Antiochian and Greek jurisdictions. I do not know how the Orthodox Church in America handles the particles.

    It might interest you to know that the Antiochians in the USA are about to issue a revision of the Liturgikon. I, myself, will be interested to see whether there will be any adjustments in it. Of course there will be no major changes, but certainly some minor adjustments.

    • orthocath says:

      Thanks, Father, for the reply. My experience with OCA parishes is that they also use the full loaf with the seal and do a full proskomedia as prescribed and they also distribute antidoron. They put in the particles after Communion. I can hear the diskos hitting the chalice when Fr. does it — it’s a small parish!

  4. Ric Ballard says:

    Thank you for brining this to my attention. I was not aware of the “abbreviated version” because I thought it was normative. I would have to refer to Father Petras’ expertise in this area as it being a form of Latinization. There are many things that I am ignorant of. However, I believe that even if no latinization were present there would be a cultural variation. As we witness in time some liturgical acts are shortened or have gone through some variation. Also, through time the elements that may have suffered are always being restored through efforts of renewal. I may be highly ignorant in this area but I don’t see this practice as a threat. I would like to see it restored as well as many other ancient practices but some of our practices that have been influenced by Rome I don’t see as the enemy. We have even influenced them in many degrees. Latinization in its historic understanding was the pressure and influence of Rome as the superior Church. However, if no tension existed would it be safe to speculate the natural influences each liturgical right might have on the other? Like I said I am highly ignorant in this matter and no expert. I am totally against latinization. Most of my experience with latinization is from eastern Catholics thinking like Roman Catholics. This becomes a problem because theological vision reflects ones spirituality. I always emphasize that the Eastern Tradition expresses something very unique about God. Its uniqueness offers a beautiful way of discovering intimacy with God. And that for me is the problem I see in the Eastern Church in the west. No intimacy with Christ and spiritually dead churches. It’s no wonder why people are always trying to change things. If only they were able to access the intimacy with Christ through our living tradition. Where are those living this way of life? Where are the spiritual fathers? I once asked the local orthodox monastery if I could find spiritual direction in our historical tradition of Hesychasm, as preserved in spiritual centers like Mt. Athos. They told me to go to Mt. Athos.

    • orthocath says:

      Thanks, Ric, for the feedback. I think many Byzantine Catholics similarly think the current practice is normative because it is nearly universal — though some priests are starting to follow the traditional customs, using a prosphora seal to bake loaves and distributing the antidoron at the end of Liturgy.

  5. […] and Theologians (pre and post schism). Our parish is one of the only Ruthenian parishes to not use pre-cut particles for the Divine Liturgy. We have worked with Project Mexico, an Orthodox outreach in Mexico and we […]

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