A “mercy” or an “offering” of peace? – Part I

A “mercy” or an “offering” of peace? – Part I

The expression “A mercy of peace” is definitely strange and difficult to understand. We addressed this in our book The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy, first published in 2008. We present here what is written in the book, most of which is taken from an extensive note1.

“An offering of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”

The meaning of this response of the people seems to be: our offering is not like the offerings and sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which God has not desired and in which He found no pleasure.2 Thus instead of an oil offering we offer peace; instead of an animal sacrifice we offer praise: ours is a “spiritual sacrifice,” a “sacrifice of praise.” “Not only do we make our offering in peace; it is peace itself which we offer as a gift and a second sacrifice.”3

This is the seventh and last time “sacrifice” (thysia) is mentioned [in the Liturgy], though it is the only time that the faithful hear the word, as all the other references are contained in “inaudible” prayers. In this audible mention of “sacrifice” the people hear that what they offer is not a sacrifice in the traditional sense (with the spilling of blood), but a sacrifice of praise, a spiritual sacrifice, as it is called elsewhere.4

We are in favor of the reading, ἔλαιον εἰρήνης, θυσίαν αἰνέσεως (elaion eirēnēs, thysian aineseōs) [An offering of peace, a sacrifice of praise]. The reference would be to the cereal offerings on which oil was poured, which, like the animal offerings, “were expressions of gratitude and praise”.5 We believe the response is a direct quotation of Lev. 7:11-13:

“And this is the Law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which one may offer to the Lord. If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the thank offering unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well mixed with oil. With the sacrifice of peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with cakes of leavened bread.”

See also λίπανον προσφοράν (lipanon prosforan) in Sir. 38:11: “pour oil on your offering.”

The original Greek is not firm. It is variably rendered as “ἔλεος, εἰρήνη” (eleos eirēnē), “ἔλεον εἰρήνης” (eleon eirēnēs), “ἔλεον, εἰρήνη” (eleon, eirēnē), and “ἔλεος, εἰρήνην” (eleos, eirēnēn), among others. The Thyateira edition reads ἔλεος, εἰρήνην, θυσίαν αἰνέσεως (eleos, eirēnēn, thysian aineseōs), and renders it, “mercy and peace: a sacrifice of praise.” Every other text shows ἔλεον εἰρήνης, θυσίαν αἰνέσεως (eleon eirēnēs, thysian aineseōs): “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”

Besides being very hard to explain what “a mercy of peace” might mean, there is a grammatical problem with this construction. Ἔλεον (eleon) has to be in the accusative (objective) case, as θυσίαν (thysian) is (paratactic construction, common in Hebrew). But the accusative of τὸ ἔλεος (to eleos) is τὸ ἔλεος (to eleos) — and not τὸ ἔλεον (to eleon)! However, there might be another solution.

It is possible that ἔλεον (eleon) is a corruption of ἔλαιον (elaion). We would then have two parallel constructions, accusative with genitive: ἔλεον εἰρήνης, θυσίαν αἰνέσεως (elaion eirēnēs, thysian aineseōs). (Thus reads the O Logos edition of the Liturgy.6) We decline here the two nouns for a clearer understanding:

  mercy oil
Nom. τὸ ἔλεος τὸ ἔλαιον
Gen. τοῦ ἐλέους τοῦ ἐλαίου
Dat. τῷ ἐλέει τῷ ἐλαίῳ
Acc. τὸ ἔλεος τὸ ἔλαιον

Now to bring a couple of examples to illustrate what we say. In the Septuagint text we read:

Εἰ οὖν ποιεῖτε ὑμεῖς ἔλεος καὶ δικαιοσύνην (Ei oun poieite ymeis eleos kai dikaiōsynēn - Gen. 24:49); and ἔλεος καὶ ἀλήθειαν αὐτοῦ τὶς ἐκζητήσει αὐτῶν (eleos kai alētheia autou tis ekzētēsei autōn - Ps. 60:7 (Ps. 61:7).

Ἡ γῆ ἐπακούσεται τὸν σῖτον καὶ τὸν οἶνον καὶ τὸ ἔλαιον (ē gē epakousetai ton siton kai ton oinon kai to elaion - Hos. 22:24); and Ἐπὶ τὸν οἶνον καὶ τὸ ἔλαιον (epi ton oinon kai to elaion - Hag. 1:11).

Exchanging ε (e) for αι (ai) and vice versa was common, since the diphthong was pronounced the same way as the e-psilon. Thus in Ps. 88:20 (Ps. 89:20) we have, “With my oil I have anointed him.” In some manuscripts we have the alternate reading “mercy.” Also in Ps. 91:10 (Ps. 92:10), “I have been anointed with fresh oil.” Certainly no one would mean to say, “anointed with fresh mercy,” yet this is the reading in two important manuscripts, having ἐλέῳ (eleō) instead of ἐλαίῳ (elaiō). In Ps. 101:1 we have: “I will sing of mercy and justice.” Surely no one would want to sing of “oil and justice,” yet this is how a manuscript has it. In Ruth 3:10 we have: “Blessed are you, my daughter, for you have shown more kindness.” A manuscript has “oil”. There are more examples.

There is a further complication however: ἔλεον (eleon) can also be masculine, ὁ ἔλεος (o eleos)! Thus in Mt. 12:23 a few manuscripts have τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸν ἔλεον (tēn krisin kai ton eleon), whereas the majority have τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος (tēn krisin kai to eleos). Also in the inaudible prayer offered immediately after the consecration in St. Basil’s Liturgy, we have ἵνα εὕρωμεν ἔλεον (ina eurōmen eleon), “that we may find mercy”7. Ἔλεον (eleon) is used by St. Germanos (§ 41, o.c., p. 90—the text has ἔλεον εἰρήνης (eleon eirēnēs). Therefore in the construction, ἔλεον εἰρήνης, θυσίαν αἰνέσεως (eleon eirēnēs, thysian aineseōs), ἔλεον (eleon) could stand grammatically, since without the article the gender cannot be determined.

The learned and wise Protopresbyter Kallinikos also reads elaion, and explains it as follows: The people reply, “Not only shall we bring forth our offering in peace, but in lieu of any other offering and sacrifice of oil, burnt offering and whole burnt offering, we will offer this peace, making it not only a way but an object of sacrifice towards Him, whom the angels in heaven praised, when He brought peace on earth.”8

Also the erudite Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, Archbishop of Brussels and Belgium, points out a difference between the Greek and the Russian text. He writes:

“Ελαιον ειρηνης, Θυσιαν αινεσεως,” [sic] which means “Oil of peace, sacrifice of praise” (in Greek) and “Mercy of peace, sacrifice of praise” (in Russian). It is obvious that this is the result of orthographic confusion that occurred in Greek manuscripts between the two words, which in Byzantine Greek, although written differently, were pronounced identically (although with different endings: elaion - oil and eleos - mercy). Similar confusions, called “iotacisms,” occur very frequently. It is almost a certainty that the form elaion (oil) is the original and primary one, while eleos (mercy) is erroneous or more likely, a willful new introduction by a copyist who wanted to “enhance” the text. Here we see a classical example of the evolution of a literal biblical text into a symbolic and a spiritualized one. This is the most unlikely case of a “reversed” evolution — from a simple to a complex. Russian copyists and liturgists preferred the spiritualized form (mercy and not oil) and adapted it to the Slavonic Liturgy. However, it would be a mistake to think that it is precisely the Slavonic copyists to whom the “honor” of such “enhancement” belongs. This first occurred among the Greeks, and the witness to this is that Nicholas Cabasilas is well aware of this in his “A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy” (fourteenth century). Although he does not literally cite this passage but paraphrases it, his paraphrase shows that he reads it as “mercy” and not “oil.” This becomes more evident in the following passage: “We offer mercy,” Cabasilas says, “to Him Who said: I will have mercy and not sacrifice... We also offer the sacrifice of praise” (P.G. 150, 396 AB).9

Mateos, basing himself on an Armenian rendering of the phrase, takes “Mercy, peace, sacrifice of praise” “in apposition to the word ‘oblation’ in the preceding phrase of the deacon; thus, the meaning of the people’s response is: ‘(The holy oblation which is) mercy, (is) peace, (is) sacrifice of praise’”10. I’m told that all three nouns are stated in the nominative case.

Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, who examines the phrase (which he calls “enigmatic” and “obscure, if not unintelligible”), follows R. Taft, 11, settling for the reading, ἔλεον, εἰρήνην, θυσίαν αἰνέσεως (eleon, eirēnēn, thysian aineseōs), “mercy, peace, a sacrifice of praise”.12 I was glad to read in his Aspects13 that “Another, but unfortunate, form of the response, ‘ἔλεον (which means olive oil) εἰρήνης,’ can be found in some isolated instances.” I happen to think that these few “unfortunate,” “isolated instances” display the correct reading, and the only meaning that makes any sense. Apparently it is this reading followed in the translation by members of the faculty of Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, since it reads, “an offering of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” [Well, I went to check the new “official” text of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, approved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and I was not surprised but rather amused, when I read, “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” Oh well.]

According to Prof. Trembelas the reading ἔλαιον εἰρήνης (elaion eirēnēs) is a later rendering.14 But so is the reading ἔλεον εἰρήνης (eleon eirēnēs), according to him.

This is the end of my extensive note. I close with the following comment. As we are approaching the core of the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Anaphora or Oblation or Offering (all meaning the same thing), the Deacon cries out, Let us stand up, and in fear let us offer in peace our Offering! To which the people reply, Our offering is unlike the oil offerings and animal sacrifices of old; it is a pure and spiritual offering of peace, a sacrifice of praise.

I’ll be grateful to receive any comments on the subject.

  1. Note 676, pp. 217-219.
  2. Note 678. Cf. Heb. 10:5-6. Cf. also Ps. 39(40):7, Ps. 106 (107):22, Is. 1:11, Jer. 6:20, Hos. 8:13.
  3. Note 679. St. Nicholas Cavasilas, Commentary, p.68.
  4. Note 680. Three references are made in the Anaphora Prayer to the Offering, but the word used is not sacrifice (θυσία, thysia), but worship (λατρεία, latreia) (see p. 270).
  5. RSV note on Lev. 2:1. Cf. also Lev. 7:11-15 and Num. Chs. 28-29
  6. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of the Eastern Orthodox Church, O Logos Mission, St. Louis, Missouri 19662, p. 114.
  7. See p. 373 of The Heavenly Banquet.
  8. Kallinikos, o.c., p. 340.
  9. Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, o.c.
  10. Mateos, o.c.
  11. “Textual Problems in the Diaconal Admonition,” p. 364.
  12. Aspects, pp. 204-207—they must take ἔλεον (eleon) as masculine.
  13. In note 387 on p. 279.
  14. Prof. Trembelas, o.c., p. 96, note 26.

3 thoughts on “A “mercy” or an “offering” of peace? – Part I”

  1. Thank you, Father, for the explanation. I will be sharing this with many others. We Orthodox have so much beauty in our services and temples. A co-worker once asked me “What possessed you to be Orthodox instead of Baptist?” I wish that he could understand!

  2. Dear Fr. Emmanuel,

    Thank you for this reflection. I, too, have thought quite a bit about this, and I don’t find most of the suggested understandings/translations compelling. I’m still seeking the answer.

    The first question, I think, to ask, when we have a phrase with two accusative nouns modified each by a noun in the gentitive is this: why are they accusative. To put it another way, “What verb governs these accusatives?”

    Is it προσφερειν, “to offer”? That would seem to make the most sense. If so, the priest calls on the people to stand aright with fear that they may offer the holy oblation/anaphora in peace. The people then respond with an affirmation of what they offer, as you suggest: “an offering of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”

    We began the Liturgy asking God for “the peace from above”. We know that we cannot properly make our offerings to God at his altar unless we are at peace with our fellow men and with God. Having achieved or received the peace from above, the people then make an offering of their peace and praise to God.

    This makes much more sense than “mercy and peace.” In what sense does a human offer God mercy? That “correction” (which has been made in the newly-published Priest’s Service Book from St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press) makes matters worse. After all, I can readily understand “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise” thus: God’s mercies are many. They are plural. One mercy of God is making peace where there was unrest or enmity. We’ve asked for peace in the Liturgy. Having received the mercy of peace from God, we are now able to offer the sacrifice of praise, in peace, as the priest has just exhorted us.

    How was this mistake made perpetuated? According to what you have said, it was a typographical error. Pronounced, both versions sounded the same. But if once it was clearly what you suggest, how did the meaning get lost?

    One thing missing in this is a discussion of the Slavonic texts, which often preserve more ancient practices.

    Just a few thoughts in response to your treatment of this question.

    A soul-profiting Fast to you!

  3. Thank you, Fr. Justin, for your additional comments. Dr. Paul Meyendorff discussed this in one of his Liturgical Theology class at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, but I do not remember any conclusion other than “mercy and peace” is probably more accurate. A sacrifice of peace does make much more sense.

    Your point about the Slavonic preserving more ancient practices is very interesting. This is the first time that I have heard this as far as I can recollect. Thank you for pointing out this.


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