Everyone who has been to an Orthodox Liturgy must have seen altar servers or the priest himself dispensing pieces of a special bread called antidoron to the faithful. What is it and where does it come from?
Antidoron (Greek ἀντίδωρον) literally means “instead of Gifts”, that is, it is consecrated bread, which is given as a blessing for those people who didn’t receive Holy Eucharist for some reason. Antidoron’s main ingredients are remains of the prosphora from which the priest had taken out the Lamb to be placed onto the Holy Paten during the Liturgy and be consecrated as the Body of Christ by the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
Consumption of antidoron is described in various written copies of the Studite Rule. However, the term antidoron wasn’t established yet and was often substituted with the term eulogia (Greek εὐλογία), which means a blessing.
Interestingly enough, some of the ancient Byzantine Typikons punctiliously prescribe after which services monks were allowed to eat the antidoron. Thus, the blessing was distributed immediately after the Liturgy on holidays and after the Liturgy, the Sixth and the Ninth Hours, and the Typica on fast days.
We find a mention of the antidoron in the Answers by Patriarch Nicholas III Grammatikos of Constantinople (1105), where he speaks about ‘a particle of the bread of offering’ (PG. 138. Col. 918, 949). He separates the ‘bread of offering’ from other kinds of bread used in church in his Rules 13 and 14 because it is given after the Liturgy to the people who fasted and it is to be consumed with prayer and the fear of God. According to Nicholas, those who were banned from taking communion, were not allowed to eat this bread, either.
In spite of the fact that Typikon instructs the faithful to eat antidoron immediately after the Liturgy in church, most clergymen and lay people keep antidoron at home to eat it on an empty stomach after morning prayers, which resembles self-communion of the believers with the Gifts consecrated during a Sunday Liturgy in the early Church.
Greek Orthodox Churches have a peculiar custom of raising the holy antidoron above the Holy Gifts during the anaphora, after the epiklesis, with the following words, “Great is the Name of the Holy Trinity. Most Holy Theotokos help us.” This ritual and those words are taken out of the rite of panagia. The Russian Church does not observe such a practice.
Some Holy Fathers and church authors provide a symbolic interpretation of the antidoron. Thus, Theodore of Andyda (11th century) says that the process of taking the Lamb out of the prosphora at the proskomedia is a symbol of Jesus Christ being born of a Virgin. (PG. 140. Col. 465). Saint Herman of Constantinople shared the same opinion and also viewed antidoron as a symbol of the Theotokos. Saint Symeon of Thessalonica (15th century) interprets the distribution of antidoron at the end of a Liturgy, after the Prayer Before the Ambo, to those who didn’t take communion as some kind of a spiritual relief. Antidoron is considered sacred because “the Lamb taken out of it was consecrated and became the Body of Christ,” while the antidoron as a whole was “marked by the spear” and “heard holy words” during proskomedia. (PG. 155. Col. 301-304; Symeon of Thessalonica. Selected Works. pp. 146-147).
There are several versions of the origins of the practice of eating the antidoron.
1. The practice of eating antidoron is a remainder of the ancient Christian practice of agape meals. When the practice of agape meals was discontinued in the 4th century, the blessed bread was ostensibly included in the Liturgy as a reminder of the agape meals of the Early Church. We can spot the ancient custom in the today’s ritual of consecration of bread, wheat, wine, and oil at the litya during the All-Night Vigil as a way to enhance physical and spiritual power of the praying people of God.
2. The second version is rooted in the ancient custom of distributing the remains of the offerings which the faithful had brought in the church after the Liturgy. This custom is described in Book VIII, Chapter 31 of the Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 380) but it is unclear from the source whether those remains are parts of the Holy Gifts or something else.
3. The third version was put forward by Prof. Alexei Dmitrievsky, a famous Russian liturgical scholar. He conjectures that the custom of distributing the antidoron appeared as a way of harmonizing canons like Apostolic Rules 8 and 9 or Rule 2 of the Council of Antioch, which penalize the faithful for not participating in the Eucharist, with the modern practice of rare communion. His hypothesis squares with the opinion of the renowned Orthodox canon law scholar Patriarch Theodore IV Balsamon of Antioch (12th century), who states in his commentary on Rule 2 of the Council of Antioch that the custom of giving the antidoron to those who didn’t take communion was probably instituted so that people would wait for the end of the service and not leave the church without a visible sign of blessing. (PG. 137. Col. 1281).
Therefore, we do not know the exact origins and the time when the practice of eating antidoron with or instead of the Holy Gifts was established. However, the mentions of the blessed bread and recognition of this bread as a sacred object, which must be eaten only on an empty stomach and with prayer, is very old and deserves attention. The fact that our church has these kinds of blessed bread like prosphora, antidoron, or artos proves that there is a rich and varied Orthodox tradition. However, it is not meant to override the utmost importance of the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist; on the contrary, it is meant as a testimony of the Bread that came from the Heaven to become a pledge of our immortality and eternal life. On the other hand, it reminds us that prayer, which accompanies the consecration of bread, is our spiritual food and as such, is no less indispensable than food for the body, according to Jesus’s words, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4).