Sometimes there is a smaller table in front of the main Holy Table at the Liturgy. It means that on this day there are two Divine Liturgies celebrated on that Holy Table. What is the meaning of this so-called portable Holy Table and why can’t one just celebrate two Eucharists on one Holy Table?
The answer to this question is to be found in the earliest antiquity, the dawn of the Church of Christ. In Apostolic times, the Christian congregation perceived the Eucharist not just as one of the Church Sacraments, however important, as popular catechisms often write about it, but as the very Sacrament of the appearance of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Sacrament of the invisible presence of Christ Himself at the Eucharistic Meal. The whole congregation gathered on the Day of the Lord, i.e. Sunday, in order to break and taste the Eucharistic Bread and remember their Lord and the work He had undertaken for the salvation of the world. Therefore, the Eucharist was never perceived as one of the services to be skipped at will, but as the core of the Church itself as the Body of Christ. And just as we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5), so the key statement of ancient ecclesiology was “one Eucharist”.
The Unity of the Church Congregation
The unity of the Church used to be felt very strongly. The visible liturgical and institutional expression of such unity was one Eucharistic meeting headed by the chief minister of the community, the bishop. It was the bishop who was the main officiant of the Church: he performed baptisms and chrismations, he celebrated the Eucharist, heard confessions, and ordained clerics who assisted him in performing the Sacraments and overseeing the congregation. The prayerful communion with the bishop and the participation in the Eucharist that he performs is the key to the church unity of all Christians to this day. The arbitrary refusal to receive communion at the Liturgy was perceived as a secession from the Church and was to be repented of, as evidenced by the church canons (see, for example, Rule 2 of the Council of Antioch).
When Emperor Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan in 313, which granted equal rights to Christians and pagans, and declared himself a Christian, enormous numbers of people living in the Roman Empire began to convert to Christianity. The whole community of believers could not gather in one place to perform the sole Eucharist, as it was practiced at first. It became almost impossible. Bishops were increasingly delegating the right to celebrate the Divine Liturgy to presbyters who performed it in different churches. The local Church, headed by a bishop, was thus divided into several Eucharistic assemblies, and unity was maintained through the mention of the bishop’s name at each Liturgy.
Within the Roman Church there was a long-established and interesting practice of transferring parts of the Holy Gifts from the main Eucharist led by the bishop to smaller liturgical gatherings and mixing them with local Holy Gifts, in order to emphasize the all-Church unity of Roman Christians.
The Idea of the Attached Table
We have now come close to the issue that interests us. We started to address this issue from afar in order to show the ancient model and to grasp more clearly the meaning of the Orthodox Church unwritten rule that forbids celebration of two liturgies on one Holy Table. The point of this rule is not that the Holy Table “does not have enough grace to celebrate more than one Eucharist” and not even to emphasize the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice, although the latter interpretation is quite pious and generally accepted. The point is to underline the universality and comprehensiveness of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the entire Church, the whole community of the faithful in the area and to reveal the unity of the people of God. This rule tries to preserve the ancient norm, which can no longer be literally observed due to the increased number of worshippers, the unchanged capacity of existing temples and the difficulty of building new ones.
In keeping with the spirit of the rule in the face of changing reality, the Church preserves its local unity by recalling the bishop’s name and celebrating the Eucharist on antimensions signed by the bishop. The letter of the rule was circumvented and several Liturgies can now be held in one church, either in separate aisles with their own holy tables or on a special attached table, but always on a different antimension and by another priest, which also emphasizes the uniqueness of the Eucharist. In this way, all those who yearn for the bread of life can come to the Feast of Christ and partake of eternal life. When we go to the Liturgy, let us remember the unity that our Lord prayed for before His Passion and let us not forget that the Church is the divinely commanded “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) of all Orthodox Christians.