By Professor Panagiotis Skaltsis
In the ancient Church, during the offering of bread and wine by the faithful, or the celebration of the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, other products were also offered and blessed, such as wheat, oil, honey, grapes and other fruits, as well as milk, cheese, produce, flowers, and even animals.
The first ecclesiastical reaction to this old habit comes to us from the 3rd Apostolic Canon, which, in order to preserve the biblical-apostolic tradition of the offering of only bread and wine at the Divine Eucharist, it prohibited the habit derived from the Old Testament Law of sacrificing animals in the sanctuary, as well as the offering of eucharistic fruits and products during the Divine Liturgy.
This Canon in regards to the eucharistic gifts only allows the offering of new green wheat (new wheat stalks) and grapes, with the understanding that such an offering is made for "the appropriate time", that is, the time of the ripening of fruits, "not offered as a sacrifice, but as the first-fruits of sweet fruit". This annual offering of wheat and grapes, as a blessing of first-fruits, had the character of being a thanksgiving to God, "Who has given them to us for our sustenance and healing".
The Synod of Carthage (419) insisted on separating the outer-eucharistic goods from the offering and oblation of the Divine Liturgy. In the 37th and 44th Canons of this Synod it was decided not to mix the first-fruits of bread and wine with either honey or milk, but they are to be blessed separately "for they conflict with the sanctification of the Lord's Body and Blood". The mutual offering of "grapes and wheat" alone was allowed, in the sense that they were always the first-fruits and not a sacrifice, just like the previous Apostolic Canon mentioned.
In some churches, however, the priests continued, until the end of the seventh century at least, to mix grape juice with the Divine Eucharist, and "according to a custom which has long prevailed ... distributed both to the people at the same time". This matter was discussed at the Sixth Ecumenical Synod in Trullo (Quinisext or Penthekti, 691), which in its 28th Canon ruled that grapes are to be regarded as first-fruits so "the priests may bless them apart [from the offering of the oblation] and distribute them to such as seek them as an act of thanksgiving". In other words, they are blessed separately and given to the faithful, apparently after the Divine Liturgy "to Him Who is the Giver of the fruits by which our bodies are sustained and fed according to His divine decree".
Prayers for the first-fruits have been preserved in our liturgical tradition from the third century, and we also encounter in liturgical manuscripts the "Prayer for the Offering of First-Fruits" or "Prayer Upon Offering New Fruits", such as, for example, grapes, figs, pomegranates, apples, peaches, etc. These short texts are full of thanksgiving to God, Who gives "every fruit for the gladness and nourishment of humanity". Man offers in return the "first-fruits", believing that this offering is received from God. Through the offering of the first-produce, there is kept alive the memorial and communion of the gifts of God, and of course the taste and hope of eternal treasures and pleasure.
With this ancient tradition, especially with the act of blessing the harvest, they are related to two characteristic ceremonies of the Byzantine Euchologion (Book of Prayers) and the imperial etiquette of Constantinople.
The first ceremony is testified to in the oldest liturgical codex, the Berberini Euchologion 336 (8th-9th cent.), titled "Prayer by the Patriarch, When the Harvest is Usually Performed by the King". From subsequent codexes we are informed that this ceremony, which had two prayers for the kings, took place in the Church of Blachernae at the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, on August 15th.
The importance of this fact is shown by the presence of the emperor who, as usual, performed the beginning of the harvest and offered the Patriarch the new fruit of the vine. Balsamon mentions this fact, who clearly connects this with the annual offering of first-fruits, especially of grapes, after the Divine Liturgy.
The second ceremony of the harvest is testified to and described by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (945-959) in his Book of Ceremonies in the chapter "All That Has Been Preserved for the Day of Harvest to be Done in Iereia". Outside the palace, therefore, in Iereia (Fenerbahçe), a region located on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus, and before the rulers, officials and the emperor, the Patriarch, on the day of harvest, wearing his phelonion and omophorion, blessed the grapes with the special prayer "during the church service".
In this ceremony, which was accompanied with improvised hymns, there was an exchange of grapes between the Patriarch and the emperor, as well as a meal, emphasizing the harmonious coexistence of secular and ecclesiastical power, and it had the character of a reaction against pagan Dionysian elements which prevailed at the time during the harvest, the pressing the grapes and the storage of new wine in jars.
Therefore, it is clear that the Church in accordance with an old habit always blessed the harvest and the grapes, exactly like it did with the first-fruits and first-produce. There is even a Canon requiring the blessing of wheat and grapes before they are consumed by the faithful.
A precise continuation of this tradition is the blessing of the grapes on August 6th, the feast of the Transfiguration. There has survived even a special prayer, which is testified to in manuscripts from the tenth century under various titles, such as "Prayer of the Grapes", "Prayer for the Partaking of Grapes", "Prayer for Grapes and All Fruits" and "Prayer for the Vines and Grapes". It is a simple and brief prayer, by which the Church thanks God, that through "temperate seasons, showers of rain, and calm weather" by His good-pleasure, "we who partake thereof may be filled with joy; and upon those who offer this fruit of the vine for use at Thy Holy Table, may it confer forgiveness of sins, through the sacred and holy Body and Blood of Thy Christ".
As we can see, there is a clear link between the grapes and the Divine Eucharist.
In later manuscripts there is testimony of another "Prayer for the First-Fruits of Grapes and Figs on the 6th of the Month of August on the Feast of the Transfiguration". It refers only to the blessing of the grapes and a clear reference to spiritual freedom granted by Christ and the eucharistic life.
However, there is not a clear moment when the blessing of the grapes, which is an ancient tradition, became associated with the feast of the Transfiguration. If we consider that this feast, which is among the most ancient of the Christian Church, was officially known in Jerusalem from the seventh century, and was in the Byzantine calendar in the ninth century, we cannot exclude that this association was from the beginning. Besides at that time, the end of the seventh century, there took place, as we saw, the definitive separation of the first-fruits from the offering of the eucharistic gifts.
Of course the question is ultimately why we bless grapes on the feast of the Transfiguration. In the relatively old liturgical typikon of Kasoulon (12th cent.), it is noted that the blessing of the grapes took place by the Priest on the 15th of August, after the Divine Liturgy.
Something similar was done, as we saw, in Constantinople when on August 15th the Patriarch blessed the grapes in the Church of Blachernae in the presence of the emperor.
Most sources connect the blessing of the grapes with the Transfiguration. The Typikon Rule of Saint Neilos, a Hieromonk of the 13th century, says that "on this day we eat grapes, as the Church shows in the typikon".
The Typikon of Saint Savvas considers it also a tradition of the Fathers that the blessing of grapes be on the feast of the Transfiguration.
The same is true for the Typikon of Riga, which even determines exactly at what point of the Divine Liturgy this blessing takes place: "After the prayer before the ambon, we chant the apolytikion of the feast and the kontakion and the priest of the Lord prays and blesses through the ordained prayer the grapes placed before the icon of Christ".
It appears that the time for the blessing of the grapes depended on the conditions of the climate of each region and the period the fruits of these places matured. Therefore, it is not surprising the fact that in one place the grapes were blessed on August 15th and elsewhere on August 6th. Indeed, according to hagiographic sources the offering of grapes took place also on the feast of the Exaltation of the Honorable Cross on September 14th.
However, apart from the climatic conditions, it is very likely that the association of the blessing of the grapes with the Transfiguration was contributed by the old historical origins of this feast.
The Jerusalem Typikon correlates the feast of the Transfiguration with the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, and it is no coincidence that one of the readings of the feast, which was read at that time in Jerusalem, speaks exactly of the multiplication of the gardens, the vines and the fig trees.
The blessing of the grapes during the Transfiguration is understood, also, through a theological, anthropological and cosmological dimension of this feast. The Lord "after six days" or "about eight days" after the prediction of His Passion, "on a high mountain ... was transfigured before them (Peter, James and John) and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light".
This is the Creator of the world, as well as the Ruler of the eschaton. He is the vine "Who has His root in the heavens, the branches are on earth, the body is a vine branch but without a root, a vine that after three days the branches hold the cluster of the resurrection".
It is natural, therefore, that with the Transfiguration of the Lord the whole world is illumined and glorified. Creation is exhilarated and acquires the brilliance that creation at one time had.
For this reason creation responds with thanksgiving for this gift and this hope, it references its Creator and thanks Him, and the Church in the most appropriate feast is wont to bless the world and the harvest, Creation and the Eschaton, with renewal and hope, confirming the renewal that began with God, and passing through nature it leads to the salvation of man.
The blessing of the grapes, representing the harvest of the world, is a liturgical act that emphasizes the doxological and eucharistic offering of the material and the fruits of the earth to the Creator and God of all things. More so, when this fruit of the vine gives us wine, which Christ blessed in Cana, to show the transfiguration of the world in Christ, He also gave it to us in the Mystical Supper as the element that, with bread, at the time of the Divine Liturgy, are made incorrupt by grace, transformed into the Lord's "Body and Blood", the Divine Eucharist.
Besides this, the blessing of the grapes stresses the need for our continuous spiritual fruit-bearing and the transfiguring journey of man, so that "proving that those who excel in the height of their virtues shall be made worthy of divine glory".
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.