Mahss and Nushkhar
The Two kinds of Bread in our Church: Mahss and Nushkhar
MAHSS = Portion (antidoron), that piece of bread which we receive after Badarak, upon leaving the church.
NUSHKHAR = Fraction or English equivalent of Wafer, which we receive as communion, and Der hayr brings one to our homes when he comes for house blessing, or gives one to hospitalized parishioners.
Looking at these words, let us find first of all what it is that we are taking our portion (Mahss) off and of what this wafer is fraction of. (Nushkhar).
The early Christians, starting from apostolic times, did exactly what Jesus had prescribed them to do; they got together on Sundays to break bread together, in the same manner and intention as Jesus did in the upper room during the last supper. You remember well that he broke the bread, gave thanks and offered it to his disciples, saying “take eat this, because this is my body.” and after offering the wine as his blood, he had said at the end; “Do this in remembrance of me.”
So then, in early days of Christianity, followers of Christ congregated together, and ceremonially broke bread and shared together. The book of Acts, which is the record of early Christian life, after talking about those 3000 newly baptized Christians, describes their liturgical life with these words; “And they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42), “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46).
The ceremony of breaking the bread was taken from old Jewish religious fraternal meal, called Chabura or Habura,. What is known as the Last Supper, was a Chaburah, which means “love feast or fellowship meal” in Hebrew. At a Chaburah the leader of the fraternity would first take bread and break it, saying a short prayer. This bread then would be distributed among the brothers seated. After this initial ceremony, the food would be served, each helping being blessed in turn before it was consumed.
In subsequent centuries when the concept of Badarak developed and institutionalized, Parishioners together or a parishioner brought a large loaf of bread for Eucharist. A fraction (Nushkhar) of this loaf was taken for consecration and distributed as communion, and the remainder was distributed among the congregation at the end of the Liturgy. This practice is still observed in Orthodox Churches. A parishioner prepares a special loaf. (PROSPORA WHICH MEANS THE OFFERING). At the center of this loaf, there is a seal. The seal is square with the symbols of Jesus Christ (IC XC) on the top and THE VICTOR (NIKA) on the bottom. The celebrant priest cuts a cube from this bread to use for communion and the rest of the loaf is distributed at the end of liturgy as blessed bread, as portions for each parishioner.
The Armenian Church had the same practice up to the 11th century. The canons of the Armenian Church council of Dovin (555A.D.) and the Council of Partav (768 A.D.) bids the priests themselves to prepare the bread for communion. After 11th century, the Armenian Church. to differentiate between the fraction of the bread to be used for communion and the remainder of the bread to be distributed among the parishioners, introduced two kinds of bread. 1. MAHSS, a very thin unleavened and unsalted bread of wheat. It can be made by any parishioner. MAHSS symbolizes the bond of love among the members of the church. 2. NUSHKHAR, which is the bread for oblation. It should be prepared by the celebrant priest or a deacon on Sunday before the Liturgy. Nushkhar is a thin loaf, about 2-3 inch diameter, made of unleavened dough of pure wheat (I use unbleached flour) and without salt. It should be stamped so as to have the figures of the crucifix or a lamb and baked short of getting brown.
Bread has always been a main staple or a source of survival for the humankind. It has always been a symbol of the means of sustaining life, hence the phrase: “He earns his bread.” This is why when the priest blesses a home, he blesses a piece of bread, which symbolizes the life in that house. Likewise when a Catholicos arrives to a Parish the first thing he does, he blesses bread and salt presented to him by the parish priest. That means he is blessing the life of the Parish. In the Old Testament bread was the holiest of the offerings to the Altar of God. Every Sabbath day the priest would put loaves of bread on the altar on behalf of the people as a covenant between God and Israelites. That bread was called Bread of the Presence and was only consumed by priests. (see Lev. 24:5-9). The bread in OT was as well the symbol of God’s providence, care, and nurture of His people. He sent manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness as we read in Exodus 16:15.
Christ gave new meaning to this symbolism when he said, “…I am the bread of life. He that comes to me shall never hunger….” (John 6:35). At the Last Supper of course he directly offered the bread as his body.
And from that blessed bread that we come to partake every Sunday. That bread which is made by visible dough, becomes a womb of spiritual life through prayers. That transformation starts when in the beginning of Badarak, behind closed curtain, the priest consecrates the Nushkhar before putting on the chalice with these words. “Remembrance of our Lord Jesus, who is seated on the throne not made with hands. He accepted the death of the cross for mankind. Bless, praise and exalt him for ever.” and after closing the chalice, he prays, saying; “O Lord our God, who did send our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, to be savior and redeemer and benefactor, and to bless and to sanctify us…” The same idea is reiterated in the silent prayer of the celebrant, while the choir is singing “Holy, Holy.” “And at the end of these days, tearing up the sentence of condemnation for all our debts, thou didst give us thine only begotten son, both debtor and debt, slaughtered and anointed, lamb and bread of heaven, high priest and sacrifice; for he is distributed and he is distributor and he himself distributed always in our midst without ever being consumed….” and saying this he raises the bread and repeats the words of institution of our Lord: “Take eat, this is my body, which is distributed for you and for many, for the expiation and remission of sins.”
Later in Badarak that bread is consecrated and transformed to the body of our Lord. Upon consecration, the celebrant says: “Whereby blessing this bread, make it truly the body of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”
And right after, before this holy oblation starts the process of intercession. The blessing of the body of our Lord , blessing is sought for the stability and peace for the whole world and human society. For the fertility of the fields, for the speedy recovery of those who are afflicted with disease, for the rest of the soul of the deceased, who ended their life in faith. And at the end for the good health of the wholeness of the church, with Catholicoi, Bishops, priests, deacons, saints, the deceased and the living.
After this intercessory prayers, the congregation recites or sings the prayer of Communion, the “Hayr Mer”. They present solemnly again their desire of receiving a share from the bread of life by saying: “Give us this day our daily bread.” and receive communion, a fraction of the Nushkhar, for the sustenance of their life.
So these in mind I pray that a fraction (Nushkhar) of the heavenly bread, the body of our Lord may sustain your physical and spiritual life, and may the portion (Mahss) of the remaining bread strengthen our unity as members of this church.
Rev. Fr. Nerses Manoogian
Sunday of Prodigal Son, February 23, 1997