In the days leading up to my chrismation in the Eastern Orthodox church I explained to a friend on the phone how excited I was to partake of the Eucharist. My use of the term “eucharist” brought a sense of shock and dismay to his voice. Our conversation digressed into an analysis of the elements themselves. How could they be? How can you know? What if Jesus was speaking in metaphors? Clearly he isn’t a literal door as referenced in John 10:9!
I don’t fault my friend for wanting to examine the merits of my new position, but as Christians no matter what our denomination we have to admit the limitations of our understanding. There are many positions we hold that require faith without comprehension.
My journey to the Eastern Orthodox church was not paved with logic and scientific proofs, but the realization of a mystery. Evagrius states that “God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” This is one of the reasons the Orthodox church takes an apophatic approach by using ‘negative’ terminology. This means we can state more clearly what God is not than what he is (God is infinite, not finite). Kallistos Ware explains that ultimately “it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.”
The term ‘mystery’ seems to suggest an unsolvable puzzle or information unknown. But the Orthodox use of the term actually indicates something revealed yet remaining beyond our full comprehension. Ware continues, “man is best defined not as logical but as a eucharistic animal. He does not merely live in the world, think about it and use it, but he is capable of seeing the world as God’s gift, as a sacrament of God’s presence.” God has truly revealed himself- through creation, through direct interactions with humankind, and ultimately through the God-man Jesus Christ!
While Catholics and Orthodox present a similar view of the Eucharist, there are some key differences. The term transubstantiation is a later development and rejected by the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church recognizes more than a spiritual presence, but we reject any attempts of defining or describing this mystery through philosophy or logicality. One must also keep in mind that historically the church always convened Ecumenical Councils for major decisions and Rome’s departure in 1054 and forthcoming unilateral decisions have rendered their developments out of step with the Orthodox Church. Another difference people may notice are the elements themselves. Orthodox Christians still use bread, broken in pieces, placed in the chalice and administered by a spoon. The Catholic Church uses a wafer separate from the chalice. An entire article could be written on the significance of these elements. Rediscovering Christianity has some additional info regarding the bread and the meaning of the seal on top).
The Eucharist is the central and most pivotal change in my understanding as an Orthodox Christian. It serves as the epicenter of communal worship and focus, a mystery of divine presence and communal identity. I was raised in a church that taught communion as a memorial and something you do occasionally, although we participated every service. What does it actually mean to have communion in this context? It’s a cognitive exercise for some and an acknowledgment of a spiritual reality, a divine presence in the room but not the elements themselves, for others.
Orthodox Christians take Jesus’ words seriously when he says “this is my body” and “this is my blood” (Luke 22; 1 Cor. 11). The Apostle Paul presents the Eucharist as a significant and supernatural occasion. Many were sick and even died from partaking in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11). To top it off, John 6 reveals that many left Jesus because the Eucharist was too difficult for them to accept. What’s difficult about a symbol? It’s not! Revealing there is something much deeper.
The historicity of viewing communion as a memorial is relatively new. It began with Zwingli during the 16th century Reformation when he opposed Martin Luther’s attempt to articulate that Christ is above, below, and around, but not the elements themselves (a rejection of the Catholic view). Zwingli was accusing Luther of ‘bread worship’. Luther told Zwingli, if you can tell me how Christ is both fully God and fully man then I’ll explain the Eucharist. The contention between Luther and Zwingli draws us back to the idea of mystery. God is a mystery!
The Church Fathers believed in the literal presence of Christ in Eucharist, faithfully carrying the torch of Apostlic tradition and faith. They stood firm and held to the traditions which were taught by the Apostles, “either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thes. 2:15). What they heard was entrusted to them as faithful men “who are able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).
Let us consider some early church evidence
The Didache is a first century document that is also referred to as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It tells us “let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; to this, too the saying of the Lord is applicable: ‘Do not give to dogs what is sacred.'”
Ignatius of Antioch (110 A.D.) was a faithful martyr, defender of the faith, and bishop who learned from Peter and Paul. He states,”I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, WHICH IS THE FLESH OF JESUS CHRIST, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I DESIRE HIS BLOOD, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3).
He also says, “they [i.e. the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that THE EUCHARIST IS THE FLESH OF OUR SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again” (Letter to Smyrnians 7:1).
Justin Martyr (100- 165) says, “For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, IS BOTH THE FLESH AND THE BLOOD OF THAT INCARNATED JESUS” (First Apology, 66).
Origen (186- 254) exclaims, “…now, however, in full view, there is the true food, THE FLESH OF THE WORD OF GOD, as He Himself says: “MY FLESH IS TRULY FOOD, AND MY BLOOD IS TRULY DRINK” (Homilies on Numbers 7:2).
St. Clement of Alexandria (150- 216) tells us, “Calling her children about her, she [the Church] nourishes them with holy milk, that is, with the Infant Word…The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. “EAT MY FLESH,” He says, “AND DRINK MY BLOOD.” The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. HE DELIVERS OVER HIS FLESH, AND POURS OUT HIS BLOOD; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery” (Instructor of Children 1:6:42,1,3)!
St. Athanasius (296- 373 A.D.) says “after the great prayers and holy supplications have been sent forth, the Word comes down into the bread and wine– and thus is His Body confected” (Sermon to the Newly Baptized, from Eutyches).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (350 A.D.) explains that “once in Cana of Galilee He (Jesus) changed the water into wine, a thing related to blood; and is His changing of wine into Blood not credible? When invited to an ordinary marriage, with a miracle He performed that glorious deed. And is it not much more to be confessed that He has bestowed His Body and His Blood upon the wedding guests?” (22 [Mystagogic 4], 2).
St. Epiphanius of Salamis (315- 403 A.D.) states, “We see that the Savior took in His hands, as it is in the Gospel, when He was reclining at the supper; and He took this, and giving thanks, He said: “This is really Me.” And He gave to His disciples and said: “This is really Me.” And we see that It is not equal nor similar, not to the incarnate image, not to the invisible divinity, not to the outline of His limbs. For It is round of shape, and devoid of feeling. As to Its power, He means to say even of Its grace, “This is really Me”; and none disbelieves His word. For anyone who does not believe the truth in what He says is deprived of grace and of Savior.” (The Man Well-Anchored 57)
Finally, St. John Chrysostom (344- 407 A.D.) tells us that “Christ is present. The One [Christ] who prepared that [Holy Thursday] table is the very One who now prepares this [altar] table. For it is not a man who makes the SACRIFICIAL GIFTS BECOME the Body and Blood of Christ, but He that was crucified for us, Christ Himself. The priest stands there carrying out the action, but the power and the grace is of God, “THIS IS MY BODY,” he says. This statement TRANSFORMS the gifts” (Homilies on Treachery of Judas 1:6).
The sources I have provided are only a microcosm among a mountain of available evidence in favor of Christ’s literal presence.
Jesus’ words are delivered in a literal sense and received in this manner by the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and this tradition continues today in the Orthodox Church. Christ is literally present, more than spiritually, in a mysterious yet truly profound way. If you’re like me, enquiring minds may ask about the ‘minority report’. It’s true that some disagreed with this view. In rather blunt terms, Ignatius of Antioch says “take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ch 6).
Those who did not recognize the Orthodox view of Eucharist were outside and separated from the Church, revealing a concensus from within. The Christian Church always has and always will unite communally around the Eucharist.
What does this mean for us presently? The Church Fathers teach us the importance of keeping the traditions of our faith. They believed in the literal and mysterious presence that necessitates a ‘closed table’. One must be a baptized Christian, carefully considering their sins, and participating in confession. According to Ignatius, the Eucharist must also be administered by the bishop or someone he has entrusted. The Apostle Paul tells us that people died from taking the Eucharist in an unworthy manner; therefore, it must be guarded and properly administered with all reverence. Not simply because it is holy, but for the safety of the communicant.
“Christ is in our midst!”
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-57).
*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.