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Holy Eucharist

The Holy Eucharist is called the “sacra­ment of sacra­ments” in the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion. It is also called the “sacra­ment of the Church.” The eucharist is the cen­ter of the Church’s life. Every­thing in the Church leads to the eucharist, and all things flow from it. It is the com­ple­tion of all of the Church’s sacraments—the source and the goal of all of the Church’s doc­trines and institutions.

As with bap­tism, it must be not­ed that the eucharis­tic meal was not invent­ed by Christ. Such holy rit­u­al meals exist­ed in the Old Tes­ta­ment and in pagan reli­gions. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing the “din­ner” remains even today as one of the main rit­u­al and sym­bol­ic events in the life of man. The Chris­t­ian eucharist is a meal specif­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed with the Passover meal of the Old Tes­ta­ment. At the end of his life Christ, the Jew­ish Mes­si­ah, ate the Passover meal with his dis­ci­ples. Orig­i­nal­ly a rit­u­al sup­per in com­mem­o­ra­tion of the lib­er­a­tion of the Israelites from slav­ery in Egypt, the Passover meal was trans­formed by Christ into an act done in remem­brance of him: of his life, death and res­ur­rec­tion as the new and eter­nal Passover Lamb who frees men from the slav­ery of evil, igno­rance and death and trans­fers them into the ever­last­ing life of the King­dom of God.

At the sup­per Christ took the bread and the wine and ordered his dis­ci­ples to eat and drink it as his own Body and Blood. This action thus became the cen­ter of the Chris­t­ian life, the expe­ri­ence of the pres­ence of the Risen Christ in the midst of his Peo­ple (see Mt 26; Mk 14; Lk 22; Jn 6 and 13; Acts 2:41–47; 1 Cor 10–11).

As a word, the term eucharist means thanks­giv­ing. This name is giv­en to the sacred meal-not only to the ele­ments of bread and wine, but to the whole act of gath­er­ing, pray­ing, read­ing the Holy Scrip­tures and pro­claim­ing God’s Word, remem­ber­ing Christ and eat­ing and drink­ing his Body and Blood in com­mu­nion with him and with God the Father, by the Holy Spir­it. The word eucharist is used because the all-embrac­ing mean­ing of the Lord’s Ban­quet is that of thanks­giv­ing to God in Christ and the Holy Spir­it for all that he has done in mak­ing, sav­ing and glo­ri­fy­ing the world.

The sacra­ment of the eucharist is also called holy com­mu­nion since it is the mys­ti­cal com­mu­nion of men with God, with each oth­er, and with all men and all things in him through Christ and the Spir­it. The eucharis­tic litur­gy is cel­e­brat­ed in the Church every Sun­day, the Day of the Lord, as well as on feast days. Except in monas­ter­ies, it is rarely cel­e­brat­ed dai­ly. Holy Com­mu­nion is for­bid­den to all Ortho­dox Chris­tians on the week days of Great Lent except in the spe­cial com­mu­nion of the Litur­gy of the Pre-sanc­ti­fied Gifts (see below) because of its joy­ful and res­ur­rec­tion­al char­ac­ter. The eucharist is always giv­en to all mem­bers of the Church, includ­ing infants who are bap­tized and con­firmed. It is always giv­en in both forms—bread and wine. It is strict­ly under­stood as being the real pres­ence of Christ, his true Body and Blood mys­ti­cal­ly present in the bread and wine which are offered to the Father in his name and con­se­crat­ed by the divine Spir­it of God.

In the his­to­ry of Chris­t­ian thought, var­i­ous ways were devel­oped to try to explain how the bread and the wine become the Body and Blood of Christ in the eucharis­tic litur­gy. Quite unfor­tu­nate­ly, these expla­na­tions often became too ratio­nal­is­tic and too close­ly con­nect­ed with cer­tain human philosophies.

One of the most unfor­tu­nate devel­op­ments took place when men began to debate the real­i­ty of Christ’s Body and Blood in the eucharist. While some said that the eucharis­tic gifts of bread and wine were the real Body and Blood of Christ, oth­ers said that the gifts were not real, but mere­ly the sym­bol­ic or mys­ti­cal pres­ence of the Body and Blood. The tragedy in both of these approach­es is that what is real came to be opposed to what is sym­bol­ic or mys­ti­cal.

The Ortho­dox Church denies the doc­trine that the Body and the Blood of the eucharist are mere­ly intel­lec­tu­al or psy­cho­log­i­cal sym­bols of Christ’s Body and Blood. If this doc­trine were true, when the litur­gy is cel­e­brat­ed and holy com­mu­nion is giv­en, the peo­ple would be called mere­ly to think about Jesus and to com­mune with him “in their hearts.” In this way, the eucharist would be reduced to a sim­ple memo­r­i­al meal of the Lord’s last sup­per, and the union with God through its recep­tion would come only on the lev­el of thought or psy­cho­log­i­cal recollection.

On the oth­er hand, how­ev­er, the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion does use the term “sym­bols” for the eucharis­tic gifts. It calls, the ser­vice a “mys­tery” and the sac­ri­fice of the litur­gy a “spir­i­tu­al and blood­less sac­ri­fice.” These terms are used by the holy fathers and the litur­gy itself.

The Ortho­dox Church uses such expres­sions because in Ortho­doxy what is real is not opposed to what is sym­bol­i­cal or mys­ti­cal or spir­i­tu­al. On the con­trary! In the Ortho­dox view, all of reality—the world and man himself—is real to the extent that it is sym­bol­i­cal and mys­ti­cal, to the extent that real­i­ty itself must reveal and man­i­fest God to us. Thus, the eucharist in the Ortho­dox Church is under­stood to be the gen­uine Body and Blood of Christ pre­cise­ly because bread and wine are the mys­ter­ies and sym­bols of God’s true and gen­uine pres­ence and man­i­fes­ta­tion to us in Christ. Thus, by eat­ing and drink­ing the bread and wine which are mys­ti­cal­ly con­se­crat­ed by the Holy Spir­it, we have gen­uine com­mu­nion with God through Christ who is him­self “the bread of life” (Jn 6:34, 41).

I am the liv­ing bread which came down from heav­en; if any­one eats of this bread, he will live for­ev­er; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6:51).

Thus, the bread of the eucharist is Christ’s flesh, and Christ’s flesh is the eucharis­tic bread. The two are brought togeth­er into one. The word “sym­bol­i­cal” in Ortho­dox ter­mi­nol­o­gy means exact­ly this: “to bring togeth­er into one.”

Thus we read the words of the Apos­tle Paul:

For I received from the Lord what I also deliv­ered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had giv­en thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is bro­ken for you. Do this in remem­brance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after sup­per, say­ing, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as you drink it, in remem­brance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you pro­claim the Lord’s death, until he comes. Who­ev­er, there­fore, eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unwor­thy man­ner will be guilty of pro­fan­ing the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:23–26).

The mys­tery of the holy eucharist defies analy­sis and expla­na­tion in pure­ly ratio­nal and log­i­cal terms. For the eucharist—and Christ himself—is indeed a mys­tery of the King­dom of Heav­en which, as Jesus has told us, is “not of this world.” The eucharist—because it belongs to God’s Kingdom—is tru­ly free from the earth-born “log­ic” of fall­en humanity.