Eat His Flesh, Drink His Blood
by Aristobulus (Roger) Allen
The Holy Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion) was instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Our Lord made it clear at the Last Supper that this was not to be an optional nor occasional observance. By using these words "DO THIS", He sets forth a command, not a request. This command is to be obeyed by all Christians until His coming again.
Three gospels give us the account of our Lord's words and actions at the Last Supper. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to consult the New Testament itself before continuing to read this article. The Scripture references are: Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:17-26, and Luke 22:7-23. Note that exactly the same words and language are used in all three gospels. Furthermore, three times in the gospels Jesus says of the bread of Holy Communion, "This is My Body". Likewise, three times in the same accounts, Jesus says of the cup of wine of Holy Communion, "This is My Blood." Writing over 20 years later in about A.D. 55, St. Paul in his 1st letter to the Corinthian church passes on the tradition which he received both from the Lord Himself and from the Apostles present at the Last Supper when he writes, "I received of the Lord, that which I also delivered unto you; that the Lord Jesus (the same night in which He was betrayed) took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said: TAKE, EAT, THIS IS MY BODY WHICH IS BROKEN FOR YOU, do this in remembrance of Me. In the same manner He also took the cup saying: This cup is the NEW TESTAMENT IN MY BLOOD, do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of Me (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)." Then after quoting Jesus, St. Paul goes on to say in the next verse, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show the Lord's death until He comes." Amazingly, St. Paul uses exactly the same words as the three gospel writers, even though he was not present at the Last Supper and even though the gospels had not been written at this time. Once again, the exact words which the Apostle Paul received, both from the Lord Jesus Himself and from the Tradition of the Apostles that were present at the Last Supper, are: THIS IS MY BODY, THIS IS MY BLOOD, DO THIS UNTIL I COME AGAIN. Given this commandment of our Lord and His Apostles, it would seem to be a natural assumption that all persons who say that they are followers of Jesus Christ would obey these words. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
As a young man, I attended a small, independent, Protestant bible college for three years. During that time I was taught that the Bible was and is the "Word of God". I was taught that every word of the Bible was to be taken literally and that anyone not heeding the words of the Bible were in danger of Hell-fire. I still can picture in my mind the large wooden placard which was placed above the front door entranceway to the school. Written on this placard were these words: The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. What more is there to say? We were Bible-believing Christians, or were we?
Even in my youth and theological naivete, I can remember the sense of "missing something" in my experience of the Lord's Supper. After all, we only took Communion every three months and when we did, we were taught that this action we were participating in was merely a symbol of the Lord. I was taught that the "crackers and grape juice" which we consumed were not the Body and Blood of Christ, but simply an "ordinance" of the Church and the reason we did this was to fulfill all righteousness, just as in Baptism. The Protestant sect I was affiliated with did not believe that anything actually happened in either Baptism or Communion. Both were simply done as a sign of obedience. Baptism did not bring about new birth in Christ, as John 3:3-8 tells us. In their theology the New Birth was accomplished by responding to the "altar call" given by the preacher at the end of the worship service. Likewise, the "crackers and grape juice" did not bring about any actual communion with Christ; that only happened when you prayed to "receive Jesus into your heart". The clear words of Scripture, in both cases, were not to be taken literally, but figuratively. The way we were to "really" receive His Body and Blood was through prayer and Bible study.
Although I accepted what I was taught at that time, even to a novice this seemed contradictory. Wasn't the Bible the Word of God? And weren't we to accept every word of it literally? Of course, the true answer to this question was and is this: we were to accept the Bible literally except when our teachers (based on the theology they had been taught) told us to understand it in a figurative or allegorical fashion. This meant to me that the Bible was not our sole authority. This meant that my teachers and my church and the theology they had collectively received was also a source of authority. Needless to say, I remained confused about the subject for many years.
I later learned that, in fact, the Scriptures are not the sole source of authority for Christians and that the teachings of the Church, as expressed in Holy Tradition, are an absolutely essential part of how we interpret the Bible. Some 30 years later it is still true for me that I take the Bible exactly as written; the difference today consists in who helps me to interpret it.
Instead of leaning on my bible college teachers, I now have before me the ancient wisdom of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church. I no longer have to decide for myself what the Bible means in a given passage or if this verse or that doctrine should be taken literally or figuratively. I now have the ancient teachings of the Church to guide me. This guidance is what our Lord Jesus promised to His Church. In John 16:13, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father would lead and guide His Church into all truth. This guidance has never ended and is still present in His Church today. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit which has produced the Church's Holy Tradition. It is through Holy Tradition that we interpret the Scripture and not by our own opinion. Within Holy Tradition there exist many sources of Holy Spirit inspired authority. Among these are: the Scripture themselves, the writings of the Early Fathers of the Church, the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, the great Theologians of the Church, the verbal traditions passed on from the Apostles, and of course the Divine Liturgy. Because I now have the authority of the ancient Church to help me understand the Scriptures, I can once again approach these New Testament passages concerning Holy Communion with confidence. This time I do not leave these verses of Scripture confused.
The Church has never taught that the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist is merely a symbol. This idea was the invention of the radical reformationists of the 16th century. As this false teaching was passed on through the centuries, especially in the so-called reformed Protestant traditions, it became even more confusing and insulting to the actual text of Scripture. This heresy is not only insulting to Scripture, it is also an affront to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself who gave His life on the Cross of Calvary that we might be partakers of His most precious Body and Blood. In our Lord's own words: "Whosoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the Last Day (John 6:54)." This has been the consistent teaching of the Church from that time until our present day. St. Ignatius, writing in the year A.D. 107 just before his martyrdom, says these words of the Holy Eucharist: "It is the medicine of immortality." And so it is!
Far from being an empty "symbol only" ritual, the bread and wine of Holy Communion is the way we are to receive Jesus into our hearts and souls and bodies and minds. I hope anyone reading this article will study the entire 6th chapter of John's Gospel, but the core of our Lord's teaching is found in verses 51 through 58. Jesus says that He is the bread which has come down from Heaven and that this bread which is also His Flesh will be given for the life of the world. When we eat this bread we receive His Body, just as He promised, and when we drink of the cup of Communion we receive His Blood poured out on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
Holy Communion is indeed a great gift from God, but the Eucharist is also a great mystery. It is a mystery because we cannot fully comprehend its complete meaning nor can we comprehend (through our rational minds) any of the Sacraments. Yet, because we are Christians, we believe that the Bible and the teachings of the Church are true. Therefore, we know by faith that we truly receive Him each time we take Communion on the Lord's Day. We cannot understand this miracle through human reason. We cannot and must not use aristotelian philosophical definitions, such as transubstantiation, in an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Not only is this impossible, but it is vain for any man to imagine that he could define the ineffable. "His ways are higher above our ways than the heavens are above the earth", so says the Psalmist. Thomas Aquinas was misguided in thinking that he could explain the mysteries of God. We can only accept them by faith, as the Lord has given them through His Church. While transubstantiation is considered to be a brilliant attempt, it falls far short in expounding the glorious mysteries contained in the Eucharist.
The Holy Eucharist will for all time be an intimate "love feast" between Christ and His bride. All words fail to explain it. All theological theories or philosophical definitions are woefully inadequate. Rather than try to explain, we need to obey. Obey His invitation to come to His Holy Table, to taste and see that the Lord is good! Then we shall truly enter into His gates with thanksgiving (eucharistesas) and into His courts with praise. And we shall surely be thankful unto Him and bless His Holy Name.
I no longer am forced to theologize, rationalize, or otherwise explain away the words of our Lord in the Gospels. Nor do I have to accept man-made attempts to define the miraculous works of God. The Orthodox Church has held to one continuous teaching on the meaning of Holy Communion since our Lord commanded its institution. That teaching is simply this: The bread and wine of Holy Communion really is the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. The Lord of glory Himself is very real and present in the Eucharist. We do not attempt to explain it. We simply accept it by faith and obey our Lord's command to "eat His Flesh and drink His Blood". Only then can we fully experience the forgiveness, healing, and salvation which our Lord has provided for all those who would find life and that more abundantly.