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From an article published in the booklet "The Harvest", June, 2001, vol. 21, no. 2, written by Archimandrite Damian, the abbot at the
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Resaca, GA 30735.
For more information about this article or about anything concerning Eastern Orthodoxy or for prayer or advice, you may contact the monastery through www.monastery.org.
This is My Body, This is My Blood
Take, eat: this is My Body....This is My Blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many.... (Mark 14:22, 24)
Whoso eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the Last Day. (John 6:54)
The Real Presence
In ecumenical discussions, the issue of the "Real Presence" is often addressed. Of course, all who lay claim to a belief in Christ Jesus, profess to believe in His Presence with us. Did He not promise that "Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, I am there in the midst of them."? (Matthew 18:20). Did He not give us His word that "...I am with you always, even to the end of the world."? (Matthew 28:20). So then, the issue in modern ecumenical dialogue concerns not some universally held (and generally vague notion of) belief in the Presence of Jesus with us. The issue, rather, is what connection, if any, have the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist with that real Presence of Jesus Christ in our midst.
In the early Church, the only people who, while claiming to be Christians, nevertheless questioned the Lord's real Presence in the Eucharist were those heavily tainted by the Gnostic heresy. They did not believe that the consecrated Bread and Wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. But neither did the Gnostics truly believe in the Incarnation. And the Fathers of the Church saw clearly that these two issues were intimately connected. The Gnostics denied both of these fundamental Christian teachings for the very same reason: namely, they did not believe in the value of the material creation. Therefore, they did not believe in the Incarnation, or in the Biblical doctrine of Creation, or in the Mystical (Sacramental) Principle which is an extension of both Creation and the Incarnation.
Moreover, we need to clarify that while the early Christians believed that the Eucharist is literally the Body and Blood of the Incarnate Lord, they definitely did not believe that the Eucharistic Bread and Wine were somehow transformed into Christ's quivering physical Flesh and dripping natural Blood. It was a thousand years and more later in medieval, Western Europe when that rather bizarre idea became popular. "But wait a minute!" some might say. "Aren't you contradicting yourself? How can the Eucharistic Bread and Wine be literally the Body and Blood of Jesus, if it's not His physical Body and Blood (considered, that is, from a grossly material and purely carnal perspective)?" The early Christians certainly would not have seen any contradiction here.
The Mystical (Sacramental) Principle and the Biblical Mind
Why do so many today find this notion self-contradictory? I would suggest that we have a problem in perceiving spiritual reality, a problem which our early Christian brothers and sisters, happily for them, did not share with us. (By "us" I mean "us modern, secularized men and women.") I am aware that we tend to equate reality with physical reality. "Seeing is believing," we proclaim. "What you see is what you get," is an idiomatic expression that is over-used in contemporary conversation. That materialistic way of perceiving reality, however, is not in accord with the mind of Christ, nor does it represent the mentality or way of thinking expressed in Scripture. When one considers the issue, it becomes clear that the mind of Christ, the Hypostatic Word of God, and the mentality of the Bible, the written Word of God, are really one and the same thing.
At the foundation of Biblical teaching about reality is the belief that beyond the world of our sense perceptions there exists a Great and Ultimate Reality: God and His supernatural creation. God is outside time, beyond our comprehension, utterly invisible, and also totally real. The realm of the angels and the departed is also beyond our immediate ken, but also quite real. At the very foundation of the Christian faith exists the fundamental belief in what we might call "a supernatural dimension" in reality, a dimension that is in fact more real than the three dimensions of our sense perceptions.
Scripture reveals that the invisible, incomprehensible, eternal God acts in this world, our physical world, through physical means. The work of His hands is seen in history. His will is revealed in significant events. His active Presence is revealed in signs and wonders. His voice is heard through the Prophets and Seers of Israel. And in these latter days, His Eternal Word took our nature upon Himself and dwelt among us. The Apostles and Evangelists of the Incarnate Lord continue the proclamation of that Eternal Word through the Holy Mysteries of the Faith.
The Biblical words image, likeness, memorial, mystery, antitype, revelation, mighty act, sign, and manifestation, all express this Scriptural understanding of how the unseen God reveals Himself, and communicates His Grace. That Scriptural understanding is often referred to as "the sacramental principle." Each of the above Scriptural words signifies a manifestation of, and an experience of, Unseen Reality mediated through physical reality. Each of the above terms implies an outward and sense-perceptible expression of that which is above nature. Each of these terms is a sacramental word. Not one of these words implies that only "seeing is believing" or that only "what you see is what you get." Far from it. In fact, each of these words vigorously implies precisely the opposite. In Biblical thinking, when God manifests His Presence, His Truth and His Grace, what you see is, in a manner of speaking, only the tip of the supernatural iceberg. The means by which we perceive the reality beyond the visible is through believing: According to the Bible, therefore, believing is seeing! Through faith we are able to behold that which lies beyond our sense-perceptions. Through faith we transcend the limitations of our three-dimensional perspective, and enter into the world of the Eternal Dimension.
But, as I said above, we moderns have largely lost this Biblical way of perceiving reality. As believers in Christ, however, we can recapture the Biblical mentality about the whole of reality, if we will but make the effort. And when by the grace of the Holy Spirit we succeed in that holy project, then we won't have the slightest difficulty with the early Church's (i.e., the Orthodox Church's) point of view about the Eucharist.
As we will see shortly, the early Christians quite certainly believed that in the Eucharistic Service, Christ and His Holy Spirit change natural bread and wine to become His Body and Blood. They believed that the eucharistized Bread and Wine were no longer merely bread and wine. They believed that when they received the Holy Gifts, what they got was not merely what they saw, felt, smelled and tasted. For they firmly believed that what they perceived with the senses was, to use the above metaphor, "only the tip of the iceberg". The early Christians believed that, at a deep level of reality far beyond the ability of the senses to perceive, the consecrated bread and wine had quite literally become the living Body and Blood of Christ.
The Early Church
It was the early Christians' belief that the reality received in Holy Communion is nothing less than the living Body and Blood of the Lord. That reality is communicated in, through, and by the sense-perceptible "outward and visible signs," which on the purely sensory level remain bread and wine. Now clearly, if one believes that the Eucharist is the living Body and Blood of the Lord, then one necessarily will believe in His Real Presence therein. And this the early Christians affirmed, not as if thereby "limiting" the Lord's presence to the Eucharistic Gifts, for along with this they equally acknowledged all the many other ways in which He is present to us, with us, and amongst us. The early Christians saw no need to speculate on how the change in the bread and wine took place. They unquestioningly took Jesus at His word, and were content to believe that word. But, oh how fervently and most ardently did they believe it! Just listen to what some of them said. Sometime near AD 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church in Rome:
"I take no delight in corruptible food or in the dainties of this life. What I want is God's bread, which is the flesh of Christ...and for drink I want His blood, an immortal love feast indeed!" (Letter to the Romans 7:3) (Richardson)
At about the same time, in a letter to the Church of Smyrna, St. Ignatius wrote:
"Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions (i.e., the Gnostics) on the grace of Jesus Christ...(for) 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 the Smyrneans 6:2) (Jurgens)
St. Justin Martyr, writing in about AD 140, to a pagan audience, no less, says,
"This food we call Eucharist...(W)e do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from Him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus." (First Apology 65) (Richardson)
St. Ireneus of Lyons, writing about AD 180, says,
"(T)he mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported...(our) flesh...is nourished by the Body and Blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of Him..." (Against Heresies V, 2:3) (Jurgens)
But is this universal early Christian belief, that the Eucharistic Bread and Wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ, in accord with the teachings of the New Testament? Ss. Ignatius, Justin and Ireneus, themselves taught by Christian leaders who had known the Apostles (and in the case of Ignatius, Christ Himself), certainly believed so. And all of their contemporaries believed so, with the exception of those who denied the Incarnation, that is to say the Gnostic heretics, referred to above by St. Ignatius of Antioch. Neither Ignatius, nor Justin, nor Ireneus, is interpreting in some new and startling way the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, "This is My body" and "This is My blood." (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). These men, writing at a mature age, were born one in the time of Christ and the other two only four or five decades after the time of the Apostles. They are clearly echoing what the Church had believed from the beginning.
Ss. Ignatius, Justin and Ireneus clearly believed their teaching to be identical to that of the New Testament Scriptures. For them the most unequivocal example of that teaching was found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.