The Eucharist: Calling for the Holy Spirit

St. John Chrysostom compares the miracle of the consecration of bread and wine in the Liturgy to the Prophet Elijah (Elias) calling for fire from heaven to consume the altar in 1 Kings 18:25-40.

“Do you not rather feel transported straightaway into heaven?…Imagine the scene when Elias stands with the immense throng surrounding him, the victim laid on the altar, and everywhere is stillness and profound silence. The prophet stands alone and prays: and immediately the fire comes down from heaven upon the altar. Then change the scene to the sacrifice which is now offered, and you will see a wonder; rather, something beyond admiration. For the priest as he stands there brings down not fire, but the Holy Spirit. His long prayer is not that fire may come down from heaven to consume the oblation, but that grace may descend upon the sacrifice, and through that sacrifice kindle the souls of all, to make them brighter than silver which has been tried in the fire.” (Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, pg. 6)

14 thoughts on “The Eucharist: Calling for the Holy Spirit

  1. Laura

    I had a similar response!
    I remember singing Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah”, in college: “The fire descends from heaven! The flames consume his offering! Before Him upon your faces fall! The Lord is God, the Lord is God! O Israel hear! Our God is one Lord, and we will have no other gods before the Lord.” Rather over-the-top, musically, but it evokes exactly the scene St John Chrysostom is calling out here.
    I guess I never considered that you, Father, are calling down the fire of the Holy Spirit (Day of Pentecost…) upon the altar each and every time we celebrate the Liturgy. “And He shall purify the Sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness…”

  2. Nemo

    I’ve never quite understood this mystery, I think it’s what the Catholics call “transubstantiation”. My question is this: Elijah and the Israelites could see the fire coming down from heaven, and that’s how they knew that their offering was accepted. How do the participants in the Eucharist know whether and when their sacrifice has been accepted or sanctified by the Holy Spirit?

    1. Fr. Ted

      Good question.

      I suppose your question is similar to asking: How does one know if God hears our prayers? or How does one know if one has loved enough? or How does one know if one’s sins are forgiven by God? How does one know if one has received a gift of the Holy Spirit? Some answers are based in faith. According to the Church canons if one were to see blood and flesh in the chalice at the consecration of the Gifts, this would be considered to be a demonic vision. What is happening is a spiritual reality, not a physical one. There is an issue of faith and that one participate in the reality through faith. There is no external/neutral/unbiased proof. We accept as real the incarnation – God came in the flesh for our salvation. We believe we can participate physically (not just mentally or spiritually) in this incarnational salvation through the sacraments – in Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, marriage. The physical and spiritual worlds are one reality. Faith opens our eyes to see and experience these mysteries which are spiritual realities which are hidden from our physical eyes but revealed to us through our participation in Christ.

      We “know” the Holy Spirit sanctifies and we are promised its sanctification. We place that hope in God who answers prayers and fulfills His promises.

      1. Nemo

        I understand that we can participate in the Eucharist through faith, but my question is not whether it can be a reality, but when and how it becomes a reality. I’m reminded of Leviticus 10:1-2, where two sons of Aaron offered strange incense and profane fire, which the Lord didn’t command them, and fire went out from the Lord and devoured them. So it seems to me that if the sacrifice is not done properly, it brings condemnation not blessings. So how do the participants know whether their sacrifice is acceptable and the prayer of the priest efficacious?

      2. Fr. Ted

        At least in the Orthodox Church we have prayers in which we ask God’s mercies that He not with hold His grace and mercy due to the sins of the priest or the congregation. We pray about that at each Liturgy – we ask God not to allow us to partake of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner – that we not receive it for our condemnation.

        You are correct that we can offer the oblation in an unworthy manner. We acknowledge that in our prayers and beg God’s mercy for our unworthiness.

        What we know is God is merciful. God has commanded us to receive the Eucharist. We approach Him in Liturgy in humble obedience to His commandments rather than with any attitude that we are entitled, that we are worthy, that our prayers are acceptable. We accept in faith God’s mercy which He has offered to us through His Son.

        What we know about God and His desire to save all sinners rather than condemn any, and so we approach His with that knowledge. We leave the judgement up to God. We humbly seek His mercy. It is still an issue of faith in God’s loving kindness.

        If you are asking somehow about assurance, all we have is the knowledge of God’s loving desire to save His creation.

      3. Fr. Ted

        We probably rely a lot on such beloved Scripture as Daniel 3:16-18

        Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

        Like those three youth in the furnace, we trust that God will deliver us not only from the wrath of kings, but also from His own judgment of us. Whether God accepts our prayer is His judgment. Whether He accepts it or not, we will continue to pray to and serve Him alone – even if He chooses not to save us from His wrath.

      4. Nemo

        Beloved scripture indeed. But sometimes I wonder whether that passage may be interpreted in a way that makes us appear more righteous than God, since we can remain faithful to Him whether He faithfully delivers us or not. :)

        If we are truly humble before God and willing to serve Him, we would strive to discern what is or is not well pleasing to Him, wouldn’t we? And He would be more than willing to teach us, wouldn’t He? He is the Teacher, after all. He is merciful but we are not to grieve the Spirit. So with regard to the Eucharist, I’m curious to know what the Orthodox Church teaches as to how we should prepare ourselves for the Eucharist and how the Liturgy itself is established. If you could point me to some resources, it would be much appreciated.

      5. Fr. Ted

        I guess I don’t see things the way you do. I would worry rather that your faith is so rationalistic as to make it purely the judgment of humans rather than of God. My ways are not your ways, says the Lord. He obviously does not judge as we do, and to constantly fuss over God’s judgments might in the end take away from what we really are supposed to be working on: how to love God and love neighbor. As has been said from ancient times: those who are good just to enter into heaven are mercenaries, those who are good just to avoid hell are slaves, but those who are good out of love for God are His children. The last is what we try to be. We leave the judgment to God and trust in His love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. And with the 3 youths in the furnace, we strive to be faithful whatever His judgments of us are. That doesn’t make us more righteous than God but leaves us as believers in His love, mercy and justice.

        God has taught us plenty and the teachings are available through the Scriptures, the Tradition of the Church, in the Liturgical prayer and hymnology of the Church, in the lives of saints.

        Preparation for the Eucharist? One’s entire Christian life from the time of one’s Baptism and entrance into the Church is one’s preparation for receiving the Eucharist. One’s daily prayer discipline, wrestling with the faith, struggling against one’s passions and temptations, practicing love for one another, regular and disciplined fasting and self denial throughout the year, reading of Scripture, examining one’s conscience and then regularly going to Confession, participation in Feast Day Liturgies, reading spiritual literature, seeking out the fellowship of other Christians. In fact if one is living the Christian life one prepares daily for the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. Additionally, the reception of Holy Communion nurtures us to continue through the week with carrying daily the cross we agreed to take up when we accepted God’s invitation to join His Church.

        You can read some about the Orthodox Church’s spiritual practice at http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/spirituality

    2. Nemo

      Different perspectives makes learning possible. :) The things you mentioned in the last paragraph are important aspects of a christian life, but I’m interested in learning specifically the Orthodox Church’s practice and teaching concerning the Eucharist.

      I think just as there is a fitting way to live a christian life, so there is a fitting way to participate in the Eucharist. It’s not judgment, but discernment. The former is to be avoided, the latter encouraged. To use an analogy, if we were to give someone a birthday gift, it would be more fitting if we try to learn what the other person likes or needs, rather than just give him or her what we think is good. Given our tendency for self-deception, it’s very likely that, when we claim that we do something for the love of God, we’re actually doing it out of ignorance or self-interest.

      1. Fr. Ted

        Before receiving the Eucharist all Orthodox are supposed to practice a total fast including no water, gum, candy – the length varies some do it from the evening before, some keep variations on the fast for slightly longer periods before receiving Communion.

        Most are expected to have with some regularity examined their consciences and participated in the Sacrament of Confession.

        Many would see attending Vespers (evening prayer) the night before as expected.

        But all of these things are just ways to focus our entire life on Christ. Preparation for receiving the Eucharist should in our tradition = your daily life as a Christian.

        Many have a prayer discipline to follow.

        These are specific things we do. In my mind at least our entire life as a Christian is preparation for receiving the Eucharist. Preparing for Communion is not part of what a Christian does do but pervades everything he/she does.

      2. Nemo

        I’d completely agree with your last paragraph. The whole of Christian life is, or at least should be, a participation in the Eucharist. (which is also why I find it a bit puzzling that there are so many teachings on how to as a Christian, and so little on how to participate in the Eucharist)

      3. Fr. Ted

        Not sure but maybe the lack of witness on how to participate in the Eucharist comes from those traditions which place little emphasis on it. I would say in Orthodoxy there is a far amount of emphasis on the Eucharist. If you are not familiar with it, I would say read A. Schmemann’s FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD.

      4. Nemo

        Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve added it to my To Read list. I’m hoping to read as much as I can from the writings of the Church Fathers on this subject first.

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