The Holy Eucharist: In Remembrance of Christ

The Holy Eucharist is given by the Lord “in remembrance of me(1 Cor. 11:25). First of all, in sensu realissimo, the Eucharist is the power of the Incarnation, the realized and abiding Divine-humanity, including all the faithful: “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (10:17). The Divine Eucharist is the abiding of Christ in the world, His connection with the world, despite the ascension: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20) by the Holy Spirit, sent by Him into the world from the Father: “and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:16, 18).  

Communion with the body and blood is therefore not yet all that the Eucharist signifies as the divine “It is finished” (John 19:30), as the sacrificial and abiding Incarnation. It is the sacrament of sacraments, the foundation of all the sacraments, and its accomplishing power is the Pentecost, the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, who “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you“ (14:26). “In remembrance of me [anamnesin]” and “to bring…to your remembrance [hypomnesei]” are closely connected, which is expressed in the fact that the “breaking of the bread” appears in the life of the Church only after the Pentecost, as the accomplishment of Divine humanity.

Thus, originally, in the apostolic age, the Divine Eucharist as the basis of all the sacraments was exclusively that which it is as the realization of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Its essential character was not hierarchical but koinonic. That is, its character was one of sobornost, but this character was replaced as early as the second century by hierarchism, which, of course, did not completely eliminate it, but was capable of obscuring it. How this happened has to be explained by church history.” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 286-287).

In the Church We Live in Christ

“Hence the Church, in the Orthodox Tradition, is identified with the Sacrament of the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist. She is a Sacramental Body of Christ and not a hierocratic institution. The eastern Church Fathers consider the nature of the Church as primarily and essentially a priestly mission of her divine Bridegroom (cf. Exod. 18:; 1 Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 5,10). In the Eucharistic service, the whole Church is associated with the sacrifice of Christ, united essentially with His flesh and blood, and transformed into the very body of Christ, Who is her Heart and Head (cf. 1 Cor. 12, 27)

‘When the Church partakes of them (the holy mysteries)’, John of Damascus and Nicholas Cabasilas write, ‘she does not transform them into the human body, as we do with ordinary food, but she is changed into them, for the higher and divine element overcomes the earthly one. When iron is placed in fire, it becomes fire; it does not, however, give fire the properties of iron; and just as when we see white-hot iron it seems to be fire and not metal, since all the characteristics of the iron have been destroyed by the action of the fire, so, if one could see the Church of Christ insofar as she is united to Him and share in His sacred body, one would see nothing other than the body of the Lord.’

Commenting on Saint Paul’s expression: ‘You are the body of Christ and members in particular’ (1 Cor. 12.27), Cabasilas adds:

If he called Christ the head and us the members, it was not that he might express…our complete subjection to Him…..but to demonstrate a fact – to wit, that from henceforth the faithful, through the blood of Christ, would live in Christ, truly dependent on that head and clothed with that body (1 Cor. 12.27).’” (Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Easter Patristic Orthodox Theology, pp 100-101)

Christ, the Church’s Sacrament

“The question of what it is that saves us is crucial to this debate: is it the church itself, or is it Christ, who cannot be contained by the Church (although he may be found in the Church)?  …  Father Alexander Schmemann has said that Christianity is not an institution with sacraments; it is a sacrament with institutions, and the sacrament is Christ. The distinction is crucial: the church is not a divine institution which is about Christ, among other things. It is either rooted entirely in Christ or it is false to itself and its mission.” (John Garvey, Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox: A Brief Introduction to Orthodox Christianity, pp 111-112)


God and the Christian

“In the fear of God, with faith and with love, draw near.”

There is no doubt that obedience to God is a virtue.  However, it is also true that the sense of obedience is highly nuanced in the Scriptural Tradition of the Church.  For it is God’s will that we might choose to love God and one another.  God gives us free will, and allows us to exercise that free will.  He does not compel us to love Him, rather inviting us to accept His love.  We have to cooperate with God for our salvation.  We are not merely cogs in the machinery God has created.  We are machine operators, cooperating with our Creator.

As Frederica Matthewes Green observes:

“God doesn’t use us as tools. His goal is not a tidy world, but healed and transformed people.” ( First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew, p xxi)

We are not mere tools which God uses and discards as His purposes are fulfilled.  Rather we are the goal and fruit of God’s love.  God created us to work with Him for our salvation and for the salvation of the world.  The Church is a living temple, not made with inanimate stones shaped by the Creator.  Christ didn’t leave in the world a bunch of literature for us to read, rather He called us to be disciples and to go into the world to do His will and work.

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

The Church: Stronger than Heaven

And Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”  (Mark 2:27)

St. John Chrysostom reasons that although our Lord Jesus Christ said heaven would pass away, in saying His word would endure for ever, he was proclaiming the Church as the witness to and bearer of the word of God to be stronger than heaven itself.  Heaven exists for the Church, the Church doesn’t exist for heaven.

“The Church is placed on earth but its life is lived in heaven?   How does this emerge?

The facts give clear proof: eleven disciples were under attack, and the whole world did the attacking; but those attacked had the victory, and attackers were done away with. The sheep prevailed over the wolves: do you see the shepherd sending the sheep amidst the wolves so that they would not achieve salvation even by flight? What sort of shepherd does this? Christ did it, however, to show you that good deeds are done not in the normal course of events but in defiance of nature and normal events.

The Church’s roots, in fact, are stronger than heaven.

But perhaps the Greek charges me with arrogance: let him await factual proof and learn the force of the truth, how the sun would more easily be snuffed out than the Church disappear. Who proclaims this, you ask? Its founder:

‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’

Instead of simply making this promise, he actually brought it to fulfillment; after all, why did he give it a firm foundation than heaven?

The Church, you see, is more important than heaven.

For what reason does heaven exist? For the Church, not the Church for heaven. Heaven is for the human being, not the human being for heaven. This is clear from what he actually did: Christ did not take up a heavenly body.” (Old Testament Homilies, Vol. 2, pp 82-83)

Reflecting on the Message of the Holy and Great Council

Holy Great CouncilThe Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church came to an end causing little notice in the world at large.  The Council’s goal seemed to be to have an assembly of bishops which changed nothing, and any event that changes nothing is not very news worthy. Since everything in Orthodoxy seems to be the same as before the Council, I guess it was a success.  Of course if the butterfly effect is true, even the smallest of causes can have effects on major events.  So perhaps in time to come we will feel the effect of the Council – just as one butterfly flapping its wings can have an effect on a hurricane.

We Orthodox are known for having an unchanging attitude – not only toward things in the Church, but even in the world at large.  One of the issues the Council mentioned – the so-called diaspora – is created by Orthodoxy’s stalwart inability to come to grips with the passing of the Byzantine world.  Orthodox Church worldwide structures are based on the existence of Byzantium which long ago passed away but the Orthodox continue to cling to territorial claims for that non-existent world.  The existence of the Americas remains unexpected by Orthodox canonical structures.  The Church which doesn’t change struggles with being in the world which does.

One thoughtful non-Orthodox evaluation of the Council can be read at Only the Next Step: Assessing the Pan-Orthodox Council.    I’ve not read much commentary on the Council from an Orthodox point of view – perhaps because the Council accomplished what it set out to do – not to change anything.  Spin doctors are needed for organizations and individuals who constantly change positions.  Nothing is changing in Orthodoxy, so the Church can take time before making comments about the Council.  At the conclusion of the Council they did adopt an official MESSAGE OF THE HOLY AND GREAT COUNCIL, which you can read by clicking on that link.

Holy Great Council Photo

Below are parts of that official message and a few of my own thoughts, as one who has spent most of my 62 years being in the Orthodox Church, and having served as a priest for over 35 years in the New World which Orthodoxy so struggles to deal with.  I’m not connected to Old World Orthodoxy, and so don’t know much about how they perceived the results of the Council.  Some parts of the Message seemed to me to be so standard to Orthodoxy that I won’t comment on them, even if they have pressing, contemporary importance.  The Council Message says:

The foundation of our theological discussions was the certainty that the Church does not live for herself. She transmits the witness of the Gospel of grace and truth and offers to the whole world the gifts of God: love, peace, justice, reconciliation, the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection and the expectation of eternal life.

The Church does not live for herself, but exists for the world.  Our current world however, and certainly the media, was not much taken by the Council.  The world was not waiting with bated breath for what the Council might say.  But then, frankly, neither was much of the Orthodox world.  The Council really was an internal Orthodox event as revealed in the very first point of the Message:

1) The key priority of the Council was to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox Church.  Founded on the Eucharist and the Apostolic Succession of her Bishops, the existing unity needs to be strengthened and to bear new fruits.

Who were we proclaiming “the unity” to?  Not the world, which has no vested interest in a united Orthodox Church.  The Council was hoping to show our hierarchs that they are united.  Since unity is treated as a prerogative of episcopacy, they needed to witness the unity and strengthen it.  That is purely an internal Orthodox issue.  The world may have been mildly impressed if that unity was publicly obvious, but the Orthodox bishops were hoping to show themselves the unity existed.  The Council really was more for the Orthodox Church than for the world.

The Orthodox Church expresses her unity and catholicity “in Council”. Conciliarity pervades her organization, the way decisions are taken and determines her path. 

Conciliarity does not mean democracy – not every Orthodox can assemble, not everyone gets a vote.  Those who assemble in Council – for the Orthodox, the hierarchs – aren’t necessarily representative of the people.  However, in the modern world, Orthodoxy really does need to consider whether conciliarity applies in any way to the entire membership of the Church.  Today, conciliarity seems mostly to be used about the hierarchs.  If “council” really pervades the all levels of the Church, that should be made obvious even at the level of Holy and Great Councils.   The bishops have responsibility for governance, but they certainly could meet with more of membership present, and even allow other members of the Church to be the voice and face of the Church in council.   Some might say such conciliarity never existed in Orthodoxy since the time of Constantine.  It is a conciliarity and unity which might better reflect the oneness of the Church.

The Orthodox Autocephalous Churches do not constitute a federation of Churches, but the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Each local Church as she offers the holy Eucharist is the local presence and manifestation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I thought this image of unity – that the Church is not a “federation” of autocephalous churches, but has an ontological unity is really important.  Every local Eucharistic community is the “local presence and manifestation” of the One Church.   I think this is an idea that needs to be fleshed out much more in Orthodoxy today so that conciliarity can attain the fullness of its meaning.

Met Tikhon AAC

During the deliberations of the Holy and Great Council the importance of the Synaxes of the Primates which had taken place was emphasized and the proposal was made for the Holy and Great Council to become a regular Institution to be convened every seven or ten years.

This statement may be one of the few practical outcomes of the Council – they hope to now meet regularly every 7-10 years.   That may also give us some sense of how long they thought it would take to work out the implication of this Council!

3) In response to her obligation to witness to the truth and her apostolic faith, our Church attaches great importance to dialogue, primarily with non Orthodox Christians. In this way the remainder of the Christian world comes to know more precisely the authenticity of the Orthodox Tradition, the value of patristic teaching and the liturgical life and faith of the Orthodox. The dialogues conducted by the Orthodox Church never imply a compromise in matters of faith.

For those who have even a faint hope of the unity of all Christians, the above statement is so important.  Those hierarchs assembled committed themselves to continuing dialogue with the non-Orthodox.

4) The explosions of fundamentalism observed within various religions represent an expression of morbid religiosity. Sober inter-religious dialogue helps significantly to promote mutual trust, peace and reconciliation. The oil of religious experience must be used to heal wounds and not to rekindle the fire of military conflicts.

I remember our dogmatics professor at seminary, Serge Verhovskoy, saying that rigidity in thinking and liturgical practice always appears when the Church is in a period of decline.  He claimed in periods when the Orthodox Church was vibrant, it was also creative, and freely changed its liturgical practices to meet the changing needs of the time.  When the Church drifted into periods of decay, on the other hand, it became petrified and ossified.  Fundamentalism occurs in Orthodoxy too.  It is just as morbid and moribund in us as it is in other religions.

The Church has always emphasized the value of self-restraint. Christian asceticism, however, differs radically from every dualistic asceticism which severs man from life and from his fellow man. 

What is tricky in Orthodoxy is that a neo-Platonic dualism is sometimes intertwined in some Orthodox spiritual writings.  The Church at times has tried correctives against this tendency, but one sees evidence of it in the writings of Church fathers and monastics.  Christian asceticism is not based in dualism, but as Yannaras points out the dualism is at times obvious in church monastic writings which downplay the sacraments and focus almost exclusively on asceticism.   Where asceticism has a practical and contemporary application is certainly in offering a spiritual approach to ecology, as noted in 8) below.

7) In regard to the matter of the relations between Christian faith and the natural sciences, the Orthodox Church avoids placing scientific investigation under tutelage and does not adopt a position on every scientific question. She thanks God who gives to scientists the gift of uncovering unknown dimensions of divine creation. . . .  Along with her respect for the freedom of scientific investigation, the Orthodox Church at the same time points out the dangers concealed in certain scientific achievements and emphasises man’s dignity and his divine destiny.

The Council in taking the above position does not think religion and science must of necessity be in opposition to each other.   Science cannot determine morality.  They can tell us what things are possible for us to do, but not whether or not we should do them (for example: nuclear weapons or genetic engineering).  In this the Council seems to embrace that there really are realms of thinking which the Church does not directly enter.  The Church does not have to have a position on every scientific theory or investigation, but it can speak in the realm of ethics about the real dangers that certain science might represent for humanity.  The Church can also weigh in favor of the morality of some science (immunization for example, or other efforts to eliminate disease or improve efforts to feed the world).

8) It is clear that the present-day ecological crisis is due to spiritual and moral causes. Its roots are connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to the thoughtless use of natural resources, the filling of the atmosphere with damaging pollutants, and to climate change. The Christian response to the problem demands repentance for the abuses, an ascetic frame of mind as an antidote to overconsumption, and at the same time a cultivation of the consciousness that man is a “steward ” and not a possessor of creation. The Church never ceases to emphasise that future generations also have a right to the the natural resources that the Creator has given us. For this reason, the Orthodox Church takes an active part in the various international ecological initiatives and has ordained the 1st September as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment.

As mentioned above, the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on asceticism can play a role here.  Ecology does not have to be viewed only as politically conservative or liberal, or whether it helps or hurts economics.   There is a spiritual dimension which is both personal and affects us all.

10) The Orthodox Church does not involve herself in politics. Her voice remains distinct, but also prophetic, as a beneficial intervention for the sake of man. Human rights today are at the center of politics as a response to the social and political crises and upheavals, and seek to protect the citizen from the arbitrary power of the state. Our Church also adds to this the obligations and responsibilities of the citizens and the need for constant self-criticism on the part of both politicians and citizens for the improvement of society. And above all she emphasises that the Orthodox ideal in respect of man transcends the horizon of established human rights and that ” greatest of all is love”, as Christ revealed and as all the faithful who follow him have experienced.

It is the case that our Lord Jesus did not Himself speak much about politics or government in general.  Christians have wrestled with the relationship between themselves and the state through the centuries.  Christians have lived in places where they are a minority and where they are persecuted as well as in places where they held imperial power.  The ultimate power of Christianity is God’s love for us, for His world.  We are to love others as Christ loves us.  This is a power far different from what any political system or party has to offer.  And we Christians have realized how hard it is  to live by that power.

The Parish as Christian Community

“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”  (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Christ chose 12 men to form a special community – his first disciples.  His Gospel commandments frequently deal with how His followers were to live with and for one another.  For us to continue to be His Body, which is one image St. Paul uses to describe Christian life and community, we have to learn how to live with one another.  St. Makarios of Egypt writes:

“Simplicity before others, guilelessness, mutual love, joy and humility of every kind, must be laid down as the foundation of the community. Otherwise, disparaging others or grumbling about them, we make our labor profitless. He who persists ceaselessly in prayer must not disparage the man incapable of doing this, nor must the man who devotes himself to serving the needs of the community complain about those who are dedicated to prayer. For if both the prayers and the service are offered in a spirit of simplicity and love for others, the superabundance of those dedicated to prayer will make up for the insufficiency of those who serve, and vice versa.

In this way the equality that St. Paul commends is maintained (cf. 2 Cor. 8:14): he who has  much does not have to excess and he who has little has no lack (cf. Exod. 16:18). God’s will is done on earth as in heaven when, in the way indicated, we do not disparage one another, and when not only are we without jealousy but we are united one to another in simplicity and in mutual love, peace and joy, and regard our brother’s progress as our own and his failure as our loss.” (The Philokalia, Vol. 3, p 295)

The Salvation of the World

Christianity does not exist just for Christians.  Rather Christianity – the Church – exists to be a light to the world and to be the salt of the earth.  Christianity exists for the salvation of humankind.  In the Church we need to consider all of those lines in the Liturgy which speak in one form or another about “all mankind” or “on behalf of all and for all.”

“How can Christianity relate to culture when Christians are supposedly ‘in the world but not of the world’? Certainly the dismissal of any ecclesiastical attitude towards humanity that might emanate from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality would be a step in the right direction.  [Archbishop Lazar] Puhalo’s entire theology of culture rests upon the premise that Christ did not come to create barriers but to remove them.

Co-suffering love knows no boundaries and this very fact alone demonstrates that the Gospel ‘is about the fate of all mankind (and) not just about Christian and their institutions. That the Son of God took on an earthly life and interacted with the world around him means that this is the only possible path for the Orthodox Church as well. According to Leonid Ouspensky, Christ’s own example to the Church means that ‘the Church will continue until the consummation of the ages to collect all authentic realities outside of itself, even those which are incomplete and imperfect, in order to integrate them into the fullness of the revelation and allow them to participate in the divine life. In the North American context, this has been demonstrated best through the Orthodox encounter with native cultures.

Matthew 11:28

Puhalo’s own emphasis of the pre-existence of the Church in the pre-eternal will of God must certainly mean that it would be inconceivable to think of the Church as a reality existing only on the periphery of humanity. According to Maximos the Confessor, since man’s very creation implies salvation, the very possession of the human nature also implies incorporation of man and his activities into God’s plan, i.e., his Church. The road for mankind to deification can only pass through life on this earth and all of the struggles that accompany that life. Creation in God’s image already signifies an ecclesial identity. As Puhalo puts it, ‘All mankind is born with the grace to know that God exists and also, with the grace to know that one must seek God.’” (Andrew J. Sopko, For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love, pp 134-135)

Orthodox Chapel at Dachau

The Christian Responsibility for the World

The Church is planted by God on earth to be the salt of the earth, not to be sealed perfectly safe and pure in a salt shaker.  We are to be a light to the world, not a light to ourselves, hidden under a bushel basket.

“By enclosing itself in its particularities and in its own inner life, the Church betrays its basic mission, which is to be ‘as a light and a testimony to the infinite love of God for the world.’ ‘ We should never forget that in front of us there is an immense world, a world that does not know the secret that is in it, a world whose heart sighs without knowing for what, but which, fundamentally, seeks God. A world that would want to know Him, love Him, live in Him.

We Christians have an immense responsibility toward that world. It seems to me, that if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we can no longer remain in ourselves cozily, holed up in our beautiful, great, and luminous Eucharistic communities. For, where it can, the Church must bring to the poor, the impoverished, the down-and-out, what it has received, namely the word and the love of God.’” (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 42-43)

The Church exists for the world – to bring it to salvation, to transform and transfigure lives.  We exist for the sake of sinners – not to accuse them, but to invite them into God’s Kingdom.

Every Christian Is to Minister in the Church

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (12:6-9) reminds us that all Christians have an active role in the life of the Church.  

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Scripture Scholar James D.G. Dunn reminds us of the significance of this teaching.  We don’t come to church to be served, but to serve others as Christ Himself came to serve.  We all are called to love one another as Christ loves us.  We need the Holy Spirit to give us the eyes to see who we are to serve and how we are to serve them.

“It follows that each member of the Christian community has some function within the community; ‘to each’ is given some charisma or other (1 Cor. 7:7; 12:7, 11). All, strictly speaking, are charismatics. No member lacks some manifestation of grace (= charisma). Each is a member of the body only in so far as the Spirit knits him into the corporate unity by the manifestation of grace through him. At no time did Paul conceive of two kinds of Christian – whose who have the Spirit and those who do not, those who minister to others, and those who are ministered to, those who manifest charismata and those who do not. To be Christian in Paul’s view was to be charismatic. One cannot be a member of the body without being a vehicle of the Spirit’s ministry to the body.”  (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p 119)