The Eucharist: Food for the Spiritual Battle

Holy Communion is the fulfillment of all our efforts, the goal toward which we strive, the ultimate joy of our Christian life, it is also and of necessity the source and beginning of our spiritual effort itself, the divine gift which makes it possible for us to know, to desire, and to strive for a “more perfect communion in the day without evening” of God’s Kingdom. For the Kingdom, although it has come, although it comes in the Church, is yet to be fulfilled and consummated at the end of time when God will fill all things with Himself. We know it, and we partake of it in anticipation; we partake now of the Kingdom which is still to come. We foresee and foretaste its glory and its blessedness but we are still on earth, and our entire earthly existence is thus a long and often painful journey toward the ultimate Lord’s Day.

On this journey we need help and support, strength and comfort, for the “Prince of this world” has not yet surrendered; on the contrary, knowing his defeat by Christ, he stages a last and violent battle against God to tear away from Him as many as possible. So difficult is this fight, so powerful the “gates of Hades,” that Christ Himself tells us about the “narrow way” and the few that are capable of following it. And in this fight, our main help is precisely the Body and Blood of Christ, that “essential food” which keeps us spiritually alive and, in spite of all temptations and dangers, makes us Christ’s followers.

(Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 47-48)

Holy Thursday (2019)

On Holy Thursday we commemorate the the institution of the Mystical Supper of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-32,  Matthew 26:2-27:2).  Now in and through the Eucharist we are able to personally participate in the incarnation of God and to experience our salvation.  We the Christians become the Body of Christ continuing the incarnation throughout time. The Mystical Supper is instituted as part of Christ’s own diaconal service to us all for He first washes the feet of His disciples to give us the example of what salvation is and means.  Salvation is God’s love incarnate not in Christ alone but in and through the Body of Christ. Salvation is not merely that we cease sinning but that we become united to God. We all participate in this salvation and are to incarnate this love in our life and our world.

In sum, the Gospel of John understands the Eucharist not as a mere “cultic” and “sacramental” act, but primarily as a diaconal act and an alternative way of life with apparent social implications. For in those days, the washing of a disciple’s feet was more than an ultimate act of humble services and kenotic diakonia; it was an act of radical social behavior, in fact, a rite of inversion of roles within the society. To this should be added Jesus’ admonition to his disciples and through them to his Church: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The diaconal implication of the Johannine understanding of the Eucharist becomes quite evident.

It is almost an assured result of modern biblical and liturgical scholarship that the Eucharist was “lived” in the early Christian community as a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. It was experienced as a proleptic manifestation, within the tragic realties of history, of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, entailing no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between men and women. (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Sacred Text and Interpretation, p. 156)

Following the footwashing and the Supper, Christ and the disciples sang a hymn together – believed to be Psalm 118.  

Psalm 118, which is one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire Psalter. It is also one of the most simple….  It goes without saying that all the psalms are important to us. Yet Psalm 118 is especially important, since according to tradition it was the psalm sung by the Lord with His disciples at the Mystical Supper (cf. Mt. 26:30), moments before He handed Himself over for the life of the world. It is, then, a preeminently Eucharistic psalm, a psalm of thanksgiving.”  (Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 300)

Christ prepares Himself and His disciples for the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion by singing a hymn of Thanksgiving with them.  So for us every Divine Liturgy is Eucharistic – a thanksgiving to God for all that God has done and is doing for us and with us. On the very night Jesus is arrested He gives thanks to God as we commemorate every time we serve the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

For when He had come and had fulfilled all the plan of salvation for us, in the night in which He was given up – or rather, in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world – He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed it, and hallowed it, and broken it, He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying:Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.


And likewise, after supper, He took the cup, saying:  “Drink of it all of you! This is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.


Do this in remembrance of Me! Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the Second and glorious Coming.

A Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

O Lord, my God, I know that I am not worthy that You should enter into my soul’s habitation because it is desolate and in ruins. You will find no fitting place therein to lay Your head. But as from on high You humbled Yourself and came to us, so now submit to the measure of my lowliness. As You consented to lie in a manger, consent now to come into the manger of my soul and body. As You did not scorn to enter and to dine with sinners in the house of Simon the leper, scorn not to enter into the house of my humble soul, although I, too, am a sinner and leper.

As You did not cast out the sinful woman, a harlot, when she approached to touch You, so have also compassion on me, a sinner, as I approach to touch You. Lord and Master, let the burning fire of Your holy Body and precious Blood be unto me for cleansing, enlightenment and strengthening of my soul and body; for relief of the burden of my many transgressions, protection from all diabolical influence, restraint of my sinful habits and the putting to death.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 1086-1094)


Be Nourished by the Eucharist of Love

“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (J0hn 6:55-58)

[St.] Isaac’s use of the symbolism of wine and inebriation is sometimes transformed into a Eucharistic symbolism which is characteristic of the Syriac tradition from [St.] Ephrem onwards. According to Isaac, love is food and drink, bread and wine, and these are at every hour given to those who love God:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. ’He that eateth of this bread,’ he says, ’which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.’ Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love which is Jesus! He who eats love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness saying, ’God is love’…Love is the kingdom where the Lord mystically promises his disciples [they will] eat in his kingdom.

For when we hear him say, ’Ye shall eat and drink at the table of  my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a man. This is the wine ’which maketh glad the heart of a man.’ Blessed is he who partakes of this wine!

Licentious men have drunk this wine and become chaste;

sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling;

drunkards have drunk this wine, and become fasters;

the rich have drunk it and desired poverty;

the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope;

the sick have drunk it and become strong;

the unlearned have taken it and become wise.”

(Hilarion AlfeyevThe Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, page 255-256)

Holy Communion and Menstruation

Occasionally an old debate re-emerges and parishioners get caught up in the ideas being argued. So it is that I was asked the other day about whether menstruating women should be allowed to come to Holy Communion. This issue has come up from time to time throughout the Centuries of Christianity’s existence. We see this being addressed for example in the 4th Century document called The Apostolic Constitutions, written about 375AD. In this writing, concern about menstruation is portrayed as really belonging to a Judaizing of Christianity – a return to following the Law not supported by the New Testament.   That document states the following:

Now if any persons keep to the Jewish customs and observances concerning the natural emission and nocturnal pollutions, and the lawful conjugal acts (Leviticus xv), let them tell us whether in those hours or days, when they undergo any such thing, they observe not to pray, or to touch a Bible, or to partake of the Eucharist? And if they own it to be so, it is plain they are void of the Holy Spirit, which always continues with the faithful.

The point being made is that for baptized and chrismated Christians, we have been given the Holy Spirit, which cannot be taken away from us by conjugal acts or natural emissions. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit while engaged in these acts, then we are void of the Holy Spirit at all times. The corollary is if we have the Holy Spirit received in our baptism and chrismation, then we can receive Holy Communion even if in menstruation. Since we don’t lose the Holy Spirit through acts of natural emission or conjugal acts, then we can receive Holy Communion after such acts. The Apostolic Constitutions continues:

For concerning holy persons Solomon says: “That every one may prepare himself, that so when he sleeps it may keep him, and when he arises it may talk with him.” (Proverbs 6:22) For if you think, O woman, when you are seven days in your separation, that you are void of the Holy Spirit, then if you should die suddenly you will depart void of the Spirit, and without assured hope in God; or else you must imagine that the Spirit always is inseparable from you, as not being in a place. But you stand in need of prayer and the Eucharist, and the coming of the Holy Ghost, as having been guilty of no fault in this matter. For neither lawful mixture, nor child-bearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution, can defile the nature of a man, or separate the Holy Spirit from him. Nothing but impiety and unlawful practice can do that.”   (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 3158-69)

This 4th Century Christian document is pretty clear that only Christians with wrong ideas about menstruation and the like will abstain from Holy Communion. Interestingly, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) thought the Apostolic Constitutions and their canons should be counted and read as Scripture in the Orthodox Church.

Though the teaching about menstruating women and Holy Communion has actually varied in different periods of Orthodox history and in the varying cultures influenced by Orthodoxy, there have been some clear teachings that say this should not be a concern for Christians. The concern results from a tendency ever present in the legalizing piety of Orthodoxy toward Pharisaic attitudes. It is a piety that becomes popular at times. For some it seems more pious to abstain from Communion when in menstruation. However, since we don’t follow the Jewish Law regarding clean and unclean in all matters, it seems unusual that we would pick this one matter and then suddenly make ourselves feel more holy by keeping one aspect of the Law.  We would do well to remember the words of St. James in his epistle:  “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”   The piety which says menstruating women should refrain from Communion seems to say that you can keep one point of the law and ignore the rest and consider yourself holy.

As the Apostolic Constitution points out it is really only “impiety and unlawful practice” which can separate us from the Holy Spirit.  Neither childbirth nor menstruation is  impious or unlawful.   Additionally one might ask oneself, if in the Liturgy we faithfully proclaim Christ’s commandments – “Take, eat” and “Drink, all of  you” – under what circumstance would we dare disobey Christ? He commands us to receive His Body and Blood for the remission of sins. Why disobey the Lord?

I see the question about women’s menstruation and Holy Communion in the context of Acts 15, where there is a debate in the nascent Christian community as to whether Gentile men must become circumcised in order to become Christian. In other words, are Christians obligated to keep Torah? The then early Christian community, largely Jewish, had to decide whether you must become a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian.   The council of apostles and elders decided, NO!   If we read that text, we see that the chosen apostles of Jesus decided that the Law really was for a Jews a burden they couldn’t bear, and so it was neither spiritually prudent or good to impose the law upon converts to Christianity.     I think that decision by the apostolic founders of the Church applies today to the discussion on women and Communion. Does menstruation suddenly demand that Christian women must keep Torah?  Following Jewish or Pharisaic practice is not required of us as Orthodox Christians. The Apostles themselves settled that discussion in their lifetime.   Yet, pious ideas emerge which overrule even the apostles themselves.   Indeed it has frequently become part of the piety of various Orthodox nationalities, and seems so pious to tell menstruating women not to receive Communion. There is, however, strong reason from the Apostles, in our Scripture and from the Tradition of the Church to recognize that piety for what it is and to know there is sound reason for us not to follow it. Our task is, as we pray in the baptism liturgy to “preserve our baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God.”  Neither menstruation or childbirth defiles the baptismal garment nor do they take away from any woman the Holy Spirit.

This debate will go on, and I’m not trying to resolve it.  I am answering as a pastor a question I received from parishioners about how I see this issue.