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)

Visions of the Liturgy: Old (Testament) and New (Children)

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

While Jesus taught that we have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God, through history theological reflection tended not to see the Kingdom from a child’s point of view.  Theology made ideas of the Kingdom ever more complex.  Even the Liturgy which is to reflect the Kingdom was not understood from the point of view of the child but became increasingly complex with layers of meaning that no child could even see let alone understand.  The Liturgy seems not to have been developed with the child in mind, and today many people do not appreciate children in the Liturgy because they are noisy, distracting, disruptive while they want an experience free of childlike behavior.   And yet we cannot enter that Kingdom unless we become like a child for the Kingdom and the Liturgy which reflects it are not the constructs of theologians, scholars, mystics and the highly educated experts, but are the revelation of and from God for those who can be children.

The late great liturgical scholar Robert Taft summarized the Orthodox Liturgy this way:

“In the cosmic or hierarchical scheme, church and ritual are an image of the present age of the Church, in which divine grace is mediated to those in the world (nave) from the divine abode (sanctuary) and its heavenly worship (the liturgy enacted there), which in turn images forth its future consummation (eschatological), when we shall enter that abode in Glory.  Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429), last of the classic Byzantine mystagogues, has synthesized this vision in chapter 131 of his treatise ON THE HOLY TEMPLE:

The church, is the house of God, is an image of the whole world, for God is every where and above everything.   .  .  .  The sanctuary is a symbol of the higher and super-celestial spheres, where the throne of God and his dwelling place are said to be.  it is this throne which the altar represents. … The bishop represents Christ, the church [nave] represents the visible world.  .  .  .

I mention the apostles with the angels, bishops and priests, because there is only one Church, above and below, since God came down and lived among us, doing  what he was sent to do on our behalf.  And it is a work which is one, as is our Lord’s sacrifice, communion, and contemplation.  And it is carried out both above and here below, but with this difference: above it is done without any veils or symbols, butt here it is accomplished through symbols. . . .

In the economic on anamnetic scheme, the sanctuary with its altar is at once: the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle decreed by Moses; the Cenacle of the Last Supper; Golgotha of the crucifixion; and the Holy Sepulchre of the resurrection, from which the sacred gifts of the Risen Lord — His Word and His body and blood — issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world.     . . .

In the iconography and liturgy of the church, this twofold vision assumes visible and dynamic form.  From the central dome the image of the Pantocrator dominates the whole scheme, giving unity to the hierarchical and economic themes.  The movement of the hierarchical theme is vertical: ascending from the present, worshiping community assembled in the nave, up through the ranks of the saints, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, to the Lord in the heavens attended by the angelic choirs.  The economic or ‘salvation-history’ system, extending outwards and upwards from the sanctuary, is united both artistically and theologically with the hierarchical. ”  (THE BYZANTINE RITE: A SHORT HISTORY, pp 69-70)

The Liturgy and the Church are about ranks of bishops, apostles, angels, priests, saints, prophets and patriarchs.   What is missing?  Children.  We cannot enter the Kingdom without them or without being one of them.   We don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Liturgy.  We need the eyes of a child.  If the received Tradition forgets that, it has forgotten a key to the Kingdom.  We can do the Liturgy perfectly rubrically correct, according to the Typikon, with every ritual required.   We still need to have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom.

It also is interesting that the received Tradition turned to and returned to the Old Testament for its liturgical meaning, rites and symbols rather than exploring themes suggested by the Gospel.   In the Old Testament, we understand, everything was in shadows and symbols:  “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…”  (Hebrews 10:1)   Christ came and revealed the Light opening Paradise to us, opening our hearts and minds and eyes to see clearly no longer in shadows: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  (Matthew 4:16)   But now according to Taft’s description it is the nave of the church and the non-clergy who live in the world of symbols (the shadowy world of the Old Testament!).  It is all that the Church permits for the non-clergy.    Behind the icon wall, reserved for the clergy is the Kingdom opened.  The Gospel, however, proclaims that we no longer sit in darkness or in shadows for the Light has come.   There is another effect of this return to the shadows of the Old Testament – the hierarchy serves to further distance the Savior from the people He saved!  It is moving away from Christ who ended all of the dividing walls and opened Paradise to all.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

Let Us Lift Up Our Hearts

“But let us return to Psalm 24. ‘To you, oh Lord,’ it says, ‘I lift up my soul; in you, my God, I put my trust.’ Truly, the rest of this psalm, concerned entirely with prayerful trust, may be read simply as commentary on the first verse.

At each service of the Divine Liturgy, going back at least the Apostolic tradition of Saint Hippolytus near the beginning of the third century, when the priest commences the central Eucharistic benediction (corresponding to the Hebrew berakah), he turns to the congregation to exhort them to intensify their prayer: ‘Let let us lift up our hearts!’ (Ano skomen tas kardias is the lovely Greek original.) In the ancient Latin version, this exhortation becomes more succinct: Sursum corda, Hearts up!” A congregation of elevated hearts is the proper context for that great act known simply as ‘The Thanksgiving,’ Eucharistia (the priest’s next line being ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!’).”

(Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, p. 47)

The lifting up of the hearts is reminiscent of Christ’s words in John 3:3 in which He says we must be “born from above” to see the Kingdom of God.  Although in English this text is often translated “born again“, the Greek uses a root word that is the same in John 3:3 as in the hearts being up.  Literally the Greek text in the Liturgy does not have the word “lift” in it at all, but more simply says:  “let us have the hearts on high.”  In other words, let our hearts be born with this heavenly birth which Christ taught.  The English Bibles, probably under the influence of Protestantism, change the text to speak more about a one time “conversion” (born again) by the Holy Spirit whereas in Orthodoxy it is a constantly renewed life, living not just for this world, but embracing the heavenly/spiritual life in this world in the Church as the hoped for pattern throughout our daily lives.  Our hearts are being transfigured and transformed by the Holy Spirit into being one in and with the Body of Christ.  This transformation in Christ by the Holy Spirit of our hearts is also the ongoing work of the spiritual life outside of the Liturgy.

So in Orthodoxy, a starets, one whose life is visibly transformed by Christ becomes the spiritual father to his disciples.  “In the words of Igor Smolitsch, the great warm heart of a starets revives the shrunken, frozen hearts of those who flock to him; his perfected will reforms and sustains the imperfect wills of those who place themselves under his guidance”  (Iulia De Beausobre, from Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 7).  The upward call to our hearts is an ongoing transformation that we experience throughout our lives.  In the Liturgy we are reminded that this is to be our daily experience of life itself.

Worthy to Receive the Body of Christ

Chrysostom also proves the importance of the forgiveness of sins both in the context of the assembly in the wilderness and in the Liturgical Assembly. He points out that the forgiveness of sins was essential to the Israelites before they could safely and beneficially partake of the manna and drink, just as it is essential to the members of the Ecclesial Community before they can receive the Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Moses leads the Israelites in the desert

As long as they [the Israelites] honored the equal distribution of their goods, the manna continued to remain manna. However, when they decided to be greedy, greediness made the manna become worms. Indeed, with this behavior they did not harm others because they did not grab from the food of their neighbor in order to have more than their neighbor; but they were condemned because they desired more. Even if they did not commit injustice toward their neighbor, they hurt their own selves very much because, with this manner of assembling together, they habitually continued to dwell in greediness. Therefore, the same manna was simultaneously admonished [educated] their souls. It not only nourished them, but delivered them pain.

If a Christian joins the Liturgical Assembly and receives the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily and without repentance, the Body and Blood of Christ will lead to his judgement and condemnation, like the manna that became worms to the greedy Israelites. The members of the Church must free themselves of greediness and other evils through repentance, and consider themselves as equals, before gathering together to constitute the Liturgical Assembly, or else receive God’s condemnation.

(Protopresbyter Gus George Christo, The Church’s Identity, p. 94)

Holy Things for the Holy Ones!

The Holy Things are for the Holy Ones! 

One is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father. Amen.  (from the Divine Liturgy)

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  (Mark 10:18)

St. Nicholas Cavasilas commenting on the Divine Liturgy says:

On the point of approaching the Holy Table…partaking of the Mystery is not permitted to all …  

The holy [Mysteries] are for the holy!  

…  The faithful are called holy because of the Holy Mysteries of which they partake, because of him whose Body and Blood they receive.

Members of His Body – flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone – as long as we remain united to him and preserve our connection with him [i.e., live in communion with the altar – Ed.], we live by holiness, drawing to ourselves through the Holy Mysteries, the sanctity which comes from that Head and that Heart. But if we should cut ourselves off, if we should separate ourselves from the unity of this most holy Body, we would partake of the Holy Mysteries in vain, for life cannot flow into dead and amputated limbs. And what can cut off the members form this holy Body? It is your sins which have separated me from you, [Is. 59.2], says God. Does all sin then bring death to man? No, indeed, but deadly sin only; that is why it is called deadly. For according to St. John [1 Jn. 5.16,17] there are sins which are not deadly.

That is why Christians, if they have not committed such sins as would cut them off from Christ and and bring death, are in no way prevented from partaking of the Holy Mysteries and receiving sanctification…   (quoted in The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church, p. 107)

For St. Nicholas Cabasilas the words in the Liturgy – Holy things are for the holy! – is packed with meaning.  The “holy things” refer to the Holy Mysteries such as Holy Communion.  These Mysteries are given not for everyone, but to the Holy Ones of God, the saints.  In the Liturgy they are given to the Faithful.  The people of the parish are (and are to be!) the Holy Ones of God.  For him, it is obvious why there is a practice of “closed” Communion.  One has to desire to be among the faithful, among the Holy Ones to receive the Holy Mysteries.  They are gifts for those who seek the Lord – for those who choose and desire to live a holy life.  Holiness is not magic that can change someone into something they are not.  Holiness comes to those who choose to be united to the Holy One of God, Jesus Christ.  We maintain holiness by maintaining our unity with Christ whose Body is the Church.

Fr Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World leads us into the mystery:

“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this one, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.   (Kindle Location 389-395)

For Fr Schmemann holiness is the goal of our spiritual sojourn.  When we receive the Holy Mysteries of God and become the Holy Ones of God, we have come to the very purpose of our existence.  In the Holy Mysteries we are united to the One who is Holy, Jesus Christ.

What is the Divine Liturgy?

The totality of the wondrous events performed by God, in order to bring man after his disobedience back to His house and make him His own once more, is called divine economy or dispensation: ‘The divine economy of our God and Savior is the raising up of man from his fallen state and his return from the alienation produced by his disobedience to intimacy with God’ (St Basil).

This reality of our salvation in Christ is what we experience at every Divine Liturgy, for which we give thanks to God: ‘The awesome Mysteries which are performed at every assembly of the faithful and which offer salvation in abundance are called the Eucharist [‘thanksgiving’] because they consist of the recollection of many  benefactions, and reveal to us the culmination of divine providence’ (St John Chrysostom). The Divine Liturgy is the sacramental re-living of these things and the ‘recapitulation of the entire divine economy’. That is why at the end of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the celebrant says: “The Mystery of Your dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected.’

The mystery of the divine economy was made manifest at the same time as man’s disobedience. The Master who loves mankind ‘at once saw the fall and the magnitude of the wound, and hastened to treat the wound so that it would not grow and turn into an incurable injury…spurred on by His love, not for one moment did He cease to provide for man’ (Chrysostom). Through wonderful deeds and prophetic words, God prepared man to partake in the fullness of life and love.

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p. 15)

Let us Lift Up Our Hearts

Let us lift up our hearts.

We lift them up unto the Lord.

(From the Divine Liturgy)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem writing in the 4th Century describes a portion of the Divine Liturgy which is basically the same as we Orthodox are still doing today.

After the priest cries out, “Lift up your hearts.”

For truly that awe-filled hour it is necessary to have our hearts up toward the Lord, and not below with regard to the earth and earthly activities. For this reason the priest exhorts you with authority in that hour to leave behind all everyday cares and household worries and to have your hearts in heaven with the God who is the lover of humanity. Next, you answer, “We have lifted them to the Lord,” having made by this your agreement with him according to what you confessed. But let not such a one enter who with the mouth says, “We have lifted them up to the Lord,” but whose thoughts in the mind are focused on everyday cares. Always, then, keep God in mind! But if, on account of human weakness, you are not able to do this, try to do it especially in that hour. (Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, p. 123)

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim … now lay aside all earthly cares as we receive the King of All who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.  (Cherubimic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy)

The Purpose of the Liturgy

“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”

Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp. 227-228)

Thanksgiving and Ascetical Thinking

Every week in Orthodox churches in which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, we give thanks to God.  Eucharist – the word we use to refer to Communion – is the Greek work for thanksgiving.  Every Liturgy is thus a thanksgiving service.  That is the primary purpose of the Liturgy – it is how we Christians give thanks to God.  We assemble together exactly for the purpose of celebrating our thanksgiving, every week, not just once each year.  For us Orthodox thanksgiving is really a way of life, not a holiday we do one day in November.  Our country’s thanksgiving holiday is just another chance for us to give thanks to God.

A eucharistic ethos means, above all, using natural resources with thankfulness, offering them back to God. Such an attitude is incompatible with wastefulness. Similarly, fasting and other ascetic practices make us recognize even the simplest of foods and other creature comforts as gifts, provided to satisfy our needs. They are not ours to abuse and waste just so long as we can pay for them.

We worship as a community, not as individuals; so a liturgical ethos is also one of sharing. Long before the earth was seen as a whole from space, the Church knew that we stand before God together, and that we hold in common the earthly blessings that He has given to mankind and all creatures. “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs,” Saint John Chrysostom reminds us.

This principle, applied to the whole range of natural resources, is particularly relevant because the global environment is squeezed on two sides: by the over-consumption, greed and waste of the affluent, and by the pressing needs of the poor, often forced to deplete the land around them for the sake of food or fuel in short term. (Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff, “‘Thine Own of Thine Own’ Orthodoxy and Ecology,” Orthodoxy and Ecology Resource Book, p. 15)

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls . . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord. (Petitions from the Divine Liturgy)

St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of North America comments:

Therefore the angels at His very birth already sing “on earth peace, good will toward men.” But perhaps you might ask — where is peace on earth, since from the coming of Christ until this day we see conflicts and wars; when at the present time one nation rises against another and one kingdom against another; when even now discord, hostility, and animosity are seen so often among people?

Where are we to look for peace, which was brought and left by Christ (cf. John 14:27)? “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains”; “all nations will stream toward it” “and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” “and they will not train for war again” (Is. 2:2, 4); “every man shall sit under his own vine undisturbed” (Mic. 4:4). This kingdom of peace on earth, which was foretold by the Prophets of the Old Testament, is indeed the Church of Christ; and it is in it [the Church] that peace should be sought. Here man is given peace with God, since in the mysteries he is purified from sin and becomes a child of the Lord, pleasant to Him. Here also in the services offered to God, in the mysteries, in the order and life of the Church, a Christian draws peace and delight and calmness for his heart.

The nature of man is transformed and renewed, and into his meek, gentle, truly humble, merciful, and loving soul comes the God of peace and love. And a Christian then experiences the heavenly bliss of which there is nothing higher on earth. No troubles or sufferings of any kind can overshadow this blissful peace in a Christian. On the contrary, we know from the history of the Church of Christ that holy men even rejoiced in suffering and boasted in sorrows, captivity and prisons, deserts and dens of the wicked. Amidst all deprivations they were placid and calm, perhaps more so than people who live with all the comforts and prosperity ever feel. They are not afraid of death itself; they calmly expect its approach and depart to the Lord in peace. Peace is dispersed everywhere in the Church of Christ.

Here people pray for peace in the whole world, for the unity of all; here all call one another brethren, and help one another; here everybody is loved, and even enemies are forgiven and cared for. And when Christians listen to the voice of the Church and live according to its commands, then they truly have peace and love.  (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 453-471)