On Holy Thursday we contemplate the institution of the Mystical Supper – we realize that Christ gave His Body and Blood for the life of the world so that we can partake of salvation! The institution of the Eucharist by our Lord is something we not only think about, but actually receive when we come to the Liturgy this evening.
O how manifold and ineffable this communion! Christ became our brother, partaking of the same flesh and blood with us, and through them became like us. Through his blood He has redeemed us for Himself as true servants. He has made us His friends (cf. John 15:14-15) partaking of this blood He has bound and betrothed us to Himself as a bridegroom his bride, and become one flesh with us. He feeds us not only with blood instead of milk, but with His own body, and not only His body but also His Spirit. In so doing, He always preserves undiminished the nobility given to us by Him, leads us towards greater longing, and grants us to fulfill our desire, not only to see Him but also to touch Him, to delight in Him, to take Him into our hearts, and for each of us to hold Him in our inmost selves.
Come, He says, those of you who have set your heart on eternal life, eat My body and drink My blood (cf. John 6:53), that you may not only be in God’s image, but, by clothing yourselves in Me, the King and God of heaven, you may be eternal and heavenly gods and kings, feared by demons, admired by angels, beloved sons of the celestial Father, living forever fairer than the children of men (cf. Ps. 45:2), a delightful dwelling place for the sublime Trinity. (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 464-465)
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.
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).
“Georges Florovsky recalls the words of Tertullian: ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus,’ that is, ‘an isolated Christian is not a Christian.’ A person who enters into the life of the Church thereby enters into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in the mystery of communion. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this important concept. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of communion, incorporates us not only into Christ as Person, but into the totality of the Body of Christ, which is inseparable from the Head. This new life includes our communion with the Body of Christ, where we are nourished by His Body, quenched by His Blood, and vivified by the Spirit who unites us into one body. This ‘Body’ contains not only the eucharistic assembly ‘here and now’, but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints.
This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong, Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and the prophets – in communion. The communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr. Florovsky calls ‘ecumenism in time’. Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers.”
The sense of the presence of God. Something I pray everyone I know may have. I wish everyone in the world could have it.
In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener. They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them. And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking. They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence. They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator. Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God. Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything. In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do. They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise. Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]
How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made? And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God. Amazing! Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.
God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence. When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power. God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will. Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example. God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power. The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits – the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence! Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.
If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation. The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms. In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices. Just look at Genesis 2:19 – “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal. God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates. Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation. [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians. In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals. Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be. Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story. God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done. Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]
The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence. We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example, God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.
And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation. Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence. The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.
Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation. The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.
In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion. For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve. We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation. We can experience God directly and fully. We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection. Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father. Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God. We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ in our midst and Christ in us. As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :
Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.
“ ‘Let us lift up our hearts,’ says the celebrant, and the people answer: ‘We have lifted them up to the Lord.’
The Eucharist is the anaphora, the ‘lifting up’ of our offering, and of ourselves. It is the ascension of the Church to heaven. ‘But what do I care about heaven,’ says St. John Chrysostom, ‘when I myself have become heaven…?’ The Eucharist has so often been explained with reference to the gifts alone: what ‘happens’ to bread and wine happens because something has, first of all, happened to us, to the Church. It is because we have ‘constituted’ the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in His ascension; because He has accepted us at His table in His Kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to bread and wine.
‘Let us lift up our hearts,’ says the celebrant. ‘We lift them up until the Lord,’ answers the congregation. ‘Let us give thanks unto the Lord’ (Eucharistisomen), says the celebrant.
When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do by give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.
‘It is fitting and right to give thanks,’ answers the congregation, expressing in these words that ‘unconditional surrender; with which true ‘religion’ begins. For faith is not the fruit of intellectual search, or of Pascal’s ‘betting’. It is not a reasonable solution to the frustrations and anxieties of life. It does not arise out of a ‘lack’ of something, but ultimately it comes out of fullness, love and joy. ‘It is meet and right’ expresses all this. It is the only possible response to the divine invitation to live and to receive abundant life.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the Worlds: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, pp 37-38)
While piety sometimes can make us believe we are not worthy to receive Holy Communion on a particular day when the Eucharistic Liturgy is being offered, the reality is Christ came to call the sinner to repentance, to heal the wounds caused by sin and to end the separation of humanity from their Creator. Christ came precisely because we are unworthy to approach God, in order to make it possible for us to be restored to unity with God again. The incarnation is about God taking on sinful flesh to heal us and restore us to union with God. Christ did not become incarnate because we all were so holy that He was drawn to us. He came because we are sinners and unworthy. The God who is love sees our unworthiness and in His loving compassion reaches out to us, cutting through all bonds and barriers in order to save us from the consequence of our own sins. Christ comes to save us from our unworthiness. Before ever cutting yourself off from Holy Communion, speak with your father confessor or parish priest. Do not disobey Christ’s commands to “Take, eat” and “Drink of it, all of you.” Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev writes:
“If personal unworthiness was indeed an impediment against receiving communion, then practically no one could ever be admitted to the Eucharist…. The Eucharistic gathering is the manifestation of the Church in all her fullness and all her oneness. Eucharistic communion is the very expression of life in the Church. If we eliminate Eucharistic communions, then what is left of our life in the Church? Is prayer even temporarily able to replace communion? The prayer of the Church is prayer ‘in Christ’, but it is impossible to be ‘in Christ’ apart from Eucharistic communion with Him.” (Living Icons by Michael Plekon, p 169)
If we have a sense of our unworthiness, our own sinfulness, then we are in the proper frame of mind to approach the Chalice in humility and repentance. We always are unworthy of Christ dying on the cross for us. We are always unworthy of having our sins forgiven or entering into God’s Kingdom. It is that knowledge which makes us humble ourselves before God and beg His mercy.
“The Eucharist requires the memorial (or anamnesis) of the whole history of salvation. This is epitomized in its central point, the life-giving cross, the cross of Easter. These events which are written in the ‘memory’ of God are made present, actual and active by the ‘memory’ of the Church.
In this living ‘memorial’ the priest is the image of Christ, an ‘other Christ’, as St John Chrysostom says. He bears witness to Christ’s unshakeable fidelity to his Church. Through the one who sums up the people’s prayer and constitutes for them the sign of Christ, Christ our one high priest accomplishes the Eucharist. And everything is done in the Holy Spirit.
It is in the Holy Spirit that the Church is the ‘mystery’ of the Risen Christ, the world in process of transfiguration. The Spirit ‘broods’ on the waters at the beginning and ‘hovers’ over them like a great bird. In order to make the human being live, God breathes his Spirit into the clay. The Spirit comes down on the Blessed Virgin in order that the Word may take flesh in her.
He rests on Jesus as his Messianic anointing and it is in him that Jesus thrills with joy and multiples the ‘signs’ of the Kingdom. It is by the life-giving power of the Spirit that God raises Jesus (Romans 1:4). Likewise when the people are assembled to offer themselves in the offertory of the bread and wine, the Spirit comes upon them to ‘manifest’ the body and blood of Christ through the bread and wine (the word ‘manifest’ is found in the Eucharistic liturgy of St Basil). The Spirit thereby integrates the people in the glorified humanity of the Lord. So the memorial is effected by the coming of the Spirit in response to the Church’s epiclesis (a word that means ‘invocation’).
All the faithful ratify this invocation by their amens. In this respect they are concelebrants of the liturgy. But only the apostolic witness of the bishop (or of the priest representing him) can testify to the epiclesis being heard, to the fullness of God’s faithfulness.” (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp 111-112)
As we learn from church historians and liturgical theologians, the practices and rituals of the Orthodox Church have undergone significant changes through the centuries. Liturgical changes can occur in the church for practical reasons, due to changing historical circumstances, because understandings of rites and rituals change, or to better serve and instruct the faithful. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is very identified with Great Lent and is served on certain weekdays throughout Lent. Like all Orthodox services it has undergone numerous changes. This is to be expected in a church which is a living body and responds to both the needs of its members as well as to the ever-changing world in which we witness to Christ. Archimandrite Job Getcha writes about the Liturgy:
“We should be aware of the fact that, from the origin of the Presanctified Liturgy around the sixth century, and until the ninth century, not only was the consecrated bread preserved, but also a chalice containing the consecrated wine. They were kept on the prosthesis table, from which they were again placed on the altar table during the great entrance of the Presanctified Liturgy. As a result of the difficulty and the danger of keeping a chalice full of consecrated wine, the practice of intincting the consecrated bread with the consecrated wine appeared, probably in the ninth century, in southern Italy. Only in the fifteenth century was this practice adopted in Constantinople and in the Byzantine world.”
So the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts changed because of very practical concerns: keeping a full chalice of the consecrated Blood of Christ was risky due to the threat of spilling the chalice. So our current practice of intinction – keeping the consecrated Body with small amounts of the Blood of Christ on it – was introduced to deal with a problem created by a liturgical practice. The need for the liturgy with the Presanctified Gifts was itself the result of other liturgical piety that had changed and become regulated by canon law in 692AD.
“This Constantinopolitan practice was established by Canon 52 of the Council in Trullo, which states:
On the days of Great Lent, except on Saturdays, Sundays, and the holy day of Annunciation, no liturgy may be celebrated except that of the Presanctified Gifts.
As M. Arranz explains:
In the seventh century, the reception of communion must have been considered as breaking the fast; also, because the Eucharistic liturgy (apart from the great vigils of Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter, as well as the completely exceptional day of Holy Thursday) was celebrated only during the morning hours, Canon 52 of Trullo, while admitting the exception of Annunciation, fixes the time of communions from the Presanctified gifts at the end of the day, even after vespers, to ensure the seriousness of the fast during Great Lent. ”
The fast of Great Lent is a form of abstinence practiced over an extended period of time in which certain foods are abstained from during the Lenten season and/or also food is abstained from for designated periods during the day – for example, in the morning or until after Vespers. Besides the periods of fasting of the various lenten seasons and the usual weekly fasting days in the Orthodox Church there is also a fast done in preparation for receiving Holy Communion. Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas comments:
“In the beginning the Eucharist was celebrated within the context of an evening community meal, referred to as the agape or love feast. By the end of the first or the beginning of the second century, the celebration of the Eucharist was separated from the community meal and transposed to the early morning hours. From that time forward, every Eucharistic celebration is preceded by a fast, called the Eucharistic fast. The Eucharist is Christ himself. It is his sacrificed, risen, and glorified body, which is given to the faithful ‘for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.’ As such, it is the most precious of gifts, through which the life of God continually becomes the life of those who believe in him, receive him in faith, and abide in him. That is why the Eucharistic fast has become a fixed prerequisite for Holy Communion. It is meant to place the faithful in a state of readiness, vigilance, expectation, and anticipation for an encounter with the living God who calls his people to communion and holiness.
Participation in the Divine Liturgy, therefore, requires prayerful preparation, for we stand on holy ground in the presence of the Triune God (Ex. 3:4-7). Hence, in preparation for this profound experience, we are called to quietness, abstinence, and forebearance, to a quickening of body and soul that we may receive the King of all. Fasted from the night before, as a sign of spiritual vigilance and awareness, we approach the Holy Table ‘with the fear of God, with faith, and with love,’ to receive the Holy Gifts as the first meal of the day and as the essential food of life.” (Essays in Theology and Liturgy, pp 166-167)