Break the Holy Bread, Master: A Theology of Communion Bread

In the sacral life of the Church, we may speak not only of natural bonds between humans, not only of the “gluten” inherent to humans and coming from within them, but also of the leaven of the Holy Spirit that transforms and transcends, that lifts up, raises the otherwise “flat” mass, that comes from without and makes us what we have not ever been. In Orthodoxy, “the liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession … of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom” (ibid. 26).

 

Christ’s institution of the Mystery of the Eucharist is the primary theme of the liturgical services of Thursday of Holy Week. Both the Epistle (I Cor 11: 23-32) and Gospel readings (Mt 26:1-20; Jn 13:3-7; Mt 26:21-39; Lk 22: 43-45; Mt 26: 40-27:2) read during the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great celebrated on this day speak of Christ’s Mystical Supper with His disciples. It is customary for all Orthodox Christians to receive Holy Communion on this day.

Fr Sergei Sveshnikov, Rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia Orthodox Church in Mulino, OR, is the author of a new book titled Break the Holy Bread, Master: A Theology of Communion Bread, in which  he examines the history, theology, and practice of the use of sacramental bread in Orthodox Christianity.

Given that the Church invites us on this day to contemplate the Mystery of the Eucharist, it seems appropriate to offer the following excerpt from Fr.Sergei’s book.

 

 

 

Orientale Lumen

Dawn

Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD…

—Isaiah 24:15

So far we have focused mostly on Western thought concerning the Eucharist and the nature of sacramental bread.  It will probably not come as a surprise that the Eastern understanding of the matter has a few peculiarities worth exploring.[i]  The source of these differences between the East and the West, according to Father Alexander Schmemann, is the context of scholastic theology which is “deeply, if not radically, different from that of the early Church” (For the Life of the World 136):

 

Externally or formally this change consisted, first of all, in a new approach by sacramental theology to the very object of its study.  In the early Church, in the writing of the Fathers, sacraments, inasmuch as they are given any systematic interpretation, are always explained in the context of their actual liturgical celebration, the explanation being, in fact, an exegesis of the liturgy itself in all its ritual complexity and concreteness.  The medieval De Sacramentis, however, tends from its very inception to isolate the “sacrament” from its liturgical context, to find and define in terms as precise as possible its essence, i. e., that which distinguishes it from the “non-sacrament.”  Sacrament in a way begins to be opposed to liturgy.  It has, of course, its ritual expression, its “signum,” which belongs to its essence, but this sign is viewed now as ontologically different from all other signs, symbols, and rites of the Church.  And because of this difference, the precise sacramental sign alone is considered, to the exclusion of all other “liturgy,” the proper object of theological attention. (137)

 

Thus, noting this difference between the Eastern and Western approaches to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, I would like to begin this brief survey of Eastern thought by looking at the work of Father Robert Taft, S.J. who, despite his belonging to the Roman Catholic tradition, has been an outspoken apologist of the Eastern rite in the West.  Taft notes that since the times of the early Church, there has existed a “strain of Christian paschal interpretation which spiritualizes the paschal event and makes the Christian its protagonist…: Here the paschal mystery is not a passion, with Jesus as protagonist, but a passage with the Christian as protagonist” (37).  While some have argued that the realization and actualization of the exodus experience in the present moment is essential to Judaism, the opinion that the Semitic equivalent of anamnesis in the Passover “denotes the making present or effective of a past event is without linguistic or Jewish support” (Jones, Wainwright and Yarnold 77).  In other words, what is at the core of the Christian understanding of Pascha is something quite different from what may be viewed as the Jewish roots of Pascha.  The Christian Pascha is not a memorial or a celebration of a past event, albeit meaningful and transformative in the lives of those who keep its memory.  In the Christian Pascha, it is the Christian who is the protagonist through Christ (“…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me…” [Gal 2:20]), and both the Sacrifice and the Resurrection of the Son of God become the very essence of a Christian’s life.  Pascha becomes the mode of Christian life rather than a singular transformative event whose effect merely lasts or is reflected.  Apostle Paul refers to this mode as the “newness of life” (Rom 6:4).  But it is not just the Resurrection—the Sacrifice too becomes the mode of life: the path to the Resurrection always lies through death on the cross.  “I die every day!” Paul exclaims (1 Cor. 15:31).

 

Quite apart from any moralistic or behavioral applications of this belief, for Orthodoxy the act of salvation is primarily a Sacrament, and as such, it finds its highest expression and incarnation in the Eucharist through the communion of God and His people within His Body: “…for the purpose of all Christian liturgy is to express in a ritual moment that which should be the basic stance of every moment of our lives” (Taft 52).  The Jesus of Orthodoxy is not the historical Jesus, Who failed to complete His social justice agenda because of getting arrested by the representatives of organized religion supported by the imperial Roman temple-state.  The Jesus of Orthodoxy is the One Who said: “It is finished” (John 19:30).  Taft argues that this very understanding of Christ belonged to the Apostolic Church:

 

So the Jesus of the Apostolic Church is not the historical Jesus of the past, but the Heavenly Priest interceding for us constantly before the throne of the Father (Rom 8:34, Heb 9:11-28), and actively directing the life of his Church (Apoc 1:17-3:22 and passim).  The vision of the men that produced these documents was not directed backwards, to the “good old days” when Jesus was with them on earth. (25) 

 

The reason for this lack of historicity is not a misunderstanding of what Christ has done, but a unique understanding of our role in what He continues to do: “For Christian life, according to the several New Testament metaphors for it, is a process of conversion into Christ” (Taft 26).  And this process is understood as a Sacrament, indeed, the Sacrament.  The anamnesis of the Christian liturgy then is “a continual sign for us not of past history, but of the present reality of our lives in him [Christ]” (Taft 27).  Thus, for Taft, Pascha “is not about the empty tomb in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago, but about the reawakening here and now of my baptismal death and resurrection in Christ” (28). 

 

Sunrise

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 11:7

 

It must be noted, however, that Taft’s understanding of the Eucharist is probably not the original one.  From the earliest days of Christianity, a special emphasis in the liturgy was placed on the Passion of Christ rather than His Resurrection.  In time, the Paschal theme became more prominently connected with the resurrection, not only the crucifixion—a trend that developed into liturgical expressions.  We are forgiven through the cross of Christ, but we are saved through His Resurrection.  The difference between forgiveness and salvation became more pronounced in Eastern theology, while the West put more emphasis on the interconnectedness between the two terms.  Thus, in the fourteenth century Nicholas Cabasilas already speaks of the Romans’ “older and rather different view of the Eucharist” (Wybrew 35).  Hugh Wybrew notes that “this older view was not lost from the Byzantine Liturgy: it continued to be expressed in the litany after the eucharistic prayer and elsewhere” (35).  If we accept the notion that the earliest Christian Eucharist was rooted in an attempt to repeat the actions of Christ during the Last Supper exactly, including the use of unleavened bread (for which there appears to be little evidence), then the original use of leavened bread may have been an expression of the emerging resurrectional focus of the liturgy.  There is, however, no historical evidence for these suppositions as they relate to the character of sacramental bread. 

 

Wybrew writes that “it is impossible to be certain about the precise form and function of the Church’s ministry at this [early] time” (15).  He notes, however, that

 

Writing to the Christians at Corinth in AD 52, St Paul claimed to have received from the Lord the tradition ‘that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread… and said, “…Do this in remembrance of me”… In the same way also the cup…’ (1 Cor. 11.23-5)” (13)

 

The question remains: what is it that is to be done?  Did Christ instruct His disciples to celebrate the full formal Jewish Passover meal in remembrance of Him?  Did He speak of just the act of the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup?  Was it to be celebrated once a year on the day of the Jewish Passover?  Or were the Apostles correct in participating in the Eucharist on the Day of the Lord—every Sunday?[ii] 

 

Perhaps, Christ gave answers to these and similar questions during the forty days after His Resurrection when He spoke to His disciples about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).  From what we know about the praxis of the Apostolic Church, it may be asserted that the apostles did not understand the Christian Eucharist as a full formal Jewish Passover meal to be celebrated once a year.  Not too much more than this, however, can be asserted about the forms of the earliest specifically Christian worship with any degree of certitude.  Schmemann, for example, remarks that “the study of the new material discovered at Qumran [has] shown clearly the general dependence of Christian prayer and cult on the cult of the synagogue” (Schmemann, Liturgical Theology 55).  First, as Schmemann admits, only the general dependence can be established; and second, it is at best unclear how documents generated in the second century B.C. by a group of Essenes can shed much clarity on “Christian prayer and cult” of the second half of the first century A.D.

 

More to the point of our study, Schmemann argues that in the sacrifice of the Eucharist which Christ offers to us and which we offer to Him,

 

…which we have been given and commanded to offer and in the offering of which the Church fulfills herself as Christ’s life in us and ours in him, is not a new sacrifice, something “other” in relation to the single, all-encompassing and unrepeatable one that Christ offered once (Heb 9:28). (Schmemann, The Eucharist 104)

 

What is it then, we may ask, that is at the core of the Eucharist?  Is it a symbol of that which cannot even be repeated because it happened only once, or is it the entrance into a reality of that which was before beginning and will be after the end, the reality of Him Who said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).  Schmemann believes that the Eucharist may be both the reality and its symbol and that the two can coexist in one and the same liturgical act: “…and excludes the contraposition of ‘symbol’ and ‘reality’” (The Eucharist 106).

 

This principle of reality beyond our comprehension and above our limitations, of that reality which transcends symbolism, of the place in the absence of space and at a moment that is outside of time, fills the whole of the liturgical experience.  Thus, the priest who offers the Eucharist does not merely represent Christ—he shares in the very priesthood of Christ.  How can this be?—Would it not be just a theatrical performance any other way?  Schmemann insists that the priest

 

…can fulfill this service [of the Eucharist—S.S.] only because the priesthood of the priest is not “his,” not “other” in relation to the priesthood of Christ, but the one and the same indivisible priesthood of Christ, which eternally lives and is eternally fulfilled in the Church, the body of Christ. (The Eucharist 115)

 

Christ became the pure lamb which the world sacrificed, but in this act the world killed itself.  God the Son took our nature upon Himself, and in sacrificing Him, we also sacrificed and continue to sacrifice ourselves.  As with all sacrificial acts, one dimension of this world has to be destroyed in order for the other—a higher one—to emerge.  Commenting on this dying of the world on the cross of its Savior, Schmemann writes:

 

…[I]n that murder the world itself died.  It lost its last chance to become the paradise God created it to be.  We can go on developing new and better material things.  We can build a more humane society which may even keep us from annihilating each other.  But when Christ, the true life of the world, was rejected, it was the beginning of the end.  That rejection had a finality about it: He was crucified for good. (For the Life of the World 23)

 

But Schmemann’s thought must be developed further.  Christ, the true life of the world, was rejected before He became incarnate; and the world died to the life with God before Archangel Gabriel brought his greeting to the purest young woman who lived in Palestine two millennia ago.  There was no alternative to the Calvary, no possibility that the dying humanity would recognize its Physician, listen to His preaching, and live happily ever after.  The world and Christ had to die.  But in this death, the world ascended to the Cross with Christ from which we see the dawn of the Resurrection.  “Christianity does not condemn the world.  The world has condemned itself when on Calvary it condemned the One who was its true self” (ibid.).  But in this condemnation, we who are the Body of Christ also become condemned with Him; we who are united to the Lamb are also “accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36).  In Him, we are born of the Virgin and baptized in the Jordan, drive sin from the Temple of our souls and weep in the Garden, die on the Cross and rise on the third day to be ascended to the right side of the Father.  “…[W]e have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  Yes, with Him the world is crucified, but our old self must be “crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6).  Yes, in Him we die, but “we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6:8).  This organic connection between Christ and us is at the very foundation of the liturgy and the Eucharist, and will become important as we discuss the significance of sacramental bread.

 

Just as the loaf is greater than and of a character different from that of the sum of flour, water, salt, and leaven, in the same way the Body of Christ is greater than and of a character different from that of the sum of individuals who compose it.  Schmemann writes that upon entering the Church, individuals transcend not only their individuality, but also the unity of natural communities:

 

They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the “natural” world and a natural community.  And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very “world” with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life…  The purpose of this “coming together” is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it “better”—more responsible, more Christian.  The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning. (For the Life of the World 27)

 

In the sacral life of the Church, we may speak not only of natural bonds between humans, not only of the “gluten” inherent to humans and coming from within them, but also of the leaven of the Holy Spirit that transforms and transcends, that lifts up, raises the otherwise “flat” mass, that comes from without and makes us what we have not ever been.  In Orthodoxy, “the liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession … of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom” (ibid. 26).  But the vector of this movement is not one-dimensional; united with Christ’s divinity, His Body transforms and is not only glorified through movement toward God, but is also deified from within in what the Fathers referred to as theosis.  The Spirit of God not only directs the Church, but works through the Church “until all of it [is] leavened” (Matt. 13:33).

 

So, what is it that happens at the Eucharist?  What is the teaching of the Orthodox Church concerning the Eucharistic species?  While some theologians have indeed made their pronouncements on the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem, the Orthodox Church steers away from them and from giving an answer to these questions beyond that which is written:

 

“This is my body, this is my blood.  Take, eat, drink…”  And generations upon generations of theologians ask the same questions.  How is this possible?  How does this happen?  And what exactly does happen in this transformation?  And when exactly?  And what is the cause?  No answer seems to be satisfactory.  Symbol?  But what is a symbol?  Substance, accidents?  Yet one immediately feels that something is lacking in all these theories, in which the Sacrament is reduced to the categories of time, substance, and causality, the very categories of “this world.”(Schmemann, For the Life of the World 42)

 

Distilling precise scholastic definitions of that which defies defining may be likened to a student dissecting a living organism in order to study it, “only, unluckily, the spiritual bond is wanting”(von Goethe 55), and what is left after the dissection is not at all what the student set out to study.  It is because of this inherent flaw within scholasticism that Orthodoxy favors patristic thought.  As neat and orderly as the teaching of the seven Sacraments is (see Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 4:58), as tempting as it may be to a systematic theologian, it cannot be and does not get fully accepted by the Eastern thought.  In this work I have referred and will continue to refer to the Eucharist as a Sacrament, but inclusively rather than exclusively.  For I choose to include such synergetic acts as repentance, death, prayer, and many others, as Sacraments, not unlike those of confession and holy unction—all of them are completed at the convergence and through the union of the act of God and the act of man.  To be sure, many a textbook on Orthodox dogmatic theology published under the undeniable influence of Western doctrines does contain the list of the Seven Sacraments of the Church, but patristic thought knows only one Sacrament—the Sacrament of salvation.  The number of its most solemn tangible connections to the life of an individual Christian varies from author to author—from two to eight or more, but all are understood to be non-exhaustive and tentative.  We have been using the word “sacrament” in its commonly accepted Western sense throughout this work, but it must now be noted that the Orthodox Church does not separate the “lesser” Sacraments from the only Sacrament of salvation.  Furthermore, the Sacrament of salvation is not subject to the categories of space and time, individuality and community, but is the pre-eternal act of God, the sacrificial act of being, to which our very being must be joined.  Thus, the sacramentum sacramentorum[iii] cannot be seen as ontologically separate from our act of being; rather, it is best understood as the very act of our being in God.

 

Noonday

And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning.

 

—Job 11:17

The problem of being is undeniably complex and may be characterized by a lack of consensus on the basic tenets of what it means to be.  If we answer Hamlet’s enquiry[iv] in the affirmative, then we enter into the realm of questions that have withstood the assaults of the brightest of thinkers.  Views on being are as diverse as the philosophers and theologians that have produced them.  In this study, we shall primarily focus on the views of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293—373) as expounded by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon a noted contemporary theologian and the Chairman of the Academy of Athens.

 

Zizioulas notes that the communion with God, in which we enter through the Eucharist, is the very life of God Himself, Who is the communion of the Trinity: “The life of the eucharist is the life of God Himself…  It is the life of communion with God, such as exists within the Trinity and is actualized within the members of the eucharistic community”(81).  It is important that the being of God is not ontologically the same as the being of His Church—it is actualized within the Church, but does not characterize its ontological essence.  This is especially important as we turn our attention to the being of Christ in communion with the Father and the being of the world in communion with God.  Zizioulas asserts that “the Son’s being belongs to the substance of God, while that of the world belongs to the will of God”(84)—a distinction first made by Saint Athanasius.  This distinction is necessary in order to break the ontological connection of God to the world that had existed in Greek thought: “God’s being, in an ultimate sense, remained free in relation to the world, in such a way that the Greek mind could identify it as “being” without having to link it with the world out of an ontological necessity” (ibid.).

 

Thus, the trap that had not been avoided by such theologians as Justin the Martyr and Origen, was rendered empty by Athanasius who was able to protect the biblical roots of uniquely Christian ontology without departing from the highest standards of Greek thought.  In doing so and in connecting the Son’s being with the very substance of God, Athanasius “transformed the idea of substance … [by building on] the Eucharistic thinking of Ignatius [of Antioch] and Irenaeus [of Lyons]”:

 

To say that the Son belongs to God’s substance implies that substance possesses almost by definition a relational character.  “Has God ever existed without His own (Son)?”  This question has an extreme ontological importance.  The word “ever” in the sentence is used of course not temporally but logically, or rather ontologically.  It refers not to a time in God, but to the nature of His being, to His being qua being.  If God’s being is by nature relational, and if it can be signified by the word “substance,” can we not then conclude almost inevitably that, given the ultimate character of God’s being for all ontology, substance, inasmuch as it signifies the ultimate character of being, can be conceived only as communion? (ibid.)

 

This conclusion is of utmost importance to us as we explore the relationship of the ultimate truth of the Eucharist to the matter signified by sacramental bread.  Inasmuch as the bread of the Eucharist contains the substance of our humanity, the will of God actualizes itself through the Eucharist in the relational being of the Church and ultimately in the true being of the world as communion, not only of the Church with God but equally of the Church within itself.  Through the Eucharist, the faithful enter into the Chalcedonian mystery of the Son and form the union of one Body of Christ in the very same way that the Chalcedonian Creed describes Christ’s incarnation: in many individuals, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of individuals being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each individual being preserved… 

 

Through the Eucharistic approach to being—of God, His Church, and her members in Christ—“Athanasius develops the idea that communion belongs not to the level of will and action but to that of substance.  Thus it establishes itself as an ontological category”(Zizioulas 86).  This is precisely why patristic thought rejects scholastic sacramentology: being cannot be dissected without ceasing to be.  As Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam so pointedly noted:

 

And devoutly, no doubt, did the Apostles consecrate the Eucharist; yet, had they been askt the question touching the ‘Terminus a quo’ and the ‘Terminus ad quem’ of the Transubstantiation; of the manner how the same body can be in several places at one and the same time; of the difference the body of Christ has in Heaven from that on the Cross, or this in the Sacrament; in what punct of time Trasubstantiation is, whereas Prayer, by means of which it is, as being a descrete quantity, is transient; they would not, I conceive, have answer’d with the same subtilty as the Scotists Dispute and Define it.(117-8)

 

Examples of such treatment of the Eucharist were quoted in sections above, but here is another sample produced by a theologian, of whom Erasmus said that had the Apostles “been to deal with this new kind of Divines, had needed to have pray’d in aid of some other Spirit”(117):

 

…it seems impossible that the substance of the bread returns to nothingness. For much of the bodily nature first created would have already returned into nothingness from the repetition of this mystery. Neither is it becoming that in a sacrament of salvation something be reduced to nothing by the divine power. Nor is it even possible that the substance of the bread is resolved into prime matter, since prime matter cannot be without form—except, perhaps, that one is to understand by “prime matter” the primary bodily elements. To be sure, if the substance of the bread were resolved into these, this very thing would necessarily be perceived by the senses, since the bodily elements are sensible. There would also be local transmutation in the place and bodily alteration of contraries. And these cannot be instantaneous. (Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles 4.63.5)

 

Indeed, one must pray for the aid of a spirit different from the One Who enlightened the Eastern Fathers if one hopes to see in this passage any relation to being as communion with God in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

 

For Eastern Orthodox thought formulated by Athanasius and further developed by the Cappadocians, communion is primarily an ontological category, the unique ousia[v] of God—the hypostasis of the Father (see Rahner 58 and passim).  The Eucharistic species can also be understood in ontological categories as being homoousios[vi] with God.  This proposition brings us to a unique view of the Trinitarian fullness of the Eucharist in Eastern thought: it contains the Uncontainable, it encapsulates Him Who holds all of creation in the palm of His hand, it becomes wider than heaven: it unites with the very ousia of God, that is to say, the hypostasis of the Father; and the hypostasis of the Son Who is present in the Eucharist in both natures—divine and human; and the hypostasis of the Spirit Who present in both the ousia and the uncreated action (energia).  It is easy to see the organic connection between the Eucharist and the Incarnation of God—a point to which we will return in the next chapter.

*           *           *

We have considered the Eastern Orthodox view on the character of sacramental bread, and often had to resort to apophatic formulations.  What can be positively said about the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist?  If the Western scholastic position does not adequately reflect Eastern views, what then is the Eastern position?  If the language of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is not the one that the Orthodox Church prefers to use, what language then can describe what happens to the Eucharistic species?  I wish to postulate that these questions come from within the scholastic paradigm and may not be fully answered within the framework of Eastern Orthodox thought that steers away from scholasticism.  The Eastern Fathers most often approach sacramental questions from the position of mysticism.  As Saint Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) writes in the preface to his Mystagogia, God has “a simple [in the sense of Aristotelian primary substances—S.S.], unknowable existence, inaccessible to all things and completely unexplainable, for He is beyond affirmation and negation” (qtd. in Zizioulas 90).  Therefore, “truth lies beyond the choice between affirmation and negation” (ibid.) and beyond the possibility of choosing between the true and the false (see also Maximus’ Ambigua).  The East favors the mystical language of the icon[vii]: a symbol?  Yes!  Reality?  Yes!  But more correctly, an icon is a portal through which the divine enters our world by action which is always relational.  Thus, the formative event of the Last Supper can be best understood in iconic terms:

 

It was not one “sacrament” out of “two” or “seven” that He offered them [His disciples], nor simply a memorial of Himself, but a real image [icon] of the Kingdom.  At least this is how the Church saw it from the beginning.  In the eucharist, therefore, the Church found the structure of the Kingdom, and it was this structure that she transferred to her own structure.  In the eucharist the “many” become “one” (I Cor. 10:17), the people of God become the Church by being called from their dispersion (ek-klesia) to one place… Through her communion in the eternal life of the Trinity, the Church becomes “the body of Christ,” that body in which death has been conquered and by virtue of which the eschatological unity of all is offered as a promise to the entire world.  The historical Jesus and the eschatological Christ in this way become one reality, and thus a real synthesis of history with eschatology takes place. (Zizioulas 206)

 

This ontological view of communion takes the Eucharist out of the realm of scholastic limitations that cannot be overcome even through the term “sacramentum sacramentorum,” but presents its own challenges: referring to communion as the ousia of God, as the simplest being, as an Aristotelian “primary substance” (see Categories 2a11), places logical and linguistic limitations on our ability to treat the subject cataphatically (since primary substances lack definitions) as we attempt to speak of that which is “neithersaid-of nor present-in.”  It appears inevitable that a certain synergy of the mystical and scholastic approaches must take place in order to address the Orthodox view of the Eucharist in a way that may be understood not only with the heart, but equally with the mind. 

 

The challenge of this task is in finding a practical way of uniting the whole and the divided, the living body and dissection.  These seemingly irreconcilable concepts appear to be at the core of the Eastern approach to the Sacraments and of the Western scholastic approach respectively.  Consider, for example, the fact that “in the early Church, at least until the middle of the fourth century, the Crucifixion was not celebrated as a separate event from the Resurrection, as if they were two distinct actions or events…” (Behr 31).  I shall add that throughout the history of Orthodox worship, the separate events of Christ’s salvific act have been firmly united (would it be too much to propose: “in a Chalcedonian way”?) within the liturgy of the Church. 

 

In fact, the liturgy contains many examples that defy the linear chronological scholastic approach.  In the service of prothesis (the Liturgy of Preparation), for example, “the star comes and stands over where the young Child is” (Service Book 21)—clearly words and actions which symbolize the Nativity—after “sacrificed is the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world, for the life and salvation of the world” (12) and after “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (13).  Similarly, in the anamnesis proper speaks of “all that came to pass … the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming” (Chrysostom 22).  Thus, the conventional notion of historical time is completely disregarded in that not only we, but neither could Saint John Chrysostom, technically speaking, could “remember” the events that are listed.  But even more importantly, this “remembrance” includes things that are traditionally thought of as having come to pass (the cross, the tomb, etc.) together with that which has not—“the second, glorious coming.”

 

This understanding of the Liturgy as independent of the conventions of space and time, however, is not unique to Orthodoxy, but is shared by all those within the liturgical tradition; just as scholasticism is not an exclusive characteristic of the Western thought, but can be observed in both modern and patristic theology.  Perhaps here on the “route from the Varangians to the Greeks,” one should seek the proper balance of the Eastern and Western approaches to the theology of the living Body, rather than of a dissected cadaver or a bodiless ghost.  I do not claim to have found this golden mean, but it seems promising to apply the symbolism of sacramental bread as a tool in speaking about various disciplines and concepts within systematic theology.  Far from presenting this humble attempt as a “theory of everything,” I wish to offer it as one possible bond, the gluten of sorts, capable of facilitating the growth in all “three measures of flour until all of it is leavened” (Matt. 13:33).

 

 

 

 


[i] I shall not insist that these peculiarities are exclusive to Eastern Orthodoxy; indeed, much of the faith is shared by both the Eastern and the Western Churches.  Typically, we may speak merely of degrees and foci—not of presence and absence.

[ii] See, for example, a note by Ratzinger in The Feast of Faith, p. 44 (a).

[iii]Sermo etiam est de Sanctissimo Sacramento quia ipsum est sacramentum sacramentorum  (Catechismus Cath. Eccl. 1330).

[iv] Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act III scene 1, the opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy: “To be or not to be, that is the question…”

[v]  From the Greek οὐσία, which can be loosely translated as “the very being” or “the very essence.”

[vi]  From the Greek ὁμός, “same” and οὐσία, “essence, being.”  “Homoousios” is usually translated into English as “of the same essence.”

[vii] The common English transliteration of this Greek word—“icon”—is the standard theological term.  But, perhaps, this adopted word is becoming too common, and its original meaning is being altered in the English language.  In this instance, however, the 1982 computing term appears to have an interesting parallel to the theological concept of the icon: a computer icon is a portal through which the “essence” of the computer enters into our dimension by relational (at least in some sense) action.

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