About Communion

All too often, the modern ecumenical rhetoric seeks to minimize our differences by saying that they are only “skin-deep,” or that we are all climbing toward the same mountain top, albeit from a different direction. Such an approach is not only counterproductive, as the differences will not get resolved if we simply choose to ignore their existence (much like a fallen tree across the path will not disappear just by being ignored), but this approach also goes against the foundational experience of the Church.
| 30 April 2009

The interview with Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, Rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia Orthodox Church in Mulino, Oregon, the author of a new book titled Break the Holy Bread, Master: A Theology of Communion Bread, by Fr. Chris Metropulos, Executive Director of the Orthodox Christian Network:




 Fr. Chris: Now, bread has always been incredibly important to human life and civilization, and Christ calls himself the “Bread of Life.” Can you talk a little about the significance of bread and Christ’s choice to compare Himself to it?


Fr. Sergei: Bread is quite literally that of which we are made.  Most humans who have ever lived on planet Earth used some form of bread-like food for their nourishment: from the wheat bread of the Egyptians to the cornmeal of the Native Americans to the rice cakes of the Asian people and to the rye porridge of the Slavs and northern Europeans—our bodies are made of it as much as grain is made of the dust of the earth.  Thus, in the ancient world, bread served as the symbol of the body; in fact, some have noted that the words for “bread” and “body” were used interchangeably in ancient Greek—the language of the Gospels.  It is, perhaps, through this connection between human life and bread that we may understand the words of Christ “I am the Bread of life”: In other words, “I am just as essential to your life as the very bread you eat.  Through partaking of bread which is matter, you are matter; through partaking of Me, you become My Body.” 


Related to this is another important aspect of the symbolism of bread.  The bread of the ancient Hebrews did not look like the loaves one most often sees at an American grocery store. Perhaps a good way to describe that bread would be a large dinner roll.  They were round “blobs” that looked very similar to stones.  And this interplay between the symbols of stone and bread is extensively used in the Scripture. “If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone?” (Luke 11:11)  There is, of course, a major difference: stones are dead and represent death—they are used for burial mounds, while bread represents nourishment and life.


Fr. Chris:  Father, there are also a number of scriptural passages about bread and stone. Would you explain that a little more?


Fr. Sergei:  The Church Fathers teach that the word “stones” in the Scripture often refers to people who are hardened in their sin and are as if dead, and whom Christ came to save.  While tempting Christ, the devil urges Him to turn stones into bread (Matt. 4:3).  Satan is rather clever: he knows that this is precisely why Christ came to dwell among us—to turn us, dead stones without Christ, into bread.  And He does, but not the earthly bread; rather, He raises up out of stones spiritual children of Abraham (Matt. 3:9) who make up His Body—the loaf of the New Testament.  Consider the following parallel: Christ is not only the Bread, but also the cornerstone (Matt. 21:42) and the stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23).


Fr. Chris: There are some Biblical scholars who have said that Christ’s words “I am the Bread of Life” should be translated differently for some cultures, so in Asian languages it should read “I am the rice of life.” Would you tell us a little more about that and what you think about it?


Fr. Sergei: This is not so much a problem among biblical scholars as it is among biblical translators, and is known as the issue of the dynamic and formal equivalence of a translation.  The argument is that in cultures where bread is not used (at least, in the form that is used in our culture), the meaning of the phrase “I am the Bread of Life” would be lost.  Of course, applying this logic to some subcultures within our own society we would be forced to entertain such translations as “I am the hamburger of life,” or “I am the latte of life,” or even “I am the video game of life” as some teens exhibit a stronger attraction to video games than they do to wheat bread.


There is certainly a need for some adaptation of ancient texts produced by one culture but now read by a very different one.  The holy Apostle Luke, for example, replaced some hebraisms of his sources with words that could be more easily understood by his community.  There has to be a limit to these adaptations, however.  We should not tell the Alaskan natives about a supper seal pup instead of the Paschal Lamb only because they do not raise sheep and their ancestors did not flee from Egypt. Personally, I am in favor of educating the faithful and explaining to them the meaning of foreign-sounding concepts in the Scriptures, rather than replacing bread with fish for the Inuit, wine with sake for the Japanese, and Passover with the Boston Tea Party for the American.


Fr. Chris: The Orthodox Church professes the Eucharistic bread is the body of Christ, not merely a representation of it. How can that be – it looks like bread, tastes like bread.


Fr. Sergei:  Indeed, it does.  Much like the wine of the Chalice does not lose its properties specific to wine—just ask any deacon who has to consume the Gifts from a large chalice.  This mystery is not unique to the Eucharistic Species, however.  We are the Body of Christ, but we are usually not puzzled by the fact that we do not look like Christ’s toenails or elbows.  Yet we ask “how can it be that the bread of the Eucharist looks like bread”?  Perhaps in the same way that Fr. Chris is a part of Christ’s Body, but nonetheless looks like Fr. Chris.  In Communion the Church unites with Christ, but the Apostle Paul calls this “a great mystery” (Eph. 5:32).  Orthodoxy has reverently remained at this threshold of mystery without attempting to rip off the veil.  Scholasticism, on the other hand, does offer explanations of the “mechanics” of transubstantiation, but these doctrines are hardly worth discussing here.


Fr. Chris: Eucharistic bread played a major role in the Great Schism. First off, Father, let’s hear from you very briefly about what we mean when we say “Great Schism.”


Fr. Sergei:  There is, of course, the infamous date of 1054 when the Roman legate Cardinal Humbert and the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael exchanged mutual excommunications, but it is only one milepost in the long history of what one theologian referred to as “the divergence of hearts.”  The Great Schism is the process through which the Eastern and Western Churches realized themselves as no longer being of the same tradition, as no longer speaking the same Christian language.  This divergence of hearts between the Eastern and Western Churches has become all-encompassing: we can now see things both in Roman Catholic doctrine and praxis that are simply incompatible with Orthodoxy.  In 1053-1054, however, one of the main arguments was about the character of sacramental bread.


Fr. Chris: So, what was the argument about bread?


Fr. Sergei:  In short, Eastern bishops noticed, among other things, that the Latins used unleavened bread for the Eucharist and they confronted the Roman pontiff about this fact in writing.  The pope ordered a response drawn up, and thus was born the theological debate over leaven.  To be sure, both Churches used leavened bread until at least the fifth century, and it was sometime between then and the eleventh centuries that the West began using unleavened hosts.  By the eleventh century, however, both the East and the West felt that their tradition was the original one established by the Apostles and even Christ Himself in the act of the Last Supper.  Thus, one argument focused on the nature of the Last Supper and its relation to the Christian Eucharist.


Another argument focused on theology.  The ecumenical movement of today chooses to focus on what we have in common and to ignore our differences as non-essential or unimportant.  The ancients, on the other hand, treated even minor “surface” differences as indicative of deeper theological problems.  Recall, for example, the Trinitarian debate during the First Ecumenical Council which focused on only one letter in one word (ὁмппэуйпт vs.  ὁмпйпэуйпт)?  Similarly, the use of unleavened bread by the Latins was understood by Constantinople as indicative of profound theological problems.


Fr. Chris: Orthodox of the time called the used of unleavened bread a “dead sacrifice.” Why did they choose the word “dead” to describe it?


Fr. Sergei:  Actually, the term “dead sacrifice” in reference to the Latin Eucharist was famously used by Saint Mark of Ephesus in the fifteenth century.  We can only speculate whether Saint Mark meant that any sacrifice of the Latins would have been dead, or whether it was specifically the “dead sacrifice of unleavened bread,” which is what he said.  If the latter is the case, then Saint Mark may have been referring to the Roman argument that the lack of leaven in their sacramental bread indicates that the Holy Spirit left Christ’s Body at the time of His death on the Cross.  Consistent with this belief, the Latins also use cold wine in their Eucharist.  The Greeks, on the other hand, argued that the Holy Spirit remained in Christ’s Body even in death, and that leaven signifies the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, in the Eastern tradition we also add hot water to the communion chalice to show that Christ’s Blood is warm.  Even in iconography, when we depict Christ on the Cross, we show that the Blood is flowing from His pierced side with a force like from a fountain, which would be impossible if the heart had stopped pumping.  This is not some sort of lack of realism, but a theological statement.


Fr. Chris: Let us talk for a moment about the Holy Spirit, who, according to the Catholic tradition, left Christ’s body BEFORE he died, whereas the Orthodox Church holds that the Holy Spirit remained with Christ throughout his Crucifixion and into death. Why is that important overall and especially in terms of our discussion about the Eucharistic bread?


Fr. Sergei:  When we say “the Catholic tradition,” we must note that this is often a very misleading concept.  Catholicism no longer exists as a unified tradition, but rather as a collection of various theologies, beliefs, and traditions.  There are Roman Catholics—a Jesuit priest and scholar Robert Taft, for example, who celebrate the Eucharist according to the Byzantine Rite and promote it as superior to the Latin Mass.  There are also Roman Catholic bishops here in the United States who in October of 2003 recommended taking the filioque clause out of the Creed and returning to the original Orthodox Creed of 381.[1]  So, I would hesitate to make a generalized statement that anything at all is “according to the Catholic tradition,” even though the current Roman pontiff is actively working to standardize some aspects of the Catholic tradition.


As to the absence of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s dead Body, this teaching was the prominent position taken by the Roman Church in the debate over the character of Eucharistic bread.  The logic is as simple as it is convincing: God is the fullness and the source of life, and Christ’s death on the Cross would have been impossible if the very source of life was present within Him at that moment.  Therefore, God or the Holy Spirit had to leave Christ’s Body in order to allow it to die.  Very similar thoughts can be found in some Church Fathers’ commentaries on the words of Christ on the Cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46)  


As logical and straightforward as this argument is, however, there is a problem with it.  First of all, if God did not die on the Cross, but only the man Jesus from Galilee, then in His incarnation God did not become fully human, because the fullness of being human includes our death.  Of course, the Orthodox position defined in the Chalcedonian Confession insists that the Son of God became “truly man” in His incarnation.


Furthermore, if we were to accept that God left Jesus at the moment of death, then such a proposition would require first the reversal of the incarnation, and then its repetition, as God entered back into Jesus, presumably at the moment of the resurrection.  It is easy to see that these conclusions are incompatible with Orthodox teaching.  The same Chalcedonian Confession states that Christ is to be acknowledged in two natures, Divine and human, “without … division, or separation” (indivise, inseparabiliter).


Of course, your question was about the Holy Spirit, but the same principle applies: we should not try to divide the indivisible Trinity by proposing that there was a moment when the Son remained on the Cross, but the Spirit was absent.  Besides, such a proposal would not solve our problem: whether we speak of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit, the logical impossibility of the death of God Who is the fullness of life remains the same.  So, as it applies to the debate of the eleventh century, the Orthodox position was that the Holy Spirit most certainly remained with Christ in His death.


Fr. Chris: Now, we have communion because of Christ’s instructions at the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal. That means he would have been using unleavened bread, right? So shouldn’t we?


Fr. Sergei:  The Last Supper was not a Passover meal in the strict definition of what a Passover meal is.  Certainly it had major elements of a Passover meal, and Christ Himself instructed His disciples to prepare the Passover (Matt. 26:19).  But Passover cannot be celebrated on a Thursday or every Sunday thereafter.  One can certainly hold a New Year’s party on December 28th, but it will not be the New Year, even if you choose to stay up until midnight.


Furthermore, the celebration of the Passover is a “memorial” to Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:14); it is kept in remembrance of that event.  The Last Supper of Christ was different, at least as far as traditional Judean sensibilities were concerned.  Instead of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).  Certainly, seen through the lens of Christian theology, this makes perfect sense, but it clearly departed from the Judean Passover institution.


However, neither was the Last Supper the first Eucharist in the fullest sense.  First of all, the Last Supper took place before the crucifixion and the resurrection.  It quite literally was Christ’s last supper before His death.  The Christian Eucharist, on the other hand, is a post-resurrection event; in it we partake of Christ’s risen Body, not of that of the Last Supper.  Some theological work has been aimed at placing the Last Supper outside of space and time, but this is a different topic.


So, Orthodox liturgical theology is not so much concerned with the exact types of foods Christ actually had at the Last Supper—leavened or unleavened bread, rack of lamb or lamb shank—as much as it is concerned with what we should have for the Eucharistic Supper of the New Testament.  And since apostolic times the Church has used the risen loaf, rather than the unleavened “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3).


Fr. Chris: One of the fundamental differences between Passover and the Eucharist is that the Passover is only for Jews, whereas the Eucharist is meant to be for everyone, even though not everyone chooses to receive it. Would you talk a little more about that?


Fr. Sergei:  There indeed is a prohibition against foreigners eating the Passover contained in the book of Exodus 12:43.  This, however, does not mean that Passover is only for the Jews.  Rather, it is only for people who have chosen to join the faith of the people of Israel.  Verse 48 of the same chapter says that any stranger who becomes of one faith with the Judeans, which was signified through circumcision, may keep the Passover.


Exodus was a tribal event in the history of the Jewish people.  The Greeks or the Chinese, for example, were not delivered from slavery in Egypt.  Christ, on the other hand, offered salvation to all—the Greek and the Jew, the slave and the free—and that is why we can say that the Eucharist is offered to all, even though not everyone chooses to receive it.


Fr. Chris: Now if the Eucharist is meant to be for everyone, then why are only members of the Orthodox Church allowed to partake?


Fr. Sergei:  The Eucharist is the sacrament of our unity in the Body of Christ.  If people choose not to be united in this Body—whether because they do not believe that the Orthodox Church is the Body, or for any other reason—then they cannot partake of that sacrament of unity.  The Eucharist is the result of лейфпхсгЯб—the common work of the Body.  One cannot just “pop in” for some bread and wine.  If there is no unity of faith and life, there cannot be unity in the Eucharist.


Fr. Chris: We should also talk about Orthodox receiving the Eucharist at non-Orthodox churches, because most of us have family members and friends who aren’t Orthodox. What does the Orthodox Church say about this and, MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHY does it hold these teachings?


Fr. Sergei:  The answer, of course is, the same.  In partaking of the Eucharist of the heterodox, one would be entering into a union with them, a union of faith and life.  One cannot simply accept their Eucharist while rejecting their teaching.  And this acceptance would necessitate a certain rejection of Orthodoxy.  Think of it as marriage: one cannot marry another wife without rejecting the first one, although perhaps in some cultures this would not be a very good example.  In the same way, by uniting with another faith in the sacrament of the Eucharist, one would be rejecting Orthodoxy.


There is another aspect.  Strictly speaking, Orthodoxy teaches that the sacrament of the Eucharist only exists in the Church.  It should not sound very surprising that the Body is only in the Body, and there is no Body outside the Body.  And most traditional and neo-Protestants will agree: for the most part they have a very different understanding of sacraments, and do not believe that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Instead, to them it is a symbol and a memorial.  This understanding adds one more level to one’s union with the heterodox in their Eucharist.


Fr. Chris: We’ve talked about a lot of complicated ideas today, but the Eucharist isn’t a set of rules or formulas, is it, Father?


Fr. Sergei:  Of course, not!  Painting with brooms instead of brushes and using very broad strokes, we may say that Communion is the life of the Trinity, and we are invited to share in this life through the Eucharist—communion with the Son.  Another way to look at it is that the Eucharist is our very life, and eternal life with God is life in and through communion with the Son.  To those who choose to be with God, it is given to partake of this communion already in this life, while anticipating to partake of it “more truly” in the day of his kingdom that has no evening.[2]  Similarly, those who choose not to be with God are given the freedom to begin their path away from Him already in this life.


Fr. Chris: At the end of your book, you write “While all roads may indeed lead to Rome, it must be possible to be walking in the opposite direction.” Tell us what you mean by that.


Fr. Sergei:  All too often, the modern ecumenical rhetoric seeks to minimize our differences by saying that they are only “skin-deep,” or that we are all climbing toward the same mountain top, albeit from a different direction.  Such an approach is not only counterproductive, as the differences will not get resolved if we simply choose to ignore their existence (much like a fallen tree across the path will not disappear just by being ignored), but this approach also goes against the foundational experience of the Church.  The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, for example, chose not to climb the same mountain that Arius was climbing.


As I write in the book: “While all roads may indeed lead to Rome, it must be possible to be walking in the opposite direction…  We may wish to think that if only the Jews had understood that what Jesus was saying was the very thing they had heard day after day in their own synagogues, that their differences were only skin-deep—then they would not have tried to stone Him and His disciples to death.  But He chose to die on the Cross.  We may wish to think that if only the Christian martyrs had understood that worshiping pagan idols would have been just another path to the same mountain top…—then they would not have had to have been tortured and put to death.  But they chose torture and death” (85-6).


Fr. Chris: I’d like to close today by having you read a section of your book, Father. Would you please?


Fr. Sergei: “The Eucharist is not a game; it is not some outer decoration or a symbol.  Rather, it is more real than anything we know.  But it is not real apart from us.  God is not playing a game with us, making decorations and props to fool us.  We make up that reality; we make up the Body.  To God, Communion is not just one of many paths that those so inclined may choose, while others choose other props to help them feel good about themselves.  Rather, Communion is the very being of the Trinity and of the Body” (86).



[1] “The Filioque: A Church-Dividing issue?” 25 October 2003

[2] From the Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus, Ode 9.

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