Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist: Part II

I pick up from last time in John of Damascus’ The Orthodox Faith, 4,13:

For it was fitting that not only the first-fruits of our nature should partake in the higher good but every man who wished it, and that a second birth should take place and that the nourishment should be new and suitable to the birth and thus the measure of perfection be attained. Through His birth, that is, His incarnation, and baptism and passion and resurrection, He delivered our nature from the sin of our first parent and death and corruption, and became the first-fruits of the resurrection, and made Himself the way and image and pattern, in order that we, too, following in His footsteps, may become by adoption what He is Himself by nature, sons and heirs of God and joint heirs with Him. He gave us therefore, as I said, a second birth in order that, just as we who are born of Adam are in his image and are the heirs of the curse and corruption, so also being born of Him we may be in His likeness and heirs of His incorruption and blessing and glory.

His reference to the Incarnation is important, as it is germane to a proper understanding of the Eucharist.

Now seeing that this Adam is spiritual, it was meet that both the birth and likewise the food should be spiritual too, but since we are of a double and compound nature, it is meet that both the birth should be double and likewise the food compound. We were therefore given a birth by water and Spirit: I mean, by the holy baptism: and the food is the very bread of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who came down from heaven. For when He was about to take on Himself a voluntary death for our sakes, on the night on which He gave Himself up, He laid a new covenant on His holy disciples and apostles, and through them on all who believe on Him. In the upper chamber, then, of holy and illustrious Zion, after He had eaten the ancient Passover with His disciples and had fulfilled the ancient covenant, He washed His disciples’ feet in token of the holy baptism. Then having broken bread He gave it to them saying, Take, eat, this is My body broken for you for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:26) Likewise also He took the cup of wine and water and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it: for this is My blood, the blood of the New Testament which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do ye in remembrance of Me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the death of the Son of man and confess His resurrection until He come. (Matthew 26:27-27)

Now we begin to get to the heart of the matter.

  1. “…both the birth should be double and likewise the food compound.” He draws an analogy between our birth and rebirth being separate events and the two natures of the food of the Eucharist. Part of the weakness of transubstantiation is that it minimises the compound nature of the food. But John’s view of the Eucharist is incarnational.
  2. It’s interesting to note that he regards foot washing as a token of baptism; that’s an analogy I hadn’t considered. In the Church of God, foot washing is regarded along with baptism and communion as at least ordinances. In our consideration of sacramentality, foot washing will certainly have to be included in our considerations, and we’re pretty much on our own on that.
  3. John tells us that our new birth is via baptism. This is something I cannot agree with. It is an occupational hazard of sacramental systems that they come to regard their actions as the entire necessity for their followers to attain a relationship with God and eternal life. Ultimately we regard the “second birth” (which John makes repeated reference to, obviously familiar with John 3) as volitional. And, in fact, sacramental systems cannot work without being proceeded by volition on the part of the believer. The Eucharist is a prime example of this, as we will see.
  4. John’s recitation of Matthew’s account of the Last Supper—and comparison with those in Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians—should be enough to demonstrate that Our Lord was not instituting a symbol. I believe it was his desire that, like everything else in the New Covenant, the Passover meal be taken to a new level. It is entirely appropriate that this supper be the partaking of God himself, just as God’s own indwelling in us is a central part of our right relationship with him.

Let’s continue John of Damascus’ presentation.

If then the Word of God is quick and energising, and the Lord did all that He willed; if He said, Let there be light and there was light, let there be a firmament and there was a firmament; if the heavens were established by the Word of the Lord and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth; if the heaven and the earth, water and fire and air and the whole glory of these, and, in sooth, this most noble creature, man, were perfected by the Word of the Lord; if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood? He said in the beginning, Let the earth bring forth grass, and even until this present day, when the rain comes it brings forth its proper fruits, urged on and strengthened by the divine command. God said, This is My body, and This is My blood, and this do ye in remembrance of Me. And so it is at His omnipotent command until He come: for it was in this sense that He said until He come: and the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes through the invocation the rain to this new tillage. For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things that are supernatural and which it is not possible to comprehend unless by faith alone. How shall this be, said the holy Virgin, seeing I know not a man? And the archangel Gabriel answered her: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. And now you ask, how the bread became Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood. And I say unto thee, “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.”

John basis the possibility of the transformation of the elements on two things: the omnipotence of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit. But isn’t this what has fuelled modern Pentecost?

Further, bread and wine are employed: for God knoweth man’s infirmity: for in general man turns away discontentedly from what is not well-worn by custom: and so with His usual indulgence He performs His supernatural works through familiar objects: and just as, in the case of baptism, since it is man’s custom to wash himself with water and anoint himself with oil, He connected the grace of the Spirit with the oil and the water and made it the water of regeneration, in like manner since it is man’s custom to eat and to drink water and wine, He connected His divinity with these and made them His body and blood in order that we may rise to what is supernatural through what is familiar and natural.

By way of explanation, the Orthodox anoint people with oil when they are baptised. I think there is a depiction of this in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

But I will take a break while you go watch the movie.  Then we can continue.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist: Part II”

  1. I wonder if your judgment of the sacramental system is not too rigid. “God is bound to the sacraments, but he is not bound by them.” Hi grace can operate outside of their visible signs. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition there is a baptism of blood (martyrs who do not receive water baptism, but are still saved) and the baptism of desire, for those who do not KNOW that they should be baptized, but would desire the sacrament had they known.

  2. Thanks for inviting me to comment.

    In the first post of this series, you write, “It’s always bothered me that Evangelicals, who are generally solicitous about their idea as the Bible being authoritative and literally true, consistently regard the Lord’s Supper as purely symbolic, when the New Testament doesn’t support such an interpretation.”

    This is a point that I, a former Evangelical, have made many times myself.

    But then, you write above: “John tells us that our new birth is via baptism. This is something I cannot agree with.”

    However, as with the Eucharist, the New Testament does not support such an interpretation. In the New Testament, beginning with John 3:5 and including Titus 3:5, “new birth” or “regeneration” is always associated with baptism.

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