Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist: Part III

Continuing in this series, we get to the heart of the matter:

The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God’s body and blood. But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit. And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energises and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out. But one can put it well thus, that just as in nature the bread by the eating and the wine and the water by the drinking are changed into the body and blood of the eater and drinker, and do not become a different body from the former one, so the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

I must make some explanation as to how the holy Virgin got involved.

Many are familiar with the Trinitarian controversies in Christianity (you can get more details on these here.) But as this was winding down we got into the Christological controversies, or more specifically how God and man are one in Jesus Christ.

At the risk of oversimplification, there were two extremes set forth. The first was the idea that Jesus’ two natures existed in a parallel way, without really coming together. The name usually associated with this is Nestorius. There’s a good case to be made that the Qur’an is the most widely published Nestorian book out there, because Nestorian dualism (to the point where Jesus’ divinity is denied) permeates the book.

On the other extreme are those who believe that there is an absolute, divine unity in Jesus Christ. The Copts are normally associated with this. To put it in simple terms, the Lord of glory himself was crucified.

Orthodox and orthodox believers alike believe and confess (well, they should) that Jesus Christ had two natures—human and divine—and that these two natures were in perfect union one with another. That’s why, for example, it’s proper to refer to Mary as the “mother of God.” (That was one of Nestorius’ objections to this line of theology.) That union is essential to Jesus Christ being the perfect mediator between man and God; he is both fully God and fully man, able to partake of our human condition and thus be the High Priest he is described in the New Testament.

John is saying there that, just as uncreated God and created flesh were united in Jesus Christ, so also are uncreated God and created bread and wine united to effect the transformation of the latter into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. While he was on this earth, Jesus Christ was no less fully God than he was in heaven, and his actual body and blood were likewise that of God himself. His blood, it should be added, was of such a quality that it was able to procure the remission of our sins, and by the stripes on his body we are healed.

That transformed quality—and the quality of the elements of the Eucharist after consecration—is the result of union with God, not because of physical change. It’s the same with the new birth in us as well.

He also makes a physical connection between the bread and the wine and our body and blood, by pointing out the obvious: as food, the bread and wine become our own body and blood. In doing this, and in a theoretical process of reversal, he establishes a continuum between the two.

It’s not the most “technically” appealing connection, but it makes sense. The indwelling of Jesus Christ in our life is central to our being Christians, and the Eucharist establishes that on a physical basis in addition to a spiritual one.

Wherefore to those who partake worthily with faith, it is for the remission of sins and for life everlasting and for the safeguarding of soul and body; but to those who partake unworthily without faith, it is for chastisement and punishment, just as also the death of the Lord became to those who believe life and incorruption for the enjoyment of eternal blessedness, while to those who do not believe and to the murderers of the Lord it is for everlasting chastisement and punishment.

I spoke earlier about the “volitional” role in our relationship with God. There’s nothing we can do to merit the grace of God in our lives, but somewhere along the way we must say “yes” and that yes be a decision. Once we do that, as Keith Green would say, he’ll take care of the rest.

That in turn leads to the transformation of our lives; that’s being “born again.”

Once we’ve experienced the rebirth, our relationship with God isn’t automatic. That’s where the whole business of worthy reception comes in: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread, or drinks the Lord’s cup, in an irreverent spirit, will have to answer for an offence against the Lord’s body and blood. Let each man look into his own heart, and only then eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For the man who eats and drinks brings a judgement upon himself by his eating and drinking, when he does not discern the body. That is why so many among you are weak and ill, and why some are sleeping.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)

In order for us to worthily receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, it is necessary for us to be in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But it’s also necessary for us to examine ourselves and seek forgiveness of our sins. That’s a high standard, but one which God makes possible for us to fulfil. Once it is fulfilled, then we can certainly enjoy the benefits of “remission of sins and for life everlasting and for the safeguarding of soul and body,” but in sacramental systems it’s too easy to forget the preliminaries.

Forgetting things is easy when we’re tired, so I’ll pick up next time.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist: Part III”

Leave a Reply