The Mystery of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ Through baptism we are regenerated to the divine life of grace and become the children of God. Through chrismation we mystically participate in the descent of the Holy Spirit, who seals (confirms) us in the divine life of God’s children and enriches us with His abundant gifts. However, it is through the Holy Eucharist that we become intimately united to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who becomes our spiritual nourishment, leading us into life everlasting.
In Greek, the word – eucharist means thanksgiving, since at the Last Supper, before changing bread and wine into His Body and Blood, our Lord “gave thanks” (Mt. 26:27). Therefore the central part of the Holy Liturgy is the Prayer of Thanksgiving (in Greek – Eucharistia), in which the celebrant thanks Almighty God for all His benefits, especially for the gift of redemption. In the biblical sense, then, thanksgiving (eucharist) is blessing God for His manifold gifts bestowed on us.
1. The Apostles first called the celebration of the Holy Eucharist the Breaking of Bread (Acts 2.42), since at the Last Supper Jesus “took bread and, after He had given thanks, broke it and said: – This is my body!” (1 Cor. 11 :23-24). And it was “at the breaking of bread” that Jesus was recognized by His two disciples in Emmaus (Lk. 24:30-31). Thus, in apostolic times, the Breaking of Bread became a technical term to indicate the celebration of the Holy Liturgy.
It was also called the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11 :20), since the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was considered a liturgical repetition of the Last Supper, the time Our Lord ordered His disciples to:
“Do this in commemoration of me!” (Lk. 22:19). St. John Chrysostom (+ 407) explains that St. Paul by the expression, “The Lord’s Supper” was referring to “that evening on which Christ delivered the awesome Mysteries” (ct. Homilies on 1 Cor., XXVII, 4).
At the end of the first century a new term Eucharist (Thanksgiving) appeared, as indicated by the Didache, about 96 A.D. : “On the Lord’s Day, as you come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure” (ch . 14). By the end of the second century the term – Holy Eucharist prevailed.
2. The Holy Eucharist can be considered as a sacrifice of the New Testament, as well as a mystery (sacrament) of the Body and Blood of our Lord .
Since the sacrificial aspect of the Holy Eucharist was already discussed in one of our previous leaflets (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 20), in this leaflet we will treat the Holy Eucharist as one of the seven Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) in the tradition of the Byzantine Rite.
The Eucharist is the Holy Mystery of the New Testament instituted by Jesus Christ, in which under the species of consecrated bread and wine we receive the Body and the Blood of our Lord as our spiritual food .
The Holy Eucharist is indeed a mystery (in Greek – mysterion means a secret, a hidden thing to the human eye), since in it, to use the words of St. John Chrysostom, “What we believe is not the same as what we see. One thing we see (bread and wine), and another we believe (Body and Blood of our Lord). And such is the nature of our Mysteries” (cf. Hom. on 1 Cor. VII , 2).
And it is a unique mystery, since by Holy Communion we receive not only the increase of saving grace, by the very Author of grace, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus we become intimately united with our Savior, who assured us : “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him!” (In. 6:56). Hence the reception of the Holy Eucharist is called – Holy Communion (from Latin – cum + unio, united with), meaning united with the Holy One.
St. Cyri l of Jerusalem (+ 386) confirms : “By partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ we become one body and blood with Christ, we become – Christ-bearers (in Greek: Christophers). In this way, according to blessed Peter (2 Pet. 1 :4), we ‘share in the divine nature’ ” (ct. Catechetical Lectures, XXII, 3).
3. The Holy Eucharist was instituted by our Lord at the Last Supper, which was celebrated in the atmosphere of tender love, as testified by St. John : “Jesus, knowing that His hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, He loved His own in the world, He loved them to the end” (In . 13:1).
Prompted then by His infinite love, our Lord took a loaf of bread in His hands and, after giving thanks, He broke it and gave it to the Apostles, saying :
“Take and eat, this is my body, which will be given (broken) for you.” (Lk. 22 :19) Then He took the chalice with wine, gave thanks, blessed it and, giving it to the Apostles, said : “Drink from it all of you, for this is my blood of the New Testament, which will be shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:27-28).
After the Apostles received their First Holy Communion, our Lord commissioned them to perpetu ate this Mystical Supper, saying : ” Do this in commemoration of me!” (Lk. 22 :19). St. John Chrysostom explains: ” Therefore, the offering is the same which Christ gave to His disciples, and which now the priests minister. For as the words which Christ had spoken are the same which the priest now pronounces, so also the offering is the same” (cf. Hom. on 2 Tim., II, 4).
This is my body- This is my blood, these are simple words, but they are the words of Almighty God, who by His word created heaven and earth :
“He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they stood forth” (Ps. 33:9). St. Gregory of Nyssa (+ 394) does not hesitate to affirm: “We rightly believe that the bread which is consecrated by the word of God (Jesus) is changed into the body of God the Word,” meaning Jesus (cf. Catechetical Oration, 37).
A similar explanation is also given by St. John Damascene (+ 749): “If heaven and earth, and the whole universe were established by the word of God, then can He not make the bread His body and the wine His blood? The Word of God (Jesus) said: ‘This is my body’ – ‘This is my blood,’ and then: ‘Do this in commemoration of me!’ Thus by His almighty command it is done” (ct. On the Orthodox Faith, IV, 13).
4. In Holy Scripture we read that when the Prophet Elijah was persecuted by the impious Queen Jezebel, he fled into the desert, and hid. After some time on the run, Elijah became very dejected and, at the end of his strength, he asked God to take his life. Then he fell to the ground and soon was fast asleep. But before long an angel of the Lord awakened him, and, offering him a loaf of bread and a jug of water, he encouraged him: “Get up and eat, for you have a long way to go!” So the Prophet got up and ate. Being refreshed he then walked forty days and nights, until he came to the holy mountain Horeb, where he had a vision of God (1 Kgs. 19:1-18).
Along the road of our life, we too, being persecuted by the enemy of our salvation, often become weary and dejected and at the end of our spiritual strength. Then our Lord, through his messenger (Greek – angelos), the celebrating priest, at the Divine Liturgy invites us: “Take and eat, this is my body!’: and again: “Drink of this, this is my blood!” And after Holy Communion, being refreshed by this “bread from heaven” (In. 6:32) and “the cup of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11 :27), we are ready to continue our pilgrimage toward the holy mountain, to meet God, our Father in heaven.
In the Holy Eucharist, then, Jesus gives us His own body and blood as spiritual food in order to nurture and sustain divine life of grace in us. And He himself assures us: “Just as I have life because of my Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have (spiritual) life because of me” (In . 6:57).
Therefore, St. Ignatius of Antioch (+ 110) calls the Holy Eucharist – “the medicine of immortality, and antidote to ensure that we shall not die but live in Jesus forever” (cf. Epistle to Ephesians, 20).
5. Our Lord did not give any specific instruction concerning the frequency of the reception of Holy Communion, but He warned us: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will have no life in you!” (In. 6:53). In other words, in order to sustain our divine life of grace, we must “feed our soul” by receiving Holy Communion regularly, as long as we live. Otherwise we run the danger of losing our soul.
From the very beginning, the Fathers of the Church insisted that the faithful receive Holy Communion as often as possible, even daily. Thus, e.g. St. Basil the Great ( + 379) says : “To receive Holy Communion daily and thus partake of the holy body and blood of Christ, is an excellent and most beneficial practice, since Christ distinctly said: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting’ (In. 6:54). And who can doubt that to share continually in the life (of Christ) is nothing else than to enjoy a full divine life?” (cf. Epistle 93).
The practice of frequent, even daily Holy Communion in the Church lasted until the Middle Ages, when the fervor of Christian life began to decline co nsi dera bly. Co nseq uently, the fa ithfu I were warned not to approach the holy altar carelessly, in state of serious sin, referred to in the Holy Scriptures as a “sin unto death” (1 In. 5:16), without first going to confession. Otherwise they would commit a serious offense (sacrilege) against the “body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11 :27), by receiving the Holy Eucharist “unworthily,” as warned already by St. Paul, saying: “Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, eats and drinks for his own condemnation” (1 Cor. 11 :27-28).
6. The faithful, instead of going to confession in order to be ready for Holy Communion, began to abstain from the “spiritual food.” To correct this deplorable practice the Church Fathers established four fasting seasons, before Christmas, Easter, the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, and the Dormition of the Blessed Mother, in order that the people properly prepare themselves by going to confession, thus being properly disposed to receive Holy Communion at least on those solemn feastdays.
As the moral life of the faithful steadily continued to decline and Holy Communion became more and more neglected, the Church was finally forced to impose a special precept, binding the faithful, under pain of mortal sin, to go to confession and receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter Season. Otherwise, the faithful would expose themselves to the danger of not attaining their salvation since, according to the words of Christ, “unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, we will have no life (of grace) in us” (In. 6:53). Therefore the precept of the Easter duty should be taken very seriously.
The Easter Season which the faithful are able to fulfill their Easter duty extends from the first day of the Great Fast (Lent) until the Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday of All Saints, so that there would be no excuse to receive the Eucharist at least once a year. But we should keep in mind that, in the light of the teachings of Jesus Christ, it is not enough to receive Holy Communion only once a year. In order to “have the life (of grace) and have it more abundantly” (In. 10 :10), we must nourish our soul with the “bread from heaven” (In. 6:32) constantly, even daily if possible.
Let us then approach the Holy Table “with fear of God and with Faith” (Liturgy)!