The third article in our Christian Unity Series comes from a young theology student in Bulgaria.
You for your part will remember your behavior and feel ashamed of it when you receive your elder and younger sisters and I make them your daughters, although this is not included in my covenant with you. I shall renew my covenant with you and you will know that I am the Lord, and so remember and feel ashamed and in your confusion be reduced to silence, when I forgive you for everything you have done—declares the Lord God. (Ez 16:61-63)
When we think about Christian unity this is not the first passage we think of. And yet, kneeling before a cross in a medieval cathedral with twenty thousand young adults in Basel, Switzerland, in silence, it is hard not to think of it. Can so many be united by…silence? They have gathered for a kind of pilgrimage, the 40th Taizé European Meeting, praying in song and silence: but is this unity? It is in this same silence, kept for a longer moment during all of the three daily prayers, that this question emerges. But immediately I am reminded that, at least for the Orthodox, unity is unity in the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, in the Body of Christ—His Church.
Currently the most applied ecclesiological principle in the Orthodox Church, it was initially elaborated in the first part of the 20th century and refined in the second, with Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon as one of its most prominent proponents. Accompanied by the liturgical revival, because of which parishioners again began hearing the prayers—before then said “mystically” by the priest for more than a thousand years (even as early as the 5th century)—the eucharistic understanding of the Church also restored the habit of frequent Communion, which before then had been replaced by rules, such as the “four times per year.”
The focus on the restoration of eucharistic communion as the goal of any work towards unity has been upheld by the Orthodox ever since the Ecumenical Movement began. How can we restore communion? Can we be one Body, one Church? These are the fundamental questions.
Father Georges Florovsky, when explaining why the Fathers of the Church do not seem to have developed a systematic theological reflection on the Church, simply states that “[o]ne does not define what is self-evident.” The same can be said about the Eucharist. There is a common understanding that, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox don’t view the words of institution as the moment of the Sacrament. After the Ferrara-Florence controversy this “moment” was popularly understood as taking place during the epíkleis. Father Alexander Schmemann later criticizes this as just changing the moment, but not the underlying theological concept, and calls the entire eucharistic celebration, from the assembly of the people to their dismissal, the Sacrament of the Kingdom. In this way the Eucharist is seen as a movement towards the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit, as the entire structure of the Divine Liturgy makes evident. But it still does not leave us with an answer to the question, “What is the Eucharist?”
Ever since the emergence of eucharistic ecclesiology, St. Ignatius of Antioch has been seen as its patron saint. It’s only natural to address the question to him; but also the question of what does a human being mean, as they are closely linked, as it is as human beings that we are members of the Church.
In Ignatius we find a striking passage in his letter to the Romans, written as he is being taken to Rome to be martyred:
I seek Him who died for our sake. I desire Him who rose for us. The pains of birth are upon me. Suffer me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die. […] Suffer me to receive the pure light; when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being (ánthropos). Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God. (Romans 6)
In this we see not only the radical reversal of life and death, but also a counterintuitive statement on anthropology. A human being is a martyr. Father John Behr, to whom I owe the entirety of this line of thinking, connects this with the proclamation of Pontius Pilate who, only in the Gospel of John, points to Christ, saying “Behold the man (ánthropos, human being)” (Jn. 19:5), presenting him to the crowd, beaten, spat on, with a purple robe and a crown of thorns. This is the human being for St. Ignatius, the One Whose path he chose to follow as the Passover from death to life.
Returning to the Eucharist, the words of institution remain at the core of every eucharistic service in all traditions, but are shockingly absent from the Gospel of John at first glance. Rather than absent, they are seen on the Cross. The words of institution in John, seen in the light of the other Gospels, are “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). And what is finished is the fulfilment of what was begun with Adam, the revelation of the New Adam, the restoration of homo sapiens as homo eucharisticus. In our thankful self-giving to God we receive the gifts (ourselves) offered on the altar at every Divine Liturgy as the Body and Blood of Christ, thus becoming the Body of Christ. And this happens because of the freedom to give thanks, as it is in giving thanks for something (your life) that you admit it is a gift. It is also by acknowledging something as gift that you are free to give it to and for others. This is love. This is the Eucharist. A pre-meta-liturgy that encompasses an entire life.
In this case the question of unity becomes not “How can we share the Eucharist?” but rather “How can we become the Eucharist?”—not only as the basis of unity, but as the basis of our life. St. Ignatius asks the Romans not to prevent his martyrdom by asserting the same: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ” (Romans 4).
This is perhaps an overly optimistic approach to ecclesiology and unity. It would be to ask everybody to live not for themselves but for others, for the Church to be a thankful, crucified people; to ask for, fundamentally, love as the basis. This is not a radically new discovery, but perhaps—like the prayers of the priest during the Liturgy—it is left unsaid.
While not a fully developed ecclesiological system, this is a foundation, maybe even a eucharistic unity we already share.
The silent contemplation of the Cross, standing next to the altar of the old cathedral, is interrupted by the reading of a simple prayer from Brother Rodger, the founder of the Taizé Community:
Jesus our joy, when we realize that you love us, something in us is soothed and even transformed. We ask you: what do you want from me? And by the Holy Spirit you reply: let nothing trouble you, I am praying in you, dare to give your life.
Theodor Avramov is an MA student in Orthodox theology at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” in Sofia, Bulgaria.