Again we offer unto Thee this reasonable and bloodless worship,
and we ask Thee, and pray Thee, and supplicate Thee:
Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered,
and make this bread to be the precious Body of Thy Christ.
And that which is in this Cup to be the precious Blood of Thy Christ.
Changing them by Thy Holy Spirit.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
Fewer words bring me greater joy in this life, for I believe in them absolutely. As a priest, I would get back to my feet from a full prostration, and would never fail to be filled with astonishment, beholding for a moment the bread now become truly the Body, the wine now become truly the Blood of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Then I would continue the anaphora with a holy lightness of heart granted to me in my sinfulness, for God is with us, here and now, in a manner that defies all rational comprehension by our feeble human minds. God is with us, the two or three gathered humbly and repentfully in His Name. God is with us, making Himself mystically known to us once again in the upper room, once again in Emmaus, once again in the Kingdom which is to come, once again uniting Himself to us and us to Him and to one another in the intimacy of the mystical bridal chamber of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church. God is with us, and once again He makes His body ours, and our bodies His, so that united to Him in a sacred mystery, we all become one flesh with Him and with one another in Him, as a husband with his wife, as a wife with her husband. I look at my hands, and behold, the hands of Christ. I look at my face in the mirror, and behold, Christ’s own face. I hear my voice, and behold, the voice of Christ. I stand, I walk, I sit, and behold, Christ stands, and walks, and sits.
And yet, fewer words bring me greater sorrow in this life. Banished forever from the Holy Altar by an unjust and corrupt tribunal, I kneel in the far back of the church, or in the loft, and whisper these sacred words silently with the priest, my hidden concelebration that no bishop, no synod, can take away from me.
“In the fear of God and with faith, draw near!” I draw near in my unworthiness. In the twinkling of an eye, sorrow turns to joy! What does it matter if I partake at the foot of the ambo or at the Holy Table? What does it matter if I wear priestly vestments or simple street clothes? What does it matter if I offer my prayers of thanksgiving here or there in the church, in the Holy Altar or in the farthest corner? For Christ, from the bottomless ocean of divine mercy, comes down to me where I am, the first among sinners and lowest of all creatures, and brings me up to Himself where He is. Here also is His Most-Pure Mother, here all the saints of heaven, here all the holy angels and archangels, the cherubim and the seraphim. O wretched man that I am!
A young priest and beloved brother, shaken by the turmoil, hostility, mockery, mutual shaming and accusations, and conflicting messages from bishops and synods that the current pandemic has provoked in our Holy Church around the Eucharist, has asked me how I understand these things. I do not claim to speak for the Church—heaven forbid!—but only for myself, from my own lifelong experience of the Church. Let the reader judge prayerfully if my words are true or false, and forgive me where I err.
The bread that we receive is truly the most pure Body, the wine truly the most precious Blood, of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The Body of Christ that we receive is not only His crucified and broken human body, but His human body raised from the dead; and not only His human body raised from the dead, but His human body ascended into heaven and “seated” in the “place” of equality with God at the Father’s “right hand,” to the amazement of the angels; and not only His human body “seated” within the inner sanctum and ineffable mode of being of the All-Holy Trinity, but His human body fully deified.
And yet, because the incarnate Son of God unites in His Person the divine nature with human nature—“without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (St. Leo the Great)—in partaking of the Holy Eucharist we receive Him not only in His deified human nature, but also in His divine nature. He “comes to be slain” as man in order to give Himself, not only as man, but as God, as “food for the faithful” (the vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday). In Holy Communion we receive, not a “nature,” but a Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son and Word of God, whole and entire in His divine and human natures immiscibly united in the womb of His Virgin Mother at the announcement of the Archangel.
The Lutheran doctrine of the “real presence,” for all its good intentions, falls far short of this sacred mystery. We Orthodox do not say that Christ is “really present” in the bread and wine, but that, through the descent of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Liturgy, at the invocation of the presiding bishop or presbyter, the bread is His Body, the wine is His Blood.
During my second year of priesthood, a long, long time ago, I had coffee with a dear friend, the Lutheran pastor of the same small town where I was assigned in southern Saskatchewan.
“What’s the opposite of ‘real presence,’” I asked him. “Absence? Unreal presence? Imaginary presence? Is there anywhere from which Christ is absent?”
He didn’t know how to answer.
“In the Orthodox Church we pray to the Holy Spirit as ‘everywhere present and filling all things.’ At every Divine Liturgy the priest addresses Christ at the end of the Great Entrance as ‘O boundless Christ, filling all things.’ Do you agree with these prayers? Are these ‘real presences’ or not?”
“Are you trying to tell me,” he blurted out, “that Christ is really present in your oatmeal cookie?”
“Are you trying to tell me,” I replied, “that this oatmeal cookie has the power to displace Christ from the space that it occupies?”
He was speechless.
“But no, when I eat this oatmeal cookie I am not receiving the Body of Christ.”
The vocabulary of real presence strikes me as a kind of eucharistic Nestorianism, an inability to confess that the bread becomes the Body and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ, not unlike Nestorius’ inability to accept that God becomes man, and his insistence that He is only “present” in a man.
The Roman doctrine of “transubstantiation” fares hardly better, but for the opposite reason. As I understand it, it introduces Aristotelian scientism into the Holy Mysteries through the vocabulary of “substance” (what a thing is) and “accidents” (the observable qualities of a thing). In the Roman teaching on the Eucharist, the bread and wine “transubstantiate”—change substance, literally—while retaining their natural “accidents” (taste, smell, texture, chemical composition, etc.), such that the bread and wine cease to exist.
The bread and wine cease to exist. Pushed to its horrifying conclusion, the doctrine of transubstantiation suggests the annihilation of creation at every Eucharist. This turns the Eucharist into a kind of macabre alchemy, a feat of black magic unrelated to anything in our traditional understanding of creation and redemption, certainly unreflective of God’s eternal imprint of very beautiful (Gen 1:31, καλὰ λίαν in the Septuagint) spoken over all that He brings from nonexistence into being. God creates all things, neither to destroy them, nor to replace them with Himself, but to unite them to Himself in love, and Himself to them, when He becomes all in all (1 Cor 15:28) on the day without sunset. The unburnt bush of old, ablaze with the fire of divinity without being destroyed, stands in our ecclesial memory not only as an everlasting foreshadow of the Most-Holy Theotokos, but of all human and angelic persons, indeed of the whole creation visible and invisible, deified by the fire of uncreated grace. What is the Eucharist, if not at one and the same time the extension of the Incarnation in time and the first fruits of the deification of the cosmos? For in the Incarnation the Son of God loses nothing proper to His uncreated nature as God, nothing proper to His only-begotten Personal identity, and nothing proper to His created nature as man, His divinity, His humanity, and His Personhood remaining full, intact, and perfect.
Likewise, we, in becoming God by grace, lose nothing proper to our created human nature or our created personal identity, our humanity and our personhood remaining full, intact, and perfected.
And so it must be for the whole nonhuman creation: nothing is lost, all is perfected, deified, concorporated into the one body of the universe, the deified human body of Christ in the age to come. Do we not perform the Eucharist not only for all human beings, but for all things? (This is proclaimed, not once, but twice, in the anaphora.) Does not the whole creation unite its groans to ours (Rom 8:22) in yearning for the fulfilment of all things in Christ? (I daresay that, in the end, even the angels must become humanized—incarnate!—to be fully deified, since deification occurs through concorporation into the deified human body of Christ.)
In the Eucharist, nothing ceases to exist. The Holy Mysteries are given to us, I repeat, as the first fruits of the deification, indeed the christification or filiation, of the cosmos.
An Anglican priest and professor of theology recently argued with me, “Are you saying the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ?”
“Literally” seems a strange word to use in this context. We might be tempted to respond with a “Yes!” to reinforce our point, but I think we need to be cautious and circumspect, and limit ourselves as much as possible to the traditional vocabulary of Orthodox liturgy, prayer, and theology. We say that “this is truly the most pure Body…truly the most precious Blood” of Christ. If we resort to words like “literally” we seem to suggest that today we might get a portion of His left elbow, next Sunday a bit of finger, the following Sunday a morsel of knee. In fact, we receive His whole Body and Blood each time we partake, no matter how tiny the crumb, how imperceptible to the taste the droplet. The eucharistic Body and Blood are continuous with and identical to Christ’s biological body and blood, but at the same time, not exactly His biological body and blood because now fully deified. Forgive me for not having a more adequate way to express this. There are some things in which I feel an agnostic sense of silent awe is our best recourse. At the vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday we sing, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand…for the King of kings and Lord of lords comes to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful.”
I believe Matushka Juliana Schmemann told me this story when she came to my parish in faraway Roblin, Manitoba to lead a women’s retreat in 1993 or 94.
A bishop of the Patriarchate of Antioch was presiding over the Christmas Liturgy in a packed cathedral when bombs began to drop all around. He grasped the Holy Table with both hands to prevent the discos and the chalice from toppling over. When the tremors stopped, he turned to face his congregation and said to them gently, as their loving father, without shaming them: “If any of you wish to leave, you may go now with my blessing.”
No one left.
Until now I have always been more deeply moved by the fact that no one left. They stayed for Holy Communion, fully knowing that they might not get out alive. But now, when I see and hear how certain priests (you know who you are) have made it a metric of “faith” and “piety” to mock and shame our frightened people who don’t know whether to go to church or not, whether to take Communion or not, whether to fear the communion spoon or not, I am much more deeply moved by the image of a gentle bishop quietly giving his people a blessing to leave before Communion to save their lives.
Shame on our priests who perform their sacred ministry not as fathers and shepherds, patiently knocking at the doors of fragile human hearts, but as bullies. If you think your “faith” and your “piety” are so strong, I suggest that you go back and have another look at Rom 15:1.
The frightening times in which we live have raised completely understandable questions among the faithful about the safety of church attendance and Holy Communion. These questions are often conflated in a way that causes even more confusion and fear, rather than clarity and confidence. Here I should like to “unconflate” them and answer each of them according to my experience and understanding. I speak only for myself, not for the Church.
- Can the Holy Mysteries be a vector for contagion and death?
I believe that this is absolutely not possible, no more than a person could have fallen sick and died from coming into physical contact with Christ during His earthly life. I have seen arguments in recent months that, while perhaps the Body and Blood of Christ cannot spread contagion, the spoon or the Chalice can. This seems incorrect to me, a little like saying that a person could not fall sick from touching Christ’s hair or skin during His earthly life, but they might have gotten sick from touching His clothes. In fact, we know that people could be healed from touching His clothes even without His intending it to be so (Lk 43ff).
- Does Holy Communion prevent contagion and heal the sick?
It can, but this is never “guaranteed.” The “healing of soul and body” for which we pray in confidence and faith before Holy Communion will manifest itself most fully in the resurrection to immortal life on the last day. Miraculous healings in this life, whether in the New Testament or our own day—even raisings from the dead, like that of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, or Tabitha—provide only a temporary reprieve from the mortality of earthly life; but much more importantly, they point beyond themselves to our final healing in the resurrection. Everyone who receives Holy Communion will die, some younger, some older, some from natural causes, some from terrible accidents or diseases. Even the Most-Holy Theotokos died. “We wait for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
- Can contagion be spread when large numbers of people gather in church for divine services?
- Should we change the manner in which we distribute Communion?
I believe that we should not. As the civil authorities gradually allow our churches to reopen—which should only happen when medically and scientifically indicated, not as a political move to pander to religious constituencies—we should follow all recommendations pertaining to the number of people allowed in church at one time and the distance that we should maintain between ourselves inside the church. But I think that we can approach the Chalice and receive from the communion spoon in faith and confidence, just as we would have approached Christ during His earthly life, provided that we maintain the recommended distance while in line.
With this being said, if there are faithful whose fears would prevent them from receiving Communion in the usual way, our hierarchs and priests should never shame or belittle them, but seek ways to accommodate them by economia and to ensure that they continue to partake of the Holy Mysteries.
See the Coronavirus / Faith in a Time of Pandemic section in our Archives 2020.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and deposed priest. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.