From the Again Magazine – Volume 20, Number 3 Fall, 1997 Page 12-15
T he Church today is very concerned with the issue of her mission in the world. In the West this concern seems to focus on practical matters, such as ethics and political involvement. How can the Church help to solve the manifold serious problems faced by the modern world? Every aspect of the Church’s life is evaluated in terms of its effects in this practical sphere, and those aspects which do not seem to have much immediate practical value—such as the sacraments—tend to be taken for granted or even set aside. The sacraments are valued only for their “ethical implications.”
In the Orthodox Church, however, the concerns have always been fundamentally different. It is clear to us that the Church has been left in this world with a mission to manifest Christ’s love and life. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. The most needed, most urgent task is to recover this hidden life, to experience this strange death. Where do we experience that hidden life? How can this death cease to be a metaphor, and become a reality?
The Church knew it from the very beginning: this death becomes a reality in the sacrament of all sacraments, the sacrament of Christ’s coming and presence, in the act which the Orthodox Church still calls the Divine Eucharist.
The question with which the ancient Fathers approached the Eucharist was, “What happens to us and to the Church in the Eucharist?” This question was not answered by theological definitions and distinctions, but primarily by the full eucharistic action. Since then that action has been neglected in theological studies, because the theologians regarded all those liturgical symbolisms, rituals, and so on as “secondary” things, and left them to the “amateurs” of liturgics.
It is therefore essential that we consider this action itself, trying to find in it the answer to the question, “What happens to us in the sacrament, and what is the reality of which it makes us partake?” This question in its fullness is far beyond the scope of this article, but I will present here a few hints, a few very important facts.
THE EUCHARIST: A PROCESSION
In the old way of looking at the Eucharist, the most adequate symbol would be a procession, a journey, a trip together. The sacrament is not an act, it is a process. It is something which has a beginning, ascends, and reaches a goal. Then, and only then, you understand what happened. This process can be broken down into several important components.
1) A Coming Together
Justin, a Christian writer of the second century, writes that on the Lord’s day “we all come together.” He doesn’t say that we come together in order to do something else. What he says is that first, “we all come together.” First of all the Eucharist is an assembly gathering, the Church made actual, present, visible. Outside this gathering of all together we find no other visible Church, be it local, diocesan, universal, or ecumenical. From the very beginning, this gathering has been more than a simple fellowship or a Koinonia. From the very outset, it is a sacramental process that begins.
This coming together of the Church in the Eucharist is first a separation from the world. From its earliest days, this is the Church which performs an important task: to leave the world, even if it is only in terms of our human time, for one or two hours. This sacramental process is only possible when there is the visible fellowship of the Church, the gathering of those who are in Christ and who respond to His order to come together.
The first transformation of the sacrament, by necessity, has already taken place—the gathering of a human community, a group of sinners, yet the Church of God in Christ, the Body of the Lord. In the Orthodox rite, the celebrant announces the goal of the journey with a solemn blessing as the liturgy begins: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” When the first “amen” has sealed this announcement, manifesting the readiness of the Church to go towards that Kingdom, we are on our way.
2) A Proclamation
Once this transformed human community meets as the Church, the next step is in the announcement and the listening to the Word of God. For in all phases of the liturgy, as we know them from Tradition, those two things—the Word and the Eucharist—always belong together. One of the Fathers spoke of the first communion that takes place in that gathering as communion of the Word. This transformation of the words of the Scripture into the living Word of God speaking in eternal newness and power to us here and now is indeed a sacramental act.
It is by virtue of our coming together in Christ that the one who speaks and those who listen are themselves transformed into announcer and listeners. It is in the Holy Spirit that he speaks, and it is in the Holy Spirit that we can hear and receive the Word of God. And whatever the particularity of this message on this particular Sunday, it refers our whole life and the life of the whole Church to Christ as the Lord, the Savior, the Redeemer. It makes Him present and active. It has always the same ultimate content and action; this is where it is sacramental.
What follows naturally from this sacrament of the Word will be by necessity His action in us, His initiative. We are all waiting. We have lost the human dimension, and acquired a new dimension which is the real dimension of the Church. For not only in our very imperfect way are we in Christ, but now, objectively, He is in us. He takes over. Now, what is this action of Him in us?
3) A Sacrifice
At the risk of scandalizing some, the next step in the sacrament is a sacrifice. It is reasonable, logical, and necessary that the action which is initiated in us by the Word of God, by the living Lord who speaks and acts, be a sacrifice. Here we have to forget those rather strange theories of sacrifice which were so popular in the Middle Ages and which scared so many people: this bloody idea of substitution, juridical payment of someone for somebody else.
To sacrifice is not rooted primarily in sin, in guilt, in a necessity to pay. The Lamb of God was slain before creation. Why? Is it only because of sin? No, it is because of love. It is a sacrificial relationship of love. God so loved the world that He sacrificed His Son. And Christ so loved His Father that His whole life—not only the moment He died on the Cross and gave up His life, but His whole life was a total, perfect sacrifice of love and praise for His Father.
Therefore, if He is in us and we are in Him, what He provokes in us must of necessity be a sacrifice. The sacrifice is this total self-dedication, this immediate knowledge that He, the Lord and God, is the only real object of all our life and of all our love. This almost unnatural necessity to give away everything to have Him—this is sacrifice.
4) An Offering
The next movement in that procession of the Eucharist is a sacrificial action. It has a traditional shape from the very beginning. What we bring with us is so simple and so poor, but it stands for life: some bread and some wine, the food. For those who read the Bible, who live in the biblical atmosphere, the substitution of bread and wine for life is everything. By giving away what we eat, what comes to be our body, our life, we symbolically give away our own life.
We give not only our own life, and the life of our brethren, the Church, but we stand as it were for the whole world, and we give to God what belongs to Him. During the solemn procession of offertory in the Orthodox Church, we sing that “we offer to You what belongs to You in behalf of all and for all.”
When we have brought this gift of love to God, it is always revealed to us that we have nothing else to offer but Christ Himself. There is nothing else, because the whole design of God and this universe has been assumed by Christ in His perfect manhood, and lived by Him and offered to God already. So the real content of this Eucharist, of this Thanksgiving, is that we are given this wonderful possibility to enter into His sacrifice because we are His body, of His flesh and of His bones. We cannot add anything to it, only enter into that eternal movement which is Christ’s, which is always ascending to heaven, offering to God everything He has given us in this world; He is our Eucharist, and His Eucharist we offer.
He is the Eucharist,and in the terms of the Orthodox liturgy
He is the One who offers, and the One who offered,
and the One who distributes.
5) An Ascension
For many centuries in the West the sacrament was understood in terms of the priest or another person taking some grace somewhere upstairs, and having the canonical power, under certain conditions, to put it here or there and to transform some profane reality into a sacred one. But properly understood, the Eucharist is just the opposite.
It is we mortal and sinful men who are accepted by the infinite mercy of God in His Ascension. He ascended into heaven. On the Feast of the Ascension, the Orthodox Church sings of a symbolical dialogue between two angels. One asks the other, “Who’s that man going up into heaven?” And the other one, probably more informed, answers, “This is Jesus.” And the man goes into heaven.
To my knowledge, He has not ceased to be a man and He has not left heaven. And if the whole meaning of the Church is that we are in Him, then the whole meaning of this Eucharist is that we are made partakers of that Ascension. We are going upwards all the time. Here we are, not on any of our merits, but only because He stands there eternally, offering eternally the Eucharist of His total Being to God the Father. And we are there in Him because we are of His bones and of His flesh.
He is the Eucharist, and in the terms of the Orthodox liturgy He is the One who offers, and the One who offered, and the One who distributes. The One who stands there in glory is the same One who died on the Cross, took upon Himself the sins of the world, suffered this death, and was laid in the grave. To do this in remembrance of Him, as we are ordered to do, is always to come back to this unique night when He offered Himself to this death. He said. “Take, eat, this is My body,” and “Drink ye all of this, this is My blood.” He meant by this His life, His death, His sacrifice, and also His redeeming, taking upon Himself all our sins, forgiving us, becoming our life.
6) A Banquet
We are in heaven, but now heaven means the eternal memory, the eternal presence of the sacrifice of salvation and redemption. It is here that the true meaning of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist becomes more understandable. There are so many theories about what eschatology means. But really the only way in which the ultimate reality is given us is precisely in this sacramental ascension.
To be a Christian means to live in this world and in this time. It also means that from time to time we are taken into the eschaton, the Kingdom as revealed in Christ, where everything has already been accomplished and fulfilled in Him, and where Christ is yesterday, today, and forever. This reality is expressed in the next step of the eucharistic action, called from time immemorial the invocation of the Holy Spirit. [See Epiclesis below]
It is important to remember that wherever the term “Holy Spirit” appears in the liturgy, it always has an eschatological significance. In the Bible the coming of the Spirit is always the last, the ultimate, The Holy Spirit is the manifestation, the communication of the eschaton, the ultimate reality of God Himself. And it is by and through this invocation, this mentioning and affirmation of the Presence of the Holy Spirit, that we finally partake in this banquet.
People have discussed how it happens that the bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ. Some even furnished a sort of scientific theory, including accidents and substance and this and that, and with the help of Mr. Aristotle, decently and rationally explained how this can happen. Then some other people said, “Well, this is not true. It is real, but it’s symbolical.”
We try to understand that this transformation does not happen in this world at all. In this world the bread is always bread and the wine is always wine and nothing can happen to them. But in His own Kingdom, where Christ is the only food, it is not only possible but absolutely natural that we find a substance of our life that is the Body and Blood of Christ, It is a reality which transcends the Aristotelian reality of transubstantiation. It is real— real Body and real Blood of Christ—and let us all mortal flesh keep silence, because we’ll never express it in any scientific terms.
7) A Departure
When we are taken in the divine ascension, we have to know by faith and in the total experience of the Church that we are at the messianic banquet, where He said that He will not eat of this food with us until His Passover finds its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. And when we have partaken, the last act of the Eucharist, in its Orthodox form, is. “Let us now depart in peace.”
It is very often understood as a simple announcement that the religious duties of the day come to an end and you are back to civil life with all its pleasures. But it is actually against our Christian nature to desire to depart, if truly we have been at this messianic banquet and have witnessed the eschaton, the ultimate – glory of the Kingdom. Who wants to go back? Yet we are given that order: “Let us depart in peace.” This is the last word we hear as we open the door of the Church and return to the world.
RECOVERING THE SACRAMENTAL DIMENSION
If what I said is true; if the sacrament was this ascension into the new eon, into the new life, into the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom; if we can sing, “We have seen the true light, we have received the Holy Spirit,” as we do every Sunday, then we have already received the food of life eternal. If all this is true, then what is required of us in return?
The one thing the sacrament requires from us, well understood in the whole Tradition of the Church and somehow lost more and more in our times, is silence. This is a silence not only in terms of the absence of noise, but a total emptiness inside. As the Cherubic Hymn says, we must “put aside all earthly care” if we want to enter into this hidden life, this ascension with Christ to heaven. Let us forget the cares of this world for a while, because this is the only condition in which we can go out silent.
How do we know what will be revealed to us? How do we know what will be shown to us from that Mount of Transfiguration? The only thing we really know is how to prepare ourselves for it, how to make ourselves available for that divine action. The goal of the Church and the Christian spiritual life is to be capable of feeling that maybe once in life, maybe at the very end of it, God Himself has taken me to His Ascension. This is a tremendous work of transforming myself to being capable of entering the sacramental reality and then believing that God will act.
The whole gospel, the whole life of the Church reveals more and more that what is totally impossible with men all of a sudden becomes possible with God in a way which we cannot even imagine. We are made responsible for the world and the cosmos. We not only know how to answer the problems, but the problems themselves are changed. Maybe there are no problems.
All this may sound foolish, and indeed it is not a consistent ethical system. Although we have known Christian ethics for two thousand years, we know that it all comes down to the same, impossible commandment: “Love one another.” The sacrament is not another little addition to this ethical system, not the discovery of a new angle of it. The sacrament performs the only thing we need: the power to apply, the power to transform ourselves, and that little part of the created order for which I now become responsible, for I have been with Christ on Mount Tabor.
This is not a solution, if by solution we mean a clearly defined set of goals. But it seems to me that the solution we badly need today, precisely because of the despair and the crisis and the darkness that surround us, is the recovery of that sacramental dimension. We need that possibility to achieve, from time to time, that total silence of creature, and then to be taken into the Eucharist of Christ, into the eschaton of His Kingdom, and forgetting everything else to discover new horizons, new possibilities, new solutions, and the real power to transfigure this sinful world.
Prayer of the Epiclesis
Furthermore we offer You this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood and implore You and pray and supplicate You; send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts set before You, and make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ. Amen. And what is in this cup the precious Blood of Your Christ. Amen. Changing them by Your Holy Spirit. Amen. Amen. Amen.
The address on which this article is based was given at the Fifth Triennial Conference of the Inter-Seminary Movement in September, 1960. Fr. Alexander was the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and one of the foremost Orthodox theologians of this century. Our thanks to Mary Vaughn Armstrong for her help in editing and adapting this article.