Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What is the Eucharist?

Nikolai Kharlamov The Holy Eucharist
When I became a born-again Christian in the mid 1990s I knew nothing about Church history. It was at this time and in this context that I started reading the Bible with intense interest and studying it with others.  In my Lutheran upbringing, I had been taught the importance of communion, but my beliefs had never before been challenged. In my new church I was taught a radical Protestant form of communion, which treated the bread and wine as merely a symbol of Christ's body and blood and the partaking of communion as a memorial only. I adopted these doctrines and held to them zealously. I did not know a good reason to believe otherwise and was compelled by the passionate faith of those in my new church. About 12 years later I began a very slow movement back toward liturgical Christianity and Church Tradition. This transition took about three years and was completed when I was chrismated an Orthodox Christian. So you could say I came full-circle and then some.

Through this experience I have found that one of the most important rites of Christianity is also one of the most hotly debated topics between different Christian groups. I have seen the view from the Evangelical Protestant side, from the traditional, liturgical Protestant side as well as from the side of Orthodox Christianity.

As an Orthodox Christian who knows what it is like to be completely opposed to the Tradition of the Eucharist to which I now hold, I would like to appeal to Protestant Evangelical Christians with some passages written by the earliest Christian teachers after the Apostles.

We'll begin with words written by Justin Martyr in his 1st Apology (Chapter 66) around 155-157 AD, very early in the life of the Christian Church:
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], ... not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood...”

Ignatius of Antioch c 35 AD - c 107AD
They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat It with respect, that they also might rise again.
Letter to the Smyrnaeans Chapter 6
...........
Especially [will I do this ] if the Lord make known to me that you come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.
Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter 20
Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of Jesus' beloved Apostle John and according to Church Tradition, was the child whom Christ called to himself in Matthew 18:2. He was one of the first bishops of Antioch and a martyr for his faith. He was from the first generation of Christians and he believed and taught, as a bishop who was instructed in the faith by the Apostles themselves, that the Eucharist was the real body and blood of Christ and that it is for our salvation. He did not mince words on the matter.

Justin Martyr, 1st Apology Chapter 65:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
This scene, as described by Justin Martyr is the very same thing you may see on any given Sunday in your local Orthodox Church. I have been told that the way we worship is "weird" and many newcomers from Protestant backgrounds (such as myself) have difficulty adjusting to how "foreign" Orthodox worship seems. However, based on the above passages, it would appear that the earliest Christians would not find the way Orthodox Christians today worship to be foreign or weird. And they would likely fit right in.

This is certainly not an in-depth examination of the Eucharist. For that I would suggest The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom or For the Life of the World both by Alexander Schmemann. The purpose of this post is simply to shine a light on how the early Christian Church viewed the Eucharist, as a challenge to those Christians who hold to different views.

And now the next challenge is to discover, if the Eucharist is more than just a memorial to Christ and if the bread and wine are more than just symbols of Christ's broken body and shed blood, what is it? And more specifically, what is it to you?

1 comment:

  1. On this, Catholicism and the Eastern churches including the Orthodox are one: the elements change completely into the body and blood of Christ. Lutherans come close: a kind of presence as long as the elements are used for Communion, but that presence is somewhere short of the pre-'Reformation' churches' view. We believe the complete presence lasts as long as the elements do.

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