“Do you believe that Communion is the actual body and blood of Christ?”
It was one of the first questions I asked during my initial meeting with an Orthodox priest. In fact, it’s probably one of the first questions asked by any Protestant discovering Orthodoxy.
When the topic of the Eucharist – or Lord’s Supper, if you prefer – comes up, Protestants suddenly become molecular physicists. They try to reason and split hairs in an attempt to determine the exact moment that bread and wine change into body and blood at the atomic level. It goes against all logic and reason to accept such an event.
Growing up as a Baptist, I understood communion to be a symbolic event involving crackers and grape juice. Of course it wasn’t real blood. That would be barbaric. We did this act in remembrance, not in reality.
As I began my journey toward Orthodoxy I began to study the early Church, and the writings of the church fathers. I found that throughout history, Christians everywhere have professed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The notion that communion is a symbolic ritual is a medieval invention, coming into being over a thousand years after Christ.
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible.” – St. Ignatius of Antioch
I struggled with this as I began attending Divine Liturgy. How could it be that in every service, all around the world, throughout the centuries, this same change was happening to a simple offering of bread and wine?
The Orthodox Church refers to this event as a mystery, and Orthodoxy is at peace with the inexplicable nature of the Eucharist. In his treatise The Orthodox Faith, (which I strongly encourage you to read in full) Fr. Thomas Hopko acknowledges that we do not understand this mystery, but accept it as Heaven coming to earth to make these two realities one:
The mystery of the holy Eucharist defies analysis and explanation in purely rational and logical terms. For the Eucharist—and Christ Himself—is indeed a mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven which, as Jesus has told us, is “not of this world.” The Eucharist—because it belongs to God’s Kingdom—is truly free from the earth-born “logic” of fallen humanity.
Another way of looking at it is that something can be true without being literal. You might say, “My kids are driving me crazy!” Are they taxing your patience, making you angry, and provoking irrational response? Probably. Are they literally causing you to have a psychotic breakdown leading to your insanity? Maybe not.
Is the bread and wine in the Eucharist literally body and blood in its material composition? Is it skin and muscle and sinew and hemoglobin? No.
Is it the real, actual presence of Christ himself, through a miraculous bridging of the material and the Divine? In my mind there is no question.
To some this might sound like a cop-out, or a way to avoid critical examination of the facts. I know it did to me. But the beauty of the Orthodox faith is the willingness to know God as He reveals Himself to us, without seeking to understand things He has not revealed. Orthodoxy is comfortable with mystery.
Ultimately, we can only know God through what He has revealed to us. God is not a natural process that we have to uncover through the scientific method. Orthodoxy allows for the rational and the mysterious to coexist, and for God to be as He is, not as we wish Him to be.
Christ has revealed Himself to us through the mystery of the Eucharist, and when we receive the gift of His body and blood, we truly receive Him.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. – John 6:53-55.
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