Eucharist: Life’s Divine Foundation
Justin Martyr in his First Apology told the Emperor what Christians did when they worshipped God.
We come together to celebrate the Eucharist. No-one is allowed to partake except those who believe as true the things which we teach, and who has been baptized for the remission of sins, and rebirth, and who lives as Christ has commanded. We do not receive this food as ordinary bread and as ordinary drink. We are taught that the food over which the prayer of thanksgiving, the word received from Christ, has been said … is, the flesh and blood of this Jesus who became flesh.
Many people do not know what the Christian Eucharist is because of the general decay of religion, and the number of unbelievers increases and with their numbers their zeal. Christians need to yield themselves up to the full influence of the divine presence; and clergy need to raise up in the hearts of their people such a sense of God, that reverence, love, gratitude, hope, trust and obedience will become an habitual way of living.
This will happen when prayer, centred in the Word and Sacrament, sustains priest and people. Living here at the heart of the Church in the life Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit transforms us into God-bearers or Christ-bearers, a living Eucharist of the divine presence. For this bread has power to make divine. ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats this bread, he will live for ever.’
The Fathers never ceased repeating these stupendous assertions. The Eucharist is resurrection food, life-giving bread, because in him the divine life permeates the earth and the human race. For Ignatius of Antioch it is ‘the leaven of immortality’ and its power is independent of our attitude to it. Our attitude can only encourage (or restrict) the spread of the Eucharistic fire through our soul and body. Gregory of Nyssa said, this divine bread is not so much consumed by us as we are consumed by it. The Eucharist transforms the faithful into itself. This Corpus Christi in which we are consumed is nothing less than the realm of an unending Pentecost, which brings the compassionate presence of God into the daily life of our community, to bind up the broken-hearted and bring release to those who are trapped in a variety of prisons.
This Bread, not the ecclesiastical structures, is the Church’s foundation making us inseparable from Christ. ‘Go to him’, says St Ambrose, ‘and take your fill, for he is the bread of life. Go to him and drink, for he is the spring. Go to him and be enlightened, for he is the light. Go to him and become free, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom …’(Commentary of Psalm 118, 18-28 :PL 15 1203)
‘Let us learn the wonder of this sacrament,’ says Chrysostom, ‘the purpose of its institution, the effects it produces. We become a single body, according to Scripture, members of his flesh and bone of his bone. This is what is brought about by the food that he gives us. He blends himself with us so that we may become one single entity…’
This Eucharistic body is the historical Jesus as well as the risen Christ, the body of the Child in the stable, the body that endured the suffering on the Cross – for the bread is ‘broken’, the blood ‘poured out’ – the body that is risen and glorified. The term ‘body’ covers the whole human nature, for God’s human nature since the resurrection and the ascension encompasses the world and secretly transfigures it. The Eucharist communicates to us is this deified humanity, this deified creation, this transfigured bread and wine, the Risen body that bears the marks of his Passion.
Maximos claims that ‘the Eucharist transforms the faithful into itself’ and Gregory of Nyssa (Catechetical Oration 37 [PG. 45, 96]), wrote ‘Just as a little leaven, according to the Apostle’s words, is mixed with all the dough, so the body that was raised by God to immortality, once it is introduced into our body, wholly changes it and transforms it into his own substance…’ St. John Damascene (On the Orthodox Faith, IV, 13) wrote that ‘the bread of the Communion is not mere bread but bread united to the Godhead’, made up, Irenaeus insists, of two components, ‘one earthly, the other heavenly, so our bodies that share in the Eucharist are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection.’
Arthur Middleton is Emeritus Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St Chad’s College