The Divine Eucharist is the “essence” of the Church
A concise study based on the paternal tradition of the Orthodox Church
By Stratos L. Adamis, Doctoral Candidate UoA
- The Eucharist is at the center of Christian worship
From the earliest manuscripts and ecclesial reflections, it is testified that the center of Christian worship has always been the God-given mystery of the Eucharist, the main and unchanging core of sacramental life within the ecclesial body. In fact, according to St. Dionysius the Areopagite (PG3, 425), no ceremony can be performed without the inclusion of the service of Divine Eucharist, the culmination and fulfillment of all other mysteries. This means that the other ecclesial services and Holy Mysteries are performed in order to prepare the faithful for their participation in the Eucharist, they are connected in a direct and ontological way.
The term “mystery” refers to those divinely ordained ceremonies, which Divine Grace made tangible through experience, necessary for the salvation of man. They are referenced as “God-given” because they were established either directly by the founder of the Church, Jesus Christ, during His Incarnation, or indirectly through the Apostles. It is therefore understandable that, since the Mysteries were instituted by Christ himself, as a tangible means of receiving Divine grace, their consummation is ontologically necessary and soteriologically essential. Thus, the sacred Mysteries are provided, uttered, and performed only in the Church and through the Church, which means that “there where the Mysteries are celebrated there is the Church.”
Orthodox Theology has avoided to express a complete and dogmatic definition of “the Church,” since according to the Apostle Paul, the Church is a “mystery” (Eph. 3:3) and the “incomprehensible riches of Christ.”(Eph. 3:8) Thus, the definition most commonly used, by both the Apostle Paul and the Fathers of the Church, to describe more accurately the sacramental nature of the new life in Christ is the image of the Church as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27, Rom.15:5, Eph.1:23, Col.1:24). With this characterization, Orthodox Theology expresses the ontological unity between the Church and the humanity of Christ, since according to the clear and universal apostolic and patristic tradition, the Church as a whole was engaged into the humanity of Christ and therefore functions as an extension of the “body of Christ,” with the mystic energy of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages.
This timeless ecclesiological self-awareness of the Orthodox Church regarding the ontological relationship and unity of Christ and the Church was expressed and highlighted with clarity in the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Synod of Crete (June 2016). Indeed, as noted in the first paragraphs of the Encyclical of the Synod, the Orthodox Church, faithful to the continuity of the apostolic tradition and the sacramental experience, on the one hand is ontologically identical with the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, that is, with the eternal historical body of Christ, on the other hand, as the body of Christ and as the image of the Holy Trinity, it is a foretaste and experience of the eschaton within the Holy Eucharist and a revelation of the glory of the future.
Therefore, the characterization of the Church as the “body of Christ” is based on the mystery, in totality, of Divine Economy in Christ and is directly related to the event of the Divine Incarnation, since according to St. Chrysostom, Christ, at His incarnation by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, “Did not receive a Heavenly body, but the flesh of the Church” (PG52, 429), while according to Athanasius the Great, the human nature of Christ is “the whole of the Church” (PG26, 1021).
- The Divine Eucharist as the par excellence mystery of Christ
The Eucharist, as the centre of all mysteries, is the par excellence “mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4, Col. 4:3). Moreover, it is also the mystery par excellence of the union of the faithful since the unity of the whole church as a body is possible exclusively in only within the one, eternal, and historical body of Christ. Christ himself introduced the Eucharist during the Last Supper, namely, shortly before he was arrested and crucified. Thus, all the action of the incarnate presence of the Son and Word of God was a preparation for that sacred moment, that is, when the mystery of the Eucharist was first performed. Christ offered His body and blood before His sacrifice at Golgotha and commanded His disciples to do the same so that His Church would continue through the ages.
However, in the course of history, various observations have been made regarding the relationship between the first Eucharist, which was performed by Christ at the Last Supper, and the Eucharist, which takes place in the temples of the churches, since Christ sacrificed Himself “once” and, therefore, His sacrifice would not recur. In this vein, one of the preeminent teachers of the Church, John Chrysostom, stressed that, in order to perform the mystery in the Church, although the priest uses his hands, spirit, and language, the mystery of the Eucharist is performed by God, that is, by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.
After having being invoked by the priest, the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father through the Son, intervenes and changes the Holy Gifts, bread and wine, into the Body and Blood of Christ, so that they may be offered in the eternal and heavenly altar and be accepted by the great “High Priest” (Heb. 4:14) of the heavenly Divine Liturgy and be united with His eternally ascended body, but without them being removed from the altar. Thus, the Eucharist is not a form or an icon, nor of course a mere representation of the last supper of Christ with His disciples. The Eucharist represents the continuity and participation in the one and only propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, since the Holy Gifts, that is, the Communion bread and wine, which have been consecrated by the Holy Spirit, are the true and genuine “Divine Body and Blood of Christ” (John Damascene, PG94, 1048-1049). Therefore, it is always the same Eucharist, which is no different from the first that was performed just as the Last Supper, since the true liturgist who officiates at every Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the Godman himself.
- Conditions for performing the Mystery of the Eucharist
Before His ascension into heaven and taking His seat at the right hand of God, his original point of origin (John 8:42), Christ had assured His disciples and Apostles of His eternal presence until the end of the world (Matt. 28:20). In this context, the presence of Christ is revealed at the mystery of the Eucharist and presupposes the gathering or physical presence of a number of members of the church body, since according to His word: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”(Matt. 18:20)
Thus, in order to perform the mystery of the Eucharist, it is certainly necessary for the bishop to be present, in the typos (type) and topos (place) of Christ, since nothing is done without the will of the bishop or the presbyter, who continue the work of Christ and the apostles through Apostolic Succession, that is, the uninterrupted and continuous succession of the priesthood, the sacramental life and the faith from the early Apostles to today. In fact, both the bishop, who is “in the image of Jesus,” and the presbyter, with the mystery of the priesthood, they have received the grace to perform the holy mysteries and to shepherd the faithful people of Christ being as “as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.”(1Cor. 4:1-2)
In this context, it is worth noting that the priesthood, although it is a position on earth, belongs to the “heavenly orders” because it was not established by man, nor by an archangel, nor by any other creature, but by the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit). In this spirit, although the liturgical work belongs to the heavenly order, God did not entrust it to the angels, but to mortal priests, and that is why the laity, according to St. Chrysostom, should duly honor them (PG59, 472).
Of course, while being deeply aware of their charismatic authority, which is superior to any secular authority, priests must live in angelic purity in order to carry out this sacred work and to be worthy to perform the holy mysteries of the Church. Accordingly, the priest, before performing the great mystery of the Eucharist, he must prepare himself spiritually and physically from the previous evening. He must rid himself of hostile feelings, purify his heart from evil thoughts, abstain from food, and pray constantly until the mystery takes place.
Of course, there is no separation between the clergy and the laity. The clergy are no different from the laity, except liturgically, since the clergy and laity are “members one of another” (Eph. 4:25), equal to each other, and “both servants of God” (PG48, 711). The two constitute the people of God, that is, the one and only single sacramental body of Christ. Thus, the clergy and laity share in God’s Holy Grace since “we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body,”(1 Cor. 12-13) for it is not the priest who performs the mystery but Christ himself.
In this sense, the Eucharist is performed for the whole Church, namely, for the whole body of Christ, and therefore, the presence of the bishop or presbyter is necessary, since he is the head of the laity, he comes from the laity, he belongs to the laity, he prays for the sins of the laity and his own, he unites the laity and represents the laity to God. However, the presence of the lay people is also necessary since the Divine Liturgy is primarily the work of the lay people. Especially in the Orthodox Church, the participation in the mystery of the Eucharist is not a simple individual observance but a point of communion between the faithful, which requires physical presence and personal participation.
In this light, all the wishes, requests, and prayers that the priest reads and sings are in the first plural person (Our Father, We pray to the Lord, etc.), while during the Divine Liturgy there is a wonderful hymnological dialogue between the priest and the laity (the laity answer “Amen” to the priest’s utterances, “Lord, have mercy” in the Litany of Peace, etc.). Therefore, the Divine Liturgy is a dialogue of love and peace between the priest and the laity, who have defined roles, and the sacrifice that is made is offered for the whole body of the Church “in remission of sins and in eternal life”.
- Is it possible for the priest to perform the Mystery of the Eucharist on his own?
The Divine Liturgy is the work of the people and therefore the Mystery of the Eucharist is impossible to be celebrated without the presence of believers. However, it can be celebrated with even a limited number of believers, that is, with the physical presence of a single lay member, since in every Eucharistic assembly, in every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the whole Church is present, that is, the whole body of Christ. After all, in every Divine Liturgy, the Church prays not only for those present at the Eucharistic assembly, but also for those who cannot attend, and even for those who show hostility towards Her, the Church.
In this spirit, in the Divine Liturgy, the bishop or presbyter who comes from the people and represents the people to God, embodies the flock before God, while the believer plays the role of the witness and/or the guarantor of the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. But in order to better understand the meaning of “witness”, we will need to look back at the sacramental practice of the ancient Church and observe the ritual of the Mystery of Baptism, which was inseparable from both the Mystery of the Eucharist and from the Mystery of Chrismation.
More specifically, according to the testimony of Justin Martyrthe Philosopher (2nd century), after the end of the Mystery of Baptism, the newly christened were led to their brothers, who were gathered in the place of Eucharistic adoration and there they were given Chrism. Afterwards, after giving common wishes in favor of the newly christened and of those gathered, the bishop’s offering of bread and wine for the performance of the Divine Eucharist followed (PG6, 428). From this testimony it can be deduced that the Mystery of Baptism was performed in an independent or a special separate place, that is, in a baptistery, which was isolated or outside the space of the Eucharistic synaxis.
Indeed, regarding the Baptism of adults, the main condition for its performance was to immerse the whole body, completely naked, in water, which reasonably necessitated the existence of a baptistery or a tank in an independent or isolated space. In this special space, Baptism was performed by the bishop, in the presence of the godparent and three priests, who led the adult to the baptistery and into the hands of the bishop, who baptized him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. After the sacrament was over, the priests handed over the newly christened to the godparent, who had the role of the initiated spiritual guide and the witness to the sacrament (PG3, 393-396). Then, after the priests and the godparent dressed the newly christened, they led him to the place of the Eucharistic communion, where the people were gathered and waited for them, “to in-togetherness and concelebration for the salvation of the man and to thank divine generosity” (PG3, 393).
So, it is obvious that the presence of a single believer is enough for the realization of the mystery. This means that the physical presence of a single baptized member makes it possible to perform the Mystery of Holy Eucharist and confirms the supreme event of the real presence of Christ. In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the great sacrament of the Eucharist takes place, where bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, which is the highest sacred act of sacrificial love and offering.
Therefore, the Church is first and foremost a “Communion of Theosis” that unites people with each other and with God. But it is also eminently the place and mean of the mysterious experience of life and salvation in Christ, since as the “body of the incarnate Word of God” (St. Chrysostom, PG52, 429), the Church is complete when it meets to perform the great mystery of the Eucharist which is its eternal and unshakable foundation, as much as its essence and “being”.
Thus, there can be no Church without the Divine Eucharist, nor divine Eucharist outside the Church, since those who freely and consciously share the body and blood of Christ are secretly united with Christ, becoming “united and kindred to Him.” “Christ bearers” (Cyril of Alexandria PG33, 1100) of the body and blood of Christ and “partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter, 1:4).