The simple words of Christ to His disciples at the Last Supper were profound on many levels: the commandment was short and straight-forward; it reversed an ancient prohibition; it set the primary manner for human beings to receive grace and thus teaches us much about how it is we receive grace in a normative manner (and were always meant to).
The Orthodox are somewhat fond of quoting this simple commandment, only if it is to pick a friendly fight with Roman Catholics. Western Christianity developed a devotion to the Body of Christ which became manifested as a visual devotion. Thus the service of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has as its focus the showing forth of the Eucharist in a manner to be seen by all.
Orthodoxy has almost the opposite instinct. The holier something is, the more likely we are to hide it until the last moment. Thus during Great Lent and part of Holy Week, when the Holy Eucharist is frequently only celebrated with “Pre-sanctified” Body and Blood of Christ (consecrated at the Sunday Liturgy), the entire service takes place with profound devotion, but without seeing the Body and Blood of Christ until the very moment in which we come forward to receive Him, in obedience to His commandment: “Take, eat.”
I will leave it to other Orthodox writers to concern themselves with the relative merits or faults in the Roman Catholic practice, or yet, the explanations for the historical development of the Eucharistic practices of Orthodoxy during Lent and Holy Week. I am simply concerned with the commandment to “take, eat” and to “drink ye all of this” (which, by the way means “all of you drink this” and not “drink all this.”
First, the commandment is simple – an action described in two words. It is also an action that can (and is) taken even by very young children. In Orthodoxy we commune children as soon as they are Baptized and Chrismated (from about 40 days old or so). It is not only a simple commandment but reverses the oldest of prohibitions in man’s story with God. We refused to keep the proper fast in the Garden, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we had been told it was the only tree from which we were not to eat.
Left untouched was the Tree of Life. To guard that tree, and to prevent man from becoming an everlasting, unrepentant demon, we were cast out of the Garden and an angel with a flaming sword was set to guard the tree’s approach. Of course, we now understand that the Cross is itself the Tree of Life, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree.
It is the fruit of the Tree of Life that is brought forth in the Cup in the Holy Eucharist. The doors of the iconostasis are opened (like the very gates of paradise) and the Deacon comes forth chanting, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near.” The Banquet of Life begins.
Christ told us:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.Whosoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever (John 6:53-58).
And this banquet is the normative means of receiving grace, God’s own Life. This is the grace of forgiveness, of healing, of union with God (there are not several graces but one grace which does all). There I sit and marvel. It is normative for us to receive grace by eating and drinking. As I tell my catechumens: “God has so purposed to give you grace that He put it on a spoon lest you miss it” (Orthodox are communed by a spoon with the Body and Blood mixed together).
Thus like babies, or even young chicks, we approach the cup with our mouths opened, humbling ourselves to receive the Life of God.
This simple act of receiving grace is not unique among God’s work with human beings. There has developed in some parts of Christianity an effort to “spiritualize” the reception of grace. Most of this development has come from the usual suspect: the nefarious “two-storey universe.” Thus we live normal lives, eating and drinking, washing and bathing, etc., but surround the receiving of grace with unusual activities: most particularly mental activities. For in the warped version of the faith that is the two-storey world, we equate our bodies with the secular and our minds with the spiritual. It is pure nonsense and a failure to properly understand the Scriptures.
God did not give us bodies in order to trap us in the lower storey of the universe. Neither does he intend to raise us up to heaven as disembodied minds. Such Platonistic nonsense has no proper place in Christianity.
I have heard the phrase “empty ritual” so many times in my life that I know I confront a cliche when I hear it. The speaker has put no great thought into his/her words. Nor do they understand the most basic gifts of God. Worse still, there is an anti-Semitic component to this phrase. The Old Testament, filled with instructions for the ritual of the Temple, is seen as somehow inferior (by nature) to what is imagined to be a “spiritual” approach in the New Testament. Though the first Passover in historical terms (in Christian understanding) was but a shadow of the eternal Pascha of Christ – the feasts are both quite physical in form. One eats the meat of a lamb in a ritual manner; the other eats the Body and Blood of God in a ritual manner.
For those who think of ritual as “empty ritual,” the argument is with God, not with me. He gave us these forms.
Liturgical actions are not to be done mindlessly, but with deep care and concern. Mishandling the Body and Blood of Christ can get an Orthodox priest deposed from his priesthood, or, at least, suspended for a time as a disciplinary measure. It is a most serious matter. In the same way, the laity is not to approach Christ’s Body and Blood in a nonchalant manner.
The “ritual” aspects carry no inherent value, but instead a discipline and a respect, lest we treat holy things in an unholy manner. Those who despise the outward forms of this great gift are gnostics who are despising Christ’s gift to us. There can be no “drive-through” communions, or lunch bag communions (I’ve heard of both). These are ignorant blasphemies on the part of a people who have been taught that physical things do not matter, only the spiritual. As a result they do not know the spiritual things of God, only thoughts about spiritual things.
Take, eat. It is a simple commandment. But it gives us what had once been forbidden. It teaches us as well how grace is generally received. It comes to us in cup and spoon, in oil and water, in smoke and fragrance. In the bowing of the head or the prostration of our bodies. It comes to us in our words of forgiveness for another and in the daily rituals of kindness we perform for one another.
God has not made the acquisition of His Life hard for us – unless you despise the simplicity of His method. Those who do may go with Naaman and enjoy the beauty of the rivers in Syria. But do not expect to be healed on your own terms.