Take, Eat

bro-ephraim-mar-sabaThe 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.

22 Responses to “Take, Eat”

  1. Bill M Says:

    Father, thank you. Your words on ritual here strike a chord with me, as I am part of an Anabaptist tradition which historically rejected ritual, only to replace it over the years with rites of its own. Today I struggle with how, sometimes, the “ritual” of our worship is made up as we go along, often borrowed from other traditions without much understanding of what and why. (For example, last Easter season we added a “tennebrae” service to our Holy Week observances. It’s not historically part of our tradition. It’s not a word we even know the meaning of, without explanation. It feels artificial, transplanted, regardless of how meaningful the scripture readings themselves are.)

    Anyway… a question, if I may, and if it will not distract from the point of your posting: Why is the Orthodox practice to mix the bread and wine together? Does this not move away from the command to “take and drink”? We serve communion in our church in a similar way, sometimes – where the bread is dipped into the cup. Someone asked me if this was not “drinking”.

    Bill

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    It was the Eastern answer to the problem of those who were stealing the Eucharist to use it for wrong purposes. In the West, they simply quit giving the wine, and placed the Eucharist directly in the mouth. We mixed the two, and placed it directly into the mouth. Bishops, priests and Deacons still receive in the more ancient manner.

  3. The young fogey Says:

    As you know, Father:

    Traditionally Orthodox receive infrequently just like traditional Roman Catholics.

    In the Christian East (not only among the Orthodox), no Berengarius (no heresy threatening to become widespread denying the Real Presence… B was a few centuries before the Protestants) so no need to develop practices as countermeasures to his teachings. So no Benediction in the Eastern rites; they never needed it.

    The faithful, whether they are receiving or not, making a full prostration as the Holy Gifts are brought out during Presanctified seems the same general idea as Benediction.

    The Exposition craze among some modern well-meaning conservative RCs is both a reaction to liberal abuses in the Mass and is not traditional, an exception not the norm historically. Western Catholicism agrees with Eastern that the Eucharist is primarily to be eaten.

    If you believe in the lasting Real Presence and reserve, in theory you can have Benediction but of course there are liturgical and historical reasons not to, which I think is the real position of the Christian East on this. The Christian East indeed keeps the early church’s emphasis liturgically on the Sacrament as food.

  4. David Nandell Says:

    I agree with The Young Fogey. Roman Catholics are reacting to Protestant beliefs that the Eucharist is NOT the real presence of Christ. I believe it is a reinforcement of our belief that LOOK this IS the body of Christ! It’s not a cracker and grape juice!!!

    Eastern Christianity hasn’t had as much contact with Protestantismin the past, although that seems to have changed with Protestants (i.e. Evangelicals) going to Eastern territories over the last 20 years to preach to the “atheists”. If Roman Catholics are considered “not born again, thus not saved” than you can imagine what they think of the Orthodox.

    There is no understanding in our modern world of ancient Christianity outside of the RC and Orthodox.

    Keep up the good work Father and hopefully you’ll help change this to some extent.

  5. Cheryl Says:

    Speaking as an Evangelical moving away from it and into Orthodoxy. Forgive my, forgive our ignorance. And absolutely our arrogance for considering you “not born again and not saved.”

    The Gnosticism and Platonic thought of Evangelicalism has bothered me for a long time…I am so grateful for Orthodoxy, and for your blog, Father.

    Pray for me as I’m inbetween now: unable to take communion at my non-denominational church, but not yet able to take it in the Orthodox one I’m transitioning to, seeing as I’m not yet a catechumen let alone chrismated (but I hope to be at LEAST the former very soon.)

    Cheryl

  6. Cheryl Says:

    **unable to take communion at my current church for conscience’s sake, because I believe it to be the Body and Blood of Christ

  7. katia Says:

    Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
    The Eucharist
    19 June 1966

    “…. But we have given it also another name, we call it the Eucharist, from a Greek word which means simultaneously “gift” and “thanksgiving”. Indeed we can see that communion to the Body and Blood of Christ is the greatest gift which the Lord can grant us: companionship and equality, becoming the co-workers of God. And through the incredible, unfathomable action and power of the Spirit, because this bread is no longer bread only and this wine is no longer only wine, but have truly become the Body and the Blood of the Giver, we become incipiently and increasingly partakers of the divine nature, Gods by adoption, Gods by participation, so that together with the One Who is the Incarnate Son of God, we became the total revelation of man as well as the total revelation of God’s presence, the total Christ of whom St Ignatius of Antioche spoke. And beyond this, higher, deeper even than this, in this community of nature and of life with the Only-Begotten Son of God in the words of St Irenaeus of Lyon, we become truly with regard to God Himself the only begotten son.

    This is the gift, but where is the thanksgiving? What can we bring to the Lord? Bread and wine, they belong to Him; our own lives? Are we not His? He has called us out of naught, He has brought us into being, He has endowed us with all that we are and all that we possess. What then can we give which is really ours? St Maxim the Confessor says that God can do all things, save one: He cannot compel the smallest of His creatures to love Him, because love is supreme freedom. This is the only gift which we can bring to God: the gift of a trusting heart.”
    ….

  8. Darla Says:

    Father, bless. My husband asked the question when we discussed this post about why the two were mixed in the cup. He hadn’t read the comments, so when I opened them I was pleased to be able to read the question and your response to him. Thank you.

    Cheryl, we are also where you are …. we have left our Protestant church and are attending our local Orthodox mission. We are going to the “big” church 45 minutes from here for Pascha services this weekend! We’re very excited. We will begin attending the Inquirer’s class after Pascha and Bright Week. It’s a new thing for us — trusting a *slower* approach to “church membership” (that phrase obviously has very different meanings in Protestantism and Orthodoxy; and in P. we are encouraged to move quickly!). But it’s part of our journey of faith — trusting the leadership God purposefully set up in the Church. And the truth is, we *appreciate* this slower, more meaningful approach.

  9. The Body and Blood, Tree and the Fruit, Christ and the Cross « Robby Lobby… Says:

    […] in Orthodoxy tagged Eucharist, Grace, Orthodoxy, Pascha at 12:22 pm by Robby “Take, Eat” is the title of today’s blog from Glory to God for All Things. In it he talks about this […]

  10. Go, Read « The Gourd Reborn Says:

    […] Orthodox interpretation of scripture never ceases to amaze me. From Father Stephen’ blog, here: We refused to keep the proper fast in the Garden, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and […]

  11. John in Denver (but not John Denver) Says:

    “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.”

    That creates such an awesome image! I love it.

  12. Kate Says:

    Father,
    you say, “the Cross is itself the Tree of Life, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree”.
    How do we know this? Does Tradition tell us this? Was it forbidden because the time had not come yet to eat of that fruit, since it seems you are saying it is the same we take during the Liturgy?

  13. Dave Wells Says:

    Father, how often should Orthodox Christians receive the Body and Blood of our Lord in Holy Communion? Earlier, you stated “the laity is not to approach Christ’s Body and Blood in a nonchalant manner.” As a Roman Catholic (and sometime Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion), I often witness people coming forward each Sunday to receive the Blessed Sacrament in a nonchalant manner. How do the Orthodox avoid this problem?

  14. Moses Says:

    A really good article Father! Hopefully it’ll raise questions as to why people are still not communing frequently especially when they think they are “unworthy” which doesn’t make any sense since only “One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.”🙂

  15. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    “For those who think of ritual as “empty ritual,” the argument is with God, not with me. He gave us these forms.”

    This is the crux of the matter that I didn’t understand as a Protestant until I read a book on the Liturgy and it was pointed out that biblical worship is modeled on the worship in Heaven and that was prescribed to Moses by God in the OT. All Christians understand to some extent that we can do nothing without Christ. I think we just don’t understand how radical that really is–especially when it comes to true worship. It is so completely satisfying to finally begin to understand aright what the Eucharist and true Liturgy are really about: us bringing ourselves to God (who are His in the first place by Creation) and Him giving Himself to us. The childlike dependence that must be expressed in reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Orthodox Liturgy is notable. If such childlike dependence is sincere, I think it is also the answer to what constitutes approaching the chalice in a worthy manner. For myself, God giving me grace, I would partake daily if it were possible. I never feel myself not to be in need of Christ and His grace, and though I am not worthy (because of my many sins) I long for union with Him.

    Christ is in our midst!

  16. Ben Says:

    David and Young Fogey,

    Also, to remember is the fact that it is not just the protestants who Catholics are reacting to. During the 700-800s, while the East was dealing with the second iconoclast controversy, the West was dealing with this very matter. There has always been much disdain on the Church’s teachings in regards to the Real Presence. Having understood the development of these things and the Church in the West’s reaction to them, I find myself feeling much more understanding of many of the practices and doctrinally (ie. benediction, I live very close to a Poor Claire’s Monastery and frequently go there to pray as no Orthodox Churches in the area are open during the week).

    I would recommend a great book on Church History to anyone (especially those in the priesthood and considering it) called Greek East and Latin West: The Church 681-1071. It was very enlightening.

  17. katia Says:

    Kate,

    “the Cross is itself the Tree of Life, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree”.
    How do we know this? Does Tradition tell us this? ”

    “… This is the path out of Sheol into heaven, towards God’s healing and
    accepting love. In his Homily on Our Lord, there are some wonderful lines
    where St. Ephrem compares the Cross of Christ’s passion to a bridge
    stretched over the realm of death so that the souls can cross over to the
    realm of life, that is, Paradise:

    This is the skillful Son of the carpenter who put up a cross over Sheol
    that swallows all. And He led 36 humanity over to the realm of Life. While
    through the Tree37humanity fell inside of Sheol, over the Tree [of the
    cross] it crossed to the realm of Life. Thus, through the Tree, through
    which was tasted the bitterness, was tasted the sweetness. So that we could
    recognize the One to whom there is no adversary in His creation. To You is
    the glory Who put His cross as a bridge over Death, so that the souls could
    pass over it from the realm of the dead to the realm of the living.
    Christ liberates us not from our physical death but from the death of
    our spirit, caused by Adam’s transgression.

    Philoxenos of Mabbug (485-
    523), a Syrian Orthodox bishop and an outstanding theologian in his Ten
    Discourses against Habib wrote that death was destroyed by death and not
    by resurrection, which was only the revelation of that victory. To me this
    statement is very illuminating, and it clarifies why in our troparionwe sing
    about Christ who has “risen from the death trampling down death by death.”
    For this reason Christ is also called a guest “in the tomb.”39

    CHRIST,
    THE MEDICINE
    OF LIFE:
    The Syriac Fathers on
    the Lord’s Descent Into Hell
    Presently working on her D. Phil. at Oxford University, England, Russian Orthodox Syriac
    scholar Irina Kukota – Road to Emaus

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Most Orthodox in America do receive communion frequently – even weekly. Being prepared and avoiding nonchalance is always an on-going pastoral problem. Regular confession helps.In OCA practice, communion tends to be weekly and I encourage confession about every six weeks unless more is needed. I think it helps. In much of the Old world, communion is still taken less frequently (in some cases only a few times a year) and the preparation is quite significant. It would be ideal if the preparation were quite significant regardless of frequency. I do not think we have passed into the casual approach that obtains in some Catholic situations or in liturgical protestantism. Mostly due to emphasis on frequent private confession. But there are places where Orthodox practice has become weak and the faith is in need of renewal. My parish is heavily first-generation convert – which tends to be zealous in its practice. It is maintaining this over many generations that is the constant pastoral task of the Church. One must be hungry for God.

  19. Meskerem Says:

    Father Stephen says…
    In much of the Old world, communion is still taken less frequently (in some cases only a few times a year) and the preparation is quite significant…

    It is true, people especially adults do not take that often. However older people and children take it in regular basis. The preparation like you mentioned is very significant, there might be fasting or prostrations you have to do and so humble yourself to be ready, which could be for some days. After you take it also you are not supposed to talk much and the whole day you do not interact much. It makes it more meaningful.

    On the “Eucharist”…Jesus has told us, My Flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Unless you eat My flesh and drink my blood you cannot dwell in me, nor can you have eternal life” John 6:53-56. When he first spoke this way people objected of him. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat” and started to withdraw. He asked his disciples if they too intended to leave him. Peter answered “ How can we leave you to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:38
    It was ordinary everyday bread that people brought for offering before the words of Christ were pronounced over it.
    St Paul teaches us on the night that the Lord was betrayed He took bread and wine and giving thanks he told us to eat and drink. The word of Christ have power to change the nature. The sacrament we receive from the altar has been consecrated by the words of Christ himself spoken at the Last Supper. The word by whom all things were made. He spoke and the heaven, the earth, were made. He spoke and can change anything in creation. Words that are divine.

  20. David Nandell Says:

    Ben,

    Thank you for the book recommendation. I can never read enough! I just returned from a pilgrimage to Rome and am currently steeped in all things ancient.

    Walking through San Clemente – Clements actual house!. Walking through the excavations under St. Peters and seeing Constantine’s shrine over the grave of St. Peter. I’ve been listening to the “Orthodox Word” podcast which is amazing as well.

    I want to go to Greece and Israel next.

  21. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    “In his Homily on Our Lord, there are some wonderful lines
    where St. Ephrem compares the Cross of Christ’s passion to a bridge
    stretched over the realm of death so that the souls can cross over to the
    realm of life, that is, Paradise”

    I had no idea that the bridge diagram was Orthodox! 😉

  22. Steve Says:

    The Hebrew tradition speaks of those who have already passed from slavery into freedom, hence the freed slaves “recline” at the MASTER’s Table.

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