Scholars of the New Testament occasionally conjecture about what is termed the ipsissima verba of Christ, the “very words themselves.” It is a term for those sayings that are considered historically authentic beyond question. One saying which in my opinion belongs to such a category are the so-called “words of institution” (“this is my body…this is my blood”). They are certainly the words with the earliest attestation of any spoken by Christ. They can be found in three of the four gospels, and even found within one of St. Paul’s earlier letters (1 Corinthians). St. Paul’s citation is given in a very peculiar form: he describes them as a “tradition” which had been given to him.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
The words, “received,” and “delivered,” are technical words, used for the transmission and reception of tradition (indeed the word “delivered,” is the word “traditioned”). St. Paul’s statement is not that he had received some Divine revelation of these words (a voice in his head or from heaven), but that they were words of the Lord Himself which had been “handed down” (paradidomai) to him. Thus we have several separate attestations to these words of Christ: first, St. Paul, then Matthew, Mark and Luke. They certainly belong to the oldest layer of oral Tradition.
It is not insignificant that the oldest layer of oral Tradition should be the Eucharist itself. The Holy Eucharist is not a later ritual development of the young Church, a pagan import or imping of the mystery cults. There is no record of a Christianity without the Eucharist.
Some would perhaps interject that the gospel of St. John omits the story of the last supper. The words, “do this,” etc., are not found in St. John’s gospel. Some foolish scholars go so far as to say, “John knows nothing of a last supper.” St. John says more about the Eucharist than any other gospel, only he says it in the context of the feeding of the 5,000.
Most biblical scholars agree that Christ’s words in John’s 6th chapter are about the Eucharist (“whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him,” etc.), but they see them as “misplaced.” They fail to understand that the feeding of the 5,000 is itself a story of the Eucharist. Indeed, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Christ uses the words of the Eucharistic tradition in their correct form and order (“take,” “bless,” break,” “give”). The feeding of the 5,000 is a Eucharistic story.
What is lacking in most approaches to these stories is a proper understanding of sacrament. In the hands of Christ, bread always becomes His body: all things become what they truly are. In Christ the Kingdom of God is revealed and made manifest. Thus where Christ goes, “the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matt. 11:5). The sacramental life is not a special instance in which Christ initiates an ecclesiastical ceremony. What the Church may experience as “ceremony” is nothing other than the revelation of the Kingdom of God. Any claim which is less than that is a denial of the ministry of Christ.
What the world is revealed to be is also true of ourselves: in Christ, the sacrament of our humanity is made manifest. I use the term “sacrament” here both to broaden our understanding of the word and to draw attention to what is truly happening within our lives. The mystery of existence, any existence, is only made clear when seen in the light of Christ. It is this mystery of existence that we properly call sacrament. Things are revealed to be what they truly are when they are brought into proper relation to Christ. It is because the truth of all things is sacramental that we can say this.
Nothing in creation is self-existing. The true existence of everything is revealed only in relation to God. As such, creation is sign and symbol, mystery and sacrament. The Orthodox Christian faith bears witness that this is the very nature of creation.
To live in such a creation, it is necessary to live the life of the heart. The ego/mind is useful for judging, critiquing, comparing, measuring, reacting emotionally (when it is doing its useful tasks). However, it is not able to be the primary organ of perception in the sacramental world. The quiet life of the heart generally perceives intuitively, dwells in the present, accepts the reality that God gives in the moment. It does not distance or dominate or label. It is not governed by fear or desire and has no need to defend or justify. It is that within us which is capable of perceiving the sacramental character of creation.
Much that is described as “sacramental” in modern Christian thought is transferred from the heart to the mind. Thus we think about the Body and Blood of Christ and concern ourselves with questions of why and how. We also reduce the sacramentality of the world to the discreet moments that we label as “sacraments.” In this, the mind distances itself and becomes blind to the true nature of reality. We become strangers to creation. If the heart does not perceive the sacramentality of all bread, then it will likely be blind to the true mystery of the bread of the Eucharist.
In the same manner, those who do not perceive the true mystery found in the saints and the Mother of God, will not be able to see the true life of the people around them. The saints are not of note because they are unusual: they are of note because they reveal our true humanity.
The disciples began their ministries in a state of delusion and blindness. They ate many meals with Christ in which He “took, blessed, broke and gave” them bread. They were given the Eucharistic life. They would later remember both the Eucharistic feeding of the 5,000 as well as the Eucharistic revelation of Christ in a meal on the road to Emmaus. It took centuries for those who claimed the name “Christian” to forget the truth of every meal. They would blindly seek to restrict the sacraments and give the land of the Kingdom over to meaninglessness and amnesia.
But the Kingdom of God has come in Christ and the whole world is a sacrament. Christians are called to take, bless, break and give with eyes wide-open. Then the wonder of God’s mystery will unfold before us: every morsel of bread revealed to be His Body; every tree His Cross; and every human being a saint. Then we can begin to love as we are loved and become what we already are.