Holy Communion is one of seven sacraments of the Orthodox Church. The others being Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Holy Unction, Marriage and Sacramental Priesthood.
Why should we study the subject of Holy Communion?
There are many reasons to study this subject. It will help us to answer questions such as “What must I do to receive communion? and “why is it that only Orthodox may receive communion in an Orthodox church?” Also studying helps us to understand why we participate in communion, as well as the effect communion has on a Christian. So with all that in mind we can begin a small study of this subject.
Above all it is important to remember that communion is a sacrament and that the Greek word for sacrament is mysterion…..mystery. What happens in a sacrament can never be fully defined by the human mind since it is a gift from God and His ways are high above our understanding. On this subject St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth “So let a man think of us as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).
This point is so powerful that whenever a priest is ordained in the Orthodox Church the bishop hands him a portion of the holy communion and commands the priest with these words “keep this until the second coming of our Lord.” It is in keeping with this spirit of being a steward called to watch over these mysteries that I will speak to you about Holy Communion.
It’s important to note the technical name of communion is Eucharist, coming from the greek “evkharistia” meaning to thank. This idea of thankfulness is very important to the whole process because it is the reason why we come together at every Liturgy. First because our Lord gave thanks over the bread and the cup before blessing them. Also we are thanking God for the work He has done in His son Jesus Christ and we are living a life of thankfulness for every blessing that God is bestowing on us.
Here is what the writers of the New Testament wrote concerning the subject of communion: In the gospel of Mark 14:22-24 “And as they ate, Jesus took a loaf and blessed and broke it, and He gave to them and said, Take, eat; this is My body. And taking the cup, giving thanks, He gave to them. And they all drank out of it. And He said to them, This is My blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Matthew 26:26-29 “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat, this is My body. And He took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink all of it. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
Luke 22:19-20 “And He took bread and gave thanks, and He broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is My body which is given for you, this do in remembrance of Me. In the same way He took the cup, after having dined, saying, This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is being poured out for you.”
Please note that never in any of these passages does the Lord refer to the bread and wine as symbols. Rather taking Him at His word we as Orthodox Christians, following the tradition of the Apostles, believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ though we don’t have a formula for this such as transubstantiation or consubstantiation. We consider it a real, mystical and spiritual change since we know that it continues to look and taste like bread and wine even though we have been taught by Our Lord and his apostles that there has in fact been a change.
Now I mentioned that this was also the teaching of the Apostles and this is demonstrated quite clearly in St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 10:16 “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”
St. Paul continues in chapter 11:23-30 “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; And giving thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also, after supping, saying, “This cup is the New Covenant in My blood; as often as you drink it, do this in remembrance of Me.” For “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you show” the Lord’s death until He shall come. So that whoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup. For he who eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks condemnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and many sleep.””
As we can see the New Testament is very clear about what it is that we receive in communion, the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even more than this the Apostle is clear about what can happen to someone who does not eat and drink the body and blood of Christ worthily. In and of itself it is quite strong proof that what is eaten and drunk is not a mere symbol since a mere symbol has never had the power to make someone weak and sick and even cause death!
Finally I would turn your attention to a short passage in the gospel according to John chapter 6:52 “ “Then the Jews argued with one another, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Whoever partakes of 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.”
Nowhere does the New Testament ever mention the bread and wine as mere symbols, and yet I want you to know that most protestant and “non denominational” groups do not believe that communion is really the body and blood of Christ, instead they see these as symbols. They rejected this idea as an invention of the Roman Catholics. They never studied Christian history thoroughly to see the original teachings of the Church. They may have simply read the Bible and glossed over the portions that were inconvenient. In reading the Bible this way they and those who believe them have withdrawn themselves from one of the greatest gifts ever given to mankind.
We’ve seen the New Testament understanding of communion and next time we will look at the early Church’s understanding of communion and how this also affects our worship and we will follow this by looking at the effects holy communion has on a Christian.
Originally delivered October 3, 2010
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