According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church there was relatively little controversy regarding the presence of the body and blood of Christ until almost the 9th century and then it was dismissed almost immediately as being contrary to the received understanding of the Church. To study the subject more thoroughly I highly recommend “Early Christian Doctrines” by J.N.D. Kelly. What the Church has taught for centuries is no secret, and the answers are there for anyone who is actually trying to find them.
As St. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received from us.”
So with that being established we move briefly to the theology, the theological understanding of holy communion. Of course I cannot treat extensively as it would require many hours but for those who would like to learn more I would recommend reading “For the Life of the World” by Schmemann.
Now many of you might be thinking….
“What is the point of all this Father, why does it matter that we believe in the communion of the body and blood of Christ?”
The short answer comes from the words of the Lord Jesus in John Chapter 6:53ff
“Then Jesus says 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. He who partakes of My flesh and drinks My blood dwells in Me, and I in him. As the living Father has sent Me, and I live through the Father, so he who partakes of Me, even he shall live by Me. This is the Bread which came down from Heaven, not as your fathers ate the manna, and died; he who partakes of this Bread shall live forever.”
So here we get a brief answer to our question “What does this all really mean?” According to the Son of God it is those who partake of His flesh and blood that have eternal life and that are raised up at the last day. Rather than making this a cause for speculation on what happens to those who do not commune we should focus on what it means for each of us sitting here. Father Alexander Schmemann writes that
“The purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in our partaking of Christ who has become our food, our life,”
Some writers have gone so far as to say that it is in fact the Eucharist that raises us up after death, not as an outside force but that we are granted life from within because of the divine and godly gifts we have consumed.
Another reason for the Eucharist is that it puts our sins into remission as our Lord mentions during the institution of the last supper (Matthew 26:28) Also in the pre-communion prayers of the Liturgy we ask God to allow us “to partake of the immaculate mysteries for the remission of sins and life everlasting.”
When we see ourselves falling into the same patterns of dysfunction and sin in our lives we should ask if the Church is part of our whole life, especially Holy Communion? Partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ has power to change our lives because the Lord we partake of is the same one who raised the dead and gave sight to the blind and forgave sins. Of course I am not saying that only taking communion is enough, but it is a major component to the well rounded spiritual life. And it is not merely a symbolic act but the grace of God, a gift that has been given to us.
The next issue of importance is that the Eucharist makes us part of the Church, which St. Paul calls the body of Christ. This statement is not meant to be metaphorical or symbolic, just as the statement of St. Paul’s “it is no longer I who lives but Christ in me” is not symbolic. It is a literal statement that identifies all those who partake of communion as having Jesus dwelling within them and that because we each partake of Him in the one loaf we are each united to each other and each become a part of the body of Christ.
You see unlike the religions where you travel to a far away temple in order to be present at the place where God dwells, we find that God has done all the work and traveled to meet us. He did this first by taking flesh and becoming man, and then by dying a human death and He does this by allowing us to eat Him (strange as it may sound) and thereby making us His temple. We are the place where God dwells. And since each and every one of us should be partaking of His body and blood regularly we also show ourselves to have complete unity because of His one body that unites us. After all it is the same Jesus that you partake of and that I partake of. And not only is it the same Jesus that you and I partake of but that each and every saint of the last 2000 years partook of in the liturgy. We are united to each of the saints because we share the same Jesus Christ both in faith and doctrine and even in His flesh and blood.
The saying goes that “You are what you eat.” This is actually true if we don’t fight it but receive with the best of intentions and with faith. When we eat food it breaks down and assimilates itself for the nourishment of our physical bodies. It is the same with Jesus who calls himself the heavenly bread. We eat of Him and find that our minds and bodies and more importantly our souls are assimilated to Him if we allow it…..and this is the Christian life in its fullest expression. A life in which Christ is being fully formed within us and transforming our view of the whole world. As St. John the baptist says “I must decrease and He must increase.” Of course we should remember that this is not magic, it is a mystery that we have faithfully kept since it was passed to us.
But we must also remember that these gifts of God are a double edged sword. Whatever has the power to give life and forgiveness also has the power to kill us and condemn us as we remember from 1 Corinthians 11:29 where some ate and drank condemnation because they ate and drank unworthily and some became weak and fell sick and some died as a result of the communion. May the Lord make us worthy to partake!
Next week we will continue with “How to properly prepare for Communion.”
Originally delivered on October 17, 2010
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