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Holy Communion - Real Presence or Mysterious Metaphor?
A Biblical Inquiry
by Fr Dimitri Grekoff

Copyright © 2011 Rev Dimitri Grekoff. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the copyright holder. Feel free to link to this article. Exodus 20:15

The Body and Blood of the Messiah?

   The ancient and original Church throughout the world practiced a special kind of worship. There were different forms used in different locations, but throughout the world evangelized by the apostles and bishops after them, the purpose for gathering together was to offer simple bread and wine to God the Father. This offering being accepted, the church believed the Holy Spirit then descended upon the offering and a change took place. That change, which was everywhere considered to be a mystery, united the offering of bread and wine to the spiritual and heavenly Body and Blood of the Messiah. This union was understood to be like the Incarnation; the Word of God, eternal, self-existent, and yet only begotten of his Father, took human flesh and became man.  The importance of this change from simple bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Messiah was for the sanctification of those who partook of them, those who ate his Body and drank his Blood. For the early Christian, as it has been for nearly two thousand years, this was the focal point of their worship.
   This may sound strange to you if you were not raised in a Catholic or Orthodox church. A Roman rite Catholic would know this service as “The Mass,” Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics call it “The Divine Liturgy” and to Armenian and Assyrians (and those of the patrimony of the Church of the East) it is “The Holy Offering.” You may wonder how this type of worship lines up with the Bible. Let's look at a selection of the Scriptures that will better help you to understand why we are to worship this way.

Gospel of John Chapter 6 - The Discourse on the Bread of Life

   In the sixth chapter of St John's Gospel we find Jesus and his disciples near the Sea of Galilee. About 5000 people have followed Jesus and his disciples and they were without food. Jesus miraculously fed all those people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. In fact, food was left over, twelve whole baskets full!
   Jesus and his disciples then went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walking on the water. The next day the people looked for Jesus, finding him on the other side. When they approached, he said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
   What Jesus was referring to by “God the Father has set his seal” on the Son of Man is the descent of the Holy Spirit and the pronouncement of the Father at his baptism, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:16&17) The Catechism of the Catholic Church further explains that the members of his Church are also “sealed;” “Christ himself declared that he was marked with his Father's seal. Christians are also marked with a seal: “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has commissioned us; he has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” This seal of the Holy Spirit marks our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service for ever, as well as the promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial.” (Paragraph 1296)
   John continues his narrative, “Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat," ” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
   Let's backup a moment for reflection. The crowd came to Jesus looking for bread. They said to him “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat."” Their reference was to the supernatural food that God provided for the Children of Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness (Exodus 16). The manna was a “type” or figure of Christ in the Old Testament. We read from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “It is on this harmony of the two Testaments that the Paschal catechesis of the Lord is built, and then, that of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. This catechesis unveils what lay hidden under the letter of the Old Testament: the mystery of Christ. It is called “typological” because it reveals the newness of Christ on the basis of the “figures” (types) which announce him in the deeds, words, and symbols of the first covenant. By this re-reading in the Spirit of Truth, starting from Christ, the figures are unveiled. Thus the flood and Noah's ark prefigured salvation by Baptism, as did the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea. Water from the rock was the figure of the spiritual gifts of Christ, and manna in the desert prefigured the Eucharist, “the true bread from heaven.” (Paragraph 1094)
   Now, Jesus knew their intentions and instructed them to look “for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Having told them what to look for, he then makes the commitment that he would give it. Trying to impress him, the people asked, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” The reply Jesus give them was that they were to come to believe in him or to rely on him, not on the law and their works, but on Jesus as the “the true Bread from heaven.” This is the sign that they asked for, the Bread that gives life to the world. The people exclaimed, as has the Church for nearly two thousand years, “give us this Bread always.”
   Jesus went on to detail his teaching. He said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. ...  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” There was to be no doubt, Jesus was the Bread from heaven, and he promised his flesh. 
   This concept of eating flesh was revolting to the Jews. It was totally unacceptable. We read, “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Yet Jesus insisted that such must be the case. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” These were strong words, and hard to hear. But there they were. Even today they ring out, crying for our attention, saying,  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” For all the wide variety of Christian experiences, this verse remains as a litmus test. No matter how spiritual we may conceive of ourselves or others as being, the Body and Blood of the Son are necessary for spiritual life.
   So difficult was this teaching to accept, we read that “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?” They understood Jesus to be speaking in a literal fashion, not “symbolically.” Yet, Jesus did not attempt to correct them, because he meant it literally. Certainly they were offended!
   The Catechism notes that this teaching also caused division among Jesus' disciples, “The first announcement of the Eucharist divided the disciples, just as the announcement of the Passion scandalized them: "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" The Eucharist and the Cross are stumbling blocks. It is the same mystery and it never ceases to be an occasion of division. "Will you also go away?": the Lord's question echoes through the ages, as a loving invitation to discover that only he has "the words of eternal life" and that to receive in faith the gift of his Eucharist is to receive the Lord himself.” (Paragraph 1336)

Other Perspectives

   This teaching still offends many today. Most Protestants today regard the Body and Blood merely as symbols denoted by bread and wine or grape juice. They deny that the Body and Blood, as understood and offered by the Church, can be literal.  If Jesus said, “This is a symbol of my Body and Blood” there would not have been such a problem. However, what we find in the Greek is the Hebrew and Aramaic term for special importance to be given to the following teaching. Jesus begins his answer by saying, “Amin, amin,” which is translated above as “Very truly.” This phrase signals to the hearer that the following is clear teaching, of expressed importance and above ordinary conversation. It can be translated as “make no doubt about it,” or “let me make this perfectly clear.” Certainly then, this teaching was literal and in no way symbolic, for Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
   The result of this teaching, what the Catechism calls “the first announcement of the Eucharist,” was that, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him... So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Today we acknowledge with sorrow that many have turned away from this teaching and have also gone away. They deny that Jesus meant for his followers to literally eat his Body and drink his Blood. They deny this central aspect of worship and choose instead to ignore the teaching of the Church for nearly two thousand years. The Church continues in obedience to Jesus, remaining with his teaching and crying out with St Peter as he answered Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

St Paul's Application

   Now let's turn our attention to another example of the literal understanding of this teaching. Like the denial of this teaching by many Protestants today, abuse and disregard of this teaching were an issue when St Paul wrote his first epistle to the church at Corinth. He seems to have considered it so important, he wrote, “I received from the Lord  that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the New Covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes”
   There are five points to be found in this reading. First, St Paul claims that the teaching of the Body and Blood was given him by the Lord. He wrote, “I received from the Lord,” indicating that he held this teaching as inspired and divinely revealed.
   Second, he says, “what I also handed on to you.” This “handing on” refers to the oral tradition which was just then starting to be written down. St Paul's recording of the words of Jesus most likely were the first written, as the synoptic Gospels were yet to be written. All four accounts are in perfect harmony. As churches were being established it was  necessary to pass on this tradition. St Paul spoke of it earlier in this epistle, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” This echoes his second epistle to the Thessalonians, saying, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” Not only were they to hold fast, but listen to his instructions on how to deal with those denying the traditions, “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.” Oral tradition, therefore, was of great importance.
   Third, we find the Lord's instruction, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This verse can be translated another way, one that more closely conveys the meaning Jesus intended at the Passover meal, "Do this as my Memorial."  The Jewish understanding of memorials and keeping them is essential to understanding what Jesus is saying. For instance, St Matthew's Gospel records the disciples asking where Jesus wanted to eat the Passover. Of course, what is meant is the Memorial Feast of the Passover, since the actual Passover itself was eaten long ago in Egypt. And this is what is so very essential to understand what Jesus meant and how we are to interpret this Scripture. For the Jews, to recall a happening in time, to reenact it, to relive it, is to unite the present with the past, it is to make the past reality a present one. For the Jews, this was done not only as a sacred act for the people, but it was also a service rendered to God. The keeping of the Memorial was also a recounting before God the wondrous works he has done. Certainly, God has no faulty memory, but to recall his doings, to memorialize his works, is an act of serving him by making his past deeds present in our lives The imperative tense of this ordinance recalls his other great precept, "You must be born again." No believer is exempted, nor is the teaching optional. "Do this..."
   Fourth, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” It is through this sacrifice and partaking of it that we enter into a contract-relationship with the Messiah. It was for this purpose that he had come, to establish a New Covenant whereby we could gain eternal life. “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” (Heb 9:15) Not only is this a “new” covenant, but St Paul also calls it an “eternal Covenant,” “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Heb 13:20&21)
   Fifth, we are to continue proclaiming his death, the great and redeeming sacrifice, “until he comes.” As it has done for nearly two thousand years, the Church perpetuates this Covenant until our Lord's glorious Second Coming.
   St Paul continues, adding emphatically, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Would you dare be liable for the sacrifice of the Messiah, for the Body and Blood of the Lord? To partake of such unworthily is to be guilty of his death. Instead, we are to scrutinize our inner selves. So important is the Body and Blood, that we need to prepare to receive it. At the end of the fourth century, St John Chrysostom commented on this Scripture, saying, “He does not mean that one is to be examined by another, but each is to examine himself, making the courtroom secret and the trail unwitnessed.”
   Then St Paul wrote something that is overlooked today by many. Yet it is most important. He wrote, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body of the Lord, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” This word “discerning” is key. In Greek it is “dia'kree-non,” in Aramaic we find “p'rash,” which is where the noun “Pharisee” comes from. Both words mean “to separate, to make a distinction, to differentiate.” Some translations render the word “recognizing.” What St Paul is saying, is that to partake without making the distinction that this Bread is the Lord's Body, is to pass judgment, or condemnation, on themselves.

Holy Communion and our Relationship with Jesus

   In contrast to not discerning the Lord's Body and Blood, proper and regular reception of Holy Communion strengthens our relationship with Jesus. The Catechism encourages us “Holy Communion augments our union with Christ. The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus. Indeed, the Lord said: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.” (Paragraph 1391)
    St Theodore, the close friend of St John Chrysostom, elaborated on this process of “discerning.” He said, “When the priest gives the [the Body] he says,"The Body of the Messiah." He teaches you by this word not to look at that which is visible, but to picture in your mind the nature of what is being placed, which, by the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the Body of the Messiah. You should come close with great awe and love: with awe, because of the greatness of its honor; with love, because of its grace. That is why you reply, "Amen." With this reply, you confirm and agree with what the priest said. The same happens with the Blood.”
   How can anyone believe that the bread and wine are only symbols of the Body and Blood? How can anyone suggest that they are for occasional use? May all believers obey their Lord and, “Do this...”
   If this type of worship seems foreign to you, I encourage you to study the Scriptures. It will become clear that our worship is from the Scriptures. If you have further questions please contact the local parish office or priest.  We are always ready to aid others who are looking for “the Faith once delivered to the Apostles.”

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