The mystery of the Eucharist is something Orthodox Christians are hesitant to discuss with anyone who is not already Orthodox. It has been our most precious secret from the very beginning of the Church. You may wonder why it would be necessary to keep something so central to our faith a secret, so with some trepidation I will attempt to give you a small peek behind closed doors. I hope that in doing so, I will help you understand why we guard this part of our faith so passionately.
The Lord said to His disciples “this is my body” and “this is my blood” when he instituted the Eucharist. The Apostolic tradition was and is that the bread and wine that we bless and offer back to God in thanksgiving truly are the body and blood of Christ. We see no use in trying to understand in a scientific or even a rational way how this could possibly be true. We simply call it a mystery. We know in part. In the West the word “sacrament” is used, whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the word mystery.
Believe it or not, the Eucharist is foreshadowed in the book of Isaiah.
And it came to pass in the year in which king Ozias died, that I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, and the house was full of his glory. And seraphs stood round about him: each one had six wings: and with two they covered their face, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
And one cried to the other, and they said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
And the lintel shook at the voice they uttered, and the house was filled with smoke.
And I said, Woe is me, for I am pricked to the heart; for being a man, and having unclean lips, I dwell in the midst of a people having unclean lips; and I have seen with mine eyes the King, the Lord of hosts.
And there was sent to me one of the seraphs, and he had in his hand a coal, which he had taken off the altar with the tongs: and he touched my mouth, and said, Behold, this has touched thy lips, and will take away thine iniquities, and will purge off thy sins.
When Orthodox Christians celebrate the Eucharist, the priest puts the bread and wine, which have mystically become body and blood of Christ, in the mouth of the communicant with a long-handled gold spoon. Hebrews 12:29 tells us that our God is a consuming fire, so much like the seraph bringing fire to Isaiah’s lips, so do those who partake of the Eucharist have the fire of God brought up to their lips. Not only that, we take God right into our bodies. We consume the fire which consumes all in order that Christ might be all and in all.
Obviously something so spiritually powerful would be precious to Orthodox Christians and would make us feel compelled to keep it secret and keep it safe…much like Frodo guarding the ring of power for Gandalf…sort of…ok maybe not, but it seemed like the right time to throw in a Lord of the Rings reference.
Every Sunday I eat fire that comes down from heaven and the fire is truly God and is the medicine of immortality. I kid you not. So there you have it. Now either you think I’m completely nutty or you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m actually not a fan of having people think I’m nutty, so I tend to keep my experience of the Eucharist to myself. But if anyone asks I will tell them that God sets a banquet table for us all, so that we can taste and see that the Lord is good.
We come to know God and be healed of our sins through the mysteries of the Church. This means that somehow, in a manner which we cannot fully explain or understand, they help us to put on Christ. For it is Christ’s life that saves us. By partaking of the mystical supper of the Eucharist and literally taking His life into ourselves, we draw closer to salvation.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Justin Martyr which was written around the year 155 AD
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], … not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood…”
Now you know what it means to be a partaker of the Divine Life. I hope that it wasn’t all too much. I hope it was just enough,actually, and just what you were hungering for.