The Eucharist (Greek eucharistia, ‘thanksgiving’), or the mystery of Holy Communion, is ‘the sacrament of sacraments’, ‘the mystery of mysteries’. The Eucharist has a central significance in the life of the Church and of every Christian. It is not merely one of many sacred actions or ‘a means of receiving grace’: it is the very heart of the Church, her foundation, without which the existence of the Church cannot be imagined.
The sacrament of the Eucharist was instituted by Christ at the Last Supper. The Last Supper of Christ with the disciples was, in its outward ritual, the traditional Jewish Paschal meal when the members of every family in Israel gathered to taste of the sacrificial lamb. This Supper was attended by Christ’s disciples: not His relatives in the flesh, but that family which would later grow into the Church. Instead of the lamb, Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice ‘like that of a lamb without blemish or spot’, ‘He was destined before the foundation of the world’ for the salvation of people (1 Peter 1:19-20). At the Last Supper Christ transformed the bread and wine into His Body and Blood, communicated the apostles and commanded them to celebrate this sacrament in remembrance of Him. After His death on the Cross and His Resurrection the disciples would gather on the first day of the week (the so called ‘day of the sun’, or Sunday) for the ‘breaking of bread’.
Originally the Eucharist was a meal accompanied by readings from Scripture, a sermon and prayer. It would sometimes continue through the night. Gradually, as the Christian communities grew, the Eucharist was transformed from an evening supper to a divine service.
The most ancient elements that constitute the Eucharistic rite are the reading from Holy Scripture, prayers for all of the people, the kiss of peace, thanksgiving to the Father (to which the people reply ‘Amen’), the fraction (breaking of bread), and Communion. In the early Church each community had its own Eucharist, but all of these elements were present in every eucharistic rite. The bishop’s prayer was originally improvised, and only later were the eucharistic prayers written down. In the early Church a multitude of eucharistic rites were used: they were called ‘Liturgies’ (Greek leitourgia means ‘common action’, ‘work’, ‘service’).
The eucharistic offering has the sense of a sacrifice in which Christ Himself is ‘the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received’. Christ is the one true celebrant of the Eucharist: He is invisibly present in the church and acts through the priest. For Orthodox Christians the Eucharist is not merely a symbolic action performed in remembrance of the Mystical Supper; it is rather the Mystical Supper itself, renewed daily by Christ and continuing uninterruptedly in the Church from that Paschal night when Christ reclined at the table with His disciples. ‘Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me this day as a partaker’, says the believer as he approaches Holy Communion.
The Orthodox Church believes that in the Eucharist the bread and wine become not only a symbol of Christ’s presence, but the real Body and Blood of Christ. This belief has been held in the Christian Church from the very beginning. Christ Himself says: ‘For My Flesh is food indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed. He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me, and I in him’ (John 6:55-56).
The union of the believer with Christ in the Eucharist is not symbolic and figurative, but genuine, real and integral. As Christ suffuses the bread and wine with Himself, filling them with His divine presence, so He enters into the human person, filling his flesh and blood with His life-giving presence and divine energy. In the Eucharist we become of the same body with Christ, Who enters us as He entered the womb of the Virgin Mary. Our flesh in the Eucharist receives a leaven of incorruption, it becomes deified, and when it dies and becomes subject to corruption, this leaven becomes the pledge of its future resurrection.
Because of the Eucharist’s uniqueness the Church attaches to it a special significance in the cause of the salvation of humanity. Beyond the Eucharist there can be no salvation, no deification, no true life, no resurrection in eternity: ‘Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you; he who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:53-54). Hence the church Fathers advise Christians never to decline the Eucharist and to take Communion as often as possible. ‘Endeavor to gather more often for the Eucharist and the glorification of God’, says St. Ignatius of Antioch. The words from the Lord’s prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matt 6:11) were sometimes interpreted as a call to daily reception of the Eucharist.
The Church reminds us that all those who approach Holy Communion must be ready to encounter Christ. Hence the necessity of proper preparation, which should not be limited to the reading of a certain number of prayers and abstinence from particular types of food. In the first instance readiness for Communion is conditioned by a pure conscience, the absence of enmity towards our neighbors or a grievance against anyone, by peace in our relationships with all people. Obstacles to Communion are particular grave sins committed by a person who should repent of them in confession.
The contrition that comes from a sense of one’s own sinfulness is a necessary condition for Communion. This does not, however, prevent the Christian from receiving the Eucharist as a celebration of joy and thanksgiving. By its very nature the Eucharist is a solemn thanksgiving, fundamental to which is praise of God. Herein lies the paradox and mystery of the Eucharist: it has to be approached with both repentance and joy. With repentance from a sense of one’s unworthiness, and with joy at the fact that the Lord in the Eucharist cleanses, sanctifies and deifies the human person, renders him worthy in spite of his unworthiness. In the Eucharist not only the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, but also the communicant himself is transformed from an old into a new person; he is freed from the burden of sin and illumined by divine light.