The Eucharist in Eastern Orthodoxy

After Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athanagoras consigned the centuries old anathemas of 1054 AD to the “dust bin of history,” they pursued the dialogue of charity, i.e. encouraging Christians of the East and West to move toward faith in love. In 1980 Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios officially launched the theological dialogue with the Eastern churches. All of the Ancient Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox agreed to participate together with the Catholic Churches of the East and West in communion with Rome. In 1982 they were already able to publish their first agreed statement at the second meeting of the dialogue at Munich, June 30-July 6, 1982. The title of the agreed statement is: The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.

The Eucharist and the Church

The document signed at Munich is typical of the Orthodox view of the Eucharist and its inherent connection with the Church. Roman Catholics tend to simplify their faith in terms of acceptance of the infallibility of the Pope and his universal jurisdiction. Eastern and Ancient Orthodox Churches tend to express the core of their faith in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. It is in the light of the communion (koinonia) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that the Orthodox understand the mystery of the Church and the mystery of the Eucharist. The Munich document, while it is not comprehensive, does show how the mystery of the Trinity, the Church and the Eucharist are all interconnected and a celebration of the same central mystery of the love of God who gave his Son to the world for its salvation, through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation of the Word made flesh. The same Holy Spirit completed the Christ event on Pentecost by the establishment of the Church, the body of Christ. And this same body is what we receive in the Eucharist in order to become the body of Christ which is the Church.

The Eucharist is the mystery of the Church in sacramental signs. It is the salvation of Jesus Christ made visible and present in the local church which is one with the universal church in a communion that is both eschatological and kerygmatic. This means it is both the paschal mystery realized in sacramental signs and a proclamation of the good news (gospel) of salvation in Christ through the Spirit who makes us one and holy.

Orthodox churches are characteristically aware that the local church celebrating the Eucharist participates in the liturgy celebrated eternally in heaven. Unlike the churches of the West that are immersed in history, the East is immersed in mystery. The East is more contemplative, poetic, and rich in symbol. Not that these are lacking in the West, but history has made the West more conscious of the sufferings of mankind. The Liturgy is a place to offer one’s own sufferings with those of Christ. The East is rather a place where one goes to liturgy to taste “a little bit of heaven” so that one can return to everyday life with hope and a sense that the shortness of life will open onto the everlasting, timelessness of heaven.

The Holy Spirit

Vatican II did much to emphasize the “epicletic dimension” of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit was often called the “unknown person of the Trinity”. In reaction to Aryanism in the early centuries of the Church, and other Christological errors, the liturgy of the West tended to be focused Christologically. For example many prayers dating from the fifth century onward, in the West, ended simply: “through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.” Prayers in the earlier centuries tended to be addressed to the Father, or to “God our Father.” This is the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Orthodox in general. The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil and the two Gregory’s) speak of the Father as God, simply. The Son is begotten by the Father, not born, but from all eternity he has the relationship of a son to a father. (Again, this is speaking humanly. When speaking of the Trinity, as Augustine put it, we are fully in the realm of analogy.) The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The “filioque” question is one that is easy for Western Christians to minimize, but for the Eastern Christians, it is very difficult to understand in their tradition.

Epiclesis is the calling down of the Holy Spirit to give grace and salvation in Christ. In administering sacraments the view of the Orthodox is that the Spirit effects the sacraments, not the priest. The priest says the words and acts “in persona Christi” but the Spirit makes the sacraments happen. All the Orthodox formulas ask the Spirit to make the individual holy, transform the elements into the body and blood of Christ, etc. And so this term is very important for an understanding of the mystery of the Church and the sacraments.

The Celebrant of the Eucharist

Eastern Orthodoxy and indeed all Orthodox Churches are agreed that the celebrant of the Eucharist should be the presider of the faith community. As the Munich documents states explicitly, this is not merely a juridical requirement. It is rooted in the mystery of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Church. The Trinitarian mystery in Orthodox understanding stresses the divinity of the Father. He is the “arche”, God who has no beginning, end or equal. The Son and the Spirit are not inferior “gods”. They are the Son (“eternally begotten from the Father” as the Nicean Creed says) and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father (“with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified” also from the Creed).

The Christological dimension of the celebrant is stated in both the East and the West as acting “in persona Christi”. In other words Christ gave the commandment to “Do this in memory of me” to the Apostles at the Last Supper, indeed to the Church. But this was not a democratic idea of “round robin” or “Who wants to celebrate today?” Paul’s letters make it clear that he chose presbyters and overseers (episkopoi) in each community he founded (cf. the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus). This doctrinal and theological foundation for the hierarchical nature of the Church was emphasized in the Second Vatican Council especially in Lumen Gentium’s discussion of the hierarchical nature of the Church (LG #18-29).

Finally, the Orthodox understanding of the Church is communion. It is modeled on the Trinity and also on the Word made flesh. The Church is the people of God, but not an amorphous crowd. It is a structured entity like the human body. There is a head; there are members with different functions. Everyone has his/her place. All of this grounding is not merely a matter of tradition, but of the understanding of the theology of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church and the way in which the Church is the visible expression of the Body of Christ which we become through the Eucharist.
(This article appeared in Bread Broken and Shared, September/October, 2012.)