Holy Eucharist is the most sublime Sacrament of our Church, the Mystery of Mysteries, the Sacrament of Sacraments. It is the eternal Sacrament whose value is incomprehensible and incalculable, and whose position in the worship of our Church is unique. The Eucharist is the centre of the Church’s life. It is the completion of all of the Church’s sacraments, the source and the goal of all of the Church’s doctrines and institutions.
In every other Sacrament we invoke God’s blessings on some material element and ask that it be sanctified. This element could be water, oil, etc. Only in Holy Communion do we invoke God’s blessing upon the material elements of bread and wine and ask God not only to sanctify them, but also to change them. We ask God to change what the bread and the wine are by nature into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
As a result, when we receive Holy Communion, we receive Jesus Himself into us. So great is this mystery that we are left without any possible response which could express what God has done for us. Therefore we offer the only response we can: thank you. As a word, the term “Eucharist” means thanksgiving.
As well as an act of thanksgiving, the Eucharist is a sacrifice. This can be seen from the text of the Liturgy- Your own from your own we offer You… In other words, at the Eucharist the sacrifice offered is Christ Himself. Christ is also the one who performs the act of offering. He is both victim and priest, both offering and offerer. In the prayer the priest reads before the Great Entrance, he says, “You are the one who offers and the one who is offered…” As well, “we offer to you”- the Eucharist is offered to the Trinity.
The Eucharist is not a bare commemoration nor an imaginary representation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but a true sacrifice itself, yet on the other hand it is not a new sacrifice, nor a repetition of the sacrifice on Golgotha, since the Lamb was sacrificed “once only, for all time.” The events of Christ’s sacrifice- the Incarnation, the last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension- are not repeated in the Eucharist, but they are made present.
This most divine Sacrament was instituted by Jesus himself at the “last Supper”, on the night of Holy Thursday, just before He was betrayed and then given over to death upon the cross. The Bible relates that during this meal Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken on your behalf for the remission of sins.” Then He took the cup with wine in it, gave thanks to the Heavenly Father, and gave to His disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
Interestingly the Bible tells us the Last Supper occurred in the “upper room”. Most of the distance between Heaven and earth, in terms of getting us to Heaven, is covered by Jesus Himself. He does however want us to cover a very small proportion of this distance, to rise above the world and its pleasures, above materialism etc.
It is clear that Jesus wanted the Sacrament of the Eucharist to continue for subsequent centuries, until He should come again, for, after he instituted this Sacrament on Holy Thursday, He added the exhortation to His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Preserve this Mystery as a continuous and eternal institution for your sanctification and salvation. The Apostles, and those that followed them, obeyed Jesus in this, and have continued this Sacrament up till our times.
In the early Christian Church the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was connected with a common meal. This meal took place every evening and at its close the Holy Eucharist was consummated. Prayers and benedictions were said, hymns were chanted and sermons delivered.
The connection of the common meal with the Eucharist gave rise to abuses, which led, somewhat late in the Apostolic age, to the gradual separation of the two rites. The Holy Eucharist was performed in the morning, and the common meal in the evening. In the early years the celebration of the Holy Eucharist was the task of the Apostles. But as Christians increased in number and as time passed, the Holy Eucharist became the task of priests and bishops, whom the Apostles ordained and to whom they transmitted the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Since then the prayers, supplications and hymns used in the Holy Eucharist began to be written down in books.
For very many centuries now the Eucharist has been celebrated within the Divine Liturgy, usually the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and occasionally of St Basil. These two Liturgies probably received their present form in the ninth century. It is probably not the case that they were written exactly as they now stand by the saints whose name they carry. It is quite certain, however, that the Eucharistic prayers of each of these liturgies were formulated as early as the fourth or fifth centuries when these saints lived and worked within the Church.
For the most part it is only the Orthodox and Catholic churches which hold to the belief that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Other Christian churches accept Holy Communion as a valid observance. What they cannot accept is the belief that there is a real change in the elements of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of our Lord.
All Christian traditions enormously respect the Bible, and the Bible supports what we Orthodox believe about the Eucharist. As mentioned above, the Bible reports Jesus saying of the bread, “this is my body”, and of the wine, “this is my blood.” In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, we learn that Jesus exhorts the Jews to believe in Him. The Jews, in turn, ask for proof. The response of Jesus is that He is the bread from Heaven, and He tells them that if they eat of this new bread they will never die. Jesus then went on to explain that this new bread is His flesh!. The Jews clearly understood what Jesus had said, for immediately they questioned, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” If Jesus’ words were only symbolic, He could have at that point explained this to them. He, instead, confirms that they had understood correctly, and tells them: “…. unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. Those that heard these words understood completely, and John reports that many of Jesus’ followers found these teachings so shocking that they no longer followed Him. If Jesus had been speaking only symbolically, He could have brought back those that left by explaining what He really meant. Instead, in answering those that doubt, Jesus said, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where He was before?” In other words, why is it so hard to accept that bead and wine can become His body and blood, when, as God, Jesus can do anything, including ascending to where He was before, in Heaven.
There seems to be some difference between the way Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches understand the “moment of consecration”- at what moment the miracle occurs. According to medieval Latin theology, the “moment” is the moment the priest reads the Words of Institution- “This is my Body…This is my Blood…”. According to Orthodox theology, there is no one moment of consecration, rather the entire Eucharistic prayer- Thanksgiving, Anamnesis, Epiclesis- all form and integral part of the one act of consecration.
While Orthodoxy has always insisted on the reality of the change- the bread and the wine become in very truth the Body and Blood of Christ, it has never however attempted to explain the manner of the change. It is true that sometimes Orthodox theologians will make use of what came out of Latin scholasticism, the term “transubstantiation” (in Greek μετουσίωσης). Orthodox however generally emphasize that the manner of change is a mystery and must always remain incomprehensible. St John of Damascus put it as follows:
“If you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it is through the Holy Spirit…. We know nothing more than this, that the word of God is true, active, and omnipotent, but in its manner of operation unsearchable.”
During his ministry Jesus appointed the twelve apostles to continue his Work.
‘And he went up on the mountain and called to him those he himself wanted. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve, that they might be with him and that he might sent out to preach and to have power to heal the sicknesses and to cast out demons.’ (Mk 3:13-14)
An apostle, being one of the twelve apostles, was therefore someone close to the Lord who was called by Him, sent out (apo-stello) into the world to proclaim the Gospel through preaching, teaching and bearing witness to the Kingdom of God through miracles in the Holy Spirit.
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. (Mt 10:5-8)
But the apostles were not just disciples of a great Teacher, who were merely sent to convey his teaching to others. Their apostolate also had a sacramental dimension. In other words, the Lord Jesus also conveyed upon them the Holy Spirit, through which the invisible power and authority of his ministry would be forever united to their mission, visibly. As eye witnesses of the Death and Resurrection of Christ they became confessors of the Truth of the Gospel and received the authority to manifest the invisible presence of the Risen Christ in their respective ministries to the world, after Pentecost;
‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you,” and when he said this, he breathed upon them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)
The highest visible action of this Mystery was the authority to preside over the Eucharist (the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Holy Communion) and to administer membership into the Body of Christ through Baptism, as well as oversee the other Sacraments of the Church.
But, as the generation of the Apostles dies out, the authoritative witness of the Risen Christ, had to be transferred from one generation to another. The Church had to preserve the purity of this witness to the Faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
Just as Jesus appointed or ordained his apostles, the apostles in turn ordained their successors through the Sacrament of Ordination. Ordination is a sacrament or of the Church, in that the Church acts through the Holy Spirit, to transfer the apostolic ministry to successive generations.
Candidates were called by the Lord, because they possessed certain spiritual ‘gifts’ of leadership and manner of life that would help strengthen the Church. (1 Tim 3:1-12, C.f. 1 Cor 12:4-11) Their successors were the bishops, presbyters and their assistant’s the deacons, who presided over the Eucharist as the Apostles had done. The sacrament was carried out by the grace of God, through the apostles ‘prayer and the laying on of their hands’ upon the head of a prospective candidate (Acts 1:23-26; 6:6; 13:3; c.f. 2 Tim 1:6-7). Through the laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit descends upon the candidate for Holy Orders, sanctifying him and empowering him to be a shepherd and minister of Christ, to preach and to teach the Word of God, to administer the sacraments and to guide God’s people towards salvation.
These three orders of clergy are called Holy Orders. As its name signifies Holy Orders are the appointment by God to organise the leadership of the Church of Christ.
In the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, who said of the three orders of the clergy that they “have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, which (clergy) He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit.” (Ign. Phil. sal.; also Eph. 3:6; Phil. 4.)
The Greek word for bishop (episkopos) means ‘overseer’. The Holy Orders are a calling to ‘oversee’ the teaching and sacramental presence of Christ in the Church. The Bishop is seen as the father of the Local Church – the Shepherd who manifests the place of Christ in the Church, and carries in his ministry the doctrinal and sacramental fullness of the Gospel. St Ignatius again taught that the local unity of Christians in Christ is clearly and visibly imaged by unity in the person, or office, of the bishop. Unity in the bishop is a living image of unity in Christ.
“It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” (Ign. Eph. 6.) “… take heed to do all things in the harmony of God with the bishop presiding in the place of God.” (Mag. 6) ” For when you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ you appear to me to live not after the manner of men but according to Jesus Christ… ” (Tral. 2.) “… let all reverence … the bishop as Jesus Christ.” (Ibid. 3.) “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Smyr. 8.)
As Church membership increased, various needs of the laity (the un-ordained faithful) had to be met, in addition to teaching, such as overseeing the church locally and philanthropic work. Bishops and/or presbyters (i.e. priests) were in-turn appointed in cities and towns were the apostles had preached and planted churches. This is seen in the Apostle Paul’s ordination of the Presbyter/Bishop Timothy to the city of Ephesus;
‘Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ (1 Tim 4:12-16)
The presbyter was appointed to preside over the Eucharist and the Sacraments in the local church (with the exception of Ordination itself), in the absence of the bishop. The local presbyter was the bishops representative in the Eucharistic Assembly of the local Church.
The philanthropic ministry and the assisting of the bishop/presbyter in the Divine Liturgy was entrusted to the deacons who were specifically ordained for this ministry. (The deacon cannot preside over the Eucharist in the absence of the bishop or presbyter). In the Acts of the Apostles, we have a record of the appointment of the first seven deacons in the primitive Church.
‘Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.’ (Acts 6:1-6)
It is also clear from the above that ordination was not an isolated affair, conducted by the clergy alone, but was indeed an action of the whole Church, as the Body of Christ, through the prayer and affirmation of the whole People of God. And so ordination occurs today, in all three orders, as it did in the beginning, not as a private appointment, but as an action performed in the Divine Liturgy, and affirmed when the whole People of God proclaim ‘Axios!’ (His is worthy!) at the end of the ordination. Even a bishop must be ordained with the assent and laying of hands of a ‘college’ of three or at least two other bishops.
The fact that the apostles kept ordaining others to carry on their work, is amply testified in Scripture and in the writings of Church fathers such as Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius for example spoke of St Polycarp who became bishop of the great ancient city of Smyrna as having been ordained by the Apostles;
‘Pre-eminent at the that time in Asia was a companion of the apostles, Polycarp, on whom the eye-witnesses and ministers of the Lord had conferred the episcopate of the church at Smyrna.’ (Eus; History of the Church 3, 36)
This, Eusebius claimed, guaranteed the ‘orthodoxy’ and purity of the Christian Faith as it had been received from the Apostles. In later years, other bishops like St Iereneus who was bishop of Lyons in Gaul in the late second century, would claim the validity of his priesthood, against false teachers, through tracing it back through his master St Polycarp of Smyrna. Polycarp had been ordained by St John the Evangelist.
This is called Apostolic Succession. The fact that every Orthodox Priest, Bishop and Deacon in the present day, can trace back their priesthood to the Apostles through Apostolic Succession, is a great testimony to the one and undivided Church of Christ that has always existed since apostolic times and that it is truly ‘One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic’.
While other churches that claim to be Christian also claim apostolic succession for their respective ‘clergy’, it is an undeniable fact that historically, the Eastern Orthodox Church (and to some degree, the Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches) claim an unbroken connection with the apostolic era.
“The service of ‘Holy Unction’ is a most ancient service of the Orthodox Church. As a ‘mystery’ (or ‘sacrament’), it defines physical things and actions through which God gives his grace (his blessing) to those who are involved. This ‘giving’ by God is mystery because God works in a way that we cannot really explain or define.
The most important scriptural passage relates directly to Holy Unction and is found in the Holy Epistle of James the Apostle in the New Testament (James 5:14-16). In this reading, the apostle gives instructions for responding in a spiritual way to sickness. The Priesthood, a prayer of faith and anointing with oil are shown as the fundamental parts of this Christian response. The results are equally fundamental: salvation, healing and forgiveness of sins. All these elements are clearly seen in the service of ‘Holy Unction’.
The service of ‘Holy Unction’ is spiritual medicine for sickness which has at its heart a spiritual disease – our mortality which we inherit from the sin of the spiritually human nature that we all share. Sickness is not only physical and mental it is the result of the sinful nature we possess.
The service of Holy Unction’ is held in times of sickness and as a preparation for our celebration of the eternally salvific act of the death and Resurrection of our Lord at the time of Holy Week and Easter (Pascha). These show clearly that ‘Holy Unction’ is inextricably linked not only to actual sickness but to God forgiving us our sins. It is the response of the Tax Collector who enters the Temple to pray; he falls down upon his knees in humility, bows his head, beats his breast and says “Lord forgive me for I am a sinner” He repents by confessing his sins before God..
In its original form, seven priests were needed for the conducting of this service – a symbol of the completeness of the prayers of the Church. Over time, because of the difficulty in gathering seven priests together at one time, five, two, or even one priest would conduct the service.
The basic items of the service as it developed were:
- oil – the means through which God brings his blessing upon us;
- seven candles – the light of Christ in our midst;
- a bowl of flour – which would be kept after the service and from it would be baked a loaf of ‘Prosphora’ for use as the bread for the service of Holy Communion;
- the priest(s) – gathered together as vehicles of God’s grace and as ones who intercede for the people, asking God to bless and lift up him who is need before God;
- the readings and the prayers – a service of listening to God, preparation for the grace which God gives to us and our response to him, in humility, faith and expectation.
- the blessing and anointing with oil – literally God ‘blessing us’.
In some Christian groups the service of Holy Unction is reserved only for those who are dying or who are in danger of death. For other groups, ‘anointing with oil’ is only a symbol of our prayer to God for healing. However, for the Orthodox, Holy Unction is a physical celebration of the grace of God as it related to our constant walk through this life – our journey of faith. It is truly a ‘mystery’ of the faith because through it God works within us – healing, raising up, strengthening, blessing and bringing us to eternal life.
The service of ‘Holy Unction’ is an action by God who, using things created, brings us his blessing. This sacrament is also our prayer to God; we approach God in humility and faith, relying upon His love for us. God hears our prayer and, like in the story of the Good Samaritan (Gospel of Luke 10:30-37), God finds us lying by the roadside, beaten and injured by the troubles and blows of this life. He pours his healing love upon us and bandages our broken body and soul. He lifts us up and cares for us. He brings us back to health in his presence and restores us to life once again.