The Mystery of the Eucharist

The Eucharist is the third of the three Holy Mysteries of Christian initiation. In eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ, the baptized and chrismated believer is brought into an intimate union with Christ, and with all Christians who make up His mystical body.

Why the Eucharist?

Throughout the history of human existence, men and women have experienced a desire to express gratitude for all that has been provided to them, and to experience union with one another and with the divine. These desires have taken two particular forms: words of thanksgiving, sacrifice, and a common meal. These three actions have united humans with one another, and thanksgiving prayers and sacrifices bound the people of Israel to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

On Mount Sinai, Moses and the elders of Israel ate a sacrificial meal in God's presence (Exodus 24:9-11), and the prophets foretold a time when God and the human race he created would share a banquet (Isaiah 25:6-9) which would destroy death and sin. Christ himself spoke of the Kingdom of God as a banquet, and told his hearers: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you" (John 6:53). Finally, on the night before he died, Christ revealed the meaning of these words to his disciples:

...the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also [he took] the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

In this way, Christ united thanksgiving, sacrifice, and a meal in which Christians receive the very life of God, and enter into union with him. It is because of the very closeness of this union that Saint Paul emphasized the high calling of Christians, and the purity that should characterize their lives. The reception of the Body and Blood of Christ (also called Holy Communion) brings us into God's presence and unites us to Him.

The Meaning of the Eucharist

When we first receive the Eucharist, it is the completion of our baptismal initiation; that is why in the Byzantine tradition even infants can receive Holy Communion. The Body and Blood of Christ are present in every part of the bread and wine that have been consecrated by the words of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Infants normally receive the Mystery under the form of wine until they can consume solid food. In the Byzantine Rite, the Body and Blood of Christ are given to the faithful from the chalice, on a spoon of precious metal.

Unlike the mysteries of baptism and chrismation, however, the mystery of the Eucharist can be repeated, as our Lord commanded. According to Saint Paul, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes." Every time we receive Holy Communion, it is a renewal and re-enactment of our baptism. In fact, it can be justly said that the Eucharist is what forms the Church, by uniting believers to Christ and to one another.

The Eucharist is also a continuing source of healing and forgiveness from God. In the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant prays that reception of the Body and Blood of Christ

may bring about a spirit of vigilance, the remission of sins, the communion of your Holy Spirit, the fullness of the heavenly kingdom, and confidence in you, not judgment or condemnation

for all who partake of them. In the Eucharist, Christ shares his life with us, and makes us one with him.

Preparing to receiving the Eucharist

Catechumens who are preparing for Christian initiation are expected to fast, confess their sins, and be prayed over by the elders of the Church; this is the origin of the Great Fast, and the pre-baptismal rites and exorcisms. Of course, there is nothing we can do to merit the great gifts we receive in baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist; we can merely do our best to be prepared to receive these gifts worthily.

Thus, in the Byzantine tradition, it is customary to pray before receiving Holy Communion, to confess one's faults and receive sacramental absolution if one has committed serious sins, and to fast (generally, from midnight). Most prayer books provide prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, and there are official prayers for this purpose in the Horologion and in the first pages of our Divine Liturgy book.

The Mystery of the Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy

Christians ordinarily receive the Body and Blood of Christ at the climax of the Divine Liturgy, where it is consecrated during the prayer of the Anaphora. In this service, the fundamental actions of thanksgiving, sacrifice, and communion are united, and that is why the Divine Liturgy (sometimes called simply, "the Eucharist") is the most essential and important of liturgical services.

Ideally, all members of the local Christian community should assemble on the Lord's Day (Sunday) and feast days to offer prayer, be present at the sacrifice, and receive Holy Communion. In this way, the single loaf of bread, blessed and divided for the faithful, symbolizes the unity of the Church and brings it together. This is also the reason why, in the Byzantine tradition, the Divine Liturgy is ordinarily celebrated only once per day in a given church.

See The Eucharist in the life of the Church.

Receiving the Eucharist outside of the Divine Liturgy

Of course, there will be occasions when Christians cannot be present in church for the Divine Liturgy, and in early times it was customary for the deacons to take the Eucharist to those who were sick or imprisoned. Today, a small amount of the Body and Blood of Christ may be kept in the church in order to be given to the sick, or those in danger of death. The Euchologion contains an order of service that is used when Christians receive the Eucharist outside the Divine Liturgy, particularly in connection with the Anointing of the Sick.

In the Byzantine tradition, there is no strong emphasis on adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ; the Eucharist is reserved in church for the sick, and the altar and the bishop's throne, rather than the tabernacle, serve as focal points in the church. But a candle is usually kept lit whenever the Body and Blood of Christ are present, and the priest always blesses the entire congregation with the chalice containing the Eucharist after the distribution of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy.

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