One More Friend to Enter the Church

Becoming Orthodox

(By Jeremy Carey)

After over two years of thought, prayer, and struggle, I am officially becoming a part of the Orthodox Church. God willing, I will be baptized during Holy Week and have my first communion on Pascha, that is, Easter, 2013. Most of you know about my long interest in Orthodoxy, but I haven’t spoken of it in much detail. For my own sake, to try to collect thoughts that have been long in forming (though I know many must escape words), and for the sake of any who care about me and might be interested, I thought I would try to put down in writing the main considerations that have led me to what for many seems a strange and exotic form of Christianity.

Orthodoxy is richly traditional, and, like all real traditions, has to be experienced over a period of time to have any real grasp of its meaning. Therefore, I can’t pretend to do any justice to what really eventually draws one into Orthodoxy. Still, at the surface level, at the level of what can be communicated fairly clearly, it seems to me that the things which attracted me most can be clustered into two main issues: the nature of the Church, and the nature of salvation. I’ll say a little bit about each of these.

Before I do so, it’s worth pointing out something that can be easily misunderstood. Though it’s fairly easy to focus on the differences between Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity (for my purposes, primarily Protestant Evangelicalism), they do share much important in common. Though I will have some things to say about what I find problematic about contemporary Protestantism, I don’t see my transition to Orthodoxy as a rejection of my previous experience so much as a fulfillment (and, naturally, at times a corrective) of all that was good in that experience.

Those who know me well know that I grew up in a church whose theology was and is, by the standards of historical Christianity, problematic (to say the least). It wasn’t until my second year in college that I found I could accept the doctrine of the Trinity.

This background and the changes that my thought and practice had to go through naturally had an effect on my mindset and the way I approached Christianity. I had grown up thinking that Christianity took a turn for the worst very soon after the death of Christ, and that most Christians for most of history were mistaken in fundamental beliefs. The denomination I grew up in taught that not only was the doctrine of the Trinity, which was so central in the intellectual and spiritual development of the Church, wrong, but it was harmful.

Though I think it has since weakened its stance, I was also taught that salvation depended on a certain way of being baptized and the attaining of certain spiritual experiences, requirements most self-identified Christians throughout the centuries did not meet. As I began to reject these problematic claims, my understanding of the history of Christianity would also have to change, but I never settled how or even gave the matter much explicit thought. Though I was intensely interested in Christian theology, this meant that, like most Protestant Christians, I studied contemporary theologians or, at the limits, those going back to the years after the reformation.

All of this changed for me when my cousin, with whom I’m extremely close, began also to question the same problematic claims of our shared childhood denomination which I had recently rejected. Initially, he seemed at a loss for what to do next, flirting with various non-Christian philosophies and religions. I did my best to steer him towards the reasonable Reformed Christianity of which I was then a part.

To my dismay, it soon became clear that the only options he was taking seriously were Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. As we debated for the next year or so, I was forced for the first time to confront my understanding of Christian history and the nature of the Church, and to think seriously about the knee-jerk objections I had been raised with against distinctive practices of the historical churches like prayer to saints and the veneration of the Mother of God (I will not be discussing these here – if you have questions or worries about them, I’d be happy to discuss them further). In the end, he became Orthodox.

By that time, though I had not yet set foot in an Orthodox Church, I was intellectually convinced that Orthodoxy contained a beauty and a fullness that I desired and seemed to me so lacking from my previous understanding of the Church and Christian life. Here I hope to give some hint of this fullness and beauty.

Soon after I came to accept the doctrine of the Trinity, it began to seem incredible to me that most Christians for most of history were so misguided on so many issues that I now had the right answers to. These were men who were closer to the time of the apostles, who shared more of their culture, and who were willing to die for what they saw as the understanding of Christianity needed to ensure the salvation of mankind and the world. Surely these characteristics made them more likely to understand the truth than me, living in comfort and sitting in my ivory tower.

I also began to notice the strangeness of our current ecclesial situation, with thousands of denominations believing so many different things, and many more started every year. Surely this was not Christ’s plan or that of the Apostles in the early days of the Church. This strange situation, which is so easy for us to take for granted, is in fact historically new. There was a time when the Church was (for the most part) unified, and when unity was seen as a necessity.

But what was the basis of this unity? This is an important question in our own day, when Christians are more and more feeling the effects of their separation and longing for a reestablishment of unity. But this unity cannot be cheap. Christians disagree about so much – baptism, the nature of the Eucharist, the church calendar, veneration of the saints, the Sacraments, church hierarchy. How are we to know what is fundamental and who is to judge? Back in my more, let’s say, optimistically ecumenical days, I would have probably proposed something like the acceptance of the Apostle’s Creed at face value as the measure for essential Christian unity.

As long as one can say the creed and mean it, that’s all that matters. Of course, it’s not clear what “face value” means here, and Catholics and Orthodox will mean something very different from Protestants when they talk about the Virgin Mary and the communion of saints and the catholicity of the Church. And what about baptism, which plays no role in this creed? And what about the Eucharist itself?

Though I think it’s correct that there is something like what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”, and that the things which bind us are far more important than the things that separate us, it’s also easy to overestimate the similarities. The fact is that Protestants, by definition (though some groups more than others), consciously reject a huge portion of what most Christians believed and how they acted for the majority of the Church’s existence.

At the least, between, say, 300 and 1000 AD, Christian practice and understanding was fairly uniform and would involve things like a hierarchy of deacons, priests, bishops, and patriarchs; a veneration of relics and holy places; an understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist and Christ’s real presence therein; a special respect for Mary as the Mother of God; following a calendar which includes regular and occasionally intense fasting; ritualized and highly symbolic liturgy (to name just a few – the rejection of these last two seems especially strange to me given how obviously important they were to Judaism and the enormous likelihood that they would be taken up by the earliest Christians, who were primarily Jewish).

Most of these things play no role in the faith of many Protestants and are viewed by them as, at the very least, unnecessary. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for example, your average Christian from 1000 years ago would feel pretty comfortable in an Orthodox liturgy or traditional Catholic mass of today, but would be at a complete loss in a typical Protestant service (though this depends significantly on what type of Protestant we’re talking about).

But the key question in all this is not really about how similar or different various Christian groups are, but what Christian unity consists in. And it seems to me that the answer that developed within the lifetime of those who knew the apostles stressed two things: (1) apostolic succession through the office of bishops, and (2) accordance with apostolic tradition (what Irenaeus calls the “rule of faith”, and which was never seen as a competitor with Scripture, but as the proper interpretation and use of Scripture). Here are representative quotes from two important sources:

(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108 AD):

“To the end that you may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Epistle to the Ephesians, 20:2

“Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2

(2) St. Irenaeus:

“For [the Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? … Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches… since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, they will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same….” Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 4; Book 5, Chapter 20

[Discussing the authority of the writings of St. Clement of Rome]:

“To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Book 3, Chapter 3.

These are just a few statements but I think they illustrate the approach to the unity of the Church I mentioned, and they both happen to be very early – when these men became Christian, it was under the influence of people who knew the apostles themselves. And what is striking to me is the fact that the marks of unity defended here – faithfulness to apostolic tradition, secured by apostolic succession – are precisely those which Catholics and the Orthodox still claim to have and which the reformers gave up on.

(Again, to be fair, different Protestants will feel differently about this – many will claim to be faithful to a true apostolic tradition which in others has been corrupted by various pagan influences. I suppose I just don’t find these arguments convincing; at any rate, their idea of apostolic tradition is simply whatever can be gleaned by the best reading of the apostolic writings rather than what was the passed down (“traditioned”) understanding of those writings and the way they are best put into practice.)

This living tradition of the Church, the body of Christ active in the world through the Holy Spirit, also helps to solve the problem of authority that had come to bother me so much in my attempt to study the Bible. Though I came to believe that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine which is normative for all Christians, my own long experience in the oneness tradition showed that this could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt from the texts themselves.

This is a problem if Scripture is the only source of authority for Christian doctrine. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura seems to require the corollary doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture – that the meaning of Scripture must be clear to anyone who approaches it with an open mind and a good will. But this doctrine seems clearly a failure in practice – for members of all of the thousands of Protestant denominations claim to find different things in the clear meanings of Scripture. It is perhaps too easy to simply deny that those we disagree with really have an open mind or a good will, but such a tactic is problematic. My own struggles to find even as central a doctrine as the Trinity taught clearly in the text of the Bible showed me that common sense and an open mind are not enough.

Worse, Sola Scriptura is self-defeating. For it is a matter of doctrine what the Bible is, something that there was debate about in the early centuries, and this is not something that can be found out from Scripture itself. Are the so-called apocryphal books parts of the Bible? What about the book of James or Revelation? What about the Shepherd of Hermas? What doctrines one finds in the Scriptures depends on what one believes the Scriptures to be.

Furthermore, such a doctrine requires that in the earliest days of the Church, there were no fundamental doctrines, nothing that had to be accepted in order to be a Christian. This is because for the first several decades the Church existed without any of the New Testament writings, and it was much longer after that before the books circulated as a single entity called ‘the New Testament’. So how did they know what to believe, about Christ? How did they organize their worship services and conceive of the Christian life? The answer is: based on the teachings of the apostles, and those appointed by the apostles. Why think that things changed dramatically with the formation of the canon as we now know it?

The basic problem here seems to me a separation and distinction between God’s written Word, and his living Word, that is, the Church, which is the body of Christ. The Scriptures and the Church cannot be thought of as separate sources of God’s work. The Scripture comes from the Church and is God’s Word in a unique sense because it is the Word of his Body. But the Church’s life, insofar as it is the life of Christ, is also a source of revelation.

There’s much more to be said about the Church, but I want also to say something briefly about the Orthodox conception of salvation, which has changed the way I think of Christianity. Before I even thought seriously about Orthodoxy, I had come to question the standard Protestant presentation of what exactly the basic story of the gospel is. On that story, the basic problem which Christianity solves is God’s wrath against sin and, therefore, since we are sinners,

God’s wrath against us. This problem is solved by Christ’s atoning death, which is thought of as a sort of penal substitution – Christ experiences God’s wrath instead of us. Because of this atonement, we are ‘declared’ righteous with Christ’s righteousness, and therefore set free from the consequences of our sinfulness. Though I don’t deny that this story captures something of the truth, it seems to me to have two central problems:

First, its conception of forgiveness seems troubling. Why does God’s wrath have to be ‘discharged’? Why can’t he just forgive us if he loves us, without someone needing to be punished? Can it really be the case that justice and mercy conflict with each other in this way? There are various ways of answering these questions, none of which end up seeming to me fully satisfactory. But the second and bigger problem is just that this story seems relevant to such a small part of our everyday lives – it seems less than the Good News that we need.

As George MacDonald put it, Jesus was so named because he would save us from our sins, not just from the consequences of our sins. Our problem is not just that we have sinned, thus incurring God’s wrath, but that we are sinners, and, because of that, we continue to hurt each other, to isolate ourselves, to destroy our planet, and to be subject to physical and spiritual death.

In other words, our main problem is existential and relational, and not the sort of thing that can be solved completely merely by another’s death and a declaration of righteousness.

(Another important point, which I’ll discuss a bit below – this standard gospel story doesn’t tell us anything about why the Resurrection was important and necessary, though it was the lynchpin of the apostolic preaching. If all that was needed was Christ’s atoning death, why did he need to be resurrected physically? What does the resurrection do for us?)

Contrast this with the Orthodox conception of salvation. To get the full story we have to go back to our creation in the image of God, meant for fellowship with God. Our identity, our essence, is tied up with three related things: our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and our vocation in this world. Man was created to know God. Though created in the divine image, the divine likeness was something to be attained. Just as God is a community of loving Persons, we were to find our true identity only by a loving communion with others.

And as a microcosm of the universe, being both spirit and matter, man was to serve as the bridge between these elements. As one theologian puts it, the entire world was a gift of God’s love, destined for deification. According to another, “[man was] created just for this purpose: to actualize the created potential of his being to achieve a fully realized community between all creatures and their Creator.” Our problem is the loss of these, one after the other; i.e., the loss of our humanity, and the way that affects the whole universe. And Christianity is only good news if it constitutes the solution.

In Orthodoxy, salvation is often primarily thought of as theosis, that is, deification, or, as St Peter puts it, partaking of the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). This is the restoration of what was lost and given up in the fall, only made possible through the incarnation of the divine Word: Because man failed at his task, a new Man was needed. And salvation, for us, and for the world, is nothing less than incorporation into this new man (that is, Christ). Thus, the incarnation and resurrection are central – in the incarnation, God shows his love for us by bridging the gap between us, forming a union between divinity and humanity.This union reaches its fullest expression of love when the impassible Son of God takes on our sin and experiences, though blameless, the loneliness and death that are the consequences of our own sins.

Finally, the union is established forever through the resurrection. We make this union our own in the Church and through our own struggles to unite ourselves to Christ, and our task is to bring the rest of the world into this union as well (“creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” Rom. 8:19). In this way, no aspect of our lives or our place in this cosmos is unaffected by Christianity, and salvation is not a matter primarily of individual forgiveness, but of union with God, which cannot be separated from our relationships with one another and the material world around us.

To be clear: I am not saying that the (standard) Protestant story about salvation is wrong or merely that I don’t like it (though I do have misgivings about its emphasis on penal and juridical categories), but that it is only a fragment of the story – it doesn’t fully answer the problem that religion is meant to solve.

It is true that this is partly just a matter of emphasis (Classical Protestants still think ‘sanctification’ is important, even if they (wrongly, in my view) separate it from salvation, and those in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition have a view of salvation closer to that of the Orthodox in many ways, but at the expense of an increased individualism and distance from tradition), and that the Protestant can appropriate whichever aspects of the Orthodox conception he or she chooses. But then what?

The Christian life cannot be lived on one’s own, and sanctification doesn’t just happen by a change in one’s beliefs, but by a change in one’s desires and practical orientation to the world (ironically, perhaps, the book that has most impacted my views about this and the importance of liturgy is Desiring the Kingdom, by Calvinist philosopher Jamie Smith).

So this leads us, I think, back to the Church and its tradition. The Church is a treasure house of the wisdom of the saints, and a communal striving toward holiness. We are not meant to be left to our own devices, and there is no need to be.

The Church keeps us well-rounded with its liturgical calendar, delights our senses with its beautiful worship, connects us directly to God in the sacraments, corrects our desires with its set times of fasting and ascetical expectations, connects us with each other as we strive together, and in so many ways brings us into communion with saints of the past. As I mentioned above, to remain Protestant is to reject a very large part of this wisdom and tradition.

The Protestant world, especially in its evangelical form, is too fragmented, too modern, too celebrity-oriented, too centered on relevance, too individualist. While I would never say that holiness is impossible in this world (I know it is not because I have been blessed to know so many holy people), I have come to the realization that I need something more, roots that are deeper and wider.

I need a full-blooded and satisfying Christianity that fulfills me intellectually and also gives me real tried-and-true resources for becoming more what I ought to be.

And I believe I have found that in Orthodoxy.


The Road to Emmaus – Their Eyes were Opened in the Breaking of the Bread

eucharistIn the time between the joy of Easter and the anticipation of Pentecost, it is good for us to reflect on the life that has been given us by the resurrection of Christ. Christ is risen from the dead, having conquered death, sin, and suffering, but instead of immediately returning to the glory of the Father, he comes to heal and strengthen his disciples, for he has not abandoned them.

On the contrary, it is as the risen Lord that he will disclose himself to them more fully, radically change their lives as never before, and eventually empower them to turn the world upside down by the message of the gospel.

In Luke 24 we look at the first disclosure of our Lord to his disciples, which took place on the road to Emmaus, a city just a few miles from Jerusalem. Only one of the disciples is named here, by the name of Cleopas. Church tradition has it that he was one of the 70 disciples, and that he was the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary; and that the other disciple was his own son Simeon, who became the second bishop of Jerusalem after AD 70.

We can’t know for sure who these disciples were, and at any rate Luke is not terribly concerned with that. What is important is that Jesus, on the very day of his resurrection, comes to meet his disciples who had left Jerusalem out of despair, and he comes to heal and restore them by bringing them to life in communion with the risen Lord.

 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

The disciples were leaving Jerusalem, as one leaves the place of his or her pain and disappointment. Later on, the disciples were to leave Jerusalem to proclaim life, to tell the world of the Lord who had died and rose again for the salvation of mankind.

Now, however, the disciples were walking sorrow and despair, because in their hearts they think they have nothing to proclaim but death and failure.

They walk together and talk, maybe trying to make sense of their desperation. Even in their pain they are in communion, seeking mutual comfort and help; but the one who could ultimate heal their hearts was the one they had not encountered yet.

Their 7 mile walk was a walk in the desert of Adam, in the darkness of death, in a land where hope had been abandoned. That is the condition of humankind unable to find hope when they have not encountered the risen Christ. But the risen Christ loves them, and he is coming to them to bring them to himself.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Jesus draws near to them as they were in the darkness of despair. He draws near and he walks with them. He keeps them from recognizing him, but he walks with them. They couldn’t recognize him because they still struggled with the confusion and unbelief that could only be dispelled by the resurrection.

Throughout the gospels, the disciples are often unable to understand Jesus’ words concerning his coming death and resurrection. They were compared to the blind man that was healed, but at first could see only men as trees.

Their vision was being restored unto seeing the glory of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit – but that had to be a gradual process that would only be achieved in the resurrection. So here, too, the disciples were unable to recognize the resurrection and the life.

But they were unable to recognize him, most importantly, because Jesus keeps them from recognizing him. He does so because he wants to teach them, as they would realize later, that his presence is always with them, and yet it is fully disclosed only in the Eucharist.

Earthly Hopes

“Friends, why are you so sad?” Open your hearts, for the healer of your souls is close to you even whey you can’t recognize him through the mist of your tears. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened!”

Life is full of contradictions, perplexities, pain, and lack of answers. Evil often seems to be gratuitous. Suffering comes to the just and the unjust. There is unimaginable darkness in this world, and we often have to be face to face with despair, disappointment, and anger.

The death of Jesus on the cross was the epitome of all the contradictions and evil upon humankind, for if there would be any way out of the despair of the human condition, it would be that God would intervene in the world through his anointed to liberate his people.

But as far as the disciples are concerned, he is dead. If that Jesus of Nazareth is dead, then there is no hope. There is no meaning. There is no truth, no beauty, and no goodness. All is pointless.

We had hoped. Job had said, “where now is my hope? Who will see my hope? Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?” The disciples had hoped, and if hope in Jesus of Nazareth failed, no other hope could ever survive. They had hoped that we would redeem Israel.

But their idea of redemption was still clouded by their earthly vision. Christ was triumphing over sin, death, and the devil on the cross, but all they could see was just the opposite. It’s hard to blame them; Jesus didn’t look very victorious on the cross. But the cross was the victory of Christ, and he was about to open the eyes of his people to see eternity beyond their immediate earthly cares.

The Way Up is Down

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Jesus rebukes them, but only because he has compassion on them. He had compassion to meet them in their doubt and despair, and to walk the dark road with them. And he had compassion to begin turning them around from their blindness and unbelief by redirecting them to his promises. He was compassionate to rebuke them for their earthly hopes, when a much greater and higher hope had been already accomplished.

It was necessary that Christ should suffer these things and then enter into his glory. The eternal Son of God, the eternal Logos who was in the beginning, the one who was with God and who was God, always had all the glory there is to have.

And yet, he took upon himself full humanity to redeem humanity and bring humanity to God. It was as a man that he had to achieve glory, but in his compassion for fallen humankind, he could only achieve glory as a man after facing the cross.

The bright Sunday morning could only come after the darkness of Friday and Saturday.

That is our road too. We can only inherit the kingdom of God if we pick up our crosses daily and follow him. In Jesus’ words, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In baptism we are buried with Christ, and that baptism has to be actualized every day. The devil incites man to achieve glory, and by doing so brings them to ruin and destruction.

Christ invites us to join him on the cross, to wear his crown of thorns, to suffer, to be despised by men, to die and be buried; and through that he brings us to his eternal glory. In God’s economy, the way up is down.

All of the Old Testament is All About Christ

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets (the only Scriptures they had), he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Jesus gives us here the hermeneutical rule to understand the Old Testament: it’s all about Christ.

If one would interpret the Old Testament as accurately as a scholarly Rabbi, that one would not have understood it at all. Unfortunately this is a mistake many modern day evangelicals make. It’s a complete confusion of categories.

The only Christian interpretation – and thus the only legitimate interpretation, since Christ is risen – is one that finds Christ in every page of the Old Testament. It is there that all the promises of God are given and prefigured, whether explicitly or implicitly, for their fulfillment in Christ.

For example, in their immediate contexts, passages like Isaiah 53 refer explicitly and exclusively to the ancient nation of Israel (certainly not the modern secular state of Israel). This is what Isaiah meant. Jewish rabbis correctly point that out.

And yet, God in his providence was supervising the writings that would ultimately be fulfilled explicitly and exclusively in Christ. Non-Christian Jewish rabbis cannot receive this because they reject Christ, and thus they miss the meaning of Scripture as God fashioned and fulfills it.

One example of apostolic interpretation of Scripture comes from St Paul. In reading the Exodus, he sees Baptism and the Lord’s supper: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us.”

The entire fabric of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, is Christological and Christocentric – every thread and every theme leads to, and centers on the crucified and risen Christ. Looking at the Scriptures without seeing Christ is like looking at a man from Nazareth named Jesus without seeing the Son of God.

Jesus walks with them, and their hearts are burning because the one who is the Incarnate Word is disclosing himself to them. He is catechizing them, so that they are being prepared to find him fully. They have now become like the burning bush, which burns with the uncreated fire of God’s presence and is not consumed, but is vivified and sanctified by the One who is, and the One who speaks.

Their Eyes Were Opened by the Eucharist

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.

emmausThis language should be very familiar to us. At the table, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Luke had just used it a couple of chapters ago. There, we read,

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:17-20)

Now, the kingdom of God has come. Now, heaven comes to earth, because the broken Lord is the risen Lord, and the risen Lord is broken in the bread and wine for us. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, gives it to them,

And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

The one who came and walked with them, the one who talked with them and disclosed himself to them – preparing them to encounter him as their Risen Lord – is the one who now opens their eyes to see him in the breaking of the bread.

It is in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ that he gives himself fully to them. It is in the communion of this broken Body, which is now risen and given for their eternal life, that they can truly meet Christ.

The opening of the Scriptures was necessary, but it was not sufficient.

Christ redeems the mind and the heart, but he does not meet us just in the mind and the heart. The mind and the heart have to be renewed by the spoken Word so that we can then encounter the Incarnate Word, the one who redeems soul and body, the whole person, the whole creation.

We find him fully in the full communion with him in the meal of the kingdom, the source of our life, the bread of life, the manna from heaven, the wine of the blood of forgiveness, the meal of the nourishment unto new and eternal life.

It is not a mere cannibalistic eating of the flesh and blood of a dead corpse, the flesh and blood of mortal, fallen creatures. It is the Body and Blood of the risen Christ – the deified Body and Blood which can vanish before your eyes, and even go through locked doors, and yet it can be touched. It is the risen, deified Body and Blood which enters Heaven itself, the place no mortal flesh and blood can inherit (1 Cor. 15:50).

As the Church Fathers have said, the Lord’s Supper is the “medicine of immortality.” By faith we eat and drink Christ so that eternal life is given to us, flows through us, and our eyes are opened because we join Christ in the table of the kingdom. We eat him, and we eat with him, and we are gathered to him and to one another, so that we might be one.

This communion will be finally fulfilled in the last day, when all things are consummated, when all sin and death will have vanished; and yet this encounter, this seeing, this communion, this healing, already happens here and now, when we meet with Christ at the table, when the kingdom comes from heaven to us and we are taken up to it.

It is here that we find comfort and renewal from the despair of death, darkness, apparent failure, and hopelessness – because in the Divine Liturgy we are taken to heaven and heaven is brought to us. Heaven and earth meet together in the very Body and Blood of the Incarnate and Risen God-Man. We find light, life, victory in the brokenness, and the sure hope of our resurrection, because we commune and partake of the Risen Christ.

In the Eucharist, Christ is with us in the fullest way in this life. Is there that we meet God and thus our eyes are opened. It is there that we recognize him.

Of course he is always with us. He was with the disciples before he walked with them in that road, for Christ is everywhere. He drew closer, however, when he walked with them, talked with them, drew them to himself, and disclosed the Word to them.

But he was fully present with them in the breaking of the bread. And this is true for us. Christ has ascended to heaven, but in the breaking of the bread he is present with us in a unique way that transcends his omnipresence.

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem.

Jesus himself had told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy . . .  So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

The disciples run back to Jerusalem to help the downcast. The joy of encountering the Risen Christ can only be translated into love, compassion, and zeal to heal others, and to proclaim from the rooftops, he is risen he is risen indeed.

They retrace their steps on the road that had been of a road of darkness and despair, but now their feet are the beautiful feet of one who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isa. 52:7; Rom. 10:15).

St Augustine in one of his sermons had this to say about this passage:

Ah yes, brothers and sisters, but where did the Lord wish to be recognized? In the breaking of bread. We’re all right, nothing to worry about – we break bread, and we recognize the Lord. It was for our sake that he didn’t want to be recognized anywhere but there, because we weren’t going to see him in the flesh, and yet we were going to eat his flesh. So if you’re a believer, any of you, if you’re not called a Christian for nothing, if you don’t come to Church pointlessly, if you listen to the Word of God in fear and hope, you may take comfort in the breaking of bread. The Lord’s absence is not an absence. Have faith, and the one you cannot see is with you. (Sermon 235. 2-3)

The risen Lord is with us always, and he brings us to himself especially in the eating of his Body and his Blood. As he said,

 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

There, the gives himself to us fully, and takes us fully to himself, body and soul. There, our sins are forgiven, our wounds are healed, our eyes are opened, our souls are strengthened, and the promise is renewed.

There, death and life come together, because the broken Body is the risen Body which gives us life. At the table of the Lord the kingdom comes to us and we are taken up to it, until that day, when we will see him in all of his glory.

The Divine Liturgy – The Same Today as Described by St Cyril of Jerusalem 1,700 Years Ago.

liturgyBy the loving-kindness of God ye have heard sufficiently at our former meetings concerning Baptism, and Chrism, and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ; and now it is necessary to pass on to what is next in order, meaning to-day to set the crown on the spiritual building of your edification. . . .

After this the Priest cries aloud, “Lift up your hearts.”  For truly ought we in that most awe-inspiring hour to have our heart on high with God, and not below, thinking of earth and earthly things. In effect therefore the Priest bids all in that hour to dismiss all cares of this life, or household anxieties, and to have their heart in heaven with the merciful God. Then ye answer, “We lift them up unto the Lord:” assenting to it, by your avowal. . . .

Then the Priest says, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord.”  . . . Then ye say, “It is meet and right”  . . . After this, we make mention of heaven, and earth, and sea; of sun and moon; of stars and all the creation, rational and irrational, visible and invisible; of Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Thrones; of the Cherubim with many faces . . .

We make mention also of the Seraphim, whom Esaias in the Holy Spirit saw standing around the throne of God, and with two of their wings veiling their face, and with twain their feet, while with twain they did fly, crying Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Sabaoth. . . .

Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we beseech the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the Bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is surely sanctified and changed.

Then, after the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless service, is completed, over that sacrifice of propitiation we entreat God for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world; for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succour we all pray and offer this sacrifice.

Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition.

Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awe-inspiring  sacrifice is set forth. . . .

Then, after these things, we say that Prayer which the Saviour delivered to His own disciples, with a pure conscience entitling God our Father, and saying, Our Father, which art in heaven . . .

After this the Priest says, “Holy things to holy people.”  Holy are the gifts presented, having received the visitation of the Holy Ghost; holy are ye also, having been deemed worthy of the Holy Ghost; the holy things therefore correspond to the holy persons. Then ye say, “One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ.”  For One is truly holy, by nature holy; we too are holy, but not by nature, only by participation, and discipline, and prayer. . . .

After this ye hear the chanter inviting you with a sacred melody to the communion of the Holy Mysteries, and saying, O taste and see that the Lord is good. Trust not the judgment to thy bodily palate no, but to faith unfaltering; for they who taste are bidden to taste, not bread and wine, but the anti-typical Body and Blood of Christ . . .

Then after thou hast partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth thine hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen, hallow thyself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ.

Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offence. Sever not yourselves from the Communion; deprive not yourselves, through the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries. And the God of peace sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit, and soul, and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:—To whom be glory and honour and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.

– Excerpts from St Cyril of Jerusalem, Lecture XXIII (On the  Sacred Liturgy).

Theosis? What are you, Mormon?

St Paul and the other apostles used many images and analogies when speaking of our redemption, and one concept that became central to the Fathers since New Testament times was that of deification.

Christ has shared in our poverty so that we may share in the richness of his divinity: for our sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9); Christ prayed that we might share in the perichoresis of the Trinity, “that they may be one, just as We are one – I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfectly one” (John 17:22-23); we have been made “partakers of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

If humans are to share in God’s glory, they are to become by grace what God is by nature, i.e., we are to be deified. As St Athanasius put it,

The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine [also translated, that we might become god]. He displayed himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality. [1]

This is only possible because we are mystically and ontologically united to Christ through faith, in the Holy Spirit; therefore, our redemption and deification is only possible if Christ is fully God and fully human, and if the Holy Spirit himself is also fully God. In fact, this became central in the Father’s arguments for the deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century.[2] No one less than God can save humanity, and so Christ must be fully God; but only if He is truly human, as we are, can we humans participate in what He has done for us.

Scripture states that human beings have been created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). Most of the Greek Fathers made a distinction between those two terms, arguing that the image of God refers to our intellectual capacities and our freedom of will, while the likeness of God refers to our conformity to God according to virtue. Our image has not been lost in the Fall for we retain our reason and human free will; but what Adam failed to do, and that which we must attain through the grace of God enabling our efforts – the synergia of God and man – is likeness to God. To become like God is to acquire divine likeness, to be assimilated to God through virtue, and therefore, to be deified, to become a second god, a god by grace.[3]

Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God, but they still had to mature and progress to a greater likeness. Thus, human beings before the Fall were perfect not so much in an actual but in a potential sense, for, having the image, they were called to acquire the likeness by their own efforts, assisted by the grace of God (cooperation, synergia). As St Irenaeus put it,[4] Adam was in a state of innocence and simplicity, in need of growth unto perfection.[5]

Sin, Grace, Free Will

After the Fall the likeness is not something with which we are endowed from our first moment of existence; it is a goal for which we must aim, something we can only acquire by degrees. However sinful we may be, we never lose the image, but the likeness depends upon our moral choices, upon our virtue, our cooperation with the grace of God – and conversely, this likeness is destroyed by sin.

The Orthodox Church rejects any account of grace that might seem to infringe upon human freedom; therefore, we, as “fellow workers with God” (1 Cor. 3:9) must make our contribution to this common work – although always recognizing that what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do. There are two unequal but necessary forces that cooperate: divine grace and human will.

The paradigm and supreme example of this is seen in the Theotokos, who said “may it be done according to thy will.” We cannot merit salvation, but we must work it out in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13), for faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17). Sin has restricted the scope of our free will but has not destroyed it.

Acquire the Holy Spirit!

St Seraphim of Sarov taught that “the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” Vladimir Lossky argues that this “sums up the whole spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church.”[6] The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is nothing other than deification. The final goal at which every Christian must aim is to become god, to attain theosis; for Orthodoxy, our salvation and redemption mean our deification.

Just as the Persons of the Trinity inhere in one another in the divine perichoresis, we also are called to dwell in the Trinitarian God, to share in the life of the Trinity, and to dwell in one another in an unceasing movement of love. This idea of personal and organic union between God and humans – God dwelling in us and we in Him – is often highlighted in the gospel of St John[7] and the epistles of St. Paul;[8] again, St Peter speaks of our sharing in the divine nature.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

A Fourth Member of the Trinity? Essence and Energies.

It is important to note that the idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s essence and His energies, as St Gregory of Palamas stated, viz., union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence. The latter remains transcendent, inaccessible to creation ontologically, as well as intellectually – thus the need of apophatic theology.

Union with God’s essence would constitute pantheism (or panentheism) which the Orthodox Church rejects. In the mystical union of God and man through deification, the Creator and the creature are not fused into a single being, but remain distinct. Human beings fully retain their personhood even after attaining deification, and their union with God is the analog of the Trinity, where there is unity in diversity. Of course, the distinction being that in the Trinity the Persons share the same numerical nature, whereas human persons only share their specific nature with other humans, and remain human even while participating in the divine nature.

We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation. We do not become God by nature, but created gods, gods by grace or by status. Nonetheless, deified saints, according to St Maximus, are those who are worthy of God and have one and the same energy with him. Saints do not lose their free will, but when deified they voluntarily conform their will to the will of God in love.

Body and Soul, Heaven and Earth

Deification involves not only the inward person but also the body, for human beings are hylomorphic beings, unities of body and soul, and Christ took upon himself full humanity in order to redeem the whole person. Therefore, according to St Maximus, “our body is deified at the same time as our soul.” Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are to offer them as living sacrifices to God (1 Cor. 6:19, Rom. 12:1).

The full deification of the body must wait until the Last Day, when our redemption will be fully consummated and the righteous will rise from the dead and be clothed with a spiritual, incorruptible body. In that Day, the glory of the Holy Spirit which now shines hidden in the inward man will transfigure our bodies, coming out from within and shining visibly with the light of Mount Tabor. In the meantime, we receive the firstfruits of our redemption, and as such some saints have experienced tokens of the visible, bodily glorification.

St John Maximovitch

Reports of saints shining visibly in times of prayer include that of St Seraphim of Sarov, Arsenius the Great, Abba Pambo and others.[9] Here in San Francisco, the incorrupt relics of my patron saint, St. John Maximovitch, lie displayed for all to see and venerate at the Holy Virgin Cathedral.

Because the Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul, reverence for the relics of the saints is a natural outcome. The grace of God that is present in the saints’ bodies during their lives remains active when they die, and God uses such bodies as channels of divine power and as instruments of healing. In some cases, the bodies of the saints have been miraculously preserved from corruption; but the reverence and veneration of the relics of the saints is present even when this has not occurred.

Indeed, the doctrine of theosis, which informs a worldview of God suffusing human beings with his grace, in his energies, is also the framework for the understanding that God redeems not only human beings, but all of physical creation as well. Not only our human body but the whole of the material world will be eventually transfigured, for Christ came to make all things new, and God’s redemptive plan culminates in the establishment not only of a new heaven, but also a new earth. Creation is to be saved and glorified along with humans, and icons are the firstfruits of this redemption of matter.

The Incarnation, of course, is both the basis and means through which God redeems all of creation, including matter. Christ took flesh and thus the material order in him was united to God. From his Incarnation springs God’s cosmic redemption, and the Orthodox doctrine of the deification of the body, its iconology, and indeed its view of the holiness and even sacramentality of the created order are firmly grounded on it.[10]

In the Orthodox tradition there is therefore a profound sense of the intrinsic sacredness of the earth, a serious affirmation of the goodness of life and an increasing concern for man’s responsibility as the steward of the planet. According to Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios’ 1988 Christmas message, the world “should become a Eucharistic offering to the Creator, a life giving bread, partaken in justice and love with others.”

Six Points to Remember

Metropolitan Kallistos lists six points that must be made in order to avoid misunderstandings concerning the doctrine of theosis:

  1. First, it must be clear that theosis is for every Christian without exception. The process of divinization begins in this life for all Christians, and not for a select few. However weak our attempts may be to follow Christ and keep his commandments, of using our will in making choices that conform to the grace of God, we are already in some degree deified.
  1. Secondly, the process of deification does not mean that one becomes perfect or sinless in this life, or that one ceases to be conscious of sin. It was St Paul who called himself the “chief of sinners,” for it is characteristic of great saints to have an acute awareness of their own limitations. Deification always presupposes a continual act of repentance, and it is not for nothing that the Jesus Prayer begs, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The doctrine of theosis is not mutually exclusive with a doctrine of ongoing penitence, but rather presupposes it.
  1. Thirdly, theosis does not come about through some esoteric or magical technique. Rather, the process of deification, in which we cooperate with the grace of God, takes place in one’s life through the means God has appointed  to bring that about.
    • Metropolitan Kallistos lists six such means:
      1. Church (i.e., participating in the liturgy and in the life of the community),
      2. The regular reception of the sacraments
      3. Perseverance in prayer
      4. The reading of the Gospels
      5. The keeping of God’s commandments
      6. Christian service.
  1. Therefore, fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a “social” process. The commandments are summed up in the love of God and the love of neighbor. These two are inseparable, for one cannot fulfill one without fulfilling the other. Only if one loves God – and therefore only if one loves his neighbor – can one be deified. As the Persons of the Trinity dwell in one another, so we must also dwell in our neighbors.
  1. Fifthly, and consequently, theosis is practical because love of God and of our neighbors must be practical, i.e., expressed in action. Obviously the process of theosis does not exclude mystical experience, but it certainly includes the service of love. In our efforts, our synergia, we cooperate with the grace of God by conforming not only our minds and hearts to him, but also in imitating his love through actions.
  1. Lastly, deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments, for they are the means appointed by God for us to acquire the Holy Spirit and be transformed in the divine likeness.

[1] On the Incarnation, 54 –  Αυτός γαρ ενηνθρώπησεν, ίνα ημείς θεοποιηθώμεν·

[2] Cf. e.g., St Gregory of Nazianzus’ orations on the Son and on the Holy Spirit against Arianism. Also, as theosis requires not only the full divinity of Christ, but also his full humanity (since he does not redeem what he does not assume), it became important for the Christological discussions concerning the human nature of Christ as well, over against Docetism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, etc.

[3] “I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you” (Ps. 82:6). “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?’” (John 10:34).

[4] Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 12.

[5] Metropolitan Kallistos points out that this is a different approach than that of Augustine, who viewed humans in Paradise in a state of realized perfection. It is interesting to note that the “magisterial” Reformers (Calvin, Turretin, et. al.) in Protestantism viewed Adam and Eve as being not in a perfect state, but in a state of probation, after the successful completion of which they were to attain glorification through obedience to the “covenant of works.” In that view, Christ came to fulfill that covenant of works as the second Adam, and thereby to impute his perfect obedience and righteousness to those united to him through faith. The idea of imputation (in the forensic, Reformed sense) was foreign to the Fathers (and arguably to the New Testament), but it is interesting to note some similar views the Reformers had with the Greek Fathers concerning Adam’s need to attain likeness to God, in contradistinction to Augustine and later Latin theologians.

[6] The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 196.

[7] E.g., John 15:1-5 reads, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser . . . Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

[8] E.g., we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Eph. 5:30), we are members of Christ (1 Cor. 6:15); Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20) and dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17); He is in us (Rom. 8:10), and is to be formed in us (Gal. 4:19); etc.

[9] There are similar reports of such events in the Western tradition, the example of Anselm of Canterbury perhaps being the most famous.

[10] As C. S. Lewis has famously stated in Mere Christianity, “God likes matter, He invented it.” Indeed, he also has redeemed it.

Acts 2:42 as the Blueprint of Apostolic Worship

And they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

First, they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They were continually devoting themselves, i.e., it was the ongoing life of the Church, the new community of faith, the New Israel, to be continually devoting themselves to the oral proclamation of the Gospel. There was no New Testament. The teaching was the apostolic teaching, i.e., it was the foundation of the Tradition given through the ones Christ had appointed to be his representatives to build up and govern the Church.

The apostolic teaching was lifting the veil of the Old Testament, which was the only Bible the Church had at this point. It was lifting the veil because the apostles were doing what Christ has done in Luke 24, viz., beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, they were teaching in all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus Christ. This was done through the apostolic authority, given them by Christ to be his witnesses.

The Church, which had just been constituted through a radical intervention by God in the Holy Spirit, was not devoting itself to seek new subjective experiences of the Spirit – trying to see the fire, the wind, and to speak in foreign languages. No, the people were devoting themselves to the teaching. There is no life in the Church without the continuous devotion to the public proclamation and instruction of the Word of God, as well as private study and growth in the same Word that is the pure milk that nourishes us unto salvation.

Second, they were devoting themselves to fellowship, i.e., koinonia. The Church was not an individualistic church, for there is no salvation without the common life of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as lone range Christianity. Under the authority of the shepherds whom Christ had appointed over his Church, they were continually devoting themselves to one another in fellowship.

Their fellowship was not merely a social event, although it involved that. It was more than just a club, it was actually a fellowship in which people concretely cared for one another, loved one another, and provided for the needs of one another. There is no Christianity without concrete expressions of love for one another in the body of Christ.

Third, they were continually devoting themselves to the breaking of the bread. In the New Testament, this is very specific language to refer to the Eucharist. Remember, Luke himself had already told us, in the first volume of his work (i.e, the Gospel of Luke) that in Emmaus, Christ revealed himself, opened the eyes of his disciples, and gave himself to them in the breaking of the bread.

From the very foundation of the Church on, the center of Christian worship has always been the Lord’s Supper, the mystical communion of the body and the blood of Christ, in which we are united to him and to one another in one body. As St Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of the apostle John) said at the end of the first century to the Philadelphians, “Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery.” There is no Christian life without the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ, the medicine of immortality that nourishes us unto eternal life and unites us to him and to one another in one body.

Fourth, they were devoting themselves to the prayers. It is important to notice that Luke deliberately uses the article here, the prayers. This means that they were devoting themselves to the liturgical, communal prayers, as they had always done in their synagogues and in the temple. They were probably using the liturgical prayers from the Jewish prayer books, which included primarily the Psalms and prayers based on the Psalms and the rest of Scripture – now redefined and fulfilled by Christ himself, the One whom the Church now called upon as the Lord, the God of Israel.

The Church was a praying Church. They prayed individually and extemporaneously, but they also gathered together as the fellowship of the body of Christ to worship liturgically in the preaching of the the apostolic Tradition, the fellowship, the partaking of the Eucharist, and the communal, liturgical prayers.

Different Accounts of the Last Supper

The apostle Paul emphasized the Baptismal and Eucharistic traditions and showed their implications for the Christian community. “I received from the Lord that which I also handed down to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). Traditions can become too rigid and stifle a community’s vitality, or sometimes they can become too local and one sided. But they also can be great blessings, defining and facilitating the flow of a community’s life and energy. Traditions preserved the handing down of the apostle’s teaching and practice, and facilitated the organic development of the Christian Church.

The Eucharistic tradition of Christ’s Last Supper has come down to us in the New Testament in four different forms. Two of the traditional formulas, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and Luke 22:29-20, were developments of the Eucharistic tradition of Antioch. The other two, Mark 14:22-25 and Matthew 26:26-29 are developments of a Palestinian tradition.


The oldest form is that quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 11. It presupposes that the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated as a full meal in Corinth, and it consisted of two parts, the formula of the Supper itself, and that of the cup, which Paul brings together in one statement. The circumstances surrounding the church in Corinth were such that most of its members were of Gentile background and many had turned away from idol worship but still had to deal with the ambiguities of living in pagan urban environment. What did the Eucharist demand of them in their context? Could they eat meat offered to idols?

Paul turned to the events in the Old Testament that paralleled Baptism and the Supper as historical precedents to help answer the question. The Israelites had been baptized into Moses and in the cloud and in the sea, and they ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, but none of this kept God from striking down those who turned to idolatry and indulged in immorality.

Another problem in Corinth was the issue of distinction of persons – Jews and Greeks, men and women, and those different social classes. This created problems when they assembled for the Eucharist, and some were drunk whereas others did not have enough to eat and drink. Paul reminds them that even though not all distinctions are abolished in the eschatological age that had broken in through Christ, all people of all ethnicities, of both sexes, and all social classes, were all one in Christ.

Most importantly, the Lord’s Supper was the gathering of His people into one, the body of Christ. Therefore they were to give their lives to one another just as Jesus did, and proclaim the death of the Lord until his coming. They were to remember Christ’s passion and resurrection and thus also to witness his presence, gathering them into His unity. Failure to do this was the reason Paul told them that their supper was no longer the Lord’s Supper. Appealing for unity, Paul exhorted everyone to respect the body of Christ of which they were members.


Not longer after Paul’s death Mark wrote “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Mk. 1:1), and Baptism and the Eucharist played very important roles in his story. Well before Mark wrote his Gospel, the story of Jesus nourishing a vast crowd with very little bread was told as a Eucharistic story, appearing six times in the New Testament. Mark was the first Christian writer to include the story of Eucharist in the greater story of Jesus, writing in a time of crisis after Nero’s persecution of Christians and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. To many, it seemed that the world was coming to an end; Mark shows them that what seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning. For him, the Christians were reliving Jesus’ passion and resurrection, they were taking up their crosses and following him, and their suffering was the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” – of which the Eucharist was a vital part, celebrating and proclaiming the call of Christ to follow him.

The body of the Gospel of Mark can be divided into two main sections: the first (1:14-8:28) raises the question, “Who is Jesus,” and by implication, “What does it mean to be Jesus’ disciples?” The second part (8:22-16:8) raises a further question, “What does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ,” and by implication, “What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?” In both parts, the Eucharist plays an important role. In the first part, Mark focuses on the nature and scope of the Church, constituted on the Twelve of Christ fulfilling the Twelve of Israel, and sent on a mission to Gentiles as well as Jews.

In setting out the universal mission of the Church, mark uses the Eucharistic imagery of the feedings of the five thousand (6:34-44) and the four thousand (8:1-9). Both sections include parallel language concerning the crowd, Jesus’ pity, the people’s hunger, the asking of “how many loaves,” the taking, giving thanks, and giving of the loaves to the disciples and from them to the people, the satiated crowd, the remaining baskets, and the great number of people fed.

These two stories, the first in the Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee where the crowd was mostly Jewish, and the second in the region of Decapolis, where the crowd was mostly Gentile, emphasize the universal mission Church and Christ’s self giving in the Eucharist for all peoples. The stories also reflect two stages in the development of the Eucharist. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus took the five loaves and also the fish, paralleling the earlier Jewish setting of the Eucharist as part of a full meal, whereas in the feeding of the four thousand, the loaves are not mentioned in the liturgical formula, reflecting the later stage in which Christians of Gentile origin celebrated the Eucharist no longer as a full meal.

Even after the breaking of bread with the five thousand and the four thousand, the disciples did not understand. The second major section of the Gospel serves to teach Mark’s readers to see the Eucharist as a sharing in the Messiah’s passion, death, and resurrection. As the first part emphasized the breaking of bread and eating, and the universal breadth of the Church, the second part emphasizes the symbol and theme of the cup and drinking it, and the depth of commitment needed to fulfill the Church’s universal mission. Jesus begins to announce the passion-resurrection of the Son of Man; “can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the Baptism with which I am baptized?” Mark emphasizes Baptism as Baptism into death, and also into Christ’s resurrection.

The Last Supper, drawing from the ancient formula of Palestinian origin, is given in the context of a Passover meal at which Jesus and the betrayer are together; the passion is a tragedy, as in a Greek drama, and Jesus is the knowing and accepting, but passive and helpless victim of a plot to destroy him; but eventually Jesus triumphs through his passion, and the formula for the Lord’s Supper was introduced to transform the Last Supper from a betrayal meal into a self-sacrificing meal. He gave his life, and his followers, like him, while praying that the cup might be taken away from them, are also to submit to the will of the Father, take up their crosses, and follow Christ to his passion-resurrection.


Matthew’s Gospel was written some fifteen years after Mark’s Gospel, and it retold the story to a community rich in Jewish background and tradition, but now cut off from the synagogue and newly committed to the Gentile mission. For Matthew, forgiveness of sins was a primary purpose of the Eucharist. Drawing from Mark’s formula “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many” Matthew adds the words “for the forgiveness of sins (Mat. 26:28). Accordingly, Christ’s death was “on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew inserts the comment, “if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (6:14-15).

Like Mark, Matthew included the theme of the Eucharist at various points in his Gospel. Many of the Eucharistic stories are very similar in both Gospels (the feeding of the multitudes, the exchange with the sons of Zebedee concerning the cup he was about to drink, the Last Supper, the reference to the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane), but Matthew also makes several changes, some small and others more significant. One of Matthew’s central concerns underlying his changes is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in his community. The majority in the Matthean community were Christians of Jewish background, who had remained close to the synagogue traditions for many years. By the 70s and 80s, however, they were attracting a number of Gentiles.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, the community more than ever had to choose between the synagogue and being Christian. Families were divided, and friends alienated. The community had to fully embrace the Gentile mission. Accordingly, for Matthew, the breaking of bread was a healing as well as a nourishing event. Healing and forgiving were two aspects of the same reality. In his account of the Last Supper, Matthew emphasizes that the disciples – all of them – were to drink from the cup because this was Jesus’ “blood of the covenant on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins;” this was especially important for his community, where sin and the forgiveness of sins were a major issue. Jesus’ sacrifice was an act of mercy on behalf of many, and Matthew quotes from the words of Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”


Luke also wrote some fifteen years after Mark, and his audience was composed mostly of Christians of Gentile origin. Luke emphasizes that while the Last Supper was a Jewish meal with Jesus of Nazareth, the Eucharist is a formal Christian meal with the Lord Jesus. The Last Supper was a pre-passion meal whereas the Eucharist, the passion and the resurrection are in the past but are also made present. Without the resurrection, there would be no Eucharist. The Last Supper was unique and unrepeatable, whereas the Lord’s Supper is a repeatable, liturgical event after the passion-resurrection. The Last Supper is fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Supper gives meaning to Jesus’ Last Supper.

Whereas Mark included two stories of the breaking of bread, to Jewish and Gentile crowds, Luke only includes the former, for the mission to the Jews is told in his Gospel, and the mission to the Gentiles is told in Acts. In his Gospel, Luke tells the story of the origins of the Eucharist in a series of ten means with Jesus; each meal is related to a basic aspect of Christian life and ministry. They are, (1) the great feast at the home of Levi, emphasizing repentance; (2) a dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee, emphasizing reconciliation; (3) the breaking of bread in Bethsaida, which was the mission to the five thousand; (4) the hospitality at the home of Martha, teaching true discipleship; (5) a noon meal at the home of a Pharisee, showing the need of inner purification; (6) a Sabbath dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, showing the call to the poor and the lame; (7) hospitality at the home of Zacchaeus, emphasizing salvation; (8) the Passover meal, the Last Supper; (9) the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus, and finally, (10) a community meal in Jerusalem.

Luke’s communities, as those of Matthew, were in transition, as the center of Christianity was shifting not only from Jerusalem to Antioch but also from Antioch to Rome, where there was some measure of persecution. There were also internal difficulties, especially in relations between members of different social status. Luke addressed these complex situations in two volumes, Luke-Acts. In the Gospel, he told the story of the origin of the Eucharist in the life and ministry of Jesus, and in Acts, the origin of the Eucharist in the life and ministry of the apostolic Church. The story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus provided an important link between the two: Jesus remained a stranger to them until ‘he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them;” for those who accept the gospel of the passion-resurrection, the living one can be recognized in the breaking of the bread, and as he meets with them later in Jerusalem, the community becomes the springboard for the Christian mission.

In Acts, as the ideal Church gathered “they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42). The breaking of the bread was done with the apostles with whom Jesus the risen Lord and “eaten salt” over forty days and who were closely united with him. All were invited to share at the table of the one who is Lord of all – and Luke makes that clear as the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles.

From a Christological point of view, the key to the universal mission of the Church and the nature of its Eucharistic assembly is the Lordship of Jesus. Meals are prominent in the work of the deacons, in the conversion of Cornelius and his household, in Paul’s missions (e.g., the meal in the home of the jailer) and in Paul’s journey to Rome (the meal at Troas, and in the storm-tossed ship). Christians needed to join the Eucharistic meal if they wished to be saved, and, like Paul, they would then be able to pursue their mission to the ends of the earth.


In John’s Gospel Jesus was the Word made flesh, the “bread of life,” the “living bread that came down from heaven” to give his “flesh for the life of the world.” In Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the Eucharist is related primarily to Christ passion and resurrection; in John, it is related primarily to Jesus’ incarnation. In John’s Gospel the Eucharist can be summed up as the Word of God made flesh and made sacramental nourishment for all who believe.

In this Gospel there are three basic passages with reference to the Eucharist: the multiplication of the loaves, the Last Supper, and the epilogue, when the disciples have breakfast with Jesus on the seashore. The Last Supper appears in a form different than that of the Synoptic Gospels: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves;” John 6 is the highest point in the Eucharistic theology of the New Testament. The story of the seashore relates the Eucharist to the mission of the apostolic Church and to Simon Peter’s special role in the life of the Church.

The Word was made flesh and Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world; we must eat his flesh to have eternal life. But to understand and accept Jesus’ message about the Word made flesh and his Eucharistic flesh, the flesh itself was of no avail. For this they had to be open to the Spirit. Since the words Jesus spoke were Spirit and life, the disciples needed the Spirit which gives life to receive them. His Eucharistic message is the very “words of eternal life.”