Eucharist (from the Greek word εὐχαριστία) is a sacrament that is celebrated during the Divine Liturgy within the Orthodox Church where the consecrated bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes the blood and body of Jesus Christ, that is consumed by Christians.
Many Protestants attack this doctrine as “unbiblical,” but the Bible declares it (1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:23–29; and emphatically in John 6:32–71). Orthodox Christians believe it is actually the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, but we do not believe in transubstantiation like the Catholics. We believe it is a mystery. We also do not believe it is merely symbolic as most Protestants would attest, nor believe it is something to be rarely practiced as a minor remembrance. This instituted by Zwingli, for which I’ve shown much of western Protestantism originates from.
What Does The Bible Say?
The Eucharist is a primary aspect of the church because it is the completion of all the other church’s sacraments, the Holy Eucharist completes our Christian foundation in the faith. “Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.”
Three of the gospels affirm the Eucharist, and the wording is clear in all of them. Christ does not say this is a symbol of my body, but that this is my body. The biggest evidence is in John Chapter 6. Jesus emphasizes this is His real presence in the Eucharist, and many of His followers at the time desert him for it. Is this still not true today?
“Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘this is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
Aware that His disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life, yet there are some of you who do not believe.”
For The Orthodox we don’t know how it happens but it does. And we keep faith in this teaching just as the 12 apostles did when the other followers left Jesus.
Christ says eating His flesh and drinking His blood will: grant eternal life, raise you up on the Last Day, and let God abide in you and vice-versa. Mere bread and drink would not do this, it could not be purely symbolic. “As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.” And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many.” – Matthew 26:26-28
And in 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, the apostle Paul is emphasizing the importance of how we take the Eucharist (communion) AND what we believe about the Eucharist. “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” Paul is saying there is such power in the body and blood of Christ communicated to us in the Eucharist that partaking in the Eucharist with a willful disregard of the Lord will result in judgment on themselves, and even sickness. How could something merely symbolic bring upon judgment?
In Acts 20:7 we see the church performing the Eucharist on the first day of the week as a central act of worship, the Eucharist has always been the act of thanksgiving and praise to God in His Church.
What Did The Early Church Say?
All of the earliest Christian writings on the Eucharist say that it is real and truly the body and blood of Christ, not referencing it as either symbolic or metaphorical. St. Theodore the Studite wrote, “We confess that the faithful receive the very body and blood of Christ, according to the voice of God Himself.”
Fathers at the First Ecumenical Council said, “At the divine table we should not see simply the bread and the cup which have been offered, but raising our minds high, we should with faith understand that on the sacred table lies the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who is offered as a sacrifice by the priests; and truly receiving His Precious Body and Blood, we should believe that this is a sign of our Resurrection.”
John of Damascus: “If you inquire 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”.
Ignatius of Antioch: “Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 A.D. 110).
Justin Martyr: “For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 A.D. 151).
St. Ireneaus: “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33–32 A.D. 189).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lectures 19:7 A.D. 350).
These are just a few quoted, it’s not until the 16th century that the real presence of the Eucharist is questioned, making the belief that the Eucharist is merely symbolic a modern invention, that clearly the early church all the way to the apostles did not hold to. For more quotes you can search Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, St. Augustine, Ambrose of Milan, Hippolytus, etc.
What about Transubstantiation?
St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to explain the process using the term transubstantiation. Roman Catholics believe that transubstantiation is the ‘change’ that occurs in ‘the whole substance’ of the bread and wine, and this change takes place at the consecration.
The word “transubstantiation” taken in the sense that the bread and wine are truly transformed as being actual Body and Blood of Christ (through the grace of the Holy Spirit) is not un-Orthodox. However, it is not consistent with Orthodox thinking that the word “transubstantiation” should be taken to mean a “chemical or physical” change (though, in some way undetected) of the bread and wine into actual flesh or blood-plasma. This latter “scientific” way of thinking was never advanced by the Holy Fathers and is truly inconsistent with the Orthodox view of “mysterion.”