(John 6:53)
of the Lecture, Spring, l998, 
Father David Belden

          The Gospel goes on in verse 60: This is a hard saying, who can hear it? And in verse 66: From that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him.

          Not until the Protestant Reformation of the l6th century were these words of St. John interpreted to mean anything less than the literal Body and Blood of Christ Himself. The Faith of the Church, East and West, until that time, 1500 years after these words were spoken, was that Our Lord gave us His very Body and Blood under the form of bread and wine.

          There were, as I see it, two reasons why many of his disciples went back and walked no more with Him. The first, because they knew He was not speaking symbolically, but talking about His literal Body and Blood; and secondly, because they had not yet come to know Him as God: and who would be interested in receiving the body and blood of a mere man, however great and noble?

          It has always been of interest to me, that the fundamentalists who claim, for example, that the world was created in 7 days of 24 hours each, would not interpret these eucharistic words of Jesus in the same way! It is quite obvious because of the fact that many of his disciples went back and no longer walked with him, that they knew their Teacher was speaking, not in any parable or symbol, but of His literal Body and Blood. This subjective reading of the Scriptures to make them say whatever I want is called "private interpretation", and is the keystone of Protestantism. But the Scriptures themselves have something to say about this. St. Peter, in his Second Epistle, First Chapter, 20th verse, says: Knowing this first, no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation.

          How then, do we decide, except for our own whim, how to interpret Genesis: that the world was created in 7 days? How do we interpret these eucharistic words of Jesus, Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you? It is the Church which is the interpreter of the Scripture, not the private individual! It is the Holy Spirit in the Church Who interprets the Scripture. It is the Holy Fathers and the Holy Councils who interpret the Scriptures for us, as the Book of Acts says plainly: It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. Our first reading of the Bible should be for its plain meaning. If something is obscure to us, then we go to the commentaries of the Holy Fathers. How. for example, do we interpret Matt. 5:29 and Mark 9:27: If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and if thy hand offend thee, cut it off. I don't see the fundamentalists interpreting this passage literally! But how do they know how to interpret it without the guidance of the Church and the Holy Spirit in the Church, and the Holy Spirit in the Holy Fathers in the Church?

          Someone, if he had not given this passage his own private interpretation, could have become one of the greatest of the Holy Fathers, but because he interpreted this passage literally, and made a eunuch of himself, castrated himself, is not one of the Holy Fathers of the Church. For this, and other reasons, the great Origen disqualified himself.

          Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Many of his disciples no longer walked with Him, for no other reason than that they knew He was not speaking in riddles, but insisting that they must literally partake of His very flesh and blood.

          Do we think that we would have remained with Him - let's not kid ourselves - we would have been of the number who went back and no longer walked with him. But for those who believed His words, it was later revealed to them how they would be partakers of His very Body and Blood. Our Lord, speaking to His chosen Twelve says: Will ye also go away? Peter, speaking for all of them says: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life, and we believe and are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God (John 6:67).

          So this is how we must read the Bible for ourselves. Let not the Orthodox be accused by the sectarians of not reading the Bible for themselves - but how do we read it? With the Holy Fathers, in the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and not with private interpretation. Always read the Scripture for its first and obvious meaning, but if it becomes clear that there is another meaning, than read what the Holy Fathers say. I highly recommend THE BIBLE AND THE HOLY FATHERS, which gives the Scripture readings for every day, along with a brief commentary by one or more of the of the Holy Fathers. I use this book every day, and find much sermon material in it. I prefer, however, to use it with the King James, or Authorized Version of the Bible, rather than the so-called New King James version contained herein, because as Fr. Haralampos says about this version: It is a misleading title, because it is not a simple up-dating or correction of the King James, but an entirely new translation. It is disappointing that the King James Version was not used (in the ORTHODOX STUDY BIBLE on which he is commenting) a version which is a literary monument, for it is very direct and strong in expression, while being faithful to the Greek (THE TRUE VINE, #l8, Vol. 5, #2, l993, pp. 20 ff).

          Writing to the Christians at Corinth in A.D. 52, St. Paul claimed to have received from the Lord the tradition That the Lord Jesus, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said: `This is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, `This cup is the New Covenant in my blood. Do this, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me’ (l Cor. ll:23-25).

          We all know what the Greek word "amnesia" means - to forget. Its opposite, anamnesis means - to remember. To do this in remembrance of me, however, does not fully capture the meaning of the Greek. Anamnesis means to remember, but to remember in such a way as to make the event present to us and we to it. As St. Paul says in verse 26 of the same chapter: As oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord's Death till He come.

          And not only His death, but His Resurrection, since they cannot be separated.At Corinth, when St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Church there, the congregation would gather in the dining room of one of its members on Saturday evening, just as we gather, or should, for vigil service today.

          Not long after this, the Eucharist was taken from the context of a full meal and was celebrated with bread and wine alone - with readings and prayers of the synagogue (from which the Christians had been expelled) and transferred from Saturday evening to Sunday morning.

          St. Paul attached deep significance to the breaking and sharing of one loaf: if the Eucharist is a means of communion with the living Christ, it is also an expression of the unity of His body, the Church.

          St. Paul had emphasized how awesome it was to receive the Sacrament, and how necessary was proper preparation. But St. Cyril of Jerusalem used the language of awe and fear for the Sacrament itself. Merely to be in Its Presence is a cause of fear and trembling! I fear that we Orthodox have lost some of that awe of the Eucharistic Presence.

          How far removed from St. Cyril (who lived from 3l5 to 386) is the 28th of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped. If we adhered to this, we would not reserve the Holy Communion for the sick, or even carry it to them, or lift it up at the end of the Liturgy, with the words: Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Neither, at the Presanctified Liturgy, when the Holy Gifts are brought to the Holy Table at the Great Entrance, would we worship in profound silence, our heads touching the floor. Anglicans today ignore this article of their religion, but it points to the very Protestant theology of the founders of their Church.

          The Apostolic Constitutions, a handbook of Church teaching and practice from the last quarter of the 4th Century, makes it clear that the church building was rectangular in shape, pointed toward the East, that the men were on one side, the women on the other; that the elderly had seats, and that the children were kept in order by their parents. The Deacons enforced this order. Because we do not have a Deacon, does this mean that the children should be allowed to run riot around the church? I don't think so!

          And let the deacons stand near the door, so that none may go out, and the door may not be opened, not even by the faithful during the time of the anaphora. Do we see this today? No. There is constant movement during the most sacred time of the Liturgy.

          This time is still remembered in the Liturgy by the exclamation: The doors! The doors! Let us attend!

          The Mystery of the Eucharist is central to the Church, and finds an important place in the writings of the Holy Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyril ofJerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and John of Damascus.

          St. Symeon the New Theologian, says the Eucharist bestows divinity upon those who receive Communion worthily and with faith. Through Communion, He makes us one with Himself, and it is through the body of the Theotokos that we are able to receive the Body of Christ. From His Father He imparts His divinity, and from her who really gave birth to Him, He gives them the Flesh which He assumed from her. The Flesh of the Lord, is the Flesh of the Mother of God, St. Symeon says. 

          Symeon even said that the believers who partake of the Body and Blood of Christ are predestined to salvation: Before all ages, God has predetermined that those who believe in Him and are baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and eat the sinless Flesh of His Son, and drink His precious Blood, would be justified through this, that is, set free and glorified, and would become partakers of life eternal.

          Eternal life is partaking of the holy and all pure Mysteries: and the ones who have eternal life, are those whom the Lord says He will raise again on the last day.

          I am the Bread that comes down from heaven. He did not say: has come down for that would mean coming down only once. What does He say? He says, that comes down signifying that always and unceasingly descends into those who are worthy of it; that which is offered every hour, even now.

          St. Symeon says the Eucharist is the Mystery of Mysteries and Holy of Holies.

          St. John of Kronstadt says the Eucharist is a continual miracle.

          St. Nicholas Cabasilas says The Eucharist is the final Mystery, beyond which it is impossible to go.

          Our Lord is the Celebrant of the Eucharist, the Bishop, Priests and Deacons are merely His Hands and Feet. As Christ was the Celebrant in the Upper Room on the day before His crucifixion, so Christ is the Celebrant at every service.

          Believe, says St. John Chrysostom, that even now it is that same supper at which He Himself sat down. For the one is in no respect different from the other. He who prepares the first table is He who now prepares this one. It is not a man who makes the Gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ.

          St. John of Kronstadt says: In the words, `Take, eat, drink’, the abyss of God's love for humankind is made manifest. O perfect love, O all embracing love, O irresistible love, what shall we give to God in gratitude for this love? 

          The Eucharist is fire. I tremble as I receive the fire. Let me not be burned. I come with awe, aware of my sinfulness, but also with faith in God's mercy, and with love. And so, with the fear of God and with faith, I draw near.

          More than one person saw St. John Maximovitch enveloped in fire as he received Communion.At the Seventh Council, the iconoclasts argued that the only icon, was the consecrated Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. The Council Fathers answered that the elements are not an icon, but the True Body and Blood of Christ. We venerate the icons, but we worship the consecrated Elements.

          The bread and wine at the Great Entrance are only an icon - we should bow - but at the Pre-sanctified Liturgy at the Great Entrance, we should kneel with faces to the ground in worship. Then you feel with immediacy, with power, the living Presence of Christ. We are to approach the Mysteries with awe, with wonder, with the fear of God. How dare we, who are sinful, approach the Holy Mysteries? For one reason only. We are invited. When the priest says: In the fear of God, and with faith and love draw near, it is not the priest who issues the invitation, but Christ Himself.

          How should we prepare? There are many different ways of preparing, and we must be guided by our spiritual father. Holy Communion is a gift, not something we deserve or have earned. We are always unworthy. Notice that the Communion prayers say nothing about worthiness - the greatest saint is never worthy. We only pray that this great Gift be not to my condemnation.

          Whoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord (l Cor. ll:27-28.)

          We should discern the Lord's Body. St. Symeon the New Theologian instructed his monks never to receive without tears. Holy Communion should never be casual, but should always be prepared for, and thanked for.

          How often should we come? Some should come every day. Some should come every week. Some should come every month, some should never come, says St. Anastasius of Mt. Sinai writing in the 7th century.

          In the early Church there was frequent communion, every Sunday, every day. After the 3rd century, this became rare. People communicated themselves. Hippolytus and Tertullian refer to the Food, received every morning by the Christian wife, unknown to her pagan husband.

          At Your Mystical Supper, Son of God, TODAY receive me as a communicant. Frequent Communion sustained the Church during the times of persecution. The persecuted Church was a eucharistic Church.

          Blessed Jerome and St. Ambrose both speak of daily Communion. St. Basil the Great says: Be present every day, and receive the Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

          In the Eucharist, we not only have communion with Christ, but with one another, be they alive or dead, makes no difference. A lady once said to me of her deceased husband: I feel closer to him when I take Holy Communion than at any other time. If I am found in Christ I also find all those who are in Christ, dead or alive, makes no difference. But only if WE are in Christ.

          Not only does the Holy Spirit change the Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but gathers us altogether into one who are partakers of the one Bread and one Cup.

          I should be living in such a way as to be able to receive Holy Communion daily. If I am not, then I am not ready for death either. The story is told of the monk who was asked:Father, if you knew you were to die tomorrow what would you do? Of course, the questioner expected an altogether different answer, but the monk replied: I would live today the same way I try to live every day: always prepared for Holy Communion, always prepared for death.

          Canon 9 of the Apostolic Constitutions says: All those who enter and listen to the Scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion, must be excommunicated. Good thing this Canon is not enforced today, for most people in church on Sunday morning would be excommunicated!

          St. Cyprian says in explaining the words: Give us this day our daily bread as above all, meaning the Bread of the Eucharist, so that with the strength of daily Communion, we will not fall into serious sin.

          How do the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? The Roman Catholics say: by transubstantiation. The Protestants say: by consubstantiation, but the Orthodox say, says St. John of Damascus, by the Holy Spirit, and that is answer enough! 

          The priest does not consecrate the bread and wine, nor do the priest and people together, but the Holy Spirit does so.

          In the 4th century, those who were not going to receive Holy Communion had to leave the church with the catechumens. We've come a long way since then.

          St. Nicodemus and other kollyvades fathers of the Holy Mountain wrote on the subject of frequent, continual Holy Communion not only for monks but for laymen and were attacked for this. This controversy was resolved by a synod in 1819 in Constantinople which concluded that in principle, Orthodox may receive Holy Communion at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy provided they are properly prepared.

          What about us? I encourage people to come at least weekly to Holy Communion with the blessing of their spiritual father.

          There are beautiful prayers of preparation for Holy Communion which may be read throughout the week with the morning and evening prayers. This is how I learned to read them. Don't attempt to cram them in immediately before Communion or during the sermon. As bad as the sermon may be, it is disrespectful to the preacher to be reading a prayer book during the sermon. If I read these prayers throughout the week, there is no time that I am not either thanking God for Holy Communion, or preparing for Holy Communion, so that I can take Communion at any time during the week.

          I should be coming to confession regularly. If my goal is to receive Holy Communion every Sunday, I should come to confession every six to eight weeks as my spiritual father directs. There is nothing to prevent me from coming more often if I wish; and I should certainly come if I have something which troubles my conscience. Confession is not a duty, but a privilege. Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky in his counsels to priests, tells the clergy that they see people at their very best in confession. Humbling themselves. Husbands telling the spiritual father things which they would not tell their own wives; wives telling the spiritual father things they would not tell their own husbands. Far from being harsh with the penitent, the spiritual father must be loving, understanding and encouraging. The spiritual father respects those who humble themselves in confession, but not those who are too proud to come to confession.

          Apart from the Lenten seasons of the Church, the Holy Canons prescribe no specific fasting except on Wednesdays and Fridays. St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain gave directions for three days of fasting without oil for those who have not been to Holy Communion for a very long time, perhaps years. They must prepare more elaborately. He did not mean this to apply to those who come regularly to Communion. I fear that sometimes we lay such burdens on peoples' backs as to make it almost impossible for them to come for Holy Communion. We must remember Our Lord's injunction to the Pharisees: You lay heavy burdens on men’s backs but lift not a finger to help them (Matt. 23:4).

          Please don't misunderstand me! Far be it from me to advocate casual communion! The preparation for Communion must cost me something. Nothing is precious to me unless it costs me something!

          Then there is reconciliation as preparation for Communion. This should be at the top of the list, for without this all my other preparations are in vain. You will notice that no less than three times during the Liturgy, the priest asks forgiveness of the people: the people do this when they venerate the icons. We must remember that we never make aworthy Communion, but we do pray that it may not be to our condemnation.

          If we are not able to stay and listen to the prayers of thanksgiving after Communion which are read in the church, we should read them at home, as I say, morning and evening.

          In the West in the 16th -17th centuries, a heresy called Jansenism developed. The adherents of this heresy taught that the less one received Holy Communion the better, because we will never be worthy. But though we shall never be worthy, hopefully, the more often we receive Holy Communion, the better prepared we shall be. Our Lord did not institute the Eucharist so that we could stay away from it, but so that we could partake of it, never casually, to be sure, but with at least sufficient preparation as to allow us to partake.

          In the church of Cappadocia at the time of St. Basil Christians communicated four times a week. No wonder, then, so many of the communion prayers are authored by St. Basil. Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are the days on which Communion was received. From St. John Chrysostom we learn that Christians stayed away from Communion under the pretext of being unworthy; but one may approach unworthily even once a year.

          St. Paul says: A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the Bread and drinks of the Cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body of the Lord, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (l Cor.ll:28-30.).

          St. Symeon the New Theologian says: Blessed are those who commune each day! They will be purified of all defilement of soul and body. If you think it is impossible to partake daily of the awesome mysteries with tears, what ignorance! What insensitivity! To be able to shed tears at Communion, one should cultivate this spiritual virtue while away from it. If one's great preoccupation is not to weep before Christ day and night, one will not be able to bring oneself to mourn or weep or shed tears in a godly manner on the day on which one wishes to partake of the Divine Mysteries.

          No created mind can conceive how great is the love of God in Holy Communion, says St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. So requite this boundless love with all the love of which you are capable. St. Nicodemus goes on to say: Communion with the Lord through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood is only possible at definite times, but never more than once a day.

St. John Chrysostom says:

As many of us as partake of that Body and taste of that Blood, are partaking of that Body that sitteth above and is adored by the angels!

Alas, how many ways of salvation are open to us! He hath made us his own Body and hath imparted to us His own body, and yet, not one of these things turns us away from what is evil. O the darkness, the depths of the abyss, the apathy! "Set your mind," says Paul, "on the things that are above, where Christ is seated on the right hand of God." (Col.3:1). And after all this, some set their affections upon money, on licentiousness, others are carried away captive by their passions.

I observe many partaking of Christ's Body lightly, rather from custom and form, than from consideration and understanding. When the holy season of Lent sets in, whatever a man may be, he partakes of the Mysteries, or when the day of the Lord's Epiphany comes, And yet, it is not the Epiphany, nor is it Lent, that makes a fit time for approaching, but it is sincerity and purity of soul. With this, approach at all times, without it, never. Thou wouldst not presume to kiss a king with an unclean mouth - and the King of Heaven dost thou kiss with an unclean soul? What! Do ye not see the holy vessels so thoroughly cleansed all over - so resplendent? Our souls ought to be purer than they, more holy, more brilliant. Those vessels partake not of Him that is in them, they perceive Him not. But we do. Now then, thou wouldst not use a soiled vessel, and dost thou approach with a soiled soul? Observe the vast inconsistency. At other times ye come not, though ye are clean, but at Easter, however flagrant an act ye have committed, ye come. O the force of custom and prejudice! In vain is the daily sacrifice. In vain do we stand before the altar, there is no one to partake. These things I am saying to you, not to induce you to partake in any fashion, but that ye should render yourselves worthy to partake.

Look, I entreat you. A royal table is set before you, angels minister at that table, the King Himself is there, and yet, thou takest no account of it. Are thy garments clean? Then fall down and partake! For everyone that partaketh not of the mysteries, is standing here in shameless effrontery.

When thou beholdest the curtain drawn, then imagine the heavens are let down from above, and that the angels are descending!

Why stay, and yet partake not of the table? I am unworthy thou wilt say. Then thou art also unworthy of that communion thou hast had in prayer (St. John Chrysostom, Homily III on Ephesians, pps 63-64).

          You see that for St. John, Communion is not only the Communion of the Body and Blood, but also Communion in prayer.

          St. Theodore the Studite says: With a loud voice, St. John Chrysostom addressed as enemies of God, not only the heretics, but also those who were in communion with them.

          Of course, when the Church Fathers speak of communion with the heterodox, they are not referring only to the Eucharist, but also to communion or fellowship in prayer. Although all Orthodox Christians use the divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, it is evident that many present-day Orthodox patriarchs, bishops and priests do not agree with St. John Chrysostom in matters of faith, says Alexander Kalomiros in his book AGAINST FALSE UNION.

          This is why we are so deeply troubled at seeing those in very high places praying with the non-Orthodox, breaking the Holy Canons and breaking faith with the Holy Fathers.

          We all know the parable of the Prodigal Son. I'm sure you remember how the son asks for his father's inheritance and goes off and squanders it on riotous living. When he hasspent it all, and discovers that he is now eating the food meant for the pigs, he realizes that his father's slaves live better than he does. He returns to his fathers house. His father sees him coming across the field, and before the son has a chance to ask for forgiveness, the father has embraced him, and forgiven him. Our Lord tells us this parable to show us what is the love and the forgiveness of the Heavenly Father toward us. The Holy Fathers say that as soon as I am aware of having sinned, as soon as I am conscious of the fact of having committed a sin, God lifts the sin from me, before I can even say "I'm sorry", so anxious is God to forgive me. To be able even to recognize something as sinful is the first step towards repentance.

          If someone is otherwise prepared for Holy Communion by fasting and by prayer, including prayers of repentance, and has not been to confession but intends to confess at the earliest opportunity, he or she may receive Holy Communion on the strength of the intention to confess.

          A young man who was otherwise prepared came forward in the Communion line. I told him he could have Holy Communion if he would come to confession as soon as possible. After the Liturgy, the young man told me that he had been having suicidal thoughts, and now, having had Holy Communion, these thoughts were gone.

          Please correct me if I am wrong, but can we improve on Our Saviour? Can we insist on proof of repentance before granting the great gift of Holy Communion? I don't think so. We don't even have that kind of "proof" in confession. Only God knows whether the penitent is sincere or not.

          We must remember that Holy Communion is therapeutic. St. Ignatius of Antioch calls it the medicine of immortality. It is preventative medicine. If someone says they have broken the Wednesday or Friday fast, for example, and is repentant, and asks for Holy Communion, he or she should not be refused. The grace of Communion will help him or her to keep the fast. Each Communion will give us grace to be better prepared for the next one. Not worthy, for we shall never be worthy, but better prepared.

          I would like to close with this remark. One of my Anglican parishioners once said to me: Father, if I believed what you do about Holy Communion, I would crawl on my hands and knees to every Eucharist in order to receive it.

          How does that compare to our own attitude toward Holy Communion?

          Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you (John 6:53).