by Fr Alexander Men
A bird is sitting in a tree singing. Even though its singing seems without purpose, it performs important work: singing is its territorial claim. The part of the forest that hears my voice is mine—says the bird. Even if someone larger and stronger inserts itself in that territory, the owner will begin to fight and more often than not come out victorious: there is a peculiar law of nature that protects the property right. It is in the very nature of life that the desire to spread out, conquer, consume the weaker is lodged. Yet, when the very life is threatened, nature put some limits in place, which do not allow a wolf, for example, to devour a fellow wolf. Konrad Lorenz described in detail the ritual where the lost side uses: the ritual submission position compels fangs, the ready to be clenched, to stop. It is only man who is capable of stopping on his own will when the nature is telling him to strike. On the other hand, let us not forget that it is only man who is capable of killing his own kind (excluding rats who most likely learned from us).
The world is given to man, which fact obligates us to answer for every piece we eat. The substance of food, the nutrients, the eaten, the consumed, the living things we kill, of everything given us—does not merely disintegrate: it enters our flesh and our blood. The flesh and blood of the earth, of the plants becomes our own flesh and blood. The flesh of the plant is the grain; the blood of the plant is its juice. When man eats, he takes communion with nature, he becomes its part, and the nature becomes his part. Man could tell the nature: “We are of the same blood you and I.” Moreover, man does not only takes communion with the nature, but also the common meal unites people. This is understood today and it has been understood always: through the ages a great significance existed in the common fraternal feast. All the sacrifice always ended that way: people, having burned a part of the victim on the altar, ate together that food. In the Old Testament we see references to rituals of sacrifice. Among the sacrifices a special place is given the Paschal Lamb. The Lamb is connected with the deepest symbol of man and mankind, the symbol of blood.
The animal kingdom is an array of competing and war-making groups. As he emerged on earth, man employed himself in hunting and gathering, and lived in separate clans. A stranger was someone who was to be chased away or even killed. The groups of blood relatives kept very much to their own and protected their territory with the same fierceness as animals protect their hunting estates. That, which is so deeply rooted in the animal, passed as in inheritance to the man. Whence the well known phenomenon of xenophobia: the fear of the foreign and the hatred of the foreigner. In a Seton Thompson’s book, the mother teaches her fox cubs: “every unfamiliar object may be dangerous!” And so, in the life of men there is such a moment when they have to meet and overcome the barrier between the foreigners by blood, and enter in contact. This is a special period in the life of mankind. A complex system of inter-tribal marriage emerges, so-called exogamy. It was important that the people had to meet, despite their inclinations to the contrary. It was very difficult for them, in the beginning, to overcome the fear of the foreigner, the rejection of the foreigner, the dislike of him. So at that time peculiar rituals started to emerge, whose objective was to make people kin, make them relatives. Blood always was present in these rituals. It could be that two men representing their different tribes made a cut on their hands and mixed their blood. At times the blood of the sacrificial animal was smeared on the fence posts. In the Old Testament the blood of man was considered sacred: it symbolized life, and only God ruled over life. At times when a treaty was concluded, when a religious covenant—a testament—was established, the blood of the sacrificed animal was sprinkled over the entire crowd and so all present became as if relatives. Similar rituals were repeated over centuries and became symbols of unity. So therefore Christ uses this symbolically significant ritual of the sacrifice, feast, eating, and establishes something similar in the form and in the essence.
Christ never left us any book, any school, any doctrine. He only left us His own Self. He remained with us himself: “I am with you all days” (Mt. 28:20). The strength of the Christians is that Christ is with them.
If we gaze with attention into Christ we notice something strikingly unique: when He gives His commandments of morals, He, in substance, does not offer anything new. “Whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them” (Mt. 7:12). But this is what prophets, authorities and teachers said in ages! When He gives religious commandments, He nowise says anything principally new: didn’t Moses likewise installed faith in people; didn’t the prophets speak of the One God? So Christ speaks of the same things, formally He acts like they did. But not one—make note, not one!—of the great teachers of the past and of the present left us this miraculous mystery: I will be with you—this is the cup, this is the bread, these are My flesh and blood, this is Me Myself!
The Mystery of the Eucharist as a mystery of Christ Who abides with man is unique—nothing similar ever happened in the world! Christ is with men not like a memory, not like an idea, but like One really Present. So at every Liturgy Christ and man testify to the presence of Christ here and now. The entire Eucharistic text is not merely repetition of the words spoken and the Mysterious Supper, it is also a memory of what happened, and thanksgiving, and the confirmation of the One Who is present. The First Eucharist was accomplished on the eve of the Passover, when the old and forever new story of Israelites’ delivery from captivity, of their crossing the sea, and of their wandering in the desert is remembered. That history turned myth in the conscience of man—not in the sense of a legend, but rather in the sense of an original scheme, the pattern offered form the ancient time, which man and mankind follow on their way to spiritual growth. The religious holiday of the Passover became not merely a memory, but a new substantiation of what had occurred: God is Liberator and Savior. So men present themselves to Him just as they did at the night of the exodus from Egypt. As it was then, so now, unleavened bread is before us.
In one ancient text it is said that every faithful who makes the Passover, who breaks unleavened bread on that day, himself participates in the escape from Egypt. That which was, the deed of God is happening over time. Then, people were ready for a journey and read certain prayers. The hasty preparation did not afford an opportunity to bake leavened bread, and here, now, unleavened bread is on the table. Christ with the Apostles repeats the holy word of praise, the prayers, brings a thanksgiving: Thank Thee for Thou gave us salvation. The disciples pray with Him. And later, when Christ breaks the bread and gives it out, He speaks the ancient words of the prayer over the bread, the bread that was scattered over the hills, but having been gathered, became one: may we then, likewise, gather together and become one. So the first Christians prayed in the same words: as the bread of thanksgiving was scattered and now is gathered, and became one in this unleavened bread, so may we join as one.
The Catholic form of the holy Eucharistic bread is the host, round flat unleavened bread. Many of these are made and they are put on the altar for consecration. In the time of the first Christians flat bread was brought for the fraternal meal and the leader read a prayer of thanksgiving over that bread. It was, to be sure, an improvisation: people spoke of what concerned all the present: Thank Thee, O God, for gathering us all, for the salvation that Thee granted us, thank Thee for Jesus Thy Servant, Who gave Himself for us and on that night, when He was betrayed, said: “Take ye, and eat. This is my body … Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood …” (Mt 26:26-28). And a common cup moved around the circle—the cup of communion of the people between themselves and with Christ. This is continuing today. Of course, people should be fully informed as they participate in the Eucharist, but even when someone does not fully understand the meaning and the essence of what is going on, and simply takes his communion with the Divine Mysteries, he very often feels a certain impact of grace, he feels a change inside. This happens especially vividly with children.
In the sacrament of the Eucharist one very important moment is connected to the Incarnation. God made us as a second “I” of His, His alter Ego. We are in the immense Universe—and we are divine alter Ego, a reflection of His attributes, His signs, His nature. This is an infinitely reduced reflection, yet still it is a reflection. In order to lift us, bring us close to Him, let the uncommon possibilities in us open, God was drawing nearer to man at all times. The history of the Revelation is the history of God coming nearer to people. He had to come near, take on flesh, become not only God the hidden, God the mysterious, but also God Who stood level to man, became smaller.
Some ask why the reality of God is not as evident as the reality of the visible world. We can see the sun, the earth, but why do we not see God equally directly? Let us answer with an example. It turns out that those who see the northern lights for the first time are strongly impressed by it. Many cry from some unexplainable ecstasy or terror. During a solar eclipse animals dash around in fear, dogs howl. One would think—so what has happened? Okay, so what that it became dark, the sun is covered by clouds … Or imagine the moon as it hangs on the horizon, brightly red. And suddenly you see the moon becoming larger, covering half the sky—truly that would be a frightening spectacle, that would depress, disturb, install fear; for a weaker psyche that would be a shock. Let us recall the scene from the “Faust” where the protagonist, seeking to know the mysteries of nature, invokes the Spirit of the Earth, and, when in a powerful explosion the Spirit appears, Faust falls and cannot stand up—that is how much the power of the event shocked him. Faust is crushed like a worm. So, the majesty and power of the transcendental God are such that we are not capable of bearing them. It is only by becoming smaller, only by leveling with us, becoming kin to us, He can be perceived by us. God turns off His power, His immeasurable vastness, makes it smaller and therefore becomes incarnate. The Incarnation had to happen even if there had been no Golgotha later, even if the history had been different and the destiny of the Man-God had been different. It was a possibility: do we not read in the Letter of Paul that the Lord endured the Cross instead of having joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2). The meeting of man with God face to face, when God becomes one of us, when He entered our world directly and visibly—that would have been the greatest joy! But the world turned out such that the result was the appearance of the Cross.
We have to decline the thought that is very popular in poetry and even among old theologians, the thought laconically and brilliantly expressed by the Blessed Augustine, about the “felica culpa”—the “happy fault”, that is the fault of man which gave us this Savior. The mind of the Church as a whole left the view point that the appearance of Christ was necessitated by the catastrophe and if the catastrophe had not been there, He would not have come to us. Rather, the situation is completely different. The encounter between man and God was intended, planned regardless of its actual form. That was the capstone crowning a certain period of human existence.
Let us now imagine the moment when the sacrament of the Eucharist is taking place. Again, this is incarnation! Again, the power of God—not invisibly, not purely spiritually, but in full reality—enters the feast of the offering, which in a short while will become a part of our own substance. The power feeds us, we commune with the flesh and blood, bread and wine, wheat and the vine. Christ Himself enters our flesh and blood. When He said “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth”, He became—everywhere.
Christ had power as a heavenly being, but as Man-God He was tied up, bounded: He felt fatigue, needed air and food; He did not have the entirety of the command over the nature. Surely, He could heal, He in the end defeated death by His Divine power. But He did not have the fullness of power on earth, He was bounded. But now, having conquered death, He says, “All power is given to me …” So now we can speak, as Teilhard de Chardin writes, of “cosmic Christ”—of the Christ Who ascended not to some particular place in the Universe, but to the entire Universe. Christ spread His hands wide across the Creation, that is: God incarnated and made the Universe His flesh and blood. It is the sanctification of the cosmos, the nature and the flesh, that leads to the future transfiguration of the world. The Eucharist is the pledge of it for us.
When a priest visits a sick woman in her house, and she is lying, in filth and odor of sickness, behind the cupboards somewhere, on the dirty table in the squalid surroundings a pyx is placed. That tiny box sits like an orphan between the black rags, amidst all the disaster, but that is exactly what God wants to accomplish, and is capable of accomplishing. He came and that feast became a shining spot in the dirt, darkness, disease and poverty. This is how He enters everywhere and nothing is unclean to Him. He comes down to any place, even to the bowels of the earth. With every Eucharist the Mysterious Supper is lived again, and it is lived much more fully than when the apostles experienced it. That is because at that time they did not understand what was going on, and merely tried to remember everything the Lord said; they were troubled but they did not know what it all meant. We are in an advantageous position compared to them because we know what was being worked and we are thankful for it. This is why the Lord said: it is better for me to go and then you will have me more fully. Before, He was bounded, and now he is in front of every altar, in every house, and every Cup is His heart!
There is a cult in the West, the Heart of Christ. Naturally, it is an image, because the heart is the symbol of love. So now that Heart gives Itself, like that legendary bird who fed his children with his blood. Often the bird was shown in medieval frescoes and stained glass, the bird picking his blood and giving it to the chickens. This is the way and the method of Christ’s work.
The scholastic questions how the unleavened bread, or the bread of the offering become body and blood of Christ, at what precise moment it is happening, and such—often became idle talk, at times, dispute. But this is not germane to the issue! We are not talking about some kind of chemical transformation—that is altogether absurd! Far more is here than a transformation. When Christ said, “This is My flesh and blood,” it meant that He gave people His entire Self. This is something ineffable, something much deeper than, for example, the concepts of transubstantiation or something similar to that. The truth is that we don’t need to know, and since it is not needed to know, it is not given to know. The important part is that He said Himself: I am with you, I am here, I give Myself to you, you will drink My blood and eat My flesh, and you will commune with Me. This is not a spiritual, symbolic, or, far worse, ideological communion. He said that the sacred feast will be He Himself and in the end it turns out that He incarnates into us! The summit and center of the Eucharist is incarnation of Christ in us.
Now the sacred Eucharistic feast is divided between those present, it came into their bodies, united with them, dissolved in them, and everyone is carrying Christ in him. The desire of Christ is to make us commune with Him. As soon as we accept baptism, we become His instrument. He is to work in us, and out tragedy is that we are not sufficiently worthy. The irreligious or antireligious people are correct when they judge about our faith by us ourselves, because Christ wants us to make Him apparent, represent Him, and incarnate Him in our entire image. Every communion not merely reminds us of that, but we truly unite with Him. He lives and works in us and by us. And then everything is beauty: Christ burns in us, lives in us, and we do what we were not able to do before, and we do it now with His power. This is a great thing, the Eucharist, by which Christ attached us to Himself and made each of us not only an apostle, but more than an apostle, a carrier of His strength! This is our happiness, our grace, our joy, our font of endless energy!
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Fr Alexander Men was a Russian Orthodox priest, biblical scholar, and writer on theology, Christian history and other religions. He was murdered on 9 September 1990.