Does the Orthodox Church believe that the communion is Christ's actual Body and Blood?
The Orthodox Church believes as both the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers from earliest times clearly testify: that Holy Communion is mystically, yet truly the resurrected Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
While accepting what has been revealed by God through Christ to His apostles, the Church does not attempt to explain, define, or dissect philosophically or otherwise exactly how this mystery is accomplished other than to confess that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit of God. If the Lord can created the world out of nothing, if He can raise the dead (in the case of Lazarus, already corrupting), if He can turn water into wine, if he can multiply five loaves of bread to feed 5,000 people, He can also change bread and wine to become His risen and glorified Body and Blood for the sanctification of His disciples.
The Scriptures testify to the fact that the Lord did not intend for this to be taken "symbolically" or metaphorically. When His disciples were gathered together for the Passover meal, He inserted Himself as the unblemished Lamb to be eaten that one might "pass-over" from death to life: "Take, eat, this is My body" (Matt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; cf. Lk. 22:19). Not only the Gospel writers, but the Apostle Paul received this as revealed truth (1 Cor. 11:24).
The Apostle elaborates, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 10:16-17)? Furthermore, he teaches that the partaking of the one Body of Christ has the power to unite the members of the Church and to make them one: "For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17).
Can a mere symbol affect such a unity? Does the Lord only wish that we are joined "symbolically" to Him and one another? Not according to His own words, "That they may be one, even as We [Father and Son] are" (Jn. 17:11, 21, 22, 23).
The Apostle Paul rebukes some in the church of Corinth for approaching Communion casually and in an "unworthy manner." Those who do, he says, are "guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:27). The result is that "many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (i.e. have died). Can a mere symbol cause sickness and even death?
If one does use the word "symbol" in relation to Communion, he should know that the original Greek word, symbolon, means "to hold two things together." Therefore, God uses the "symbols" of bread and wine to hold together two realities, one earthly and one heavenly, bread and wine with the very Body and Blood of His Son, Jesus. With this understanding, we scan see that Christ Himself is a Symbol in the perfect sense, in that He "holds together" both human nature and divine nature, earth and heaven, God and Man.
In chapter six of the Gospel of John, Christ identifies Communion explicitly with the eating and drinking of His own Flesh and Blood. He begins by equating Himself with the manna from heaven that fed the people of Israel in the wilderness:
"I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:48-51).
Some of His disciples were unable to accept this teaching because they were trying to comprehend a Mystery with a carnal mind, or rather with their human reason, not with the spiritual mind of faith. Indeed, some were offended to such an extent that they no longer followed Him (Jn. 6:66) as their Teacher. What did the Lord do? Did He run after them and say, "I only meant this as a metaphor, don't be disturbed?" He did not. When the Lord said, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life," He was not suggesting that His teaching was mere symbol, but that this was beyond mere earthly reasoning, as is His Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection.
By the time of his writing, the Apostle John knew exactly what the Lord was talking about--the Eucharistic or Mystical Supper by which the Church participates in the eternal reality of Christ as the "Bread of Life." As the resurrected Lord entered the upper room, "the doors being shut," He is able to continually offer Himself to His followers, through the Holy Spirit, yet without ever being consumed or depleted.
This is the Mystery of mysteries by which the Lord nourishes His people and brings them into the most intimate union with Him. It is incomprehensible for the mind but understood by faith and by experience in the Church. As some of his disciples said at that time, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it (Jn. 6:60)?” Yet it has been understood in the Orthodox Church from the beginning. We will only provide two examples.
Communion is referred to by St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (born AD 35) and disciple of the Apostle John, as "the medicine of immortality, the antidote which results not in dying but in living forever in Jesus Christ (To the Ephesians, 20)." The Lord Himself said the same: "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed" (Jn. 6:54-55).
St. Justin the Martyr (born AD 100) writes, "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).
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Who can take communion in the Orthodox Church?
One may receive Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church if one has embraced the teachings of the Orthodox Church and has been officially joined to the Church. Although this may sound like a "hard saying," it is consistent with the practice of the Church throughout history. For the act of receiving Holy Communion presumes that one has fully united oneself to and become a member of this historical body of believers (both living and departed), confesses all that they believe, and strives to live a life consistent with the Church's teachings.
This is not meant as a personal judgment of anyone, of their holiness or their salvation, but a way of tending the sheep, knowing the sheep, and maintaining the unity of the Church. Any other practice only began in the 20th century. The practice of "open communion" was not tolerated by Martin Luther or John Calvin. It is an innovation introduced in the 20th century, primarily after the 1960's.
The Church also maintains a standard for her own members in regard to the reception of Holy Communion. Only those Orthodox Christians who have prepared themselves by fasting, prayer, and regular confession of sins are typically allowed to approach for Holy Communion.
Communion is a Mystery of the Church, that joins us not only to Jesus Christ but to one another. Therefore, one who partakes of the one loaf and the one cup must share a real communion of faith and "be of the same mind" (Rom. 12:16; Phil. 3:16, 4:2) in their confession and practice of faith. To receive Holy Communion is an expression of a common faith and life in Christ.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why is communion so important?
In the Book of Acts we read that the first Christian church community "continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers (2:42). It is also recorded that they gathered "daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking (the) bread from house to house" (2:46).
We see in these passage how integral to the life of the Church was the Lord's Supper. Through it the risen Lord is met, as He was revealed and recognized at the "breaking of the bread" on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:30).
The Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, is the pinnacle of the unity with Christ and His Body. It is not an accident that both the Sacrament and the Church are both called "the Body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:27). Because it is the Eucharist that the Church is revealed to be the Body of Christ and is united with the Body of Christ. The Eucharist makes the Church to be the Church.
The Lord said, "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). The word "remembrance" in Greek, anamnesis, is much more than a mental recollection. It is a re-calling or a making present. In the Eucharist the crucified and resurrected Lord is made present in the here and now. The Church has fellowship with the Lord through the Eucharist. And it should be clear that this is the most important thing possible for those who love Him.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Is communion required or optional?
Considering the Lords words, "“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you," Holy Communion could never be considered "optional." There is no greater union with the Holy Trinity than the reception of Holy Communion. It is most especially through the reception of Communion that we become "temples of the Holy Spirit."
A normative and full participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy, for one who is striving to live a Christian way of life, is presumed to include the frequent reception of Holy Communion. Yet this is not done without discernment. As St. John Chrysostom instructed his flock:
"Many of the faithful...while overflowing with numberless evil deeds...approach the holy Table on feast days indiscriminately. They do not realize that the appropriate time for Communion is when one has a clear conscience, not [merely] on the occasion of a feast day or festival....So I plead with all of you: do not approach the holy mysteries simply because [you believe] the feast demands it. Rather, if you intend to take part in his holy Offering, cleanse yourself thoroughly in advance with repentance, prayer, and charity." (On the Incomprehensibility of God, from "Repentance and Confession," Hieromonk Gregorios, New Rome Press, 2010).
Our goal should be to strive to be prepared as often as possible so that we might not be left without the source of life, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ reigning in our souls and bodies. We are never fully worthy to receive Holy Communion, and we always put our hope in God's great mercy, yet we take care not to receive "in an unworthy manner" (1 Cor. 11:27), casually, while neglecting a Christian way of life, justifying sins, or, God forbid, living in unrepented sin. As the Church Fathers teach, the only unforgivable sin is the unrepetented sin.
In the Orthodox Church it is assumed that one who receives Holy Communion prepares himself through fasting, prayer, and a life of repentance which includes regular participation in the Sacrament or Mystery of Confession.