This evening, my dear children, we enter into the most sacred days of Holy Week and the Church’s liturgical year: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha. It is important for us to see these days as a unity. I say this because there is a tendency in many ecclesial communities to separate them and give greater importance to one day over the other.
Certainly Pascha or Easter is the Feast of Feasts, but there would be no Pascha if there was not a Holy Thursday, or Good Friday or Holy Saturday. For example, many people today do not want to deal with Good Friday because it involves sacrifice and suffering and death. Our culture today avoids anything that has to do with sacrifice, suffering and death. Everything has to be bright and cheery and effortless. So they ignore Good Friday and focus their attention on Easter. Some communities do not like Holy Thursday because it deals with service and servanthood. Those two words are also anathema to many people today. There are many who also do not like Holy Thursday because it deals with the institution of the Divine Liturgy or Mass and this is something which they simply cannot subscribe to. Then there are those who only want Easter Sunday. For them, Christianity is the universal presence of Jesus and His affirmation, His acceptance, but they do not want to hear about His moral law and teachings or the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments which He instituted.
Tonight we celebrate two of those Holy Mysteries or Sacraments: the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. This morning, at the Chrism Liturgy, I spoke in great detail about the Holy Priesthood. This evening, I would like to talk about the Holy Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy, because it was that Last Supper which has become for us the foundation of the Divine Liturgy we celebrate every Sunday and feast day.
In our Gospel reading tonight, we hear the account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and at the end of the Liturgy, during the service of the washing of the feet, we will hear the Gospel of the washing of the feet. In both these Gospels, Jesus tells His Apostles what He wishes to hand on to them, and how they are to live.
Jesus knew that at some point that night, He would be arrested, subjected to a mock trial, then be led out to a horrible and humiliating death. And He had no illusions about the men who reclined with Him at table at the Last Supper that Holy Thursday night. He saw through their play acting. Their behavior would be exactly like that of a lot of people today when things get difficult, “I am out of here!” But worse, the chief Apostle, Peter, would actually pretend that he did not even know Jesus. Still, Jesus did not write them off; far from it. He wanted to be present to them in an unbreakable and permanent way. That is what a New Testament or New Covenant means. So Jesus gave them a lasting memorial, the Holy Eucharist. “This is My Body, which is given up for you.” And He did the same with the cup, “This is the cup of My Blood, the blood of the new and everlasting Covenant; it will be shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. Do this in remembrance of Me.”
Here, we can make a very serious mistake. Because Jesus described the Eucharist as a “remembrance”, we can get the wrong idea that the Divine Liturgy is like acting out a play, just remembering a past event. Two things need to be said regarding this erroneous belief. First, for people of Jesus’ day memory or remembrance was so much more important that it is to us today. They did not have computers and books could not be mass produced, so they relied greatly on their memories, and their memories were so much more developed as ours. For them to remember a past event was more than recall; it brings the happening out of the past and applies it to the people right here and now. We heard this in tonight’s Old Testament reading. When the Israelites recalled the Exodus during their Passover meal, they did not just say, “This happened to our fathers.” To this very day, when Jewish people celebrate the Passover, the youngest son asks his father, “Why is this night different from any other night?” The father responds, “Tonight is the night we are saved from slavery in Egypt.” To remember makes present a past event.
But there is something much, much more important when we remember the Last Supper. We know that Jesus is different from any other person in history. Jesus not only died, but He rose from the dead. He was not a mere mortal man, but the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself. When we recall someone like Abraham Lincoln, or the Apostle Peter, or even our own beloved Archbishop Gennadios of blessed memory, we are thinking of someone who lived in the past. But when we recall and remember Jesus, we are speaking of someone who is alive and present to us today.
That is why the Church teaches that it is Jesus Himself who celebrates the sacraments in the person of our bishops and priests. It is He who will baptize and chrismate at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. It is He who forgives sins in confession. And at the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant is not so much Archbishop Stephen, but Christ Himself who offers the sacrifice which He also accepts. He is both the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received. That is my greatest consolation as a priest. I know I am weak. I know that I am great sinner. Try as I may, I am often distracted sometimes during the most solemn moment of the Divine Liturgy. It is amazing how, during the Anaphora, for example, it will hit me that I should have called someone, or I find myself wondering if I locked the door of my house or turned off the water in the sink in the bathroom, or how much I want breakfast because I am hungry. I know I need to fight against those distractions, but at the same time I take comfort in the fact it is not me, but Jesus who is offering the sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy. Lord knows it is not easy for us to be human beings. We have so many flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings. So many things we need to pay attention to and attend to just to get through one day. It can be very overwhelming and distracting to our real mission and purpose.
In addition to instituting the Holy Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy, Our Lord Jesus also instituted the Holy Priesthood. He had taught and formed the Twelve Apostles for three years so that His authority would be their authority. “He who hears you hears Me.” A priest is someone who offers sacrifice on behalf of and for the people. This new priesthood would offer the perfect sacrifice, the one Jesus Himself would offer on the next day, His death on the Cross. “This is My Body which will be given up for you. This is My Blood which will be shed for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”
Sometimes, I have this discussion with one of my priest friends. He says that he wants people to appreciate him for who he is, not for his office. I say the opposite. I want people to first love the priesthood. If it turns out that some of them like me personally or agree with me, that is frosting on the cake. We haven’t resolved our argument because he comes back saying we should do everything we can to be lovable in order to draw people to Christ. I can hardly disagree with that. Still, the point is we need to look beyond the individual priest to the person of Christ Himself. It is He alone who matters in the long run.
If we believe the Last Supper to be the first ordination of the first priests of the Church, we have to admit that Peter did not do such a great job in his first assignment. He started off with extravagant promises. “Though they all fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33), and “Even if I must die with You, I will not deny You.” (Matthew 26:35). To put it charitably, his subsequent actions did not match his initial promises. But Peter’s greatness is found in his profound repentance. He picked up again and in the process learned to rely on the Lord completely. He did not throw in the towel but persevered and it is for this reason that Christ appointed him chief of the Apostles. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32). Then, in the Gospel of St. John, we hear Jesus say to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” Peter said to Him, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My lambs.” A second time, He said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter responded a second time, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to Peter a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; You know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:15-17).
And we can identify with Peter’s reaction to Jesus washing his feet. One of the hardest things to get volunteers for is the Holy Thursday feet washing. Because we do not have priests to participate in the rite, I most always have to call upon men in and outside of the cathedral parish to help me out. It is amazing how reluctant and uneasy many people are to take off their shoes and socks in front of the congregation and have their feet washed. Sure, it is humbling for me as a bishop to take off my vestments, to kneel down and wash, then dry and kiss another man’s feet. But I know that it is, in a way, even more humbling for those who are having their feet washed and kissed. Humility is one of the characteristics of the Holy Priesthood, together with those of service and servant leadership.
Together with the washing of feet, which will take place at the end of the Divine Liturgy, you will also be witnesses to another unique ritual, that of the procession of the Holy Oils. During the Great Entrance, you will see members of the congregation bring in procession, together with the Oblation and other gifts, vessels containing the Sacred Chrism and the Holy Oils of the Catechumens and the Sick which I consecrated and blessed at this morning’s Divine Liturgy of the Chrism.
These oils are very important to the sacramental life of the Church. They will be used throughout the year in the administration of the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and in the Sacrament of Holy Anointing. Chrism will also be used in the consecration of new antimensia, altars and churches. The Holy Oils are sacramental; they convey the grace of the Holy Spirit and are the instruments used by God to bless, anoint, heal and strengthen His people. We do not venerate or worship the Holy Oils, but we honor them and respect them as being one of the holy things of God. And that is why they are with us tonight, to remind us of the holy things of God that should always be in our minds and hearts.
Tonight is a very special night, for on this night, Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist, the most sublime Mystery of the Church and the center of its life. Whatever I say tonight in reference to the Holy Eucharist will never be adequate enough to convey a perfect understanding of this greatest of mysteries. No human words could possibly express the awesome realities and truths which surround the Eucharist. I am sad for those Christians who refute or deny the Eucharist, for they deprive themselves of the Bread of Life and the Cup of Eternal Salvation which brings healing, enlightenment and eternal life to those who believe and whose hearts are pure and holy.
In order for us to have even a basic knowledge or understanding of the Eucharist, it is important to look into what the Eucharist is not. The Eucharist is not a “symbol” or “sign.” Nor do the bread and wine cease to exist as bread and wine when they become the Body and Blood of Christ. No, the elements of bread and wine remain while at the same time becoming the actual Body and Blood of Christ. The term that is often used to describe this reality is “transubstantiation,” although you will not really hear it used that often in the Orthodox Church. Simply put, and I do mean simply put because theological discussions regarding the Eucharist are very complex, transubstantiation means “change.”
Some people believe that at the consecration, the bread and wine cease to exist and that the Body and Blood of Christ is created out of nothing to take the place of the bread and wine. This belief is termed “Annihilation” and it is heretical. It is founded on the false belief that the ordinary elements of life are annihilated and supplanted by grace. Thus, grace does not build on nature but in fact destroys nature.
There are also those who believe that at the consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ are really and truly present along with the bread and wine. This belief is called “consubstantiation.” This false belief proposes that the words of consecration do not change the bread and wine but rather the Body and Blood of Christ are created out of nothing and made present together with the bread and wine. Thus, in the Sacred Species there are two substances (substantial dualism). The host contains the bread and the Body of Christ and the cup contains the wine and the Blood of Christ. The error here is the assumption that the ordinary elements of life are not sanctified by grace and that grace and nature work independently. The belief in consubstantiation with regard to the Eucharist is also heretical.
In the Orthodox Church, we teach that the very substance of bread is itself changed into the Body of Christ and that the wine is also changed into the very Blood of Christ. By implication, the ordinary elements of bread and wine are not annihilated or supplanted by grace but are themselves truly sanctified by grace. In other words, grace builds on nature and sanctifies the ordinary elements of life. That is why we see in the ordinary bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. We do not get caught up in trying to explain how and why this happens, but we know that it does happen by the power of the Holy Spirit, which we call down upon the gifts during the Holy Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. We may use the term “transubstantiation” to describe this action in human terms as a way of explaining and discussing what happens regarding the Eucharist, but we do not box ourselves in to a clinical explanation of what happens, preferring rather to see it as a great mystery and awesome work of God.
The Eucharist has great power to change. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive Christ into ourselves. While the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ takes place on the altar of sacrifice at the moment of consecration, a second “transubstantiation” takes place in the person receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. In this second transubstantiation, we see the substantial change effected on the soul of the recipient by divine grace. This soul of the recipient becomes “transubstantiated” or substantially changed and in it Christ becomes truly present.
The difference between the first transubstantiation and the second is the degree to which the substance is changed. In the first, the bread and wine become mystically and supernaturally transformed into the real Body and Blood of Christ with the qualities of permanent presence and adorability. But in the second, the recipient becomes “God-bearer,” infused with the qualities and attributes of Christ, to the extent one’s behavior cooperates with the divine presence within him or her.
Christ spoke of this second transubstantiation when He said, “My flesh is real food and My Blood is real drink. Those who eat My flesh and drink My Blood abide in me and I in them.” (John 6:55-56). Thus, those who eat the Eucharistic species become Eucharistic beings, bearing in themselves Christ, Who is God. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, Christ is not changed into us, but we are changed into Christ.
My children, the whole purpose of this discourse this evening is to enable you to understand better what took place that Holy Thursday some 2,000 years ago and what happens when you receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Christ effected a magnificent and awesome mystery that no human being will ever fully understand or appreciate. Our concern is not about what happens to the bread and wine after consecration or how it happens but what happens to us after we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion.
The questions we need to ask are: “Do I feel any change in myself when I receive the Eucharist? Does the Eucharist in any way challenge me? Do I believe that Christ is in me and I in Him? If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, then you have a serious problem which needs immediate attention.
The Eucharist is Christ’s sacrifice to the Father through the Holy Spirit and in receiving it, we should also offer ourselves as living and acceptable sacrifices to God for the good of the whole universe. We make this possible when we deny ourselves mundane pleasure in exchange for divine grace. The Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” in Greek is also Christ’s form of thanksgiving to the Father, and in receiving it, our words and actions should portray our gratitude to God Who has redeemed us in Christ.
We see the prefiguration of the Eucharist as sacrifice and thanksgiving when Melchizedek offered the sacrifice of bread and wine to God and Abram offered his thanksgiving after his victory in battle. The Divine Liturgy is, then, the most perfect way of offering the Eucharist as our sacrifice and thanksgiving to God.
Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist and asked His Apostles to celebrate it in His memory, so that, whenever and wherever we gather as God’s people to celebrate the Eucharist, Christ feeds us with His Word and with His Body and Blood, just as He did that Holy Thursday some 2,000 years ago. Consider this, my children, and ponder its’ significance: Ever since that first Divine Liturgy on that first Holy Thursday, the Divine Liturgy has been celebrated every Sunday without fail throughout the world. In fact, as the Church has grown and expanded throughout the centuries, it can truthfully be said that the Divine Liturgy is being celebrated every day somewhere in the world. What does this say to you?
My beloved children, if we understand “Holy Mystery” or Sacrament” to mean a physical sign of a spiritual reality, then we know that Jesus is the sacrament of God, the Church is the sacrament of Jesus, and the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of the Church. It stands to reason then, that we who receive the Holy Eucharist, who bear Christ within ourselves, should be the sacrament of love to everyone we encounter and meet. We should, all of us, have a great and intense love for the Eucharist. We should make the Holy Eucharist alive in the communities in which we live because the Divine Liturgy is an invitation to all who believe to be transformed into the Received. For this reason, certain thoughts, words and deeds should not be associated with us in any way. Therefore, let us always strive not only to receive the Holy Eucharist worthily but also be transformed into what we receive.