Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Orthodoxy - Mysteries


  When the Eucharist bread and wine become Body and Blood of Christ


This article was prepared on the basis of the “answers” that were given to an OODE reader who had submitted an enquiry as to whether the bread and the wine used in the Orthodox Divine Eucharist was truly the Body and the Blood of Christ, or if it is a “spiritual” thing or something that depends on one’s “believing it”.


We will examine in this article what the post-Apostolic Church had received from the Apostles - also what was safeguarded by the Orthodox Church of Christ from the Apostolic times to this day - and until the Lord Jesus Christ returns – on the subject of the Precious Gifts turning into Body and Blood of Christ.

The first references by Jesus Christ relating to the Divine Eucharist appear in John’s Gospel:

51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. [...]  53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, if ye do not eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day.55 For my flesh is truly food, and my blood is truly drink.56 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:51-56).

Later, that same leader and founder of the Christian faith – Jesus Christ – actualized the Sacrament (Mystery) of the Divine Eucharist (aka “The Last Supper”), on the evening prior to surrendering Himself to the Cross for our sins; these were the words He said, as recorded by the Evangelists:

26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many, for the remission of sins.”  (Matthew 26:26-28).

The Lord didn’t say “take it, it symbolizes...”   Nor did He say “take it, it is..., but only by believing”. He clearly said THIS IS.  The faithful is called upon to accept the words as exactly spoken by Christ.

Commenting on this excerpt, Saint Cyril of Alexandria says:  He demonstratively said ‘this is  my body and this is my blood’, lest you think that the phenomena taking place are but a type thereof, instead of - by some ineffable manner by the almighty God - actually CHANGED INTO Body and Blood of Christ”.

Theophylaktos himself mentions that:  For He did not say, ‘this is a copy of’; He said ‘this IS my body’; by an ineffable energy it is changed, even though it appears like bread to us.  Because we are weak and would not have accepted to consume something raw and human flesh, that is why it looks like BREAD to us, but is actually FLESH”.  

While Zigavinos adds:  “...These words, ‘THIS IS MY BODY’ and ‘THIS IS MY BLOOD’ - just as He had supernaturally deified the flesh that He had assumed, thus ineffably did He CHANGE these (the bread and the wine) into His life-giving Body and His precious Blood.” (From “Memorandum on the Gospel of Matthew”, by P.Trembelas, pp.461- 462).

When giving instructions later on to the eminent officiators of the local Church in Corinth – and after repeating the words of the Lord, he says in conclusion:

27 Wherefore whosoever shall unworthily eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.28 But let a man examine himself, and thus let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh condemnation to himself, by not having discerned the Lord's body.30 This is why many are weak and sickly among you, and many die.31 For if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, so that we not be condemned together with the world. (1 Cor.11:27-32)

If the bread and the wine were mere symbols which “by believing” are Body and Blood of Christ (that is, for me who believes, they are; but for the other who doesn’t believe that much, they are not), the Apostle Paul would not have drawn the Church’s attention with the above words. Those who unworthily partake (=without prior confession and repentance, given that none of us is sinless), are guilty of THE BODY and THE BLOOD of the Lord, by NOT HAVING DISCERNED that they are truly His Body and Blood.  Paul clarified this matter very clearly.  

This Tradition given by Christ was preserved by the holy Apostles, who in turn handed it down to their successors, who likewise in turn handed it down to those who continued after them – thus reaching us, to this day.  

In his commentary regarding the non-discerning of Christ’s Body during the Divine Eucharist, Zigavinos mentions the following: “....by not understanding that IT IS A MAGISTERIAL BODY; a body that fills one with terror”.   (Memorandum on the Epistles of the New Testament, Vol.1, p.359).

Trembelas comments that: “The Lord offered Himself as a sacrifice on the Cross, so that by His death He would reconcile us with His Father, for the remission of our sins - along with all the other gifts and graces of His gospel. But with this (sacrifice), He also “introduced” the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, in which He provides His BODY AND BLOOD to every faithful person as LIFE-GIVING NOURISHMENT for their soul, and through which (Mystery), all the benefactions that came from His crucifixional sacrifice were rendered a personal acquisition for each and every one of the faithful  (Memorandum, Vol.A, p.356)

Let us now move on, to Saint Ignatius the God-bearer, who was a DIRECT successor to the Apostles and as such, a continuer of the APOSTOLIC TRADITION.  Let’s see – therefore – how he too had perceived the specific matter, as evidenced in his epistles.  But before going there, let’s take a look at a brief overview of the life and the works of this very important Father and Teacher of the post-Apostolic era:

Professor of Theology H. Krikonis mentions:  “According to Eusebius, Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch, where he served from 70 to 107 A.D., after Evodius, while according to Origen, he was a successor to the Apostle Peter.   John the Chrysostom mentions in general that Ignatius associated with the apostles, and the record of Martyrs states that he was an audient of John.  The same is mentioned by Eusebius, and additionally that audients were also Papias with Polycarp.  Anyway, it should be regarded as certain that he was acquainted with the Apostles.... In Antioch he served as bishop with extensive works and for many years – possibly between 70 A.D. through to his martyred death (113 A.D.)... he suffered martyrdom, possibly around 113, devoured by wild beasts (see icon).  He is commemorated on the 20th of December. (Apostolic Fathers, Vol.A, pp.113-115).

Patrology Professor St. Papadopoulos, among other, many and important mentions, also writes the following:  The God-bearing Ignatius is the first Father and Teacher of the Church, just as he is the first major theologian after the apostles...  Ignatius’ theology, which bears the stamp of a major work, is genuine and has become the conscience, ethos, and Tradition of the Church, because it is poemantic (pastoral), it comprises the expression and the continuance of the apostolic Tradition and was created under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as he himself confirms.” (Vol.A, p.173)

Below are excerpts pertaining to our subject, taken from his genuine epistles:

When referring to the heretical teachings of the Gnostics (that Jesus only seemingly suffered and as such, did not die), Ignatius the God-bearer also made mention of the Divine Eucharist, where, according to the heretics, the bread was NOT the Body of Christ ( and by extension the wine was NOT His Blood ). Ignatius believed in the TRANSFORMATION/CHANGE of the bread and the wine, exactly as it was in the teaching of the previous, apostolic teachings.  Those who didn’t believe thus, he named “HETERODOX” (=of other beliefs).  Protestant faithful might want to check their beliefs, lest they have such Gnostic origins, rendering themselves heterodox, per Ignatius’ observations.

Epistle to the people of Smyrna, chapters 6 and 7: «…and inform those who are “heterodoxing” about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to you, that they are opposing the opinion of God. They do not care about love, about widows, about any orphan, or any sufferer, or anyone tied or loosened, or hungry or thirsty.  They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, to NOT CONFESS THAT THE EUCHARIST IS THE BODY OF OUR SAVIOUR, Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which, by His uprightness, the Father raised....”

To the people of Smyrna, chapter 8: «…That is the certain Eucharist to believe, which is under the bishop or whichever one he allows.  Wherever the BISHOP is present, there let the congregation be; so that wherever Christ Jesus is, THERE THE OVERALL CHURCH IS....”

In other words, a Eucharist is valid when it is officiated by a Bishop who has apostolic succession, close to whom the people congregate – exactly as wherever Christ is, there is the Church.

In his epistles, Ignatius identifies the three degrees of priesthood, and speaks of the unity between them and the laity, and by extension, with God.  And this is the medicine that he proposes for confronting heresies and divisions in the Church: the unity that is achieved by obedience to the Bishop.  Could this be the underlying reason for the thousands of differing Protestant denominations?

We also have a very important testimony by Justin Martyr ca.150 A.D.. In fact, he refers to the “zeon” (hot water) of the Eucharist : «And on that so-called day of the sun (Sunday), everyone living in towns or fields come together for the same reason and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are recited as much as required.   Then, the reader having ceased reciting, the eminent priest proceeds by means of a sermon to lecture, and challenges them to emulate good deeds.  Then we all stand up and offer prayers, and, as we said earlier, after having ceased our prayers, bread is offered, and wine, and water, and the eminent priest offers up blessings and thanks, with all his might, and the laity acclaims by saying “Amen”, followed by the distribution and the partaking by each and every one, of the “thanked” precious Gifts (Holy Communion) , and to those not present, it is sent to them through the Deacons.” (Á Apology, 67, 3-5).

Justin mentions in the preceding chapter… «…for, neither as common bread nor as common drink do we receive them... our saviour assumed both flesh and blood; thus by the words of blessing over the sustenance of the Eucharist blessed by Him, out of which blood and flesh nourish us after their TRANSFORMATION,  WE ARE TAUGHT that they are the flesh and blood of the enfleshed Jesus.” (Á Apology, 66).

Irenaeus says the same:  «For, just as the bread from the earth, when receiving God’s invocation, IS NO LONGER COMMON BREAD.  (Against Heresies, IV 18)

Consequently, after invoking the Holy Spirit, the bread is no longer ordinary bread, and as such, nor is it a symbol.

When the iconoclasts taught that the only icon of Christ is the bread of the divine Eucharist, the 7th Ecumenical Council replied that “the precious gifts of the Eucharist are not simply an image; they ARE the Body and the Blood of Christ.”

Finally, we will close with Saint John of Damascus, who summarizes the orthodox faith as regards our subject:

«And you now ask: how does the bread become the Body of Christ, and the wine and water the Blood of Christ?

And I reply to you: the Holy Spirit descends upon them and transforms them, transcending logic and thought.  When receiving Holy Communion, we are given bread and wine; However, God knows the human condition and its weakness of usually avoiding whatever it is not familiar with in usage, because it is upsetting.

Thus, with His familiar condescension, God actualizes the supernatural, with means that are familiar to our nature.  And, just as in Baptism (where people are accustomed to bathing in water and anointing themselves with oil), He linked the Grace of the Holy Spirit with the water and the oil and made it a bath of rebirth, likewise here, where people usually eat bread and drink water and wine, He linked them to His godhood, transforming them into His Body and Blood, so that with the usual and natural we be led to the supernatural.

The Body (that we consume) – and had originated from the Holy Virgin – is truly the Body that is joined to divine nature. The Body which had ascended does NOT descend from heaven; the bread and the wine are transformed into Body and Blood of God.  And if you want to learn the way – how it is done - it suffices for you to hear that it is done by the Holy Spirit, exactly the way that the Lord had assumed flesh for Himself from the Holy Theotokos by means of the Holy Spirit. And we know nothing more, except that the Logos of God is real, active and almighty, whereas the manner (of His incarnation) is unsearchable...

The bread and the wine are not a “model” of Christ’s Body and Blood – of course not! – but is the deified, very Body of Christ, as the Lord Himself had said: “This IS my body” – not a model of His body, nor a model of His Blood, but “This IS my blood”; and prior to saying this, He had said to the Judeans that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, you shall not have eternal life. For my flesh is true fare and my blood is true drink”.  Elsewhere, He had said:  He who consumes me, shall live”.

That is why, with every fear, with a clean conscience and an unwavering faith, let us approach; and most assuredly, if we have no doubts, we shall receive in accordance with our faith. And let us honour this, with every cleanliness, both spiritual and corporal, for it is double.” (John of Damascus, Precise Essay of the Orthodox Faith, chapter 86, On the holy and Immaculate Mysteries of the Lord).


                                                                       Translation:  A.N.

Article published in English on: 07-08-2019.

Last update: 07-08-2019.