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Eucharistic Gestures

Written by the Very Rev. John Breck

Christ’s gestures are as important as His words in signaling allusions to Eucharistic celebration throughout the Gospels.  Like His words, those gestures serve to actualize within the community of faith both the original Lord’s Supper and the eternal Banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.

To Orthodox Christians the Eucharist or Holy Communion is the very culmination of our life in Christ.  It gives direction and meaning to our entire cycle of liturgical services, all of which ultimately serve to prepare us to receive the life-giving Body and Blood of our risen and glorified Lord.  The Eucharist is Christ Himself, “the Bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41), who nourishes His followers throughout the pilgrimage that will lead them beyond death to eternal life and eternal communion in the Holy Trinity.

These kinds of statements are difficult for some non-Orthodox, particularly Protestant Christians, to hear.  A lingering (and often unconscious) reaction against Roman Catholic “sacramentalism” leads some, at least, to minimize or simply deny Eucharistic references that appear throughout the New Testament.  To many Protestant biblical scholars, for example, the “bread from heaven” that Jesus embodies is to be identified with His Word, His announcement of the coming of salvation.  Accordingly, they tend to read the passage John 6:51-58, which identifies that bread with Jesus’ flesh, as a secondary “sacramental” addition to the Gospel, made by a later “ecclesiastical redactor.”  This view became a staple of liberal Protestant exegesis toward the middle of the last century under the influence of German theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Günther Bornkamm.  Literary analysis of the Gospel of John, and particularly of the passage 6:47-58, shows conclusively, however, that the so-called sacramental addition of verses 51c-58 is in fact an original and integral part of the “bread of life discourse” that spans 6:22-65.[1]    That entire passage conveys the message that Jesus Christ, the “bread from heaven,” offers life to His followers by means of Eucharistic communion.

Other passages in the four Gospels make the same point.  The most obvious and important is the “institution” of the Lord’s Supper on the evening before Christ’s Passion,  whether the meal Jesus shared with His disciples was an actual Passover meal (Mt, Mc and Lk) or the previous night’s meal of preparation (Jn), the entire ritual was infused with Passover significance.  It celebrated Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt by God’s mighty hand, a prophetic image of the Christian’s salvation from the slavery of sin and liberation from death and corruption.  This is a ritual Jesus had performed from childhood.  Yet here, just before His death and resurrection, He modified the traditional Jewish pattern of celebration by transforming it into a rite of communion.  Taking bread, He blessed God with words of thanksgiving.  Then He broke the bread and gave it to His disciples, while He identified it with His own being: “This is my Body, given for you!”

He took, blessed, broke and gave the bread to His disciples.  Four gestures that taken together would recall to those with Him similar prophetic gestures Jesus had earlier performed in the wilderness.  There too, in order to feed the multitudes, He took bread and blessed it, offering thanks to God.  Then He broke the bread and distributed it to the people (Mt 14:14-21 and parallels). [2]     Significantly, this is the only miracle Jesus performed that is recorded in all four Gospels.  Its Eucharistic overtones are unmistakable.

According to St Luke’s Gospel (ch 24), the risen Christ repeated these same gestures in the house at Emmaus.  This entire account is suffused with Eucharistic significance.  The Emmaus story, in fact, offers us a remarkable image of the entire unfolding of the Eucharistic Divine Liturgy, beginning with proclamation of the Word and ending with communion in Christ’s Body and Blood. 

The first part of the story reflects the “Liturgy of the Word,” as the disciples encounter on the roadway the risen Lord, who appears incognito.  Plunged into a state of distress and incomprehension, the two disciples, Cleopas and his companion (traditionally identified with the evangelist Luke), are discussing the tragic fate of their crucified Master.  Jesus approaches them, unrecognized, and inquires about their conversation.  In reply, they describe the tragic condemnation and death of the one they hoped would “redeem Israel.”  Then they speak of the women who reported finding the empty tomb and how they themselves went and found Him missing.  Then Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Lk 24:27).  Still, although their “hearts burned within them,” they did not recognize Him.

That recognition came only with the shared meal in the house at Emmaus.  There Jesus assumed the role not of guest, but of pater familias, the Host who presides at table.  By His gestures He revealed to the disciples His true identity as the Risen Lord.  Again, “taking bread, He blessed (God), and breaking, He gave to them.”  In the Greek text, only the verbs are expressed (labôn ton arton eulogêsen kai klasas epedidou autois), to stress once more the significance of those Eucharistic gestures.

The Liturgy of the Word is thus fulfilled in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Thanks to this account, future readers and hearers of St Luke’s Gospel will know that their most intimate encounter, their deepest communion, with the risen Christ occurs through celebration of this unique, sacramental meal.  The apostle Paul declares of this celebration that “as often as you eat this Bread and drink the Cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26) His coming at the “last day,” however, is proclaimed and made present “proleptically,” by a living anticipation, each time the community of the faithful gathers around the Lord’s Table, in order to participate in His Eucharistic self-offering.

If the Holy Eucharist has primal importance for Orthodox Christians, it is because this ritual combination of words and gestures offers a real sharing, here and now, in the very Life of the Resurrected Lord.  Although those words and gestures are repeated by the priest in the name of the community of faithful, the true celebrant of the Eucharistic mystery is Christ Himself.  He is the true Host of our celebration, just as He is both Priest and Sacrifice, “the One who offers and is offered,” for our life and for the life of the world. 

Through that Eucharistic ritual, Christ unites us with the Twelve in the Upper Room and with the Church throughout the ages.  At the same time, He offers us a foretaste, real but anticipatory, of the heavenly banquet, the Bread of eternal Life, that will be ours in the age to come.

[1]   Evidence for this is given in P.F. Ellis, The Genius of John (Liturgical Press, 1984) and J. Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994, p. 204-213).

[2]   In St John’s Gospel, Jesus does not break the bread.  Thereby He associates the bread with His own crucified body, which, because of His rapid death, was left intact: the soldiers did not break His leg bones, “so that Scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn 19:36).  As the true Paschal Lamb, Jesus thus fulfills the Hebrew Passover (Exod. 12:46; cf 1 Cor. 5:7).


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