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Why Not "Open Communion"?

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Why Not "Open Communion"?

Written by the Very Rev. John Breck

Especially at the feast of Pascha (Easter) non-Orthodox Christians ask why they may not receive Holy Communion in Orthodox parishes.  As painful as this refusal is, it is based on our understanding of the true meaning of the sacrament as revealed in Scripture and ecclesial experience.

A few months ago someone sent me a posting from an Internet site that spoke to the issue of communion among various Christian confessions.  In answer to the question why a Protestant believer was refused the sacrament at Easter in her boyfriend’s Catholic parish, the writer declared that non-Catholics do not believe in "the presence of God’s body in the transubstantiated host."  Therefore, "they cannot take communion."

Then the writer added: "There is just one exception to this rule.  Orthodox Christians (such as Greek Orthodox Christians) may take communion in all Roman Catholic Churches.  The reason for this is that Orthodox Christianity also teaches the actual presence of God in the host."

This widespread understanding of the matter is not accurate and needs to be corrected on several counts, theological as well as pastoral.  An entire tome could be written by way of explanation, but here are a few of the most important elements.  In the next two columns we’ll explore some others.

In the first place, we need to acknowledge that many Protestant Christians (including many Anglicans) do believe that Holy Communion offers them a true participation in Christ’s Body and Blood.  They may not articulate that belief as Catholics or Orthodox would like; but their faith in Christ’s "real presence in the Eucharist" is genuine and should not be disparaged or denied. 

Then again, Orthodox Eucharistic theology does not explain the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as a result of "transubstantiation," the teaching that the "accidents" (visible properties) of the elements remain unaltered, while their "substance" or inner essence becomes the actual Body and Blood.  Orthodox tradition speaks of "change" or "transformation," (metamorphôsis; in the Eucharistic Divine Liturgy metabalôn, "making the change") but always with a concern to preserve the mystery from the probings of human reason.  It also speaks of the Body and Blood of the glorified Christ, making the point that our communion is in the personal being of the Resurrected and Exalted Lord, and not in the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus, torn and shed on the Cross.  The incarnate Jesus and the risen Christ are certainly one and the same Person ("Jesus Christ is Lord," the apostle Paul declares in Philippians 2:11).  But our communion is in the radically transformed reality of the risen Christ, who ascended into heaven and makes Himself accessible to us through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church.

Another point needs to be stressed.  It is true that Orthodox Christians are considered by some Catholic priests to be eligible to receive communion in their parishes; but this practice is not formally sanctioned by the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office or Magisterium).  On the other hand, the Orthodox Churches, united above all by their Eucharistic faith and practice, accept to communion only baptized Orthodox Christians, and then, theoretically, only when they have prepared themselves by prayer, by appropriate fasting, and -- in most traditions -- by confession of sins.  In addition, Orthodox bishops and other teachers make clear to their faithful that they can only properly receive communion from a canonically ordained priest or bishop within the context of the traditional Orthodox Divine Liturgy (which includes communion taken to the sick).

It is hardly enough, though, simply to state that the Orthodox do not teach "transubstantiation" (despite the term’s appearance in some of our liturgical books) and, if they are faithful to their tradition, do not receive communion outside of their own Church.  There is also the crucial matter of "ecclesial identity."  No Orthodox Christian receives Holy Communion in isolation.  We are incorporated into a universal community of persons, both living and departed, whose common faith and practice unite them in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Our existence in the Body of Christ, our ecclesial identity as Orthodox Christians, is such that we represent the Church in all that we are and do.  If I defy the ordinances of my ecclesial tradition and receive communion in another Church, or as a priest welcome a non-Orthodox believer to receive the Eucharist in my parish, I am acting in violation of my own tradition, to which I have committed myself before God.  And because of my solidarity with all other members of the Orthodox Church, I am implicitly involving them in my act of disobedience.

The real issue, however, is not one of obedience or disobedience to rules and regulations.  If the Orthodox preserve the sanctity of the Eucharist as a supreme obligation, it is because of the often stated truth that communion in the Body and Blood of Christ is the very end or fulfillment of Christian existence.  It can not, for example, be reduced to a means by which to achieve "Christian unity."  (In any case, Church history has made it clear that sharing of Communion among Churches of conflicting theological teachings never results in lasting unity.) 

The Eucharist is life itself.  It is the life of Christ that enables us to live our life in Christ.  To participate in the Eucharist as we are called to do requires our acceptance of a doctrinal attitude and commitment that is specifically "orthodox," grounded in the Scriptures and transmitted through the ages under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  It requires as well acceptance of an ascetic discipline, which includes personal prayer, liturgical celebration, fasting, confession of sins, and acts of charity: the ingredients of a life of repentance and of an ongoing quest for holiness.  And it requires that we honor our particular "ecclesial identity," together with submission to ecclesial authority represented above all by our bishops: persons canonically ordained and established, who are called by their actions and teachings to preserve and transmit the truth of the Orthodox faith while maintaining a bond of unity within the Body of Christ.  A unity grounded not in power but in mutual respect and fraternal love, shared by all members of the Church.

From this perspective, "open communion" -- the welcoming of non-Orthodox to share in the Eucharistic celebration -- is simply not possible without undermining the very meaning of the sacrament.  This implies no particular judgment on the Eucharistic services of other Churches.  It acknowledges rather that for the Orthodox, the Divine Liturgy is what the name implies.  It is both the means and the end of Christian existence, an existence which arises from Orthodox faith, ongoing repentance, ascetic discipline, ecclesial identity and works of love.  To those who accept this "Orthodox Way," the Eucharist offers a true participation in the very Life of the risen and glorified Christ, just as it offers the forgiveness of sins, the healing of soul and body, and a foretaste of the heavenly Banquet in the eternal presence of God.

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).



Eucharistic Offering

Written by the Very Rev. John Breck

Eucharistic gestures represent an offering of ourselves and all creation to the Author of Life.  They describe not only ritual movements made in the context of the divine service.  They symbolize as well a concern and a hope that all those around us might come to receive, in faith and in love, God’s self-offering made for the life of the world.

The center or heart of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is made up of a triptych that includes the Words of Institution, the Anamnesis or Memorial, and the Epiklesis or invocation of the Holy Spirit.  These elements of the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer of Consecration express the mystery of divine activity accomplished for the life and salvation of all those who seek Christ and who long to be united with Him in eternal communion.

The first panel of the triptych reminds us that Christ Himself is the true Celebrant of the sacrament.  The life-giving mystery unfolds precisely because it is celebrated by the One who is our High Priest, our mediator and advocate before God the Father, whose self-offering on the Cross makes possible the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, not only for ourselves, but for the whole world (1 Jn 2:1-2).  When the priest, in the name of the people, speaks the Words of Institution, he makes audible Christ’s own declaration, spoken over the Paschal bread and wine: "This is my Body…This is my Blood."  By this liturgical invocation the Divine Liturgy, charged with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, renders us contemporaries of the disciples in the Upper Room and of those who welcomed the Risen Lord into their house at Emmaus.  Time and space are telescoped in the liturgical moment, so that we are truly "present" with Jesus and His disciples in Jerusalem, just as time and space are transcended at baptism, when we are plunged into "the waters of Jordan."  Baptized with Christ as well as in Him, we commune with Him as well in the gifts He offers of His own Body and Blood.

The third or last panel of the triptych is the Epiklesis, the invocation addressed to God the Father by the priest, again in the name of the entire community.  By this supplication, the priest fervently begs the Father to send, upon the assembly of the faithful, as well as on the sacramental gifts of bread and wine, the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, that He might transform both the people and these gifts into the Body of Christ.  "Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here offered…," that the "change," the radical transformation into a new and transcendent mode of being, might occur within ourselves as well as within the elements set forth.

This "epikletic" prayer, perhaps more than any other, affirms an essential truth: that the people of God constitute the universal Church, and that the foundation and sustenance of the Church is the communion of the faithful in the Body and Blood of Christ.  This is why the apostle Paul uses a single expression, soma tou Christou, "Body of Christ," to designate both the members of the ecclesial community and the holy bread, "given for you" (1 Cor 10:16f; 11:23-27).  In its very essence the Church is "Eucharistic."

The central panel of this liturgical triptych, which constitutes the culminating point of the Eucharistic celebration, is the Anamnesis or Memorial.  It commemorates – and thus makes real and actual (the Biblical notion of "remembrance" signifies "realize" or "reactualize") the events it recounts, from the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, through His resurrection and ascension in glory.  Here again, time and space are telescoped, such that we remember what has not yet occurred, namely "the second and glorious Coming" (the parousia or eternal presence) of the Lord Jesus at the close of the present age.

This Memorial culminates in a gesture of offering that symbolizes the entire Eucharistic service.  Crossing his hands to grasp the chalice filled with wine and the paten that bears the Lamb or Eucharistic bread, the priest (or deacon) elevates them and proclaims: "Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!"

It is significant that the literary structure or ordo of the service locates these words at the very center of the Divine Liturgy.  That structure is in fact "chiastic," reflecting a concentric movement from the ends toward the center.  From the opening benediction to the final blessing at the dismissal, the service moves centripetally, paralleling antiphons with the closing troparia ("We have seen the true light"), the reading of Scripture with the taking of Communion, the litany and the Creed with the litany and the Lord’s Prayer, and the introduction to the Anaphora ("It is truly meet and right") with the Hymn to the Theotokos ("It is truly meet to bless you").  The whole then culminates in the triptych that focuses on the Offering: "Thine own of Thine own…."  It is this central affirmation – this offertory gesture – that represents the true center of the Eucharistic service.  These words represent the fulfillment of our "liturgy," our communal, ecclesial work, which is nothing but a response we offer, in the form of supplication and thanksgiving, to the true Author of the sacramental mystery.  It is He who receives these Holy Gifts, to make of them, for us and for the world as a whole, sacred elements that nourish us unto eternal life.

God first offers us the humble gifts of the earth, wheat and grapes.  We receive them and by our efforts transform them into bread and wine, which we offer back to Him.  He then receives them from our hands, in order to transform then into Eucharistic Gifts, "Holy Things."  That is, we offer to God what He has already bestowed upon us; and He receives them, to offer them back to us as the ultimate Source of life.

This gesture of offering, made by the priest, is in reality made by the entire community of the faithful.  By our baptism, all of us in the most basic sense are priests, members of a universal, royal priesthood.  By offering ourselves and the elements of bread and wine, we offer to God as well the world around us.  This is an essential part of the entire liturgical service of the Church.  Unless we offer "ourselves and each other," both those within and those outside the community of faith, to Christ our God, the Eucharist remains incomplete, unfulfilled.  "Thine own of Thine own we offer on behalf of all and for all."  This means not only "all things," but "all people," every one who is created in the Image of God. 

If we gather as the Church to celebrate the Eucharistic mystery, it is not as a closed community, a small group of the elect, isolated from the rest of the society.  We celebrate as well for non-believing friends, for our enemies, for the outcasts and marginalized, for victims of war and social injustice, and for all those who have asked us to pray for them, "unworthy though we be."  Our Eucharistic prayer is nothing other than a prayer "for the life of the world and its salvation."

We receive these words of Christ as an invitation: "Eat my flesh and drink my blood."  This invitation is addressed to us as members of His Body, but they are addressed as well to this poor, war-torn and violence-ridden planet, which, in the words of the apostle John "lies in the Evil One" (1 Jn 5:19)May our prayer be that all the people of the world hear for themselves this invitation and accept it, that they might finally commune with us in all the joy and glory of eternal life.


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