In the Byzantine tradition, the Gospel read at the Holy Thursday Liturgy is not only that of the institution of Eucharist—it continues on through first part of the Passion, all the way to the judgment seat of Pilate. Thus it makes a clear connection between the Eucharist and Passion of Christ.
The connection is essentially that the Eucharist is the unbloody sacramental manifestation of the bloody sacrifice of Calvary. The grace of the mystery of our redemption, effected by Jesus’ death and resurrection, is communicated to us through the Eucharist. We can’t reconstruct the actual historical circumstances of time and place and participants in the Passion, but the essence of the mystery is fully communicated to us in the Eucharist (in liturgical theology, this is called “ritual transposition”).
But I want to look at the words Jesus spoke and their meaning. The words of institution are slightly different in the Byzantine and Latin traditions, but their meaning is the same. “This is my body which is given up for you” is what I think is said in Latin tradition, following Luke, but the Byzantine tradition follows Paul and says, “This is my body which is broken for you.” This is perhaps a more striking image, for it readily brings to mind the sufferings of the Passion.
In the film “The Passion of the Christ” you can see, in full graphic detail, what it means that Jesus was broken for us: his hands and feet pierced by nails, his side pierced by a spear, his flesh torn by scourges and the crown of thorns. He was broken also in soul and spirit, humiliated by mockery and reviling, crushed by the weight of our sins, plunged into darkness in the mysterious experience of abandonment by his Father, sorrowful unto death.
There are two main reasons Jesus accepted to suffer all that. The first is love for his Father and obedience to his will. This was his reason of being and of his whole life on earth: always the primary reason for everything He did. Before his passion he said: “the world must know that I love the Father.” The second reason is given in the words of institution, and that’s what I want to focus on here: the forgiveness of sins. This is my body which is broken for you—for the forgiveness of sins. This is my blood which is poured out for you and for many—for the forgiveness of sins.
We have to hear those words and hear them deeply. Broken for you—Jesus was broken for you, so that your sins could be forgiven, and for me, so that mine could be forgiven. But, you might say, He was broken for the many, for the forgiveness of all, not just me. This is true, but He wanted to make sure you wouldn’t feel lost in the anonymous crowd, so He said, broken for you, poured out for you—and for many, and for all. He made sure to say both.
He was broken and given for us, and now in the Holy Eucharist He is given to us. In the Byzantine tradition we say, as we break the Lamb, the main Host: “Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God, broken but not divided, ever eaten but never consumed, sanctifying those who partake.” He is broken and distributed, the Bread from Heaven, the flesh of Jesus Christ that gives life to the world, so that we may receive into ourselves the fruits of his death and resurrection, the most necessary of which, for this life, is the forgiveness of sins.
Since Jesus sacrificed Himself and suffered unimaginably to take away the sins of the world, we can be sure that this is something He will always do for us. Mercy is the primary manifestation of God’s love because, unfortunately, sin is a constant presence in the world and in our lives. Out of love God may heal us of physical or mental illnesses, but any particular healing isn’t strictly required by divine love, for sometimes his love has something better in store. Out of love God may deliver us from pressing problems, difficult circumstances, or miraculously provide for urgent needs. But such deliverance isn’t strictly required by divine love, for sometimes his love and wisdom have a different and better plan which we can’t yet see. But God’s love always requires Him to forgive our sins when we sincerely repent. For Christ was broken, not for the solving of our problems, but for the forgiveness of our sins.
A moving moment in the passion accounts is Peter’s denial. This is essence of sin: I do not know the Man. We say we believe, we love, we will serve Him. But in time of stress or temptation our actions speak louder, and they cry out: I do not know the Man! To Peter’s credit, he repented. The cock crowed, Peter remembered, and the Lord looked at him, says St Luke. With that piercing look of pity and pain no words were necessary. Peter immediately wept bitterly in repentance.
Judas sinned too, and he realized it, but he fell into despair instead of repenting and turning to the Lord, who would have forgiven him. We can still learn something from his words. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” For us, the words are reversed: We betray innocent blood by sinning. We betray the innocent blood of the Eucharistic chalice by our sins; the blood that was poured out for us, we betray by our sins. So we must repent with tears like Peter, repent from the heart and renew our love for Jesus and our fidelity to Him.
St Paul says that if we receive the Eucharist unworthily we sin against the body and blood of the Lord—so examine yourselves, he said, that you do not eat and drink unto judgment or condemnation. The Holy Eucharist, by which Christ said He abides in us and we in Him, is meant to stand for us on judgment day. The Lord said that on the last day He will raise up those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, but He can only mean those who do so worthily, fruitfully, with a contrite and humble heart, with love, adoration, and thanksgiving. The Eucharist should be our hope for deliverance from condemnation, not the reason for condemnation!
St Ephrem the Syrian gave us these beautiful words in one of his prayers: “Fire threatens me, O Lord, but concealed within me, O my Deliverer, is Your reconciling blood. Gehenna waits to torture me, but your life-creating body is intimately united with mine. I am clothed in the garment of the Holy Spirit, and I shall not even be singed. When the river of fire begins to rumble, threatening vengeance, then will the fire be extinguished, smitten by the scent of your flesh and blood.” We are called to repent in order to worthily receive this life-creating body, this reconciling blood, broken and poured out for us, for the forgiveness of our sins. This is something of which we need to acquire a profound understanding.
St John writes that “the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know Him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1Jn. 5:20). That is why we are here on earth: to know the true God and to enter into eternal life. That is why Jesus was broken for us, and his blood poured out for us: to forgive our sins so we would be able to enter eternal life. That’s all that’s ultimately important to Him, and that’s why we will always find mercy when we approach Him sincerely.
You may sometimes think that you are broken, too, by sin and suffering or just the heavy weight of life in this world. It’s not easy; St John says the whole world is under the evil one. Perhaps you are struggling with some sinful habit or some insoluble problem that you just can’t seem to overcome, despite your best efforts and intentions. Well, hear the word of the Lord, for Jesus wants to tell you something: He was broken for you, precisely for that reason. He has taken your sins and sufferings into his own body and has nailed them to the Cross. He wants to you give them to Him; they can’t hurt Him any more, for He has already borne them—but they can still hurt you. He wants you to let Him absorb your pain and your shame, for this is why He was broken for you. He wants to forgive your sins and give you knowledge of the Father’s love and prepare you for eternal life.
So, make no excuses, just repent and come to Him, repent and believe in his mercy—He will always forgive—and then come to the Eucharistic chalice and eat and drink the price of your redemption. For the Lamb of God is broken and distributed, taking away the sins of the world, and sanctifying those who partake of his precious Body and life-giving Blood. He will abide in you and you in Him. And He will raise you up on the last day.