[The following is an excerpt from my book, How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place: Lifting the Veils on the Presence of God.]
The Holy Eucharist… is the greatest of the Church’s “veiled mysteries.” In fact, the proper term for the Eucharist in the Byzantine tradition is the “Holy Mysteries.” This doesn’t mean merely that this unique mode of the Lord’s presence is “mysterious” in the common sense of the word… The Greek term mysterion is translated into Latin by sacramentum, whence comes the English “sacrament.” The Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence of the Church, which in turn is the sacrament par excellence of Christ. To put it as simply as possible, a sacrament is a ritual “sign” that bears within itself and communicates the divine reality it signifies. The fullness of the grace of Christ, the abundant life He wishes to communicate to us, is to be found in his Church, his primary dwelling place. Here is preserved, as in a heavenly treasury, his word and his holy mysteries, so that the Church as such is in a sense the sacrament of Christ. All the other sacraments flow from the life of the Church, as water and blood flowed from the pierced side of her crucified Savior and Lord.
As one example of the divine grace communicated to and through the sacramental signs, water is just water until it is blessed for the Church’s celebration of the sacrament of baptism. Suddenly it becomes a grace-bearing sign, the immersion in which communicates the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), the baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-5), the incorporation into his Mystical Body (Gal 3:27). It still looks like the same old water, and this is the sacramental “veil” over the hidden mystery of grace within. But the invocation of the Holy Spirit by one ordained as an official representative of the Church (this ordination is another sacrament), and the words and actions of the ritual, manifest and communicate a new reality, the watery “womb” out of which emerge newborn children of God.
Let us return to the Holy Eucharist. Here Christ is present “in the flesh,” though sacramentally, not in the physical composition of human flesh. For the inner reality of the Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, but the sacramental signs appear as bread and wine. They are “veils” that must be lifted by faith, and when this happens, Holy Communion bears spiritual fruit in the lives of those who partake. The Church as sacrament of Christ finds her fullest expression and inner essence in the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ, for this sacrament is not only a means of grace but the Source of grace Himself. He is rightly enthroned and worshipped in the heart of the Church, and the elders (presbyters) of the Church fall down before the Lamb, praising his glory with all the citizens of Heaven.
The connection between the real flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist with his “becoming flesh” in the Incarnation is made explicit in the Liturgy. Before the consecration of the bread and wine, the deacon says to the priest, in the words of the Archangel Gabriel: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” These words were spoken by the Archangel to Mary, when she asked how she would bear a son without “knowing man.” The same Spirit, the same power that worked the Incarnation in the womb of Mary, now makes the incarnate Son of God present upon our altars, “becoming flesh,” and giving this flesh mystically as food—for the life of the world (Jn 6: 51).
The sacrament of the Eucharist unites the Church and creation as dwelling places of God and it opens this mystery to our contemplation. Christ, sacramentally present at the heart of the Church, is worshipped by the faithful as the divine Son of God. Through Him, and in the Holy Spirit, all glory is given to God the Father. The coming of Christ has unveiled for us the Mystery of mysteries, the All-holy Trinity, as far as our faith can grasp it. But Christ in the Eucharist, using the sacramental signs of bread and wine as the means of making available his Body and Blood for our sanctification, draws created things into Himself, so that our worship is not “disincarnate,” but can truly be the “cosmic liturgy” in which everything in the universe gives glory to God (see Rev 5:13-14). We were created body and soul (material and immaterial nature), saved body and soul (by the Son of God becoming man—the fathers say that what was not taken into Christ was not saved), and so we worship body and soul, with prostrations and all the liturgical gestures and elements like incense, candles, icons—all of which appeal to the senses. The crowning glory of our “incarnate” worship is the Holy Eucharist, that bit of Deified Creation by which Christ is personally present and giving Himself to us, so that He may abide in us and we in Him—and so that He may raise us up on the last day (Jn 6:53-56).
Our participation in the ongoing heavenly worship is sealed by the Eucharist, for the very meaning of “communion” is participation, partaking, sharing to the point of oneness. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation [or communion, Greek koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, it is not a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ?” (1Cor 10:16). As we receive Holy Communion, we participate in the life of Christ, the life of Heaven, and it becomes clearer that our worship and that of the angels and saints is one. Adrienne von Speyr wrote that our communion in the Holy Mysteries is a “bonding with Heaven,” an image of which I am rather fond. To worship Christ and receive Him in the sacramental mysteries is to bond with Heaven and all that goes on there. To abide in Him and He in us is not only a matter of individual intimacy, but in the very act of this mutual abiding we are caught up into the great marvel of God’s love for man, of man’s quest for God, of the whole panorama of the divine plan for our salvation. We are given a pledge and foretaste of the everlasting life of joy to come. For now, as we receive of the Eucharistic chalice, we drink from the “fountain of sweet healing wine” (Byzantine Office) flowing from the pierced Heart of Christ, the True Vine trellised on the Holy Cross, giving life to the world.
The Holy Eucharist has been, for some centuries, a stumbling block for many, a veil they cannot lift. It was even so when Jesus first announced it: “After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” He asks us today what He asked of his closest followers: “Will you also go away?” (Jn 6:66-67). The ones who left Him did so because his insistence that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood was “a hard saying.” But Jesus responded by saying, in effect: if you were to see an amazing miracle, would you then believe in this one? (see Jn 6:60-62). But Jesus knew that many who saw his miracles still did not believe. Either we take Jesus at his word or we don’t. Either we believe Him because He has “the words of eternal life” or we walk away, regarding the questionable conclusions of our own limited intellects more highly than the divine words and power of the Lord.