Post 297 of 445

By Chor-Episcopos Dr. Kyriakos of Chicago

Chief Editor, The Voice of Orthodoxy

For Orthodox Christians the last Paschal meal of our Lord is the most crucial act of Christ, which is inseparably intertwined with His very act of self-immolation on the cross as a sacrificial Paschal Lamb, and it is the most pivotal act on which rest all the mysteries of human salvation and the rites of salvation in the Holy Church. For most of the Protestant Christendom it is just an institution of a memorial for Jesus, not any more significant than it. For us Orthodox Christians, the raison d’etre of the Holy Church, the priesthood and ministry and the channels of sanctification are all incardinated into the mystery mystically implied in that Last Supper.

We urge our readers to vividly imagine the psychological condition in which Jesus, the God-Man, was sitting at His last meal on earth with His disciples. Jesus as God clearly knew that He was going to be turned over to His enemies by His own disciple, and in a short time He was going to be executed on the intense pressure of the Jewish priesthood and leaders who had opposed His mission on earth.

As a person who loved His disciples and a loyal group of followers, Jesus was very much mentally disturbed, particularly because He knew that He was going to leave them until He returns for the second time. Theologians have identified three problems that confronted Jesus at this painful time. Jesus’ agony has already begun in the presence of His disciples at the table, who might not realize the seriousness of the occasion. Some who might know that there was an imminent danger for Him, would have thought, as a miracle worker, Jesus would escape any adverse environment. Some may have thought that He was the Son of the “Living God”, and would be definitely rescued by His Father. For most of the apostles, there existed no imminent problem.

For Jesus, none of the problems directly concerned Him; but all of the problems concerned those whom He loved eternally. What is a problem? When two facts are in conflict, you have a problem.

The day before His crucifixion, Jesus was confronted with three vital problems; actually they were challenges to His love.

1. Jesus had to leave, but He really wanted to stay with His loved ones. It was His Father’s decision that He had to leave. “Truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined…(Luke 22: 22). At another point Jesus says: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not the Helper (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). It was His Father’s will that He had to leave soon. But he wanted to remain with the humanity He so loved and sacrificed Himself for. During the supper Jesus clearly tells them: “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer …” (Luke 22:15), because “this meal will impart the mysteries of the new covenant to His followers…(The Orthodox Study Bible, 2008; p. 1409). Jesus loved them so intensely, particularly in that hour of His last meal with them.

Actually, two facts are in conflict here: The intense love He had for His Father; as a loving Son He had to obey the will of His father that He had to leave, and He “always (does) those things that please Him” (John 8:29). Hence he had to leave to please His father. The other fact is that He loves His dear disciples, the humanity He was about to redeem; and He did not want to leave them either.

Neither love was compromised. He had a shocking solution to deal with the problem. He will go according to the will of the Father. His loved ones would not see His human face anymore after a day or two, would not hear His voice, but will experience His tenderness of heart. He also will stay on earth among us. He will remain with us with His true presence, exactly the way He was with us 2000 years ago. In the last supper He commanded His disciples to perpetualize this mystical supper in order to actualize His sacrifice on the cross, and literally consume Him through His Body and Blood.

For the Orthodox Christians Jesus’ words declaring the bread and wine to be His Body and Blood are not metaphors or analogies. After uttering the words of institution that “This is my Body …. and This is My Blood… Do this in memory of Me until I come”, Jesus willed to be with us until He returns. After His resurrection Jesus sits at the right side of the Father in heaven, and it is the resurrected Christ who is seated by the Father. It is the same Son who lives among us in the visible accidents of the color, shape, texture and aroma of a wheat bread, and the smell, liquidity or fluidity, and color of grape wine. He will keep His real presence in them as long as the bread and wine retain their natural forms. In the West, the Latin theologians tried to explain this supernatural phenomenon of Christ’s presence in bread and wine through Aristotelian categories, and came up with a high-sounding Scholastic term, transubstantiation, which means change of substances of bread and wine to the substances of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Orthodox Church does not adhere to this kind of metaphysical explanation. She has only one direct answer: The man Jesus, who was walking on the streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem, was God. He was a real human being with a visible human body, whom one can touch and feel, and also was real God. If this is supernaturally possible, it is supernaturally possible for the Glorified Christ to appear in the form of bread and wine. No more explanation is required; we need to trust the words of Jesus!

2. The second problem is based on what love demands. The ultimate characteristic of love is to GIVE, and GIVE PERFECTLY UNTIL THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO GIVE. This is ultimately the self-emptying of the person who loves. We often talk about Jesus, who emptied Himself. The ultimate act of love is to lay down one’s own life for those whom he loves. Jesus Himself talks about it: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15: 13), because death is the final mark of real love, because there is nothing more to give beyond that point. It is also the most joyful act of the lover. In order to show His genuine love for humanity, Christ would have been willing to die a thousand or ten thousand times. But the naturally contradicting fact is that no one can die a second time (except a couple of people who were brought back to life by Jesus after their death and died a second time again). “… it is appointed for men to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). This is the lot of every human being. Jesus was sent by His father to taste death only once, “knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more” (Romans 6:9). Now we have a problem that these two facts are contradicting each other.

Jesus clearly dealt with this problem. He could die only once, because that was what the Father had intended. His sacrifice by death on the cross was only for one time. But how could He show His love constantly by dying everyday until He returns? After the Words of Institution he added the following: “Do this in memory of Me” (Luke 22: 19). This is His solution to the problem; and this solution divided western Christendom in the 16th century. Actually, this writer would attribute this crisis to the Latin doctrine that Christ dies and dies everyday on the altar in every Eucharistic Liturgy (repetition of Christ’s death in the Eucharist was a commonly accepted position in the Roman Church until the Second Vatican Council; later with the new document on Liturgy accepted at this Council this Church also virtually accepted the Eastern doctrine on this very critical issue).

When Jesus commanded to His disciples to “Do this in memory of Me”, the early Church from the apostolic times well understood that Christ could not physically or spiritually die again, because it was against the will of the Father. What the Orthodox Churches teaches is that in every Eucharistic Liturgy, Christ’s death is being realized and ACTUALIZED in our midst and in our time, which is the only way the Body and Blood of the Paschal Lamb can be given to every generation for their eternal life. It is the very sacrifice of the second person by death on the cross, the effects of which can be imparted to every generation only by actualizing or realizing the same sacrifice of death on the cross mystically, and sacramentally. If it is not the very sacrifice of death on the cross, Jesus cannot give His life-giving Blood and Body for the life of the World until He returns. In order to distribute His Body and Blood, this sacramental actualization is vital in the economy of human salvation. And Jesus, Who died two thousand years ago cannot give the gushing Blood and tortured Body for the life of His followers. Hence it was important that the very sacrifice of His life on the cross is to be mystically brought into or actualized in front of us on the altar everyday.

Yes, Orthodox Liturgy is the very sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ does not die physically again and again to impart the gift of redemption, but out of His mercy, He demanded us to do the same in remembrance of Him, so that in our present context His death could become mystically and sacramentally actualized just as it was real two thousand years ago.

The Holy Eucharistic Liturgy, being the same sacrifice on the cross, also demands a priest to offer it. Yes, it is Christ the High Priest who performs it; but in order to actualize the same in our time and our midst, a human priestly functionary acting as Christ, in the place of Christ and for Christ, who was His sacramental sign, was necessary. In fact this also was the occasion at which the New Testament priesthood was instituted, although the Holy Spirit imparted this priesthood on His apostles at a later time after His resurrection.

3. The next problem rests on two contradicting facts. The natural desire in every love is the union between the lover and the loved. We see that in human love is the noblest of all love we see in nature. A man and woman love each other, and their love is consummated ultimately in their union, which is physical and sexual naturally, and spiritual and moral sacramentally. God’s love for mankind is constant and enduring. In other words, God always wants to be one with His rational humanity, keeping His own substance as Creator and keeping the privilege of humanity as created beings, not in the concept that humanity gets dissolved in the vast of ocean of His Godhead as Hinduism teaches. The fact remains that God has a craving for union with His redeemed humanity, His Church, His bride.

The contradicting fact is that this kind divine-human union is only possible in heaven; it is only in heaven humans can be in a perpetual union with God. How could Jesus bring heaven on earth, which is naturally impossible? How could this longing for union be materialized on earth?

In order to find a solution to this problem, we have to go back to Capernaum, where Jesus made the following promise: “Most assuredly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him {Stress added by this writer}. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven- not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:53-58). Yes, the solution is clear. The love between Christ and His Church (parenthetically which is His bride according to Paul) is thus consummated right here on earth as we make this pilgrimage to our eternal abode.

Immediately after pronouncing the statement, “This is My Body”, Jesus added “Take eat of it”, and after “This is My blood”, He added “Drink of it all of you”. Jesus was calling us for a complete union with Him on earth so that the natural craving of love for union could be realized, so that He may abide in us and we in Him. What else we need for a complete union.

It is liturgically fitting for us to think about another dimension of our Eucharistic worship. We have already stated that the actual union between Christ and His Church is possible only in heaven (that is why Jesus was confronted with this problem). But Orthododox liturgiologists emphatically state that the priesthood of the Church sacramentally creates a heaven in the sanctuary of every Church as the canon of the Liturgy starts. When the priest says before the Words of Institution, “Let our minds and hearts be above where our Lord Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of the Father”, it is a call for us to be in heaven and a reminder that we are all in heaven, a heaven created by the sacramental act of the priesthood, where the union between Christ and His Church sacramentally is effected.

As this writer was meditating on the mystery of the Pascha, he was wondering what a tremendous lover we have in Jesus. The love between human lovers fades away as years pass. God’s love is promised all the way until we reach the heavenly abode. Just as the lovers enrich each other emotionally and spiritually, He nourishes and enriches us in every Eucharistic Liturgy with an unending promise of abiding in us; when He abides in us, we will also abide in Him. This is the genuine union between Christ and His Church.

These are the mysteries behind the Last Supper of our Lord.

Orthodox Christians, when you celebrate the Passover, or Pascha, or Pesach, remember the reasons why the Lord instituted this mystical meal for us. Also remember to receive Holy Communion with due preparation after cleansing our souls with a genuine confession of our sins. Go to your priest to confess your sins and get reconciled with your God before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.

May the Lord take you all to a rewarding conclusion of the Great Lent and give you the joy of His Resurrection! +kct@TVOO

*This writer is indebted to Patristic Theologian Professor W. Bughardt (All Lost in Wonder) for the basic thought in this article.