Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 3.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 18 September 2010

English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR

Lesson 3


In the previous lesson, we undertook the difficult task of defining some key terms for our discussion of the Eucharist.  As tedious as this task was, it allows us to come closer to the main topic of this course and begin our study of the Eucharist.  As we discussed earlier, the Eucharist is a sacrament or even The Sacrament—it is the covenant between God and His people, the means by which Christ enters into us and we enter into His Body—and the two shall be one flesh.  Thus, we uncover one more meaning of the word sacramenta covenant.

In our discussion of sacraments we noted that there seem to be many sacraments of which Christians partake, but really there is only one—the sacrament of our salvation.  We can now apply the same paradigm to covenant.  God has established many covenants with the human race: the covenant with Adam, the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with the patriarchs, the covenant with Moses, and many others.  But if we examine all of these covenants, we will realize that they are not separate covenants, but instead the same covenant between God and man, which was confirmed and reassured at different times and in different ways.  Let us now try to place the Eucharist in the context of only three sacred covenants: the covenant of Adam, the covenant of Moses, and the covenant of Christ.

The Covenant of Adam

As with the story of the original sin in Lesson 2, we will not retell the entire section on the creation of man from the Book of Genesis, but instead focus only on the verses that are relevant to the covenant God established with Adam.  Within the brief account in Genesis of the first humans’ stay in the Garden of Eden and their expulsion from it, we notice three divine ordinations: “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28), “I have given you… food” (29), “the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15).  The same three acts—procreation (marriage), eating, and labor[1]—were corrupted by original sin and became curses: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (3:16), “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (17-19).  But if we now recall our definition of sin as an illness rather than a crime, and of God as the Divine Physician rather than an executioner, then we can also think of the “curses” as spiritual medicine or sacraments.[2] Indeed, one of the most profound mysteries of Christianity is that of Christ and the Church—“the two shall become one flesh;” we refer to its highest form of worship as λειτουργία, or “work of the people,”[3], [4] and the highest sacrament is a meal at which the Body and Blood of God are consumed.

Let us look more closely.  Labor, undoubtedly, can be understood as the work of tilling the garden of one’s soul, as fighting against the “thorns and thistles” of sins that it produces[5]—the labor of repentance necessary for becoming the likeness of God, the highest fruit of which—the mystical union with God—is represented in the Liturgy:

The purpose of this [God’s withholding His likeness from man—see Gen. 1:27] was that man should acquire it [God’s likeness] for himself by his own earnest efforts…[6]

But it is proper that one part [God’s image] is given to you, while the other [God’s likeness] has been left incomplete: this is so that you might complete it yourself…[7]

Eating is one of the most sacramental acts that humans perform.  Even when taken outside of any religious context, eating sustains life, provides for growth, and gives us a most intimate connection to the physical world—we literally devour it.  In the religious context, Christ Himself became “the food of the whole world”[8] and is consumed in the sacramentum sacramentorum—Communion.[9]

Finally, the union of man and wife—similar to labor and eating—can be seen as having both a natural side and a mystical, sacramental, “invisible reality”:

Even in the beginning, when woman was made from a rib in the side of the sleeping man, that had no less a purpose than to symbolize prophetically the union of Christ and His Church.[10]

If the union of Adam and Eve is a great mystery in Christ and in the Church, it is certain that as Eve was bone of the bones of her husband and flesh of his flesh, we also are members of Christ’s body, bones of His bones and flesh of His flesh.[11]

Thus, all three sacraments work together in the context of the Eucharist to achieve the same goal—the healing of man and his union with God.

The Covenant of Moses

The next covenant which will help us better understand the meaning of the Eucharist is the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.  God made a covenant with Moses that He would save the Israelites and deliver them from slavery.  The Jews had to offer a sacrifice, partake of the flesh of a sacrificial lamb, and put its blood on the lintel and doorposts of their houses.  On a certain night, the Lord struck down the Egyptians, but passed over the houses of the Israelites that were covered by the blood of the sacrificial lamb.[12] Then the people had to hastily leave the land of their slavery and undertake a journey to the land of freedom which was promised to them by God—the Promised Land.

It is easy to establish a parallel between the exodus of the Jews and the Eucharist.  In the Eucharist, God establishes a covenant with His people through the sacrifice of Christ—the perfect Lamb.  Those who partake of His Body and cover the houses of their souls with His Blood escape the death of sin and are freed from its slavery.  But just as the Israelites of old, the New Israel must also leave the land ruled by the spiritual Pharaoh, the devil, in haste, without regrets or looking back, in order to inherit the kingdom of God—the Promised Land.  Thus, the Christ of the Eucharist is the new and true Passover Lamb.

The Covenant of Christ

The last sacramental covenant that we will examine in this lesson is the covenant established by Christ through what is known in English as The Last Supper.  The word last here refers to the last meal that Christ ate before He was arrested and crucified.  Although, perhaps it is better to focus on the sacramental character of the event rather than its earthly chronological significance and to call it The Sacramental Supper,[13] as is done in the Church Slavonic language.

It is often said that the Last Supper was the first Eucharist:

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it He broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took a cup, and after giving thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.[14]

Certainly, by these words, Christ established what we now know as the Eucharist.  But this can be called the first Eucharist only figuratively.  The word first implies that there are others (second, third, etc.), but this way of thinking has definite flaws.  If the “other Eucharists” are reenactments, then they are meaningless—merely theatrical performances, devoid of the reality of the original.  On the other hand, if the “other Eucharists” are true recreations, then Christ must be born over and over again, walk the earth over and over again, be crucified over and over again—a proposition which would require millions of Christs to be condemned to death every single week.  While there is hardly a conundrum that scholastic theology cannot resolve with a great degree of success, in this case it appears to be unnecessary.

There is one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ,[15] one Body, and one Spirit.[16] There is only one Sacramental Supper—that which is offered by Christ Himself.[17] And through the Eucharist, we are received as communicants of the one and only Mystical Supper of Christ[18]: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”[19] This means that the Christ of every Eucharist is not a new reincarnated Christ, but the same, one and only Son of God; and the bread of our Eucharist is not a new loaf every time, but the one and only bread of the Mystical Supper.

Of course, we obviously gather in our church in Mulino, Oregon—not in the upper room of the Gospels[20]—in the twenty-first century—not the first; and our sacramental bread is baked by one of our parishioners—not by the Apostles Peter and John.[21] But let us not forget that in the Eucharist we partake of things not of this world[22]; not of temporal but of eternal—of that which is outside of time.  Thus, we cannot speak of “there” and “here” or “then” and “now,” but rather of “now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.”

Question for discussion:

  1. In light of our discussion of covenants, explain why non-baptized people cannot partake in the Eucharist.
  2. In light of our discussion of the Church as the Body of Christ, explain why non-baptized people cannot partake in the Eucharist.
  3. Can you find any elements in the Old Testament covenants that we have not discussed that point to the Eucharist?

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[1] The work that meant here is probably not the plowing of fields or pounding of nails, although both are also important in this context, but rather the internal work of achieving the likeness of God.

[2] Of course, sin is also a crime and the curses are punishment, but they are the type of punishment which is designed to help us rehabilitate rather than to simply make us suffer.

[3] From λαός—“people” and  -ουργός < ἔργον—“ work”; could be translated as either “work of the people” or “work for the people,” and in the most profane sense, “public works.”

[4] This is but one example of the sacramental status of labor.  A more interesting case for study, in my opinion, is the third chapter of 2 Thess.  The Apostle Paul entreats the faithful to work; and “if anyone will not work, let him not eat” (10).  Considering that much of eating in the early Christian community was the form of agape meals (see, for example, The Letters of Pliny the Younger, book 10, letter 97), there can be envisioned a clear liturgical connection between work and the sacrament of the Eucharist.

[5] cf. Gen. 3:18

[6] Origen. On First Principles 3.6.1.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa. On the Origin of Man.

[8] From the Prayer or Oblation at the service of prothesis (the proskomede). The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, p. 23.

[9] In must be noted that the words sacramentum sacramentorum are referred to the Eucharist within which Communion takes place.

[10] Augustine of Hippo. City of God 22:17.

[11] Ambrose of Milan. Letters to Laymen 85.

[12] Exod. 12:29

[13] Some prefer the term Mystical Supper.

[14] Matt. 26:26-8

[15] 1 Cor. 8:6

[16] Eph. 4:4

[17] See, for example, the Epistle of Saint Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians: “Take heed, then, to have only one Eucharist.  For there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to the unity of His Blood” (ch. 4).

[18] Tου δείπνου σου του μυστικού, σήμερον, Υιέ Θεού, κουνονων με παραλάβε (from prayers before Communion in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

[19] 1 Cor. 10:17

[20] Luke 22:12

[21] Luke 22:8

[22] Cf. John 18:36 and 8:23


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