This post is a transcript of a video from June 2018.
Thanks to Heather Lee for the transcription and JP Marceau for the edition.
This video is based on a Patreon comment. I ask the $10+ level patrons to suggest a subject for a video and then I pick the ones that I feel are the most interesting. Now, this subject was suggested by Jacob Russell and received the most votes of all the possible subjects. His question is this: “This is probably a big one, but how about Communion, or the meal/eating. I know you’ve touched on it, but the whole ‘this is my flesh’ just makes my brain swirl sometimes.”
This is something that I could talk about forever. I don’t think I will be able to cover the entire question of eating and the symbolism of Communion – especially the specifics of Communion – but I will try to get into it as much as I can here, and if you feel like there’s something missing or that isn’t clear, go ahead and write it down in the comments and I will maybe make a follow-up.
First, the idea of eating. The notion of eating is extremely important because it has to do with knowledge. I’ve talked about this notion of knowing as joining ourselves with something. There are several images of that in the Bible. One of the images is sexual union – this idea of a man joining himself with his wife; that it is a form of knowledge. Eating is also a form of knowledge. Just as a man and his wife are joined together to become one body, so too, when you eat, you make body. You are taking food and you are gathering it into yourself and it becomes your body. That becomes an image of knowledge. It is the manner in which Heaven and Earth are integrated. The human being as man – microcosm – at this central point gathers the food into himself and it becomes the potential out of which his mind, his thinking, his spirit can then manifest itself into the world. In some of the videos I did with my brother Matthieu, he talks about that and explains it quite well.
Now, in terms of the specifics of Communion, there are several things to understand. The first is the notion of eating together. Eating together is a manner in which we participate together in making a body. So, as we sit together and we eat the same thing together, we are using the same potential in order to create body. We are becoming one body. We are in communion in that sense. Matthieu, in the video that we did, talks about how a city eats people. By eating people, it integrates all the people into one identity, and they become one thing; it becomes one city. In the same manner, if we sit around a table and we are all eating the same food (it’s not exactly the same image, but) in a similar manner, we are all joining ourselves together in a body.
So, that’s the basic idea of why food is such a symbol of knowledge and why it’s related to eating the fruit of good and evil, which is the Fall. In eating the fruit of good and evil, we are eating the fruit – the result – of the opposition of good and evil, and in doing so we join ourselves with it. And especially in the way that it happened in the story of the Fall, it’s actually a kind of falling into the body. Not that the body is evil; not that the body is wrong, but there is a manner in which we can fall into the body and forget the higher aspect. We forget the aim which was the Tree of Life. We forget our higher aspect when we fall into the body. That’s why all the images of the Fall are related to this adding on of body; the adding on of the garments of skin. The world becomes hostile, and also procreation happens after the Fall.
So, all of those images talk about the same thing: this kind of descent into flesh, let’s say. It’s important to understand that people have been so confused in thinking that somehow the body is bad or that flesh is bad or that sexuality is bad. None of those things are bad, but they’re bad to the extent that we lose ourselves into them. To the extent that we forget our humanity and we become animalistic and we become subject to our own desires, we become subject to our body.
Now, you can see that as much with the belly as with sexual desire: we can lose ourselves in making body. We can become a slave to the making of body. You have to understand the basic symbolism of eating first, before you understand how it plays itself out afterwards. So, take eating. Eating is the cause of the Fall. Eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil causes the Fall. And so too, eating, in the end, is also one of the images of salvation; one of the images of the undoing or the transformation of the Fall into something higher, something which brings us closer to God.
One of the aspects of Christ is that He brings everything together. He brings everything into itself. There’s no way that I can exhaust the symbolism of Communion; it’s not happening. So, if that’s what you’re hoping for in this video, it’s not going to happen, because I couldn’t do it myself. I don’t have the knowledge to exhaust the symbolism of Communion. But I can give you some hints to help you understand the connection between the two. So, remember – Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and they fall. They accumulate flesh, but they also accumulate death; that’s how it’s presented – if you eat the fruit, you will die. God gives them these garments of dead skins, and now they accumulate all these layers and layers and layers of death, up to the flood.
Now, what Christ does is He flips everything around. He’s able to bring everything together in a way that makes your mind explode, because He’s saying: “The manner in which you will now participate in the life of God is to eat.” And He says: “You’re going to eat, first of all, the fruit – the bread and the wine – but that bread and wine is flesh and blood.”
Think about it this way. Adam and Eve eat, fall, and then these layers of death get added to them. Now, Christ says: “You have to eat all that. You have to be able to take in death.” And it’s His death, because He’s the one who fills all of that together. So, he’s saying you have to eat the body and drink the blood in order to fully participate in this total mystery, which is how Christ fills up the entire hierarchy, from the highest to the lowest, goes down into death and then consummates the Fall. He dies. He does exactly what Adam and Eve did; He eats the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, He dies on the tree, and we need to eat the fruit of that in order for everything to come together.
The symbolism of Communion is not easy. It is the highest mystery. So, for it to be the highest mystery, it has to contain everything. And there is an aspect of scandal to the symbolism of Communion. You can imagine, at the beginning of Christianity, the Romans hearing about this sect of Jews who say that they’re eating the body and blood of their saviour. It was like: “here’s this cannibal sect of people who are eating human flesh”. You can imagine how the Romans saw Christianity. But just like Christ became sin without sinning, just like Christ made himself subject to death but in the end conquered death, so, too, in this notion of eating the body and blood, we’re eating bread and wine. We’re not literally ripping pieces of flesh off a human body. But it’s real at the same time. So, the notion of saying it’s real, but it’s also something which transcends the categories – which joins them all together – enables us to understand how the scandal is part of this totality, but we also transcend the scandal by eating bread and drinking wine.
I hope this is making sense to you because it’s not a totally easy subject to understand, obviously. That’s why we say it’s a mystery. But there’s also this other aspect, which is this notion of the Communion table; the altar being also a table at which we enter into Communion with God. In the Orthodox Church, we use this image of the Hospitality of Abraham. In the Hospitality of Abraham, these three angels appeared to Abraham and he served them food, and it has become an image of the Trinity – those three angels have become, for Christians, an image of the Trinity. So, we have this image by Andrei Rublev of the three angels who are symbolizing for us the Trinity, and then there’s this open space at the table in front of us, which is that we now come and enter into Communion. And the image of the Communion is that we come to share a meal with the Trinity. Obviously, it’s an imagistic form, but then the Communion table in the church becomes this entering into the life of God. By eating the flesh of the Logos we commune with the Logos, just like we have the same body as God; we participate in God’s body – that is the body of Christ, that is the Church.
All of this imagery is completely coherent, even though on a purely rationalistic side, it might be difficult for people to understand. And it’s important to understand that it’s not just a mental game; it’s not just abstraction. We’re actually eating and physically taking Communion. We have to do it in a physical sense in order to fully enter into that relationship, in order for the Communion to not just be a mental game, not just be something that we think of in our own mind, but to rather actually come together around the Communion table, eat the same bread, drink the same wine, participate in the sacrament all together, and at the same time knowing that participating in this sacrament is entering into what transcends it. Entering into the life of God – that is the whole notion of what Communion is, of what Liturgy is and what the Orthodox notion of participation in the life of God is all about.
I think that that is really the basic idea of Communion. Now, in terms of why flesh and blood, why bread and wine, I’ve talked about this a little bit. Obviously, once again, I cannot exhaust the symbolism. You would need to read the whole Bible to kind of get a sense of all those places, but we need to understand the basic categories. You have bread, which is a staple; bread which is the basic food of life, and it’s also solid. So, you have this notion of a solid food that you eat. Then there’s wine, which is, first of all, liquid, so it is an image of change; an image of a bit of a chaotic influence. And wine is also fermented. Fermentation is basically a form of death, so wine is a kind of turning of death against itself. Plus, when you drink wine you are also inebriated; you are in a state of flux. Here again, for those who have read Matthieu’s book, you will understand what I’m talking about.
So, you have bread, and you have wine. They are the two basic categories – you could say space and time – that are part of Communion. But then they’re taken up; they’re transformed into something which is both higher and at the same time a kind of scandal, namely the eating of flesh. Flesh is akin to bread and to our body. It’s our solid state. It’s our basic understanding of what the body is. Blood is the liquid, free-flowing aspect of ourselves. Also, in the tradition of sacrifice, you really had this idea of blood representing, let’s say, the more spiritual aspect. In the Bible, it says, “Blood is the soul of the body.” The idea is that blood represents the more spiritual aspect, and that the body represents the more physical, incarnate aspect. In this ancient animal sacrifice, there’s this weird exchange where they would sprinkle the blood down onto the horns of the altar and they would also pour it out on the ground. So, there was the blood coming down to the ground. At the same time, they would offer up the flesh to God. And thus, God would eat the flesh and then acquire body, which was also our prayers and our Communion. The coming together of the people would become the body that was offered up to God for Him to manifest Himself in the life of the people of Israel. That’s one of the ways to understand ancient sacrifice.
Now, in Communion we have, once again, this mind-blowing thing where we consume both the bread and the wine; we consume both the flesh and the blood, which is absolutely unheard of. There’s nowhere in the Old Testament where the priest or anybody would consume the blood of the sacrifice, but they would eat the meat of the sacrifice. They would cook the meat of the sacrifice and the smoke would go up to God, but they would also participate in eating the meat. But no one would ever drink the blood. So, Christians eating the meat and also drinking the blood has to do again with this notion that Christ fills up the whole thing; contains the whole mystery. In Him is both the highest and the lowest; both the thing that comes all the way down and drips into the bottom, and the thing from below that is raised up into the highest. Christ contains those two things together.
And so, that is a hint, let’s say, to help you understand why it is those elements are bought together in Communion. Like I said, I’m not exhausting this, and there’s much more to it that I could encompass in a video, but hopefully this will give all of you a little sense of why eating is so important, how it’s related to knowledge, and also how it comes together in Communion.
And maybe one last little thing that I can mention is that, in eating, there are also three aspects worth understanding, and these three aspects can also help us understand sexuality, because sexuality and eating are very close together. If you look at the stories in the Bible and other stories as well in other traditions, you’ll see how closely related they are, even in the Fall. But there are three aspects to eating itself. Eating has a nutritional aspect, which is that we’re building body. We’re eating in order to be able to continue living as human beings. Then there’s an aspect of eating which brings us pleasure. And finally, there’s a third aspect of eating which is that when we eat together, it creates communion. It creates this community where we eat together and we participate in the same body. And sexuality has the same aspects. There is an aspect of sexuality which is to propagate the human race, so that humanity can continue to exist, just like food is for you to continue existing. There is an aspect of it which brings pleasure. And then there is an aspect of it on a larger scale, which is communion with the person with whom you’re having a sexual relationship, but also building community by creating family. And these families clump together and create a larger community.
And so, in a Christian understanding of both eating and sexuality, all of those elements have to come together; have to be united together somehow. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have an ice cream cone, and it doesn’t mean that you have to only eat things that are just healthy for you, but it means that there has to be a pattern where all those things come together; where, in your life, you are eating to build your body, you’re also eating to encourage communion, and you’re also enjoying what you’re eating. And it’s the same with sexuality. That’s one of the reasons why, in Christianity, the notion of marriage is so important. In marriage you have a pattern where all three of those elements of sexuality are gathered together into a symbol; they’re brought together so that their essence appears in all these elements coming together. So, we can see what eating is, and then it can help us understand Communion, because Communion with God also has those three elements linked together.