This Symbolic World is of course heavily concerned with symbolism, and the apprehending of those symbolic patterns which we see played throughout history and within our very lives. As many in this space are either Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christians, it seems inevitable that discussion of the Eucharist should occur. Being that highest sacrament and symbol of the Church, it is obviously of vital importance to Christians. This bread and wine, understood by most Protestants as simply bread and wine, and cherished by Catholics and Orthodox as something infinitely more, is often the source of much debate, and even bitter polemic amongst Christian brethren. Here today I will not attempt to answer all questions, or to ease all failings of faith. However, with the impoverished words of a humble sinner, I would offer to you a symbolic perspective on this ultimate symbol which sits at the very center of the life of the Church, and describe a way of approaching that eternally stable mystery which even our week revolves around like the Earth around the Sun.
As the ultimate symbol, it is worth reminding ourselves of what a symbol is. As I discuss in a previous article: The Symbolism of Sword and Shield:
The word in English arrives to us from the Greek σύμβολον (symbolon), where it is a combination of the two words σύν (together) and βάλλω (I throw, or put). Σύμβολον then, and subsequently our word in English, refers to a thing or idea that connects with other things or ideas via imparted or inherent meaning. Within the context of the cosmic hierarchy that this site is heavily concerned with, a symbol is something that connects multiple levels of the hierarchy together within a particular ontological scheme. Symbols, like Man himself, fuse matter from below and meaning from above. A symbol unites Heaven and Earth.2
This is precisely what we see at play within the Eucharist. Bread and Wine, the product of grain and grapes from the earth, are raised up by the people and given to the clergy to prepare in the rite of Prothesis. Already we see the pattern of raising matter (grain and grapes) and lowering meaning (fashioning into useful bread and wine). 3 As the mere matter is taken from the Earth by the hand of Man, and as the higher logoi which we perceive as potential is brought forth into actuality by the force of human will, we create a new thing from pre-existing material. This pattern repeats itself as the elements are raised, and ascend the ontological hierarchy itself, even before our very eyes as we, the people, participate in the process. As we speak of the body and blood of Christ within and among the elements of bread and wine, so too do we also speak of and act in accordance with the greater Body of Christ that is the Church itself. With the Incarnate Logos as the head, the body acts in the world, and makes manifest the will of the Father. Our actions within the Liturgy revolve around the Eucharist, as our lives revolve around the revelation of Christ in the world. We gathered the grain and the grapes, and gave them greater meaning from our station as the Imago Dei. At no point do the grain and grapes cease to be anything not chemically derived from the original grain and grapes, but transformed through the death of fermentation, and as bread and wine, they are given purpose beyond their own capacity to gain or understand. Bread and wine remain derived from grain and grapes, but also become something more. We brought them to the church, sanctifying them just a bit more by making them an offering (πρόσφορον), and placed them on the Table of Prothesis to be prepared for the Liturgy. From there, they are veiled (covered) by the clergy, and brought into the Church and placed on the altar. 4 This veiling of the bread and wine serves the practical purpose of protecting them from insects or dust which might accidentally fall in, but symbolically serves as a preparation for the descent of the higher things into the lower host. The veil, being a technology of the feminine 5, shields the lower matter of the bread and wine from the masculine descent of Divine power until the appropriate moment. As all veils do, it also acts as a barrier from the improper ascent of the lower things until the proper time as well. Not long after this Great Entrance, and immediately before the Anaphora (ἀναφορά), the Priest declares that “Christ is in our midst!” as he unveils the chalice and diskos (paten), and the faithful begin to declare the ancient Creed of Nicaea in preparation for what is to come. Then the Anaphora is begun, and various prayers and litanies are offered in preparation for the Epiclesis (ἐπίκλησις), that point in the Liturgy when the Eternal intersects our temporal moment, and the Holy Spirit is understood to descend upon the elements of bread and wine:
Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee, in behalf of all, and for all…
Again we offer unto thee this reasonable and unbloody service, and beseech thee and pray thee and supplicate thee; send down the Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here spread forth…
And make this bread the precious Body of thy Christ;
And that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Thy Christ.
Changing them by thy Holy Spirit; Amen, Amen, Amen…
(prayed quietly by the Priest)
That to those who shall partake thereof they may be unto cleansing of soul, unto remission of sins, unto the communion of thy Holy Spirit, unto the fulfillment of the kingdom of Heaven, unto boldness toward thee, and not unto judgment or unto condemnation.6
Of particular interest in illustrating the mystery which has occurred is the language of the Priest (prayed quietly) as he takes the consecrated bread and apportions it into the chalice.
Divide and distributed is the Lamb of God, who is divided, yet not distinguished; who is ever eaten yet never consumed, but sanctifies those who partake thereof. 7
While the Priest is apportioning the elements, the faithful will recite the Pre-Communion prayer by St. John Chrysostom, the final lines of which are:
Of thy Mystic Supper Oh Son of God, accept me today as a communicant…Not unto judgement, nor unto condemnation, be my partaking of thy Holy Mysteries Oh Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body. 7
Here we see the idea that the Mystic Supper (The Last Supper), which occurred two millennia ago, is something which the Christian can mystically participate in this very day. That supper with Christ and his Disciples is not merely re-enacted during the Liturgy, but is participated equally by those with eyes to see and ears to hear. This moment of communion contains all moments, and the cup which is shared is shared equally, as unbound by space and time as it is unbound by the particular physical makeup of the bread and the wine.
Not unlike the descent of the Holy Spirit into the womb of the Theotokos, when the communicant imbibes the body and blood of his God he is filled to overflowing, and an earthen vessel of clay mysteriously becomes the host for the Eternal God. Like the Unburnt Bush of Moses, he burns but is not consumed as the Divinity becomes immediately present within both his body and his being (see Derek Fiedler’s article here), for God remains veiled by the mystery of his descent into the lower matter of bread and wine.
As I discussed in the above mentioned article,
Symbols are polyvalent. That is to say, their meaning is dependent upon the context in which we find them and the scale of perspective from which we engage with them…The further one descends within the hierarchy, the more the means of symbolic expression becomes diffused throughout a variety of symbols. Higher up in the hierarchy however, all things coalesce into one thing, as the hallmark of The Greater is its ability to encompass The Lesser.8
A symbol then, IS the very thing which it symbolizes. The Eucharist, if it be a symbol, can be no mere memory or metaphor. The moment we begin to focus on the elemental particularities of the bread and the wine is the moment that we cease to engage with the Eucharist as a symbol, and no longer speak of the Eucharist. It is not unlike treating your neighbor as an accidental collection of cells rather than as a person. The real presence of the Logos is lost to us, as we fail to encounter the “Thou” (Du) of Martin Buber and perceive only “It” (Es). 9 It is in such a moment that we become merely materialistic in our understanding, and gaze upon that which is perfect and of Heaven with the imperfect eyes of Earth. Let us then remember that the ways of Heaven are the perfect prototype of our own fallen ways, and where it is simple enough to see the pattern at play within the transformation of grain and grapes into bread and wine, may we not be so arrogant as to presume that Man must sit at the apex of the hierarchy. As we dispense meaning into the lesser things of the world, so too is meaning dispensed into Man by that which is Greater, and all creation becomes a symbol when united with the Eternal God.
- Thanks to David Flores for his artistic collaboration. Further examples of his work can be found here and on Instagram
- Boyd, Gareth. “The Symbolism of Sword and Shield“, The Symbolic World, May, 2020.
- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation, at pages 59-61. 2018.
- In ancient times the Table of Prothesis was outside of the church proper, but today it is normally located within the church.
- See discussion between Jonathan Pageau and Jacob Russell here
- Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, pages 113-121. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of New York and all North America. 2002
- Boyd, The Symbolism of Sword and Shield.
- See: Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Written by Martin Buber. I and Thou. Simon & Schuster. 1996