Last time, we talked about how mutual, loving submission to the Apostles was, for the first Christians, a powerful manifestation of, and a contributor to, the divine oneness that the Spirit had come to work in them. Another pillar of unity, as we read in Acts 2:42, was the breaking of bread. Every commentator I have ever read, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, sees this as a reference to the Eucharist, the receiving of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of communion.
When the Lord Jesus Christ initiates the sacrament of the Eucharist with his disciples before his death, he tells them that the bread he offers them is “my body which is broken for you.” The wine he gives them to drink, he says, is “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24,25). But even though Jesus plainly states that the bread and wine of communion are his flesh and blood, there has been, since the Protestant Reformation, considerable debate as to whether or not Jesus meant that literally. Many in the Western tradition insist that the bread and wine are purely symbolic of Christ’s body and blood. In essence, they are nothing more than grape juice and wheat. But these mundane substances serve a spiritual purpose by keeping Christ’s great sacrifice for us before our minds.
Those who hold this position often point out that when Jesus established this mystical supper, as we Orthodox call it, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). But in the kingdom of God, as we’ve been discussing it, to remember is not just a mental activity in which we recall some past event. In the case of the Eucharist, remembrance is not just a bringing to mind of Christ’s death and resurrection which we facilitate by using certain physical props.
As the New Testament declares in Romans 5 and elsewhere, we believers enter into the life of Our Lord. The Spirit of God resides in us. As a result, we don’t just remember the life of Christ—we participate in it, in all its completeness. Remember, Christ is fully God and fully human. This is the being in which we are blessed to share. In baptism, Christ gives us his divine Spirit. In the Eucharist, he shares with us his mortal, though glorified, flesh and blood.
As always, it is most instructive to know what the early Christians thought about this matter. From their testimony it is eminently clear that they received the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of their Lord. Yes, it is bread and wine, but mystically it becomes Christ’s genuine flesh and blood.
For instance, sometime around the turn of the first century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the Christians at Smyrna in which he warned them about one of the first major heretical groups within the Church. They were called the Docetists. What was their heresy? St. Ignatius warns, “They confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” St. Ignatius became bishop of Antioch in A.D.69. He was converted under the teaching of the Apostles. Thus, it is plain that the first Christians knew the bread and wine to be truly, and in all reality, the body and blood of their Lord.
A generation later, St. Justin Martyr declares the same truth about the Eucharist in the apology that he offers to the Roman emperor on behalf of the Christian faith. St. Justin is often referred to as The Philosopher, and, as a philosopher, he goes out of his way to assure that there is no misunderstanding about what is in the communion cup.
Listen carefully to his words. He tells us that the Eucharist is not “common bread and common drink, but in like manner as Jesus Christ had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food, which is blessed by the prayer of his word and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh”. The bread and wine is the flesh and blood of “that Jesus who was made flesh”.
I love what St. Justin does here. He leaves no room for quibbling. The Eucharist is the flesh of someone who is flesh. Of course, how this can be is an unfathomable mystery, though some sacramental traditions have pointlessly attempted to explain it. But the ancient Eastern Church together with the Roman Catholics and even some Protestant confessions has always understood that the holy thing within the cup of communion is the living, human substance of Christ.
This truth of the Eucharist makes it a powerful means, in fact the most powerful of all instruments, for bringing us to oneness. How it makes us one with God is obvious, of course. We receive into our humanness the humanness of our Christ. As the Spirit inhabits our spiritual center, the physical essence of Christ permeates our physical bodies. What more could God do to make us one with him?
At the blessed Eucharist we also become one with each other. I am reminded of this each time I watch those with whom I worship share in its holy mysteries. In the Orthodox Church, we all receive the bread and wine at the hand of the priest from a single cup, the gifts being placed in our mouths with a solitary spoon. I think that makes it easier to see the oneness worked by the sacrament.
For, standing in that single line, waiting for the life in that one chalice, are people of all ages and from all walks of life. There are babies and the elderly, those who are educated and those who can barely read, there are the social elite and the social outcasts, and there are professionals and blue collar. Some are nearing spiritual perfection and others are mired in the gutters of sin. And yet there, at the communion cup, all those distinctions disappear.
The one Christ comes to fill each one with his purifying, unifying being. In the moment he enters us, everything within us about which we might boast fades away. Everything within that we would lament disappears. The body and blood of Christ is the great unifying leveler. As he interpenetrates us all, we experience together the holy dance of the blessed Trinity. We are one.
Together with their steadfast adherence to the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and to the breaking of bread, Acts 2:42 tells us that the early Christians also “devoted themselves to prayers”. Now notice the verse does not say that they continued “in prayer”. That is, the verse indicates that the prayer life of the early believers had some objective substance. They didn’t just walk around in an attitude of prayer, though surely they did that. Rather, they offered prayers, specific petitions, to God.
In fact, in the original Greek, the passage says that they offered “the prayers”. The reference here is to specific prayers that the first Christians all knew and could offer together. In other words, what we are told here is that the first believers not only had a common practice of praying, but they practiced praying common prayers.
This is an important point given that we live in a day and age when most of us think that true prayer is this spontaneous offering of our own thoughts and feelings expressed to God in our own self-chosen words. The sort of wrote prayer that I’ve been praying here an important part of the early Christian practice is today routinely resisted as lacking in spiritual effectiveness. Yet it is clear from the scriptures that it is this specified prayer to which “the prayers” refers.
In verse 46 of Acts 2, we are told that the new Christians continued in the worship of the Jewish temple. In Acts 3:1, we find Peter and John on their way to the temple to participate in the prayers of the ninth hour—the prayer service that happened at 3:00 in the afternoon. The Jews also observed hours of prayer at the third and sixth hours, or 9:00 a.m. and noon.
The prayers offered in these services which the Christian community continued to observe were not the spontaneous, off-the-cuff petitions that characterize much contemporary Christian worship and prayer life. No, they were recitations from the Psalms and other passages of scripture. So, as Jews, this was the legacy of prayer that the first Christians inherited. It was not unusual that they should continue in it.
Over the centuries, the Church added other, regular prayer services and prayers to the daily cycle of worship. Prayers penned by holy saints also became part of the Church’s spiritual tradition, recited by Christians throughout the world, across the centuries.
We must understand, however, that the reason that the Church adopted this approach was not simply to endorse and carry on and ancient Jewish custom. Rather, this practice of praying common prayers is a crucial element in achieving oneness with each other and with God. That’s why, as an Orthodox Christian, my prayer life revolves around a prayer book, filled with prayers that the Church has endorsed and which have proven effective in establishing divine oneness in the body of Christ.
Now, I would never say that there is something intrinsically wrong with offering our own heartfelt words to God in prayer. After all, many of the prayers in my Orthodox prayer book are the sincere, original petitions of holy saints. Yet, I must recognize that when I compose my own prayers, the danger of self-concern is always lurking. Praying spontaneously out of my own feelings and my own needs can obviously become a self-centering activity. Rather than making me aware of our communal life in God and intimately joining me with other believers in a unifying and glorious dance with God, private, spontaneous prayer can reduce the experience to one of pure individuality.
The prayers which fill my prayer book differ from my own petitions in that they are devoid of self-centered thoughts and feelings. Those holy souls who composed them were emptied of selfish designs. Union with God and union with others was their whole and single desire. Thus, they became mouthpieces for the Holy Spirit who lived and still lives in them.
As I set aside my own ideas and emotional needs and offer their words from my own heart, the pure and Holy Spirit who first inspired those words speaks in me. By this, my prayer becomes a self-denying participation in the life of God. I am made one with the Trinity.
And I’m also made one with all who offer those same prayers. I’m joined in a chorus of unity with my Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world. Together we become one voice with Orthodox Christians across the centuries, all the way back to apostolic times—one single body speaking the words of the Spirit to the Triune God. This is the oneness which “the prayers” foster in the life of God.