The English word for "communion" comes from a fusing together of two words, "common" and "union." Holy Communion, therefore, is a common union with God, the holy one. From the same word, we have the word, "community," because if we are united with God through the body of Christ in the power of the Spirit, we are also united with everyone else in Communion. The revelation of God through Jesus, his Word, is absolutely clear and unambiguous on this point.
This was Our Lord’s prayer at the Last Supper, when he revealed to us the mystery of Communion, "Holy Father, keep them (the ones you have given me) in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are" (Jn17:16). The unity in the Trinity is beyond human powers; it is to be united in being, in truth and in life. This is clearly God’s will for us, a unity that surpasses any unity that the world can give. (Jesus excludes "the world" in his prayer, Jn 17:9.)
A call to unity
The "world" extols the quality of "rugged individualism," of every man standing for himself, of everyone achieving an autonomy and independence from the needs for others. However, it is clear that one cannot be a believer in God and a "rugged individualist" at the same time. God has created us for unity and he calls all to unity. We pray for this is the Divine Liturgy, "for peace in the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord" (Litany of Peace, third petition). This is the goal of the anaphora, "that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise your most honored and magnificent name." See the direct reference to Jesus’ prayer recorded in Chapter 17 of the Gospel of St. John. On this point of unity, the faith of the church is directly opposed to the values of the world.
We very often have an individualistic attitude to holy Communion. We view it as our private connection with God. It becomes our reward for good behavior in God’s eyes.
It is clear from Christ’s teaching, however, that being united with God brings us into communion with one another. We cannot receive Communion worthily if we have hatred or bear a grudge for another. Before we even pray the anaphora, in which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, the "Bread of life" (Jn 6:48), the deacon commands us, "Love one another."
The Greek word for Communion is "koinonia," which means "common union," but also "fellowship," a spirit of co-operation, mutual charity and the sharing of life. If we have an individualistic concept of the sacrament of holy Communion, we focus on our own mortal sins to decide if we are worthy to receive. We should focus on our relations with one another because the evil of sin comes not only from an offense against God but from the harm we do to one another. Even sins committed in privacy harm the whole body of the church because if one member is diminished, the whole body is weakened. This is also why we must approach Communion in humility, for we cannot destroy the power of sin in our lives by our own power, but only in the strength, which is the grace, of God, who has created all and brings all into unity.
For Communion to accomplish a true union with God, and to bind us together as one church in Christ, it must be real. Though bread and wine are symbolic of a meal shared together, the church from the beginning has believed that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ. Our Lord tells us, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" (Jn 6:53.55). St. Paul likewise tells us, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor 10:16). Again, we see that there is no ambiguity in the teaching of Our Lord.
Indeed, St. John’s Gospel tells us, "Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard, who can accept it?’" (Jn 6:60). The early Christians spoke of the reality of the Eucharist in such stark tones that some pagans even accused them of cannibalism.
A challenge to our faith
The reality of the Eucharist is a challenge to our faith. However, because it is real it brings us into true communion with God and a closer union as a community than we could ever have by a natural meal. The point here is that it is "beyond human nature." In our hymns to the Holy Spirit, we proclaim that God "is present everywhere and fills all things." God is truly present everywhere to the degree that we need. We are sustained in being by the presence of God, and in Communion God brings us into that perfect union to which he summons us, by being present in the gifts of bread and wine we offer.
We express this mystery by saying that the bread is no longer mere bread, but the body of Christ, and the wine is no longer merely the fruit of grapes, but the true blood of Christ. There is nothing crass about this presence, though.
In Communion, we do not have a physical sense experience of eating ordinary meat or drinking ordinary blood. In his providence for our salvation, God gives us his body and blood as food for our souls and bodies in a way that we can accept, under the form of bread and wine.
Jesus further teaches us, "I am the bread of life … For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (Jn 6:48.33). The Eucharist is the bread upon which the Holy Spirit has come, changing it into the body and blood of Christ. This is because of the Resurrection. Ordinary meat is the flesh of an animal that has died. The Eucharist is the living flesh of the risen Lord, glorified and transforming us by our participation in it.
Sanctifying those who partake
It is as the priest says when breaking the consecrated body before Communion, "Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God, broken yet not divided, ever eaten yet never consumed, but sanctifying those who partake thereof." The body of Christ that we receive is historically continuous with the body that was born of Mary, that dwelt among us, that was crucified, died and was buried, but is now risen, incorrupt, glorious and filling us with God’s life. In the Ambon Prayer on Holy Thursday, therefore, we pray, "Today we have seen Our Lord Jesus Christ placed upon the altar … This is the gift we have received, this is the mystery we enjoy … We have accepted the gift, let us keep a genuine faith, that we may become heirs of his kingdom."
Rev. David Petras is a priest of the Byzantine Catholic eparchy of Parma OH and a professor at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius. He writes for the eparchial newspaper, Horizons, from where this article is adapted.