Here is an excerpt from John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes
, New York: Fordham University Press, 1983, pp. 201-206. The first time I read it I was confused and thought he was in a way denying that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ but when you realize that for the ancients "symbol" means both an example of something AND a PARTICIPATION in that thing, it makes more sense. In other words, the Eucharist is a "symbol" of the Body of Christ in that it "shows (as St. Basil's liturgy proclaims) this bread to be the body of Christ." I offer this not in order to put my opinion in the debate but rather to offer just another point of view.
16. The Eucharist
FORMAL CONSERVATISM was one of the predominant features of Byzantine civilization, affecting both the secular and the sacred aspects of life, and the forms of the liturgy in particular. But if the avowed intention was to preserve things as they were, if the basic structures of the Eucharistic liturgy have not been modified since the early centuries of Christianity and even today retain the forms which they acquired in the ninth century, the interpretation of words and gestures was subject to substantial change and evolution. Thus, Byzantine ritual conservatism was instrumental in preserving the original Christian lex orandi, otherwise often reinterpreted in the context of a Platonizing or moralizing symbolism, though it also allowed in due time—especially with Nicholas Cabasilas and the Hesychast theologians of the fourteenth century—a strong reaffirmation of the original sacramental realism in liturgical theology.
1. SYMBOLS, IMAGES, AND REALITY
Early Christianity and the patristic tradition understood the Eucharist as a mystery of true and real communion with Christ. Speaking of the Eucharist, Chrysostom insists that "Christ even now is present, even now operates";1 and Gregory of Nyssa, in spite of the Platonizing tendencies of his thought, otherwise stands for the same view of the Eucharist as a mystery of real "participation" in the glorified Body of Christ, the seed of immortality.
By dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose existence comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the Immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which He "trans-elements" [metastoicheiosisJ the natural quality of these visible things to that immortal thing.2
Participation in these sources of immortality and unity is a constant concern for every Christian:
It is good and beneficial to communicate every day [Basil writes,] and to partake of the holy body and blood of Christ. For He distinctly says, "He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" [In 6:55]. And who doubts that to share frequently in life is the same thing as to have manifold life? I indeed communicate four times a week, on the Lord's day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath, and on the other days if there is a commemoration of any saint.3
This realistic and existential theology of the Eucharist was, as we have seen,4 challenged by pastoral needs in the post-Constantinian Church: large congregations in large churches caused a lessening of participation by the laity.
It may be argued that the pastoral considerations which prompted this evolution were at least partially justified; the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist implied a withdrawal from the "world," a "closed" community of committed participants. Now that in the empire of Constantine and Justinian, the Church and the world had become indistinguishable as a single society, the Eucharist had to be protected from the "crowd," which had ceased to be the "people of God." More questionable, however, was the theological rationalization of this new situation, which was endorsed by some commentators on the liturgy who began to explain the Eucharist as a system of symbols to be "contemplated"; sacramental participation was thus gradually replaced with intellectual vision. Needless to say, this new attitude was perfectly suited to the Origenistic and Evagrian understanding of religion as an ascent of the mind to God, of which liturgical action was a symbol.
Most influential in promoting this symbolic understanding of the Eucharist were the writings of pseudo-Dionysius. Reducing the Eucharistic synaxis to a moral appeal, the Areopagite calls his readers to a "higher" contemplation:
Let us leave to the imperfect these signs which, as I said, are magnificently painted in the vestibules of the sanctuaries; they will be sufficient to feed their contemplation. As far as we are concerned: let us turn back, in considering the holy synaxis, from the effects to their causes, and, thanks to the lights which Jesus will give us, we shall be able to contemplate harmoniously the intelligible realities in which are clearly reflected the blessed goodness of the models.5
Thus, the Eucharist is only the visible "effect" of an invisible "model"; and the celebrant "by offering Jesus Christ to our eyes, shows us in a tangible way and, as in an image, our intelligible life." 6 Thus, for Dionysius, "the loftiest sense of the Eucharistic rites and of sacramental communion itself is in symbolizing the union of our minds with God and with Christ. . . . Dionysius never formally presents Eucharistic communion as a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ." 7
Dionysius' symbolism only superficially affected the Eucharistic rites themselves, but it became quite popular among commentators on the liturgy. Thus, the great Maximus the Confessor, whose use of the concept of "symbol" is probably more realistic than Dionysius', nevertheless systematically applies the terms "symbol" or "image" to the Eucharistic liturgy in general and to the elements of bread and wine in particular.8
In the eighth century, this symbolism led to a serious theological debate concerning the Eucharist-the only one Byzantium ever knew. The iconoclastic council of 754, in condemning the use of religious images, proclaimed that the only admissible "image" of Christ is the one established by Christ Himself, the Eucharistic Body and Blood.9 This radical and clear contention, based upon a long-standing tradition, was a real challenge to the Orthodox party; the ambiguity of the Areopagite was evidenced once more, and a clarification of symbolism made necessary.
Thus, the defenders of the images, especially Theodore the Studite and Patriarch Nicephorus, firmly rejected it. For Theodore, the Eucharist is not "type," but the very "truth"; it is the "mystery which recapitulates the whole of the [divine] dispensation." 10 According to Nicephorus, it is the "flesh of God," "one and the same thing" with the Body and Blood of Christ,11 who came to save the very reality of human flesh by becoming and remaining "flesh," even after His glorification; thus, in the Eucharist, "what is the matter of the sacrament, if the flesh is not real, so that we see it being perfected by the Spirit?" 12
As a result of the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine "Eucharistic realism," clearly departing from Dionysian terminology; was redirected along Christological and soteriological lines; in the Eucharist, man participates in the glorified humanity of Christ, which is not the "essence of God," 13 but a humanity still consubstantial to man and available to him as food and drink. In his treatise Against Eusebius and Epiphanius, Patriarch Nicephorus is particularly emphatic in condemning the Origenist idea that in the Eucharist man contemplates or participates in the "essence" of God.14 For him, as also for later Byzantine theologians, the Eucharist is Christ's transfigured, life-giving, but still human, body, en-hypostasized in the Logos and penetrated with divine "energies." Characteristically, one never finds the category of "essence" (ousia) used by Byzantine theologians in a Eucharistic context. They would consider a term like "transubstantiation" (metousiosis) improper to designate the Eucharistic mystery, and generally use the concept of metabole, found in the canon of John Chrysostom, or such dynamic terms as "trans-elementation" (metastoicheiosis) or "re-ordination" (metarrhythmisis). Transubstantiation (metousiosis) appears only in the writings of the Latinophrones of the thirteenth century, and is nothing but a straight translation from the Latin. The first Orthodox author to use it is Gennadios Scholarios;15 but, in his case as well, direct Latin influence is obvious. The Eucharist is neither a symbol to be "contemplated" from outside nor an "essence" distinct from humanity, but Jesus Himself, the risen Lord, "made known through the breaking of bread" (Lk 24:35); Byzantine theologians rarely speculated beyond this realistic and soteriological affirmation of the Eucharistic presence as that of the glorified humanity of Christ.
The rejection of the concept of the Eucharist as "image" or "symbol" is, on the other hand, very significant for the understanding of the entire Eucharistic "perception" of the Byzantines; the Eucharist for them always remained fundamentally a mystery to be received as food and drink, and not to be "seen" through physical eyes. The elements remain covered, except during the prayers of consecration and during communion; and, in contrast with Western medieval piety, were never "venerated" outside the framework of the Eucharistic liturgy itself. The Eucharist cannot reveal anything to the sense of vision; it is only the bread of heaven. Vision is offered another channel of revelation-the icons: hence, the revelatory program of the Byzantine iconostasis, with the figures of Christ and the saints exposed precisely in order to be seen and venerated. "Christ is not shown in the Holy Gifts," writes Leonid Ouspensky; "He is given. He is shown in the icons. The visible side of the reality of the Eucharist is an image which can never be replaced either by imagination or by looking at the Holy Gifts." 16
As a result of the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine Eucharistic theology retained and re-emphasized the mystery and hiddenness of this central liturgical action of the Church. But it also reaffirmed that the Eucharist was essentially a meal which could be partaken of only through eating and drinking, because God had assumed the fullness of our humanity, with all its psychic and physical functions, in order to lead it to resurrection.
Byzantine theologians had an opportunity to make the same point in connection with their anti-Latin polemics against the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The discussion on the azymes, which started in the eleventh century, was generally entangled in arguments of purely symbolic nature (the Greeks maintained, for example, that the Eucharistic bread had to be leavened in. order to symbolize the animated humanity of Christ, while the Latin use of azymes implied ApolIinarianism, i.e., the denial that Jesus had a human soul), but the controversy also recognized that the Byzantines understood the Eucharistic bread to be necessarily consubstantial with humanity, while Latin medieval piety emphasized its "supersubstantiality," its otherworldliness. The use of ordinary bread, identical with the bread used as everyday food, was the sign of true Incarnation: "What is the daily bread [of the Lord's prayer ]," asks Nicetas Stethatos, "if it is not consubstantial with us? And the bread consubstantial with us is none other than the Body of Christ, who became consubstantial with us through the flesh of His humanity." 17
The Byzantines did not see the substance of the bread somehow changed in the Eucharistic mystery into another substance—the Body of Christ—but viewed this bread as the "type" of humanity: our humanity changed into the transfigured humanity of Christ.18 For this reason, Eucharistic theology played such a prominent role in the theological debates of the fourteenth century, when the basic issue was a confrontation between an autonomous concept of man and the Hesychast defense of "deification." The great Nicholas Cabasilas, though still bound to the old Dionysian symbolism, overcomes the dangers of Nominalism; clearly, for him as also for Gregory Palamas, the Eucharist is the mystery which not only "represents" the life of Christ and offers it to our "contemplation"; it is the moment and the place, in which Christ's deified humanity becomes ours.
He not merely clothed Himself in a body. He also took a soul and mind and will and everything human, so that He might be able to be united to the whole of us, penetrate through the whole of us, and resolve us into Himself, having in every respect joined His own to that which is ours. . . . For since it was not possible for us to ascend and participate in that which is His, He comes down to us and participates in that which is ours. And so precisely does He conform to the things which He assumed that, in giving those things to us which He has received from us, He gives Himself to us. Partaking of the body and blood of His humanity, we receive God Himself in our souls-the Body and Blood of God, and the soul, mind, and will of God-no less than His humanity.19
The last word on the Eucharist, in Byzantine theology, is thus an anthropological and soteriological understanding of the mystery. "In approaching the Eucharist, the Byzantines began not with bread qua bread, but with bread qua man." 20 Bread and wine are offered only because the Logos has assumed humanity, and they are being changed and deified by the operation of the Spirit because Christ's humanity has been transformed into glory through the cross and Resurrection. This is the thought of Cabasilas, as just quoted, and the meaning of the canon of John Chrysostom: "Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts, and make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ, and that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Thy Christ, so that, for those who partake, they may be a purification of soul, a remission of sins, the communion of Thy Holy Spirit, the fullness of the Kingdom of heavenGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª"
The sacrament of new humanity par excellence, the Eucharist, for Cabasilas "alone of the mysteries perfects the other sacramentsGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª, since they cannot fulfill the initiation without it." 21 Christians partake of it "continually," for "it is the perfect sacrament for all purposes, and there is nothing of which those who partake thereof stand in need which it does not supply in an eminent way." 22 The Eucharist is also "the much praised marriage according to which the most holy Bridegroom espouses the Church as a bride";23 that is, the Eucharist is the very sacrament which truly transforms a human community into "the Church of God," and is, therefore, as we will see later, the ultimate criterion and basis of ecclesial structure.