A symbol or actual body and blood?

A symbol or actual body and blood?

by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis | January 29, 2020

Q: “I know that in Holy Orthodoxy we believe that Holy Communion is the very true Body and very true Blood of Christ. Why then do we have some writings from the early Saints and Fathers that use the words “symbols”, and other like words when speaking of the Holy Eucharist? Mainly, I just want to be assured that the Church has always taught, that the Bread and Wine truly become the actual Body and Blood of Christ!” —A

Dear A.,

Thanks for your faith in what the Orthodox Church teaches. Be rest assured that this is the firm faith of the Church. We have addressed this subject in our book, The Heavenly Banquet, Understanding the Divine Liturgy1 (hereinafter THB), particularly in the Introduction, where we addressed the question, “What is the Divine Eucharist?” The first way we can look at the Divine Eucharist is that what we partake of is truly and really the Body and Blood of Christ. Here is what we say there.2

The Divine Eucharist consists of the real, “living presence of God with His People in Christ and the Holy Spirit.” In the Divine Eucharist we truly have present Emmanuel, God with us (Is. 7:14, Mt. 1:23). The Lord keeps His promise to His disciples, “Behold, I am with you always” (Mt. 28:20), especially with His presence in the Divine Eucharist. In the Divine Eucharist we have Christ present not symbolically or figuratively, but truly and actually. We believe that after the consecration of the bread and the wine the Lord is present in His glorified and deifying humanity and in His divinity. The Eucharistic Christ is the same Christ Who was born in Bethlehem, was heard, seen, and touched by His disciples (1 John 1:1), died on the Cross, rose from the dead, and sits in glory at the right hand of God the Father. The consecrated wine is the same blood that was poured out on the Cross. This change is real and objective, regardless of one’s beliefs.

Elsewhere in the book3 we bring the words of St. Nicholas Cavasilas, according to whom the Eucharistic sacrifice consists of the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The sacrifice is accomplished through this change. The change is not symbolic, but real: “This sacrifice is not a mere figure or symbol but a true sacrifice.” What is being truly sacrificed, adds the Saint, is not the bread, but “the Body of Christ, which is the substance which lies beneath the appearance of bread.”4 In recalling the words of the Lord, “This is My Body... This is My Blood...” we say: “This was not allegorical talk. It was not a parable in action. It was not a figure of speech. It was not symbolic language. It was realistic talk.”5 We add, “The Liturgy is not a symbol, as we understand symbol today, although it is a symbol in the sense understood in the past: a reality which partakes of another, higher reality.”6

Further down,7 we address more directly the question you posed, which should give you the answer you seek.

Some might wonder why some of the early Christians called the bread and wine ‘symbols’ or ‘figures’ of Christ’s body and blood. After all, this doesn’t imply Christ’s Real Presence, does it? In the ancient world (thanks in part to Platonism) a symbol was deeply and intricately connected to the reality that it symbolized. The Greek word for symbol literally means ‘thrown together,’ signifying the overlapping of a symbol with the universal reality it symbolized. Thus, in calling the bread and wine symbols (or in Latin, ‘figures’), the Church Fathers believed in the true sacramental presence of Christ in the bread and wine, as opposed to a simple mental recalling. In our society, thanks to Nominalism and the Enlightenment, we say, ‘that’s just a symbol’ implying a disconnectedness between symbol and reality. Such was not the ancient mindset.

The quotation above is by a Roman Catholic.8

As to your question, “Why then do we have some writings from the early Saints and Fathers that use the words “symbols”, and other like words when speaking of the Holy Eucharist?” you need to produce specific evidence, because in my research I have not come across any Father of the Church supporting a “symbolic” presence. The iconoclasts erroneously considered the Eucharist to be a “true type (τύπος) or figure” (εἰκών) of Christ,” thinking that they were following St. Basil the Great. The much misunderstood expression encountered in the Anaphora Prayer of his Divine Liturgy is: “[We] dare to approach Your holy altar, and bring forth the symbols (antitypes, ἀντίτυπα) of the Holy Body and Blood of Your Christ.”9 But is the great Father calling the Divine Elements symbols? Far from it! The epiklesis (ἐπίκλησις), the invocation of the Holy Spirit to come down and sanctify the Gifts, follows. We comment,10

Clearly the expression occurs prior to the consecration, a fact readily ascertainable.11 St. John Damascene states: “But if some persons called the bread and the wine antitypes of the body and blood of the Lord, as did the divinely inspired Basil, they said so not after the consecration but before the consecration, so calling the offering itself.” As far as the consecrated Gifts are concerned, he will state forcefully and unequivocally: “The bread and wine are not types of the body and blood of Christ; not so, but the very body of the Lord deified.”12

Therefore at this stage the bread and wine are still symbols, as they are when they are taken in the “Great Entrance,” about which St. Symeon of Thessalonica calls them “images of the Body and Blood of Christ, comparable to, though greater than, icons.”13 They are greater than icons because they actually become what they represent. That is why St. Basil the Great called them, “antitypes” of the Body and Blood of Christ, having been consecrated (set apart, dedicated) to become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

In our book we bring the definitive words of St. Nicholas Cavasilas, who separates the wheat from the chaff:

When these words have been said, the whole sacred rite is accomplished, the offerings are consecrated, the sacrifice complete, the divine oblation, slain for the salvation of the world, lies upon the altar. For it is no longer the bread, which until now has represented the Lord’s Body, nor is it a simple offering, bearing the likeness of the true offering, carrying as if engraved on it the symbols of the Savior’s passion: it is the true Victim, the most Holy Body of the Lord, which really suffered the outrages, insults and blows, which was crucified and slain, which under Pontius Pilate bore such splendid witness; that body which was mocked, scourged, spat upon, and which tasted gall. In like manner the wine has become the Blood, which flowed from that Body. It is that Body and Blood formed by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, which was buried, which rose again on the third day, which ascended into heaven and sits down at the right hand of the Father.”14

Please do not hesitate to let me know if I have not answered all your questions, or not to your satisfaction. I’ll be glad to return to the subject.

  1. Full info
  2. THB, pp. 40-41.
  3. THB, p. 223.
  4. St. Nicholas Cavasilas, Commentary, p. 81.
  5. THB, p. 274.
  6. THB, p. 283.
  7. THB, Note 38, pp. 40-41.
  8. David Bennett, “The Eucharist: The Medicine of Immortality” http://www.ancient-future.net/eucharist.html.
  9. THB, p. 372.
  10. THB, Note 497, p. 172.
  11. See text in THB, p. 372.
  12. St. John Damascene, Ex. Exp., IV. xiii.
  13. THB, Note 497
  14. St. Nicholas Cavasilas († 1371) On the Divine Liturgy (THB, p. 269).

Article graphics and editing by Anthony Hatzidakis

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