The Life-Giving Blessing: Genesis and The Eucharist

We have already seen that the first chapters of Genesis have much to teach us. In extending our dialogue to the Eucharist we move to a consideration of food, Divine food. Following Genesis: The Book of The Promise we see what is revealed about the food which God once offered to us through the law (here I mean the 5 books of Moses) and the food which is now offered on the altar in the Apostolic Churches. I hope you will agree that, as we have seen together before, we can see a lot more than we initially appreciate, if only we know how to look. And so we begin in the very beginning of the Genesis text and we read:

The Division

“In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. But the earth was unsightly and unfurnished, and darkness was over the deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the water. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night, and there was evening and there was morning, the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water, and let it be a division between water and water, and it was so. And God made the firmament, and God divided between the water which was under the firmament and the water which was above the firmament. And God called the firmament Heaven, and God saw that it was good, and there was evening and there was morning, the second day.” Genesis 1.1-8

First we encounter this division of the waters. In the ancient understanding the ‘firmament’ indicates the sky which divides between the waters ‘above’ the heavens (the clouds) and the waters below (the sea). Aside from this, we see multiple other elements rich for contemplation. One of the core elements here is that of ‘division’. There is “the heaven” and “the earth”, “the light” and “the darkness”, and then even a division between ‘water’ and ‘water’. These may seem like unimportant details but it is given meaning upon the creation of the human being as a uniting principle. Thus we see very shortly thereafter:

“And God said, Let us make man according to our image and likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the flying creatures of heaven, and over the cattle and all the earth, and over all the reptiles that creep on the earth. And God made man, according to the image of God he made him, male and female he made them.” Genesis 1.26, 27

The Human Being as Union of Heaven and Earth
The genesis story begins with a division of the heavenly and the earthly spheres and transitions very quickly thereafter to the formation of one who is the uniting principle: the human being made in the image of God. The human being, both male and female, is given dominion over that which is in the heavenly realm (the birds of the heavens) and over that which is on the earth and in the waters. The human being is the bridge between the two ‘worlds’, so that the cosmos is brought to God through the human. Then we happen on a text in Genesis which again displays some of the dynamism of this uniting principle:

“And God said, Behold I have given to you every seed-bearing herb sowing seed which is upon all the earth, and every tree which has in itself the fruit of seed that is sown, to you it shall be for food.” Gen 1.29

At first glance this may seem like a text simply about trees and plants. Look closely, the human being is going to eat only of the trees, only that for which he will reach upwards. Moreover, when we look at the tree we see that the tree is that which is planted in the earth and reaches towards the heavens. The tree is that which begins from the earth and ascends towards the heavenly realm. Perhaps this text also speaks to us of our own ascent. Having been made of the earth, we are to reach towards the heavens (i.e. towards God) as we pluck from the trees for food. We see the psalmist compare the human being to a tree where he says:

“Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, and has not stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of evil men. But his pleasure is in the law of the Lord; and in his law will he meditate day and night. And he shall be as a tree planted by the streams of waters, which shall yield its fruit in its season, and its leaf shall not fall off; and whatsoever he shall do shall be prospered.” Psalm 1.1-3

Perhaps here an intimation from the text of Genesis is that the human being is also to become like the tree. The one who pursues the way of God is as the tree which is planted by the water, the tree which continues to grow and has life abundantly. The human being, originally of the earth, is to ascend to the heavens and to life eternal. This participation in the life eternal is why the human being partakes of the trees which do not die in their giving of fruit (see also; Genesis: The Book of Life). Thus, we have multiple hints that the human being is brought into a life of progress into God, of growth into union with the Divine. Starting at the earth, He is meant for the life of the heavenly. We see this clearly in the very next chapter of Genesis which arguably ties the text together in a way that modern biblical scholarship is unable to see with its theories of the multiple authors of Genesis. We read:

“And God formed the man of dust of the earth, and breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” Genesis 2.7

God takes the earthen element and bends the heavens breathing into it the Holy Spirit. St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches us that this breath is itself the Holy Spirit who we confess as “The Giver of Life” in the recitation of the creed and the prayers of the Church (For more on this see Theophany). Much as in the case of the seedling which cannot grow without sunlight, so too the human being cannot ascend the heights without the activity of God on his behalf first. Given participation in the Spirit, the being taken out of the earth – the human – is meant to ascend the heights into the heavens. Man must open his leaves, so to speak, and receive more and more of God that his ascent may continue unabated. Yet, we know that is not how the story goes…

We are all familiar with the fact that a command is then given to Adam which prohibits him from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“And the Lord God gave a charge to Adam, saying, Of every tree which is in the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—of it you shall not eat, but in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Genesis 2.16,17.

While we often take this commandment for all of its negative content (it is written in the negative, to be certain), we often forget its implicit positive content. With a command, the human being is also given some form of direction. Being forbidden to eat of a particular tree-because it is not offered to them-Adam and Eve are offered a meal after all. They are not allowed to eat of a particular tree but are yet offered many other meals at the table. This self-determination is not only an integral part of what it is to be human, in the image and likeness of God, it also provides a structure within which the human being can ascend. One can liken it to a tomato vine which will grow upwards to tremendous heights if only offered a structure upon which it can grow. St. Gregory the Theologian says similarly:

“This being [the human being] He placed in Paradise, whatever the Paradise may have been, having honoured him with the gift of Free Will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of his choice, no less than to Him who had implanted the seeds of it), to till the immortal plants, by which is meant perhaps the Divine Conceptions, both the simpler and the more perfect; naked in his simplicity, and without any covering or screen; for it was fitting that he who was from the beginning should be such. Also He gave him a Law, as a material for his free will to act upon.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38 The Oration on The Theophany, 12.

This law will then serve both as an entity with ‘negative content’ (i.e. do not eat) but also with much positive content (i.e. “this I do give to you to eat). The human being, made of the earth yet imbued with the heavenly and made to ascend to the Heavens, needs something on which his freedom can operate to help his vine grow to the heavens. Like the trees of which he partakes, he cannot ascend heavenwards unless he is given some indication of which way is up. In this case it will be the divine meal offered to Him and the communion He has in The Holy Spirit.

The Unthankful Dinner Guest
We then come to the very point of the fall. Man is offered the way up but instead selects to eat of the tree not offered to him. The conversation that follows between Eve and the serpent is very interesting in this regard:

“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden;  but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.  For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be as gods, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.” Genesis 3.1-6

The statement, ‘You shall be as gods’ is probably not as stark to us as it really should be. What is literally being communicated is that Adam and Eve will be the god of themselves; they will have no need for God. Adam and Eve seize upon that fruit, that mode of life, which will close them into themselves and not open them up to God. Their leaves shall close off from the sun which once had so abundantly shone life upon them. The life that had been bent graciously down from the heavens (the life in the Spirit) is seized for oneself as if it were their own. God has invited the human being to the banquet of life and yet we have chosen to take up the fruit of selfish life. Fr. Alexander Schmemann comments about this cosmic meal:

“It is not accidental, therefore, that the biblical story of the Fall is centred again on food. Man ate the forbidden fruit. The fruit of that one tree, whatever else it may signify, was unlike every other fruit in the Garden: it was not offered as a gift to man. Not given, not blessed by God, it was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to re­turn God’s love. Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God. He has done it so con­sistently that it has become something that is “in the air.” It seems natural for man to experience the world as opaque, and not shot through with the presence of God. It seems natural not to live a life of thanksgiving for God’s gift of a world. It seems natural not to be eucharistic.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann For The Life of The World, P.16.

The food not offered to man is also the food he cannot give thanks (Eucharist) for. To live ‘un-eucharistically’ is to live a life of self-centredness, a life never directed outwards towards God or one’s neighbour, but rather directed inwards and downwards. The book of Genesis describes the result of this mode of life, of the ‘un-Eucharistic’ eating of the tree, where we read of Adam, questioned by God about his eating of the fruit, replying that it was “The woman that you gave me”. Eve, in turn, turns against the serpent who has deceived her. Cutting themselves off from each other and from God, they recognize and prioritize only the ‘I’. Thus they see themselves as they truly are, naked. Turning inwards, man sees that he is bereft of anything when considered in isolation from God Who has given all things into his hands. Downward gazing, he now hears, ‘dust you are’ (Cf. Gen 3.20) and he knows this reality and hence is ashamed of his nakedness. The Scriptures repeat this reality in the Wisdom of Solomon:

“Seek not death in the error of your life: and pull not upon yourselves destruction with the works of your hands. For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth: (For righteousness is immortal:) But ungodly men with their works and words called it to them: for when they thought to have it their friend, they consumed to nought, and made a covenant with it, because they are worthy to take part with it.” Wisdom of Solomon 1.12-16

St. Athanasius will also say:

“The Creator fashioned the race of men, and meant it to remain. But men, making light of better things, and holding back from apprehending them, began to seek in preference things nearer to themselves. But nearer to themselves were the body and its senses; so that while removing their mind from the things perceived by thought, they began to regard themselves; and so doing, and holding to the body, and deceived as it were in their own surroundings, they fell into lust of themselves, preferring what was their own to the contemplation of what belonged to God.” St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, 3.

Both the Wisdom of Solomon and St. Athanasius teach us that it is the human being, seeking what they presumed to be better, who summoned death which is communion with oneself. Invited to God’s dinner, we instead sought to dine on our own and chose the life of autonomy from God, an ironic contradiction for it is “In Him that we live move and have our being (cf. Acts 17)”. St. Clement of Alexandria uses quite a poignant analogy to describe this:

Most people are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions in the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God’s blessedness taking themselves for a model.” St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies V, II.

Spurning the hand of God extended to us, we instead seek to turn the world and our neighbours into means for our own goals, as opposed to ends in and of themselves as created by God. And even when we do come to the life in Christ, we are tempted to turn that into a means to an end. I am sure I am not alone in the feeling of a need for prayer when things get tough or a new opportunity pops up. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann has stated, this entails communion restricted to oneself alone and seeing God’s creation as a play-thing to please our fancies rather to help our ascent towards God. Taking the body and its sense pleasures as supreme, we subjugate the creation of God to futility, seeking life in what is not naturally living. Adam turns against his wife, they both turn against the creation and later brother turns against brother in the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. These are not simply aspects of a mythical tale but an elegant description of the human condition when lived not in thanksgiving (“un-Eucharist-ically”). It is not for no reason that Adam and Eve will be told “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3.19. Of course later Christ will come and be born in Bethlehem of Judea (cf.Matt 1, Luke 2) and the name Bethlehem translates as, “House of bread”. God comes Himself to the meal and offers himself to all of humanity. Life lived for itself and for ourselves alone is the bread which we will eat by the sweat of the brow implying the corruptibility and mortality of our state of toil. The Word of God Who is the new bread (“Man shall not live by bread alone” Cf. Matt 4.4) freely comes and is in born in the house of bread that He might restore us to life.

Other Bread Narratives

If we look at bread we do see it resurface many times in other texts of the Scripture. Let us hone in on one or two examples to consider what they have to teach us. First, we look to the exodus story where the Hebrews are taken out of Pharoah’s enslavement by the mighty hand of God. Of course we already have parallels with the Genesis story here. Jacob and his whole family, all Israel, travelled to Egypt in search of bread, life. Having gotten there they face slavery within a generation. No sooner had they been delivered across the Red Sea that they complained about not having enough food to fill their bellies. Again we find the very tangible imagery of food and meal come to the fore. God hears the cry of the people and rains down manna from the heavens. Here again, God bows the heavens and sends forth food to the Israelites. These are the same Israelites who have just been delivered from the land (earth) of sin, as Egypt would be referred to in the patristic tradition. Being delivered from the dead earth of sin, they are made to participate in the life descending from the Heavens. However, there is one very interesting command which is broken as quickly as it is given:

“On the face of the wilderness was a small thing like white coriander seed, as frost upon the earth. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, What is this? for they did not know what it was; and Moses said to them, ‘This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.’ This is that which the Lord has appointed: gather of it each man for his family, a homer for each person, according to the number of your souls, gather each of you with his fellow-lodgers. And the children of Israel did so, and gathered some much and some less. And having measured the homer full, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that had gathered less had no lack; each gathered according to the need of those who belonged to him. And Moses said to them, Let no man leave of it till the morning. But they did not listen to Moses, but some left of it till the morning; and it bred worms and stank: and Moses was irritated with them.” Exodus 16.14-25

The Israelites are advised to only take as much as they would need to survive for the day and no more. We are immediately drawn back to the temptation of Eve. Adam and Eve are beguiled under the notion that they can become gods of themselves. The command here is really a command to receive in thanksgiving (Eucharist) that which has been freely given by God. The temptation to keep back extra bread may not seem similar at first glance but if we peer closely, the resemblance is stark. Keeping back bread or taking extra betray a sense of, “I have it covered. I am king of this castle and I will make sure that I survive by my own strength”. This self-reliance brings us back to the words of Fr. Alexander where we see humanity not living thankfully, but rather trying to dominate the world around them and take control of their circumstances. Rather than receiving the gift of God in thanksgiving and depending upon Him, it is tempting to think that I can secure my own life by my own power. This is remarkable given that the Israelites, a fledging group of ex-slaves, have just been saved from the mightiest empire of its time and their enemies were eliminated by the Red Sea that they had just strolled through.

As the story goes (and this is also in our own lives) we read that some of the Hebrews did indeed try to preserve their own existence through seizing more bread for themselves. For those who did as such, the manna ‘bred worms and stank’. The stench calls our mind to the idea that this means it is a dead and rotting thing, much like when the Lord is told that there will now be a stench where they have lain Lazarus (cf. Jn 11.39). The worms too summon the imagery of that which is rotting and decaying. This death and decay (worms and stench) is the result of one wishing to seize upon the life (bread) offered by God and take it for one’s self. The story of the Israelites is something we can all see in our own lives. Having had the heavens bent down to us and offered God’s life, we seize upon the elements of this life trying to secure ourselves all the more firmly. Thinking we have life, or that we can atleast find it for ourselves, we vainly try to secure our place thinking ourselves to be the god of our own existence. Fr. John Meyendorff explains to us that this is in the meaning of St. Paul’s statement in Romans 5.12-19. Commenting on the text he says:

“Having become mortal engendering mortal children, Adam and his race find themselves forced to struggle for their existence as individuals, for this existence is continually threatened. But the struggle for existence creates in turn egotism and consequently sin. Finally, these personal sins lead to the just sentence of death. Therein the literal grammatical sense of Romans 5:12 finds its meaning: ‘Death spread to all men, because of which all men sinned.” John Meyendorff. Byzantine theology: Historical trends and doctrinal themes. Fordham Univ Press, 1979. p160.

 

The Seed Planted in The Earth Ascending To Heaven

The human being becomes absorbed into the self-centred life and bound to the earth covered over in death. We see our salvation in Christ, the God-man. Whereas the human being is made to grow, as the trees do, from the earth to the Heavens, God sends His Son(essentially bowing down the heavens) to be implanted into our very soil that He might make our tree ascend to Heaven once more in Him. In the fourth century debates about the Divinity of the Logos, the central item of debate was never academic theology but rather the surety of human salvation. St. Athanasius will state (at length) that it must be the truly Divine Logos who comes and takes human flesh that we might be rejoined to God. He states:

“And being joined to God, no longer do we abide upon earth; but, as He Himself has said, where He is, there shall we be also… But this would not have come to pass, had the Word been a creature; for with a creature, the devil, himself a creature, would have ever continued the battle, and man, being between the two, had been ever in peril of death, having none in whom and through whom he might be joined to God and delivered from all fear. Whence the truth shows us that the Word is not of things originate, but rather Himself their Framer. For therefore did He assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been His natural and true Word who had put on the body. And as we had not been delivered from sin and the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on (for we should have had nothing common with what was foreign), so also the man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and true and proper to Him. For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the nature of the Godhead, and his salvation and deification might be sure.” St. Athanasius, Second Discourse Against the Arians, 21, 69-70.

The God who is above all descends and enters into human reality that the separation forged by the human being may be overcome. Christ descends even into death and Hades itself that He might overcome it and therefore we overcome it in Him. The Logos plants Himself into human reality and unites it to Himself, remaining Who He is while entering into humanity-the mystery of The God-Man. Now the earthen man’s ascent into Heaven is made possible by the descent of the Heavens (ie. The Logos) to him and then a return thereafter (the Ascension of Christ). God becomes human to implant His life into us (see God Saves His People). St. Athanasius will summarize it very poignantly, “God became man, that man might become god (On the Incarnation, 54)”. St. Cyril of Alexandria states about the union of God and humanity:

“It was indeed impossible that the one who is life by nature not completely conquer decay and overcome death. Therefore, even though death, which sprang on us through transgression, forces the human body to the necessity of decay, nevertheless, since Christ comes to be in us through his own flesh, we will surely be raised. It is incredible, or rather impossible, that Life not give life to whoever it should enter. Just as if one were to take a spark and bury it in a great heap of chaff [straw] so that the seed of fire may be preserved, so also our Lord Jesus Christ hides life in us through his own flesh, and like a seed He placed immortality in us, abolishing all the decay that is in us.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Book 4, Chapter 2, On John 6.54.

His life is grafted into us, or rather we are grafted into Him. Hence Christ tells us that He is the true vine and we are the branches and He lives in us and we in Him (cf. John 15.5).

 

Liturgy: Entry Into The Divine Life

In the Orthodox Church we see this re-entry into the matrix of Divine life as a movement of our whole being and this includes both the ascetical and liturgical practices of the Church(indeed one would argue that the liturgical and ascetical life are just aspects of the one Life in Christ). In the tradition of Alexandria, still celebrated in all Coptic Orthodox Churches and amongst the faithful at home is the opening lines of every prayer. Whether alone and praying from the book of hours (agpeya) or in the corporate liturgical service, we open with “The Prayer of Thanksgiving”. Every prayer is literally begun then, with Eucharist. Eucharist is the means by which we can return to God, opening ourselves to him in thanksgiving for all that He has offered us. We recognize in thanksgiving that no matter our reputation, no matter the age we have attained, the wealth we have amassed, the family we come from or raise, that all is given us by God and we receive it gratefully at His loving hand. This movement outward is then made tangible through the physical kiss of peace which we perform at each Eucharistic service.

One of the historic elements of every Orthodox liturgy is ‘the greeting’ or ‘the kiss of peace’ as it is called in many traditions including the Coptic Orthodox Church. There is very early evidence that this was an integral part of the Orthodox Eucharistic liturgy. St. Justin the Martyr (d. 165) says this about the liturgical practice of the second century:

“Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.” St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology [defense], Chapter 65.

We notice that the greeting is carried out before the gifts are presented to the priest (or officiant). We see remnants this in the Coptic Church today in that we pray, “Greet one another with a Holy kiss” and then the deacon commands, “Offer, offer, offer in order” and the gifts would be brought forth. Now with the more formal setting of Churches the gifts are usually being prepared by the faithful well before the service. We may not actually offer at this point in our modern churches, but this certainly is how the rite was carried out. This kiss of peace must pre-empt the offering of our gifts to God. St. Cyril of Jerusalem will explain to those about to be baptized (catechumens),

“Then the Deacon cries aloud, ‘Receive ye [Greet] one another; and let us kiss one another.’ Do not think that this kiss is of the same character with those given in public by common friends. It is not such: but this kiss blends souls one with another, and makes entire forgiveness for them. The kiss therefore is the sign that our souls are mingled together, and banish all remembrance of wrongs. For this reason Christ said, ‘If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there you remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5.23)’. The kiss therefore is reconciliation, and for this reason holy: as the blessed Paul somewhere cried, saying, Greet ye one another with a holy kiss (1Cor 16.20); and Peter, with a kiss of charity (1Peter 3.15). After this the Priest cries aloud, ‘Lift up your hearts.’” St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23, 3.

The kiss of peace is only a kiss of peace because it is that by which souls are united; brought back into the unity lost in the fall. Here, in the kiss of peace, we see the reunion of all humanity, a life lived together once more. This union will come to consummation in the sharing of one Eucharistic cup, but it is something to which we must work in our own lives. To do this is truly Liturgy, the work of the people.

Now we touch on an interesting aspect of Orthodox thought. The meaning of the words may be lost on us at times when we speak of liturgy. Liturgy itself means the ‘work of the people’ coming from Laos and Ergos in the Greek. This kiss of peace, this reunion of all men, is a return to Eden. A return to the state wherein we live with one another in harmony. This is so that we can return from the movement of Adam’s decrying any association with his wife, “The woman you gave me” back to the unity into which we were created. We must turn outwards from ourselves in receiving our neighbour and by doing so, we are enabled to turn outwards towards God. Ultimately it is through the tangible interactions and relationships with our neighbours that we can learn to grow out of ourselves and towards God. This is why St. John can write to his flock that one who claims that he loves God but does not love his neighbour is simply a liar (Cf. 1 John 4). This is the work of God (and the people) in which we engage, that we move outwards from ourselves, and towards God and each other. In venturing out of our own hearts we can finally seek after God Who says that He stands at the door and knocks (Cf. Rev 3).

The Bread of Life

Having undertaken both physically and spiritually to venture out of ourselves in our movement towards God, we then hear the priest pray, “Lift up your hearts” and the consummation of this whole movement heavenwards comes in our partaking of the Eucharistic cup. Christ, the Divine Logos made man comes into human reality to root Himself in us so that we too have access to God once more. St. Cyril teaches us:

“It was not otherwise possible for man, being of a nature which perishes, to escape death, unless he recovered that ancient grace, and partook once more of God who holds all things together in being and preserves them in life through the Son in the Spirit. Therefore His Only-Begotten Word has become a partaker of flesh and blood (Heb. 2: 14), that is, He has become man, though being Life by nature, and begotten of the Life that is by nature, that is, of God the Father, so that, having united Himself with the flesh which perishes according to the law of its own nature… He might restore it to his own life and render it through himself a partaker of God the Father… And He wears our nature, refashioning it to His own life.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, On John 14.20.

Having rooted His life in us and inviting us to move out of ourselves we are invited into the Divine life. This spiritual movement involves the entirety of the Church as we offer unto God what is His (a line from the Institution narrative of the Alexandrian liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian); this is the essence of liturgy and the return to Eden. As the liturgy comes to its close we hear, “The Holies are for the holy” to indicate that we enter into this Divine Life through this work of liturgy, through breaking the shell around ourselves into which we had once receded. We then tangibly take Christ into ourselves in the Eucharistic celebration.

We recall that Christ tells His hearers that they are to eat His flesh and drink His blood and this is a scandal to them (Cf. John 6). Christ says in no uncertain terms,

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” John 6.48-56

Of course we must be aware that His Jewish hearers would have had in mind the Levetical prohibition against blood,

For the blood of all flesh is its life; and I said to the children of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood: every one that eats it shall be destroyed.” Leveticus 17.14

Here again we have God inviting us to a meal. This time the meal is no simple tree or manna but it is the body and blood, the very life, of God. This is the communion into which we are invited. Where Adam and Eve are initially invited to God’s meal and spurn it in favour of becoming gods themselves, we are now invited into the communion of the Divine Life. This is no simple blood which we might dine on as the gods of Greco-roman mythology would subsist on. The Living God offers us His Life which is joined to ours, for He has become truly human, that we might live forever. Therefore the Incarnation and our ‘soteriology’ (The fathers would never have divided the economy into its requisite ‘phases’ as modern theology does) is also the very basis of our liturgical life. Because the Logos takes on tangible flesh as one of us, as a true human being, we can participate in the flesh and blood, the life, of God. St. Cyril of Alexandria speaks in many places about this participation in Christ granting us immortality because we partake of God.

“‘I am the bread of life,’ not bodily bread, which puts an end only to suffering from hunger and frees the flesh from perishing of it; rather, I remold the whole living being completely unto eternal life and render humanity, which was created to exist forever, superior to death. By this he also hints at the life and grace that comes from his holy flesh, by which the property of the Only Begotten, that is, life, is introduced into us… But finally the bread from heaven, that is, Christ, nourishes us to eternal life both by supplying us with the Holy Spirit and by participation in his own flesh, placing in us participation with God and destroying death that comes from the ancient curse.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Book 3, Chapter 6, On John 6.35

 

“How might our bodies be members of Christ? We have him in ourselves sensibly and spiritually. For on the one hand, he dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and on the other we are partakers also of his holy flesh, and we are sanctified in a twofold way. And he dwells in us as life and life-giving, in order that death which had visited our members might be destroyed through him.” St. Cyril of Alexandria on 1 Cor. 6:15

Thus this whole movement of Eucharist, of Thanksgiving, and of exiting out of the life we live for ourselves and to ourselves, we enter into the Life Divine. Again, through a meal we can once more grow towards the heavens through Him Who is Heavenly and has come down into our form to pour out the Divine life upon us. Again, of course, the choice is left to us whether to leave what is comfortable and ‘safe’ and to embark on a journey to the Divine. To reach outside of myself towards my neighbour is certainly less comfortable than to stay in my own shell. St. Clement says about many of us:

“Most people are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions in the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God’s blessedness taking themselves for a model.” St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies V, II.

Living The Divine Life
Yet, God reveals Who He is in His acts of outflowing love. God pours Himself out upon the creation giving life and light. Being spurned by the one He has made, He empties Himself and takes the form of a servant (Cf. Phil 2.7) coming to where we had fallen and returning us to Him. In liturgy we learn to live the Divine Life, leaving our own shells, and are therefore enabled to journey towards God to participate in Him. Our neighbour is the platform at which we are able to leave the shell in which we have wrapped ourselves as tangibly seen in the Kiss of Peace. This is why St. Antony, a solitary, can say:

“Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” St. Anthony, Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

To live outwardly is also to live a self-sacrificial life. To live outside of our shell is to live a life of humble self-offering to the one standing in front of us. We see all of this reversed in Eden by turning away from God and we retrace these steps in our life of union with God through the Eucharistic celebration. The communal life is an integral part of this communion, of Eucharist. St. John Chrysostom therefore convicts us while commenting on the verse, ‘The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ?’ (1 Cor 10.16,17). He says,

“Having said, ‘a communion of the body’, he also added, ‘For we, who are many, are one bread, one body’. For why do I speak of communion, He says, “We are that selfsame body’. For what is the bread? The body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The Body of Christ: not many bodies, but one body. For as the bread consisting of many grains is made one, so that the grains no longer appear alone; they do exist but their difference is not seen because of their conjunction; so too are we joined both with each other and with Christ: there not being one body for you, and another for your neighbour to be nourished by, but the very same for all. Therefore, he says, ‘For we all partake of the one bread’. Now if we are all nourished of the same and all become the same, why do we not also show forth the same love, and become also in this respect one? For this was the old way too in the time of our forefathers: it says, “The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul (Acts 4.32).” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on 1 Cor 10.17

We who partake of the Body of Christ become incorporated into that body. In essence, we take in His body and physically constitute it in the world as a Church, as community. We not only partake but also become the body of Christ being sanctified to Him. Being joined as one body we learn to live the life of ecstatic love (coming from the Greek ‘ek’ + ‘stasis’ literally translated as ‘going out of oneself). In pouring ourself out for our neighbour, we emulate Him Who is poured out for Life that we might partake of His Life. Being united to our neighbour, we are united to God in a communion of love.

Final Thoughts
We have traversed a good deal of territory here. We start with a human being made to grow heavenward as the trees he eats from. Then the hungry human turns his desire inwardly towards himself, thinking that he will find solace in isolation. God repeatedly bends the heavens, trying to invite him to His meal but to no avail. Manna rains from the heavens, showbread is left at the temple altar and His sons (Israel) repeatedly reject His bread meal for the scraps of this life. Then God sends His own Son to implant Himself into us and return us once more to the dinner table of Divine food. Adopted as sons and daughters through the Spirit, we take our place again at the dinner table only to find that my plate is one I share with my neighbour. God has called us but He has called us to sonship together to form one family. What I can learn in a micro-scale in this family can translate to how I interact with everyone else and with God Himself. If I can learn to put up with ‘that annoying person’, ‘that guy who just doesn’t get it’, ‘that person who thinks they are always right’, I can turn outwardly out of myself. Ultimately I can grow outwardly and upwardly towards life in and through and with God. To be deified is to enter truly into the self-emptying of Christ, carrying my cross and following Him. Let us not forfeit once more this Divine meal offered to us, that meal by which death and corruption are utterly destroyed and Life is instilled in us once more.

“After the Lord took the cup, he gives thanks, that is, in the form of a prayer he speaks with God the Father, manifesting that he is, as it were, the partner and co-signer of the life-giving blessing to be given to us, and at the same time giving us a pattern (typos) first giving thanks, and then breaking the bread and distributing it. Therefore, we also, placing the aforementioned objects before the eyes of God, we ask earnestly that they maybe remodeled] into a spiritual blessing, that partaking of these things, we may be sanctified in body and soul. But he said quite plainly This is my body, and This is my blood, so that you may not suppose that the things you see are a type; rather, in some ineffable way they are changed (metapoethai) by God, into the body and blood of Christ truly offered. Partaking of them, we take into us the life-giving and sanctifying power of Christ … For God puts the power of life into the offerings, bringing Himself down to our weakness, and he changes them into the energy of his own life.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Matthew, 26:27, P.G. 72, 512CD.

 

“But He is also in us in another way by means of our partaking in the oblation of bloodless offering which we celebrate in the churches… It was fitting, therefore, for Him to be in us divinely by the Holy Spirit, and also so to speak, to be mingled with our bodies by his holy flesh and precious blood, which things also we possess as a life giving blessing, in the form of bread and wine. For lest we be terrified by seeing flesh and blood placed on the holy tables of our churches, God, humbling Himself to our infirmities, infuses into things set before us the power of life, and transforms them into the efficacy of his flesh, that we may have them for a life-giving participation, and that the body of Life may be found in us as a life-producing seed. And do not doubt that this is true, since He Himself plainly says This is my body, This is my Blood.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, 22:17-22.

 

“Your bread kills the devourer who had made us his bread.
Your cup destroys death which was swallowing us up.
We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you,
Not to exhaust You, but to live by you.”
St. Ephrem the Syrian Hymns on Faith 10.18.

Let us partake of Him Who has descended into the heart of the earth that He might take our earth (humanity) and rise with it. United to us, He reunites us to The Father and sends us the Holy Spirit that, through adoption, we may become sons and daughters of God dining at His Divine table. We approach this table hand in hand with our neighbour partaking of and becoming the body of Christ.

13 thoughts on “The Life-Giving Blessing: Genesis and The Eucharist

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  1. St. Ephrem the Syrian teaches us about the very body and blood which is shed and then broken for us,

    “In a novel way, his body is kneaded into our bodies.
    Even His pure blood is poured into our arteries.
    His voice is in our ears, his appearance in our eyes.
    By reason of His compassion, all of Him is kneaded into all of us.
    And since He loved His Church very much,
    He did not give her the Manna of her rival [Israel]-
    He became Himself the living bread for her to eat.”
    St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Virginity, 37.2

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  2. I’ve finally finished reading your post. As you can see, the ideas inspired me to write myself! Thank you for all the time and references you put into this post, which I found very helpful. Best wishes, Michael

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    1. Glory to God! Thank you for sharing your own talents and your contemplations with us, Michael! It was very beautiful to see the inspiration given to you by the fathers and the Scripture.

      God bless you
      Asking your prayers
      AO

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